Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A visit to Coney Island's newly opened amusement park Luna Park

Call someone a "freak" in Coney Island and you're paying them a compliment...and possibly sending some business their way. The "freaks" have the had run of the place for the last several decades and proudly mount a yearly "Freak Show" where talented folks drive nails up their noses, display all sorts of fetuses in jars, and pretzel their tattooed bodies into positions that would make a Chinese acrobat jealous. This daytime sideshow competes with wild nightime burlesque shows where women of all shapes, sizes and aesthetic sensibilities strip in front of all-nude bands (some nights) or perform ecdysiastic tributes to Kurt Weill. Those who come here seeking a more interactive experience can "Shoot the Freak"; just off the boardwalk, a man in body armor serves as a moving target for anyone who'll pony up $3 to load a gun with five paint pellets and take aim (see photo below).  Above all this madness, looms the mascot of Coney Island, a cartoon of a man with a malicious-looking wide grin, who clearly wants to lift your wallet...or worse.

(Photo by Pauline Frommer: The "Freak" taunts shooters)

In a city that's become more and more sanitized, Coney Island is a throwback to New York's grittier days. This year, that is. Next year, well, gentrification is coming to this corner of the Big Apple and the new Luna Park amusement park is just one harbinger of change. It has co-opted the freaky guy symbol for its new roller coaster "The Tickler", but that's about as outre as this shiny new park gets.

My family and I visited Luna Park this past weekend and frankly, we were underwhelmed. True, not all the rides are yet open (one that supposedly imitates the feeling of being on the space shuttle has yet to debut), but what we saw seemed like the same-old, same-old,  but with an unchipped coat of paint. Basically, the park boasts the type of carnival rides that have always been featured in Coney Island with few touches of whimsy or over-the-top thrills. The one exception is the "Brooklyn Flyer" ride (see photo), one of those whirling swings that goes far higher than any other such ride I've seen. (We were up about as high as the famous Cyclone coaster in the park next door. My seven-year-old kept repeating over and over as we whipped through the air "This is the best ride I've ever been on! This is the best ride I've ever been on!"). Beyond that stellar ride, the park is poorly laid out, with an unwieldy credit-card system for the rides, and a staff that already looked bored with their jobs, even though this was the opening weekend.

A shame, since many hoped that Luna Park would bring back some of the razz ma tazz to Coney Island, and save it from the condo-ization that's planned for 2011. As we speak, developers are planning to blanket the place with standard-issue malls and beachfront condos, razing entire blocks of historic buildings in the process (you can read about the struggle to preserve these landmark buildings at Already, large swatches of beach are barricaded behind wire fences as construction crews start their initial work.

(Photo: The cluttered entrance to Luna Park).
Still and all, I was glad I spent Memorial Day at Coney Island. I always enjoy the mix of people from all over the world, the dizzying rides (at Dino's Wonderwheel Park, in particular) and the bawdy game booths, where every sentence out of the barker's mouths are double-entendres. As a native New Yorker, the happy sordidness of it all brings me back to my youth in 70's NYC, when the city was dirtier and more dangerous yes, but also more soulful. 

The takeaway: if you want to see the real Coney Island, visit this summer. Next year, signs are it'll be like just another trip to the mall.

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