Last Summer at Coney Island
Coney Island is known throughout the world as the birthplace of the hot dog, the roller coaster and - broadly speaking - popular culture. But Coney Island is not what it used to be and the area has lingered for years as a specter of its former magnificence.
Now, after years of false starts, change is coming to Coney Island. Come Hell or high water, the city of New York is determined to revitalize the once glorious, world capitol of amusements. Meanwhile, a private developer with dubious motives has been purchasing every square foot of land he can get his hands on. The neighborhood's residents, along with the amusement community and the millions who cherish Coney Island's legacy are left wondering what will happen next. Seaside salvation or Brooklyn boondoggle? History will decide but this film is the first draft. Last Summer at Coney Island juxtaposes images of the past and present with interviews and observed scenes featuring many of the key players in this transformation.
JL ARONSON is the founder of Creative Arson, a documentary production outfit specializing in work for non-profits and arts organizations. His own films include "Punk Rock/ Heavy Metal Karaoke," "Up on the Roof," and "Danielson: a Family Movie," for which he won numerous film festival awards. JL first got involved in Coney Island professionally in 2001 as video producer for the 1st annual Siren Music Festival. He subsequently directed a TV commercial for Astroland Amusement Park in 2003 and after that, the sand was in his shoes.
Click HERE for a director's statement.
As Promotions Director for the Village Voice, JEN GAPAY was the co-founder of the Siren Music Festival, which is how she and JL met. After leaving the Voice in 2003, Jen founded Thirsty Girl Productions, a leading promoter of burlesque and eclectic nightlife events throughout New York City and beyond. Along with Angie Pontani (aka Miss Cyclone), she is the co-Executive Producer of the New York International Burlesque Festival.
Much of the film’s music is by Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter KAKI KING. In 2009, Rolling Stone added Ms. King to their list of “Guitar Gods”— the first time the magazine has given such a distinction to a female musician. In 2006, Kaki contributed guitar work to Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack for the film, “Into The Wild,” for which she shared a Golden Globe nomination.
ALEX DEMAMMOS does it again. Find him at www.alexdemammos.com
FOR INQUIRIES, CONTACT CREATIVEARSON AT GMAIL DOT COM
This film was supported in part by grants from the Puffin Foundation and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, administered through the Brooklyn Arts Council regrant program.
There are no scheduled public screenings at this time.
Premiere dates by station.WNET/ THIRTEEN - NYC - Sunday, May 15, 2011
NJN - New Jersey - Tuesday, May 21, 2011
WLIW/21 - Brooklyn + Long Island - Tuesday, May 28, 2011
KQED - San Francisco - Saturday, July 23, 2011
WNMU - Michigan - Thursday, August 4, 2011 - 8pm
KUHT - Houston, TX - Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - 9pm
KLRU - Austin, TX - Sunday, September 25, 2011 - 9pm
NOTE: All stations are airing the program multiple times. Check your local listings.
And drop us a line if you caught the film on any other stations!
From its inception in 2001, I'd been the videographer for the Siren Music Festival in Coney Island. Shortly after starting that assignment, I got hired to make a TV commercial for Astroland Amusement Park. Every year I would update the TV spot and the park would also hire me to shoot occasional big events, including the inauguration of the Coney Island History Project. When Astroland and many other businesses sold to developer Thor Equities in 2006 and early 2007, I knew it meant the end of an era and I also knew that, having an inside track, I was perhaps uniquely positioned to document this transition. Everyone thought that 2007 would be Coney's last summer, at least in the manifestation it has appeared in for several decades. There were rumors that the amusements would be kicked out or ghetto-ized and condo towers would take their place. But, of course, things were more complicated than that, and while I thought I'd only be shooting for a year, the story didn't find closure until 2010. And since the transformation of Coney Island is ongoing, it's been a little tricky for me to explain to people why the film ends when it does and why that was the right thing to do.
But allow me to back up a moment.
