||[09 Sep 2008|07:50am]
September 8, 2008
Astroland Closes, This Time, It Appears, for Good
By CARA BUCKLEY
Depression has no place in an amusement park, but a definite pall hung over Astroland at Coney Island on Sunday, even as the screams of thrill seekers — grade-school children, metal-mouthed teenagers and nostalgic, if slightly nauseated, grownups — tore through the air.
On Thursday, the park’s owner, Carol Albert, announced that Sunday would be the last day for Astroland, the three-acre space-themed amusement park that has been a fixture on Coney Island’s Boardwalk since 1962. Ms. Albert sounded a similar alarm last year, when it seemed that negotiations between her and the property’s owner, Thor Equities, had come to a standstill, only for a deal to be worked out. The Albert family sold the land to Thor for about $30 million in 2006.
But this year, Ms. Albert said, Thor Equities refused to meet with her to discuss her lease, which expires Jan. 31. While Thor Equities disputed Ms. Albert’s version of events, Ms. Albert insisted that at 9 p.m. on Sunday, the park’s midway lights would shut off, ride by ride, game by game, for good. Twenty rides from the park are listed for sale on the Web site www.rides4u.com.
And so, thousands of visitors poured into Astroland for what appeared to be the last time, pushing toddlers in strollers and aged relatives in wheelchairs, and taking a final look at a park that may have seen better days, but was still widely adored. Many people reminisced about their childhood days spent at Astroland, and shook their heads in disbelief that yet another vestige of old New York would be lost.
“The city has decided that anything that makes a buck is a good thing. We’re giving up everything that makes New York wonderful,” said John Jeannopoulos, 55, a lawyer who lives in Manhattan and began coming to Astroland soon after it opened. “Once you take down some something like Astroland, or Disneyfy Times Square, you never get it back.”
Astroland’s closing would not mean the end of rides at Coney Island; the Cyclone wooden roller coaster and the Wonder Wheel, which is part of Deno’s Amusement Park, are both city landmarks and will continue to operate next year. Thor Equities said it would also bring more amusement rides to the Astroland site next year.
The shuttering of the park would erase another attraction from the Coney Island Boardwalk, which has fallen a long way from its glory days, when it was home to attractions like Luna Park and the Steeplechase.
But part of what made Astroland unique was its accessibility, said Charles Denson, a Coney Island historian and author of the book “Coney Island Lost and Found.” Rather than being an expensive, glossy and distant amusement park, Astroland was a place that was reachable by subway, a place where a visitor could shoot a water gun at a clown’s mouth and win a prize, or venture on kitschy rides with names like Dante’s Inferno and Break Dance that, while arguably seedy, were still loads of fun.
“It wasn’t Disneyland, but thank God for that,” said Mr. Denson. “It’s open to people of small means, and it always has been.”
Indeed, youngsters living near Astroland said they worried now about how they would fill their summer days and nights.
“No one’s going to have anywhere to hang out anymore,” said Keyira Serrano, 14, who lives at the Coney Island Houses and said she spent every summer weekend at Astroland, usually with her younger sisters Dannierra Whitfield, 13, and Felicia Serrano, 9. “We’re not going to have nothing to do. So today we’re going to have all the fun we can, while it lasts.”
For the park’s 350 employees, too, the future is suddenly uncertain. Some held out hope that Astroland might somehow survive, though Ms. Albert said she could not continue operating Astroland without a multiyear lease from Thor Equities, which she said the company was not willing to give.
Jose de la Cruz, a 40-year-old Brooklyn resident, began working at Astroland eight years ago, and has operated its Pirate Ship ride since 2003. Mr. de la Cruz has worked at amusement parks since he was 16 and dropped out of high school, after deciding that he preferred a carny’s life to classrooms.
“Sometimes there are drunk people, and sometimes people toss their cookies in the air — it ain’t a pretty sight and I got to clean it up,” he said. “But I’m going to miss it. I enjoy seeing people having fun, being so terrified and then afterwards walking off, their legs shaking, saying ‘I did it.’ ”
Like most of Astroland’s workers, Mr. de la Cruz plans to help dismantle its rides over the next few months. After that, he said, he would apply for unemployment insurance, and then try to get a job at another amusement park. “This is my life,” he said. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever been doing, and I’m good at it.”
Other park workers said they were furious at the park’s planned shutdown. “Thor is putting 350 people out of jobs,” said Philip Englebert, a maintenance worker. “We all live here. We work here. What are we going to do now, in this economy?”
Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Thor Equities, said in a statement that the developer had been in touch with “numerous amusement operators” to discuss setting up “permanent year-round development.” The city and Joseph J. Sitt, the chairman of Thor Equities, which is now the largest landowner in the area, have yet to reach an agreement on how to redevelop Coney Island, though locals worry that the neighborhood will become awash in generic chain stores, condominiums and hotels.
On Sunday, Walter McCoy, a maintenance worker in his 40s, watched his niece swinging high in the Pirate Ship as it soared toward the sky, screaming with her arms aloft. Mr. McCoy’s grandson Andre, 6, stood beside him. Andre was too small for the ride, and watched his cousin, enthralled.
Going to Astroland, Mr. McCoy said, had been a summer tradition in his family for decades.
“This place lets kids trust their legs, they don’t have to worry about cars, and neighborhoods are getting so rough,” said Mr. McCoy, who lives in East New York, Brooklyn.
“They’re closing down a legend.”