Last Rites at Astroland
Astroland at Coney Island. Listen to the names of the rides: Cyclone, Water Flume, Dante's Inferno, Top Spin, the Tea-Cups... Children screaming and laughing, filling with wonder, and their parents guardedly watching and then laughing too. This was all happening yesterday and it was maddening, because it was Astroland's last day.
Astroland. The land we imagine in the stars. It's the wonder that comes into kids when they are whirled and spun, surrounded by sun and surf and big otherworldly murals and non-stop slightly seedy and fantastic show barkers. And this has been going on for a century. The famous working class paradise, Coney Island, at the end of the F Line.
Savitri D, The Great Fredini, and Dick Zigun and I performed a moral soap opera on the boardwalk the other day, stopping at five points to act out the corruption that killed Astroland. Fred was dressed up like Thor, the Norse god – and the corporate name of the real estate speculator that has pocketed the NYC politicians and cashed in on the old amusement park. It was quite funny at times, the muscled god with his winged helmet and giant plastic hammer - pleading that Coney needs the towels and toilet paper of Bed Bath and Beyond, a future tenant of Thor's land grab. Mostly, though, the whole thing was hopelessly sad.
These are the out of control last days of the Bloomberg administration, as fat cats are dealt parks and neighborhoods and air-space in large-scale privatizations. We are witnessing a time in our city's history that will be called corrupt. We will know better after it's too late. Meanwhile, what will be left of New York City? The condos, big boxes and hotels that are slated for Coney...this is what in our church we call, "The Sea of Identical Details, the Demon Monoculture!" Our town will be simply suburban, provincial, the culture all borrowed.
The hundred years of taking your children to Coney on very little money – why wouldn't we protect such a New York treasure? The wonder that fills our children and fills us too – at Astroland – is not wonder of the industrial variety. It doesn't come from Disney or 6 Flags or Ronald McDonald. It is a human-scale, a community kind of wonder – and that is all the difference. This is a much more important and lasting wonder than the mediated dazzlement of a Pixar movie. This is homemade wonder of the kind that creates citizens, not consumers.
In our little play the other day, Savitri was dressed up like Lady Justice, with the scale and the blindfold and the big book.. Dick Zigun, the Mayor of the sideshow freaks, asked Justice, "Is Thor guilty of murdering Astroland and its 500 jobs?" She consulted her wise thoughts and duly pronounced Thor guilty as the crowd pressed in and let go of its bloodlust for developers and politicians. The unanimity on the question of THEIR guilt seems complete.
Thor, played gamely by our friend Fred, was down on his knees in his muscle suit. Children and adults on the boardwalk gleefully released into that instant theater, the laughing creativity of Coney. They took roles, made speeches, walked over and sternly lectured Thor, thanked Justice for finally prevailing. The cameras kept flashing and rolling, the homemade wonder was, well...wonderful!
And now Astroland is empty. The rides sit there, childless. Listen to their names: Super Swing, Himalaya, the Pop-Eye boats, Tilt-a-Whirl...
Do you want to save Coney Island? There is much work to be done!
Email saveconey(at)gmail.com and visit http://myspace.com/saveconeyisland
(Photo credit: Norman Blake)