This film is called Last Summer at Coney Island. It's about the feeling of an ending, if not an ending itself. I like to say that it follows Coney Island's rollercoaster relationship with redevelopment, but it's also a reflection of many peoples' personal relationships with this place. Most associate Coney Island with leisure and the fleeting joys of summer. Its attributes are iconic: the World Famous Cyclone Rollercoaster, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, Nathan's Famous and the annual Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest. Not to mention the beaches of Coney Island, the New York Aquarium, Sideshows by the Seashore and the Parachute Jump. Less known are the area's legacy as a living neighborhood and the perspective of those who carved out a career in amusements. It is my hope that Last Summer tells that story, too.
Around 1990, Ric Burns did a fantastic program for PBS on Coney Island's heyday, which began around 1890. But his film ends with the closing of Steeplechase Park in the early 1960s. That's where my film starts. The area fell on hard times in the post-war years. All of New York (particularly working class New York) had depended on Coney Island. Then people got air conditioners, color televisions, cars. Soon they could play video games in their own homes. (Those born after 1980 may be unaware that this was not always the case.) Those who could not afford these middle class affects continued to swarm the boardwalk, beach and amusements, even as others turned away. But whether fewer people came to Coney Island to support its businesses or not, the character of the place changed. You could always find someone to take your money in Coney Island, but increasingly, the takers abandoned any precept of chance. Switchblades and handguns can be very unambiguous in such situations. It felt dangerous in a way that other parts of a desperate city also felt dangerous, sapping the area of its prime attraction: escape. And to the extent that other parts of the city lacked investors, so too did the amusement area and surrounding neighborhoods. Deno Vourderis and his family invested, buying the Wonder Wheel when most people were pulling out. So too with Dewey Albert and his son Jerome, who pioneered Astroland Amusement Park, took over the Cyclone Roller coaster and kept light bulbs lit during a time when the motto of most business owners city-wide could have been, "Why bother?"
And then there were the artists. Dick Zigun, a New Englander who'd graduated from Yale's theater program, arrived in the late 70s and founded the non-profit Coney Island U.S.A., which brought back the Coney Island Sideshow. (This time with winks!) His organization also started the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade, a one-day psychedelic Mardi Gras that has grown into "the largest art parade in America." Young people came to discover Coney Island's fading beauty; its sea-beer smells, clammy tastes, the iridescent light. They painted it, photographed it, bathed in it, told their friends. In this way, the crazy imaginative spirit of the place lived on. Steeplechase Park and it's stained glass Pavilion of Fun was gone. Luna Park, which started as 20 acres packed with canals, spectacles and innovation, finished as ash. Dreamland, the shortly lived reflection of Victorian sensibilities and subconscious, met the same fate. Nonetheless, the idea of Coney Island as a convenient seaside destination for all New Yorkers that was the opposite of interior New York in all ways save its excesses, lived on.
And when the feeling of security returned (a time most date to the end of the crack epidemic), the city took note. The Giuliani administration enabled a minor league baseball park to be erected where Steeplechase had stood. (The Coney Island Cyclones have become quite a draw though locals debate the benefits to the amusement area and neighborhood.) Next, the city took on the Stillwell Avenue Subway station, once known as "the scariest dark ride on Coney Island" for its grit and dark tunnel. Completed in 2005, the renovated station is now one of the most impressively modern in the entire subway system, reminiscent of a grand European railway station with its arching glass roof, solar panels, and elaborate theming. Around that time, the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) was formed as a task force of the New York City Economic Development Corp.— a department of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's City Hall. With such large public investments in place, the urban planners of the EDC set out to find private businesses and developers to do the rest.
Joseph Sitt grew up in Brooklyn. He resented its provincialism and inferior amenities, compared with nearby Manhattan. While still in business school at NYU in the '80s, he founded a development company called Thor Equities that would take advantage of opportunities for retail in inner cities, where major chains were absent. His company branched out into more general property development and Sitt became adept at scooping up land before owners, competitors or City Halls realized the true value. He could then either develop on the property and make a steep profit or sell to another interest, and make a steep profit. By the early 2000s, his company had hotels, retail, offices and other property concerns throughout the U.S.
