Friday, September 5, 2008

See ya, Astroland

Let's not get all maudlin about it. Yeah, it was the last weekend before it closes for good, so we went to say goodbye. But the press makes it seem like Astroland was the greatest thing since Coca-Cola Zero.

Let me set the record straight: this is simply the end of a crappy, run-down amusement park that happened to be on Coney Island. As far as historic Coney Island icons go, Astroland probably doesn't crack the top 10:

1. The Cyclone.

Built in 1927, it's one of the all-time great wooden coasters. From the crest you can see the beach, the parachute jump, the ocean beyond. It still packs a punch, and what makes it extra cool is the fact that it's a legend. Status: Landmarked since 1991, so it ain't going nowhere.

2. Luna Park.

Opened in 1903, this was arguably the most spectacular of the 3 great amusement parks of Coney Island's early 20th century heyday. (And, no, Astroland was not one of the 3.) Status: It closed in the 1940s. The land on which its fanciful towers, turrets, and twinkling lights once stood is now...well...excuse me while I puke in my throat...

3. Steeplechase Park.

The first of Coney's 3 great parks (opened in 1897), and the longest-lived: it survived until 1964, at which point everyone declared Coney Island officially dead.
Status: The land is now the Brooklyn Cyclones' baseball stadium. Coney Island remains in a coma, yes, but still not quite dead.

4. Dreamland.

The third of Coney's big 3, it only operated from 1904-1911. Attractions included Shoot the Chutes, which launched boats from a tower perched over the beach into a lagoon. (Compare this to Astroland's creaky old crap.)

Status: It burned to the ground in a spectacular inferno in 1911. One of the performing lions managed to escape, badly injured, to roam the streets for several hours while the fire raged. The land is now home to the NY Aquarium. (P.S. The fire started in an attraction called Hell Gate, which was located in the vicinity of the photo below.)

5. Wonder Wheel.

An icon on Coney's skyline since 1920. At 150 feet tall, you can see for miles. Status: Landmarked in 1989, ain't going nowhere.

6. The Parachute Jump.

It was originally built for the 1939 World's Fair, then moved in 1941 to Coney Island, where it helped macho men in uniform impress the girls...which in turn led to the Baby Boom. But that's another story. Status: It ceased operations in 1968, but is now landmarked and is on the skyline to stay.

7. The Thunderbolt.

For 50 years there were 3 very cool and very large roller coasters operating virtually side by side at Coney: the Cyclone, the Tornado, and the Thunderbolt. The Thunderbolt was the first of these, pre-dating the Cyclone by 2 years. Its steep first drop inspired the design of the Cyclone and many others that came afterwards. Status: the Thunderbolt fell into disrepair and closed for good in 1983. It remained a hulking ruin until it was torn down in 2000.

8. Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs.

They didn't invent the hot dog (more about that below), but they made it famous, and became a Coney Island institution. Status: it's been around since 1908, and still going.

9. The Giant Racer.

There were over thirty coasters built at Coney from 1884 through the 1930s. The Giant Racer, built in 1911, had a beautiful whitewashed structure and was one of the largest coasters ever built at the time. Not only did it precede the Cyclone by 16 years, it was razed to make room for...the Cyclone. Status: Long gone, of course.

10. (Tie)

The Elephant Hotel, a relatively short-lived novelty that, yes, resembled an elephant. Or possibly Feltman's, home of the world's first hot dog (no, not Nathan's--and ironically, it was located on the present-day site of Astroland). Any or all of Coney's three huge, elegant seaside hotels of the late 19th century. Or even the beach itself, where millions have sunbathed, swam, flirted, flexed, and people-watched from the 1800s to the present. (And, okay, maybe even Astroland, which opened in 1962 and had a good 46-year run as the main bearer of Coney's much-dimmed amusement park torch.)

Fine to mourn Astroland's passing, but at least give Coney Island the dignity of acknowledging its much grander history...and hopefully future.

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