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Little amusement in neglected Coney Island

AAP logoAAP 8/11/2016 Michael Wayne

Many things can hit you in the New York neighbourhood of Coney Island, but the smell is first in line.

This residential peninsula on Brooklyn's southern tip is over an hour on the subway from Manhattan, and the further from town you get, the more desolate things become.

Impressive skyscrapers give way to dreary tenements, and suits become hoodies.

By the time I get to Coney's central station, Stillwell Avenue, I've had my fill of the train's automated announcer.

"Stand clear of the closing doors, please!" Every single stop.

Before the Second World War, Coney Island was a must-see seaside leisure resort.

Amusement parks lined the Riegelmann Boardwalk, which follows the Atlantic shoreline. Fun-lovers would shriek in delight as they rode rollercoasters and other wild rides at the Big Three theme parks of the day: Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland.

Holding sway over the excitement was the iconic Coney Island Funny Face, a ghastly visage of a man whose lips are pulled back in a rictus.

Today, as I walk down the main strip along Surf Avenue, there's not much to smile about. I struggle to believe anyone has ever wanted to come here.

I pass boarded-up shops, stinky piles of rubbish and chain fences protecting empty lots - or protecting us from them, perhaps.

The three theme parks that once dominated Coney are long gone. Fire claimed two of them before the end of the war, and Donald Trump's father Fred razed Steeplechase Park in the 1960s to build housing that never materialised.

Of that park, only the Parachute Jump remains. Long defunct, it's still an attention grabber: a giant red Meccano set that casts a shadow over the boardwalk. Once upon a time, thrillseekers would be strapped into a canvas seat and dropped from a height of 35 metres with only a parachute to break the fall.

Imagine that today.

Coney Island was given a new lease of life in 1979, when it played a major role in director Walter Hill's gang film The Warriors. In the movie, the Coney Island Warriors ran a gauntlet of rival gangs back to their home turf.

But in reality, they never left. Warriors merch is still flogged in every store. Posters advertising Warriors theme nights and reunions plaster fences and walls. Even the neighbourhood's burned out decor is screen-accurate, but the only gangs here today are slack-jawed teens and disappointed tourists.

You can still come out to play in Coney Island. Luna Park re-opened in 2010, with rides that are pretty tame by today's standards. The park isn't very busy. The Thunderbolt, a high-speed rollercoaster, opened in 2014, and goes a long way to dispel the impression that the place is in total neglect.

But rides just don't have the pull they used to. Nobody looks amused. The Funny Face is still here, bolted onto "The Tickler" ride, but we live in an age where we see the creepy side first. We're just too cynical for the hedonistic delights of an old-time fun park.

We aren't, however, too cynical for a New York slice. I ditch the park and cross the road to grab a delicious hit of pepperoni.

"Youse ain't from around here, are ya? Did youse like the rides?"

Despite all the grime and faded glory, this pizza dude is proud of where he lives. I get the feeling he's not alone. Coney Islanders are warriors, aware of their place in American popular culture, and staunch in the face of decline, development and destitution.

As I head back to the station, not looking forward to another hour of standing clear of closing doors, I spot a dark corner of Luna Park I hadn't noticed before. Behind another chain fence next to the ghost train, there's a clear plastic box.

Inside the box is a dummy dressed in punk attire on all fours, clutching a toilet. He rocks forward and spews a torrent of water into the bowl. As he rocks back, another torrent vacates his plastic bowels with enough ferocity to rock him forward again.

I hope he didn't have the pizza.

It's like a fountain from hell which, like the hell around him, goes on ad infinitum.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Coney Island is on the southern tip of Brooklyn, and is accessible by car, bus or subway. Visit coneyisland.com for more details.

New York City is serviced by Qantas, United, Delta and Virgin Australia airlines, usually with a stop in Los Angeles.

STAYING THERE: Manhattan accommodation is better than anything in Coney Island so you may do best to base yourself there and make a day trip to Coney. Visit www.nycgo.com for hotels, or www.airbnb.com for more affordable options.

PLAYING THERE: Coney's theme parks are free to enter, but the rides will cost you. The parks open around noon and run until late evening. Head to coneyisland.com for more details.

* The writer travelled at his own expense.

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