Dominic Recchia was elected to City Council in 2001, serving the 47th District in Brooklyn: Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Bensonhurst and Gravesend. He dreamed of revitalizing Coney Island and, as an advisory member of the CIDC, he was well aware of the support that City Hall was prepared to offer developers in terms of tax incentives and fast tracking. He was also friendly with Joe Sitt who had become a pillar of the New York real estate community and yet still kept his primary residence in South Brooklyn. Recchia persuaded Sitt to look at Coney Island's potential and soon, Thor Equities began making generous offers to land owners all along the boardwalk and historic Surf Avenue.
As the property portfolio began to grow, Sitt took to the Coney Island re-development project like it was his destiny. Only there was one key issue: the city planners at EDC had developed their own plan and there were significant differences between that vision and the more high-rise and big box renderings that Thor started releasing. The City hoped they would find a developer who would work hand in hand with them to develop a new Coney Island that would serve both parties' interests. But by this point, Sitt had been doing urban development for close to two decades. He felt he knew what was needed and what was going to bring the greatest return on investment to his own backers. Why should he kow tow to the academics of EDC, or anyone for that matter?
The public soon caught on to this drama, though perhaps never fully comprehending the behind-the-scenes nuances. A popular movement, fed by the media and fears of Coney Island's mall-ification, sprang up to protest any development that tampered with the area's urban-egalitarian character. Broadly speaking, my film is about these competing visions for Coney Island: change of character and change of dimension. You can also put this in economic terms: rapid growth or slow growth. In addition to Sitt, Recchia, Dick Zigun of Coney Island U.S.A., and the EDC's Lynn Kelley, I focused on several key characters: Carol Albert, (the wife of Jerome Albert) who took over as operator of Astroland Amusement Park after her husband's retirement; Charles Denson, Coney Island's pre-eminent historian who grew up in Coney Island's first housing project and went on to write a celebrated chronicle and memoir; and Dianna Carlin, whose Lola Star Boardwalk Boutique helped re-brand Coney Island as a hip destination. Each of them put their fortunes and legacies on the line in pushing back against the forces of banality, as they saw it. Carlin, in particular, became known as the central activist on the preservationist side and was consequently evicted from her boardwalk storefront not once but twice by Thor Equities before being re-installed once the City bought out Joe Sitt and his company.
The way I look at it now is that all these people, from the Mayor down to the smallest ride operator, got behind what they believed to be the best thing for Coney Island, and that their unique positions prevented them from seeing or acting in any other way. For Sitt's part, it may be true that a private developer cannot make a profit on amusements alone and would need high rise hotels and a convention center in order to pay for the fun. And it may likewise be true, as many of the preservationists suggested, that restoring Coney Island to its pre-war scale and role as a cutting edge center of spectacle and thrill would pay for itself. The fact that this back and forth resulted in New York City owning the project in a way it had originally hoped not to do, could also have been read in the tea leaves. No thriving, historic amusement area—from Tivoli to Blackpool to Santa Cruz—operates without at least part public ownership. Municipalities either recognize the quality-of-life value in maintaining affordable recreation for it's denizens, or private enterprise finds ways to make the most money off the situation until that is no longer tenable and the area fades into rust.
Coney Island is now growing again. A rezoning and development plan, ushered through City Council by Dominic Recchia, set in motion a promising new beginning. The Economic Development Corp. brought in a new ride operator to place new rides where the weathered amusements of Astroland and others had been. (The Astroland site is now known as Luna Park, reincarnating one of Coney's legendary operations.) Meanwhile, they ejected boardwalk business owners that seemed lacking in innovative potential and curated new eateries for the beachfront. Few realize that this is only intended as an interim development as infrastructure is improved and new developers come in remake Coney Island once again. Joe Sitt, meanwhile, stands at the ready, waiting for the right moment to develop hotels on Surf Avenue property he still owns and where the few remaining buildings from the golden age stood until he had them demolished in 2010.
As someone once said, there are things we know and there are things we know we don't know and there are also things we don't know that we don't know. So it is with New York city development. My hope with Last Summer at Coney Island is, in the very least, for us all to better know the knowns of the past so that in developing the future, we don't stumble too often on the things we should have known all along.