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Eulogy for a Fading Jewish Wonderland

There’s a strain of Zionism peculiar to the Q train — that subway line wending its way from Manhattan’s Lower East Side and over the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn, through Hasidic Midwood, past the Russians in Brighton Beach, then terminating at Coney Island’s Stillwell Avenue stop, “the largest subway station in the world.”

NOW: Astroland amusement park has closed its doors, throwing into question Coney Island?s future.

THEN: A photo from the Forward archives from the 1920?s shows Coney Island when it was a prime destination for New York?s urban-dwelling Jews.

If Brooklyn is the Promised Land, then Coney Island is its Jerusalem. Two decades before Theodor Herzl formulated his idea for a Jewish state, Coney received its inaugural carousel, and lo, the true Holy of Holies was founded: The neighborhood’s first amusement park opened in 1876.

On Sunday, September 7, Coney’s premier sanctuary of summer fun closed not for the season, but forever. Founded in 1962, Astroland — a late heir to the defunct Dreamland and to Luna and Steeplechase parks — shuttered itself at dusk. It was the bigger of the area’s two remaining amusement parks. “Blessed is the true judge.” Baruch dayan emet.

Astroland owner Carol Albert was denied the renewal of her lease for the two years she’d requested. In 2006, Albert sold Astroland’s property to Thor Equities, LLC for $30 million. The Alberts are, or were, a venerable presence in Coney: West 10th Street at the boardwalk is named for Dewey Albert, who founded the park, and, ever since Thor began buying up prime neighborhood property almost five years ago, daughter-in-law Carol has served as an unofficial spokeswoman for local business owners.

Albert’s public gripe sounds like yet another round of “Blame the Developer!” — Brooklyn’s favorite pastime since the Dodgers moved out west. But Joe Sitt, head of Thor and a local boy made good (he’s from Gravesend, the neighborhood just north), says he has big plans. Meaning retail. High-rise hotels. An improved amusement district.

Such optimism has been around as long as the Atlantic. Skeptics say that Sitt’s just sitting on his Coney properties, waiting for them to appreciate before flipping them for profit. Sitt the sitter and flipper appeared to do just that with the Gallery mall at Fulton Street: In 2001 he bought that Brooklyn property for $24 million, launched a public relations campaign touting redevelopment and persuaded the city to rezone the area to permit such reconstruction. Then, in 2007, he sold the plot for $125 million without realizing a single plan.

The Coney Question is a sort of Jewish Question: What should its borders be? Furthermore, how can peace be ensured? And what will tomorrow bring? As of September 8, the Astrotower, that iconic white space needle whose shaky observation deck offered views of the beach and bay on one side and a vista of Midtown Manhattan on the other, was on sale for $99,000. The merry-go-round was listed at $95,000. And the Tilt-A-Whirl seems a steal at only $29,000. All inquiries can be made with Rides-4-U, a Somerville, N.J., company specializing in amusement liquidation. The Wonder Wheel, the star feature of Deno’s Amusement Park — now Coney’s sole functioning boardwalk attraction — will remain, as will the famed Cyclone roller coaster. Both rides are landmarked (and the Cyclone, while technically part of Astroland, is not only officially preserved, but also located on city land). Next summer will come; the water will be cold in June and then warm by August, and then another fall will arrive, and with it another spate of journalism on “the future of Coney Island.”

Good neighbor that I am, I also have a plan: The city should declare Coney a religious shrine and return it to its ancestral people. Zone it for the Jews. My tribe has been dispersed on Long Island long enough. Calling all Cohens and Levis, Schwartzes and Weisses, thou Katzenellenbogens; sending out Semitic signals from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side, from London’s Golders Greens to Paris’s Marais, from Berlin to Moscow, Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim: It’s time to ingather, make the next kind of aliyah. Resettle the land that Woody Allen gave unto your forefathers. Step right up, we’ll make the asphalt bloom. Tell you what: Act now, and we’ll throw in a footlong for free.


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