|The Freakshow Must Go On|
David Whitley visits New York’s Coney Island – the ultimate throwback theme park
We’re not in Williamsburg any more. Any moustaches spotted in Coney Island are likely to have been there for life, whilst titanic beer bellies are a more regular sight than drainpipe trousers.
This is the Brooklyn that hasn’t got cool yet. It’s a long way from that. The only artists in these parts are the sword-swallowers and contortionists that perform in the sideshows. Everyone else is too busy fending off the seagulls on the boardwalk to make creative statements.
Coney Island is a real throwback. It’s a place that, up until two years ago, allowed members of the public to pay $5 a pop to fire paintballs at a live human being. Shoot The Freak will be sadly missed by anyone who objects to the gentrification of the borough.
Still, at least there’s the Hot Dog Eating Contest. Once a year, binge eaters from across the world get together outside Nathan’s to stuff themselves with as many hotdogs as possible within 10 minutes. A man called Joey Chestnut has won five years in a row. He holds the record – 68 hotdogs in ten minutes. Others try and fail to attain it; an arena liberally plied with vomit in front of a bear pit-like 40,000 spectators is not uncommon.
It’s a squally Monday in spring, so nothing’s open. An observation tower clanks backwards and forwards in the wind, looking like it could collapse at any minute. Apparently it’s cheaper to leave it up there, closed and written off for visitors by perfectly reasonable health and safety inspectors than to pull it down.
The new Screamzone set of rides sits relatively polished, but empty. It’s one grade up from a fairground – undoubtedly thoroughly enjoyable for a couple of hours, but lacking that certain tinge of danger that should rightfully be associated with Coney Island.
By ‘danger’, I don’t mean the 1980s-style danger when the area was covered in syringes and roamed by the sort of chaps whose idea of sideshow performance was robbing people at knifepoint. Coney Island has cleaned up considerably since then – largely at the instigation of former New York mayor (and proud Brooklynite) Rudy Giuliani. He had an extensive new station built at the end of the line, and generally got people to get their brooms out.
Attractions come and go, as various companies try to make a profit from Coney Island. New Yorkers hate the idea of it being taken over by condo developments, but not enough to actually go and spend enough money there to make running rides there profitable. For many, it’s a place best kept in memory than reality.
But in a bid to stop the developers moving in, concreting over the boardwalk and introducing peace and quiet where screaming kids should be, three rides have been protected. Of these, the Cyclone is the icon. And it’s what gives that proper Coney Island danger factor.
This ancient wooden rollercoaster is not so much rickety as patched together Blue Peter-style with double-sided sellotape, loo rolls and wishful thinking. Probably best not attempted after 68 hotdogs.
Disclosure: David visited Coney Island as the last stop on A Slice Of Brooklyn’s pizza sampling-based tour of Brooklyn’s less heralded suburbs (www.asliceofbrooklyn.com). He stayed as a guest of the spanking new (and rather spectacular) Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg (www.wythehotel.com).
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