Goodbye Coney Island, hello Myrtle Beach

Coney Island, 2015. via Flickr user Ashlee Catherine

Coney Island, 2015. via Flickr user Ashlee Catherine

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.

Via Laff in the Dark

Via Laff in the Dark

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).

Myrtle Beach's NASCAR Cafe.

Myrtle Beach’s NASCAR Cafe.

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.

Seaside Heights NJ, post-Sandy. I used to work in that stand on the near right. Via ABC.

Seaside Heights NJ, post-Sandy. I used to work in that stand on the near right. Via ABC.

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.

18 Comment

  • I’m totally for destroying all beach town individuality if it means I have access to jalapeno poppers and Jack Daniels-themed meals immediately after exiting the water.

  • You’re not painting an accurate picture of what is happening. These chain businesses will not be on the Boardwalk but on the deserted wasteland known as the North Side of Surf Ave. Would you rather have the current furniture stores selling used mattresses and empty lots or a Johnny Rockets? I’ve lived her all of my life, where are all of these mom and pop stores that had the chance to be here for decades but didn’t? It’s a different world now as much as I might want local business, they can’t afford the rents and they neglected our area forever. You snooze, you lose in life.

    • You don’t make a terrible argument, although a lot of the local development fever that’s hit Brooklyn has been in the last decade and not in the previous ones. Also, it’s not like these rents are set in a vacuum. The people that own the real estate set them. It’s not to say that rents should be kept artificially low, but they also shouldn’t be driven up to the point where only, as Tim put it, “the endless resources of national chains” can compete.

      People will probably disagree with this, but I think developers have a responsibility to the communities they build in as well as a responsibility to their own wallets. If the most you do, or are interested in doing, is sucking up as much money as you can no matter who you bring in, you’re no better than the owner of a professional sports team that keeps their payroll low despite making money. And everyone hates those guys.

  • David, do you actually think there is a developer alive today who doesn’t see dollar signs only? We have to just bottom line this, there are very few mom and pops that can afford the rents being charged in Coney Island now. Tom’s and Grimaldi’s are a fluke, not the norm and whether or not they succeed in a seasonal area is still very suspect. Tom’s got a major boost being the only ones open for awhile because of Hurricane Sandy, had Sandy not happened they might be struggling.

    Let’s face it a lot of people could have bought into Coney Island pre-2002 and didn’t. I wish I would have bought buildings in Williamsburg that were auctioned off for 50 grand in the 80′s but didn’t. Trying to do anything as a mom and pop is a challenge these days, as much as I hate it, reality is these chains are the ones who can afford it, and afford the risk. The days we want back are gone.

  • I dunno, that Kiss store looks pretty awesome. Also, stuff like this happens because developers come in, redevelop, and chain stores and restaurants are typically the only stores able to pay the increased rents. I don’t know how you fix that. The local governing body there probably got tired of the destitution and surrendered the property to anybody with halfway decent plans. I could be wrong, but Coney Island strikes me as a playground for the lower class. They like their food cheap. And cheap, attractive food comes under the banner of a restaurant like Applebee’s. Simple market forces, I think.

  • In fact, to get the kind of businesses and restaurants in there that you’d like, the local government would likely have to subsidize them in some way or institute rent caps or something. And it’s not going to do that. (And it probably shouldn’t.) This shit doesn’t happen in The Hamptons. There’s a reason. Independent businesses and restaurants there can afford to pay the high rents because they can jack up the cost of their goods, and their customers will pay it.

    • Cribbs, indeed the property ownership issues in Coney are a twisted and complicated affair that are a subject for a much different post. But you’re missing the comparison to other boardwalks/beach towns where the local economy has supported itself. The point here is also that Coney, by becoming Anywhere USA, loses the only reason people have for going there. Why go to a dirty beach with nothing to offer beyond the Cyclone (and the Cyclones) when a 10 minute longer train ride puts you in a much more fun beach spot?

      • Tim, you are so right. The story is a very complicated one, but sad fact is that once the anti-corporate, anything goes, unfettered spirit of Coney Island is gone, so is its appeal.

      • My point though is that those other seaside towns aren’t going to survive in their current incarnation. Property values are going to continue to rise there, forcing out those businesses unless they’re subsidized by local governments in some way. (The NYT wrote about this recently.) Also, people will continue to go to Coney. That development wouldn’t occur otherwise. I don’t say these things to support whatever’s happening there. But what does happen usually makes more sense than what should happen (even if it sucks).

  • I should mention that Cha Cha’s was still open this past April, just on Surf Avenue between Stillwell and W. 15th Street instead of on the Boardwalk. He’s also planning to rebuild post-Sandy.
    Shoot the Freak is gone, but Paul’s Daughter, Ruby’s, Lola Star remain — practically unscathed, too. The Wonder Wheel will turn again this March, as it has for generations.
    On Surf Avenue, there’s still Eldorado and Sideshows by the Seashore, both due to reopen this summer. The Coney Island History Project will be back on W. 12th Street. You can get a beer at the Coney Island Bar and Grill, if you want to chance a run-in with a biker — but that’s a risk you take any Saturday night in Coney. And just a couple blocks away are Williams Candy and Pete’s Clam Shack, both survivors of the storm.
    It may also interest you also that Joe Sitt plans to rent his building across from the train station to small businesses this summer: http://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/35/52/bn_sittgoessmall_2012_12_28_bk.html
    The point I’m making is that Coney Island has undoubtedly changed, but many of its defining small businesses remain. If you care about these sort of places, then it behooves you to go to them and spend your money. That’s what will keep them around.

  • When the French didn’t want Disney they had a riot. What’s wrong with you young people today?

  • Others might not agree but I think Johnny Rockets is fucking delicious! and so I look forward to my new found reason to go Coney.

  • As a Myrtle Beach native, your portrayal of the city makes me sad. While I actually appreciate the study in extreme post-modernity that is Myrtle Beach’s recent development, a la “Learning from Las Vegas” on sleeping pills, I can understand why it would be nauseating to most people. I assure you that there also are unique and authentic experiences to be had there if only you know where to look. If, however, you are a lazy tourist, you will end up in lazy tourist destinations with all the other lazy tourists. I wish you had called me. I would have shown you the good shit, but shh… it’s secret.

  • Your elitism defines you. Fight for Coney Island, a place I love, but do not put down Myrtle beach-a terrific beach with lots of fun things to do. It is people like you who ruin peoples attitudes towards New York

  • Considering this site caters to the gentrifying crowd that ruined Williamsburg it seems a little disingenuous to attack bland indication on Coney Island.

  • the problem here is that the city is courting national chains and developers and blocking any local development and small business. it’s a giant land grab from billionaires. this is what we reap when we elect Bloombergs. Stop electing Bloombergs.

  • Myrtle Beach is one of my FAVORITE places to visit. I think its funny that you criticize it yet it wins awards year after year for being a top 10 vacation spot, top 10 growing destination, and top 10 Best Family Beach in the country. Hmm… maybe you had a bad personal experience there??? Of course like any town/city there are bad spots (YES including Coney) so if you know where to go there is way more to offer in MB than most beach towns. I think you need to wake up and not hate so much on such a great place!