Brace yourselves, Coney Island, hurricane Rita is coming, as in Main Street ‘Rita, that vaguely booz-ish beverage you ordered off the Applebee’s menu to dull the pain when your parents wanted to go to dinner in Times Square. Amusing the Zillion reports Coney Island is set to become a strip mall chain mecca copying all the authentic local charm of your average highway rest stop, with Johnny Rockets, Checker’s, Red Mango and an (blrgghgg) Applebee’s set to open soon, with others like Outback and Hooters in developers’ sights too, a rage-inducing proposition for which no curse word yet exists, so we will invent one: This is a mediocrifuck. A blanddicking. But really? It’s the Myrtle-Beach-ification of our once-beloved beach.
Myrtle Beach, for those who are fortunate enough not to have visited, is both one of the worst beaches in America and among the worst, soul-suckingly tacky places in the country: endless chains and theme restaurants, a never-ending loop of Jimmy Buffett blaring from every chintzy t-shirt shop, 40-story high rise hotels with frat-vomit filled lazy rivers in their basements and all the originality of a Disney beach-themed ride. Coney was once the anti-Myrtle Beach; is it now officially too late to go back?
I say Myrtle Beach is the worst beach town in America as a person who originally grew up thinking that distinction belonged to Atlantic City, but the abhorrent crime and cranky, slot-arm pulling, cigarette-puffing drones who arrive en masse by bus are practically Springsteen compared to the overpowering blandness of Myrtle Beach, which is dead stuck in the middle of everything. It’s middle class, middle America, middling interest and mid-range ambition (and whatever the middle tone of whiteness is, it’s got that too), embodied most brutally by the ill-fated, poorly executed Hard Rock Theme Park that opened and closed just four months later. The park, a baby boomer’s idea of “cool” “fun,” was too expensive, too ugly and too uninteresting to draw any crowds (attractions included Nights in White Satin: The Trip. Finally, the Moody Blues theme ride teenagers have been clamoring for!).
Coney Island is, let’s face it, far from the best beach in New York City. You can’t surf there, you’re more likely to find a dirty diaper in the sand than you are a pretty seashell and the crowds of teenagers get so overwhelming on a weekend in June that you feel all those YOLO shirts are an actual threat. The Rockaways (pre-Sandy, at least) blew Coney out of the water in terms of comforting local fare and hip beachfront dance parties, thanks to the Roberta’s crew making it a pet project over the past few years. Ft. Tilden is easily the most gorgeous beach in transit reach, particularly if you like looking at beautiful people and, yes, boobs.
Why do we care so much? We may not have much money to spend, but when we do spend it, we’d rather it go to this guy who we might see around the neighborhood, than this asshat. Shopping locally definitely does benefit the local economy more, so let’s not go down that whole “national chains provide much-needed jobs blah blah” route. Applebee’s, with its microwaved food and trying-too-hard neighborhood vibe, is a physical sadface emoji, the one with a pile of poop next to it.
The appeal of Coney has always been its quirkiness, its weirdness, the feeling that you might walk off the train and interact with sun-stained freaks, pirates and mermaids. It was that old-boardwalk style of showmanship and barking intrigue that drew beachgoers there generations ago: visit the Coney Island Museum and you’ll see that spectacle once included a handful of freakshows, a reenactment of the Boer War (featuring actual veterans!), a lifesize Noah’s ark replica, that damned parachute drop and more. But all that has been dumped to the curb, and just in the Obama administration we’ve watched Shoot the Freak, Beer Island and Cha Chas disappear, while even my friends who were lifelong Mermaid Parade participants shook their heads in disappointment and declined to sign back up. You can still buy a nutcracker on the beach at least, for now, and the Cyclone is safe – god save the Cyclone.
The new Thor Equities construction finished last summer was a morose lump of a building plucked straight from a mini-mall in suburban New Jersey and plopped directly across from the train station, eagerly awaiting something like a Subway. What a great sight to set your eyes on for people coming out of the station for the first time, wondering why exactly they bothered to travel all this way just to throw down on the same quesadilla tower they had in Ohio.
But we can’t blame the chains entirely, nor, perhaps, the developers who court them. Where are the next wave of local developers stepping up to fill the void, especially post Sandy?
Good, bad or ugly, gentrification has turned everything in almost all of Brooklyn (but not Brownsville, we know, we know), from Bedford Avenue to Columbia Street to Washington Avenue, into a brochure version of shop-local advocacy, with all the organic locally sourced gardens, local food crawls and magazine covers and so on. Why not Coney? Tell me people wouldn’t want a Coney like that and I’ll find you 20 European tourists with full wallets staying at the Wythe Hotel who will disagree.
It is a complicated series of zoning, funding and haggling that goes into it, and we won’t throw shade while pretending to be real estate experts here. The truth is there aren’t that many places to eat there right now that don’t involve hot dogs. Grimaldi’s and Tom’s Diner came within the past year, which is a hopeful sign, but how long can they stand against the endless resources of national chains?
ATZ gives some insight:
“The reason it is better to have franchisees is the franchise company has to approve the area, location and lease,” broker Joe Vitacco, who leased the Johnny Rocket’s space, told the blog. “They have done all of their homework and are experts at analyzing a location.”
Boardwalks are one of the finest, uniquely American resources that play off both our ingenuity and our hubris that lets us run right up to the edge of nature and sit on its face (thanks for the reminder, Sandy).
I am now in the uncomfortable position of putting my hometown boardwalk, that slimy, guido-infested pit, parts of which I once loathed with all my tourist-hating heart, up as a strange example of how to do this better. It took me until visiting Myrtle Beach and passing by its monolithic NASCAR Cafe to realize that even humble Seaside Heights, NJ had some value, that the sleazy Beachcomber bar, dirty arcades and mile-long stretch of carnival games (including one I worked at where, if you threw a ball right, you could win half a carton of cigarettes for a quarter) were a unique exhibition of organically built, time-weathered attractions and not just some low-rent Dave and Busters wannabe. Springsteen wrote about Madame Marie and not TGI Friday’s for a reason, folks.
Team Brokelyn visited Coney on an unseasonably warm day last April and couldn’t find a single place to drink, taking our beer money instead to Brighton Beach’s strange Russian beer selection. In Seaside, bars like the Sawmill and even the arcades stay open year round (again, pre-Sandy, you bitch) for the locals, who prefer the quiet zen of a winter beach anyway. Why can a town on the edge of suburban New Jersey with barely any public transit sustain a boardwalk that puts most others to shame, while Coney struggles to open a restaurant that isn’t a carbon copy of Anywhere, USA, while chasing out all the Beer Islands and the like?
The fight over whether to keep the wooden boardwalk or let the city replace it with a concrete one is a waste of time. I love and prefer wooden boardwalks, toe splinters and all, but it’s hard to argue against the environmental and financial benefit of a permanent artificial one. But more so, if we think the soul of Coney Island can be so easily chopped up and thrown out, we have already lost the battle.
Follow Tim to tell him how wrong he is about Applebee’s: @timdonnelly.