January 31, 2011 -
There are few places in New York City as depressing and inspirational as Coney Island in the off season. Freezing winds whip up from the Atlantic Ocean, driving snow across the empty beaches and boardwalk. A handful of pedestrians brave the elements, hunkered down into fur parkas in a scene more reminiscent of a frozen Siberian outpost. Nearly every business in Coney Island's amusement district closes for the winter season, shutters pulled down over arcades, bars and seafood shacks. Even the homeless camps under the boardwalk are vacated.
This year, Coney Island's off season has been particularly harsh. Many well-known businesses are not expected to reopen in the summer. Cha Cha's and Ruby's have served their last drinks and have, in turn, been served with eviction papers. Demolition crews are busy tearing down landmarks like the Bank of Coney Island. And in December 2010, Shoot The Freak was destroyed in a surprise attack by its landlord. “They came like thieves in the night,” the booth's owner told The Brooklyn Paper. “Those little sneaks emptied out the place and there is nothing left, except for the Shoot the Freak sign.” The cyclical nature of destruction and rebirth in Coney Island is currently in a valley of annihilation, as the city moves towards a sanitized version of the boardwalk.
Perhaps the best remaining symbol of how Coney Island's colorful past is being left behind is the Playland Arcade. Built in 1935, it "evolved from a Silver's Penny Arcade and remained open year-round until 1981," according to Forgotten New York. The arcade once faced the legendary Thunderbolt roller coaster, which was famed for the 1895 hotel located beneath its tracks. The Thunderbolt and the Kensington Hotel were torn down in November 2000, during another off season "surprise attack," according to The Journal of New York Folklore, demolished by the city to make way for "waterfront development plans for a new, more profitable Coney Island."
Today, the Playland Arcade faces a broad empty field and has been abandoned for many years. Inside the arcade, an army of raccoons and cats has taken over. If not for the freezing winter weather, the stench of their urine would be overwhelming. Hundreds of empty cat food containers litter the floor. Large sections of ceiling have come down, allowing rain and snow to rot the interior. Collapsing walls are propped up by police barricades. Trees grow in the squalor.
Lining the walls of this forlorn structure is an impressive artifact from Coney Island's history, in the form of dozens of hand painted murals. Though badly deteriorated, there are many colorful scenes remaining. Presented almost as panels in a comic book, these are portraits of a different Coney Island era, long past. Strip poker, naked hunting, shotgun weddings, Sasquatch, moonshine, skeeball, mermaids and cartoonish gun violence. This is Coney Island's lost soul, a forgotten and crumbling old arcade full of cat piss, ruinous decay and dark carnival whimsy.
For other photo essays from Coney Island's off-season, visit The Freak's Domain (2008) and Under The Boardwalk (2009).