Coney Island ebb and flow

SUN JOURNAL

Amusement: Refurbished subway terminals, a museum and baseball are leading the latest revival of the famed New York resort.

November 17, 2003|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - Rabbi Murray Maslaton stands on the boardwalk overlooking the deep blue sea and speaks as a hurricane tears up the coast to the south.

"The ocean makes your heart so wide that everyone can fit into it," says Maslaton, who studied at Baltimore's Ner Israel yeshiva in the early 1960s. "Try to hate somebody after looking at the ocean! Go ahead, try. It can't be done."

A resident of Brooklyn, the rabbi tries to get to Coney Island every day for such tonic. On the afternoon that Isabel is turning Baltimore's Thames Street into a tributary of the Patapsco River, the air above Coney Island is sweet with an autumn tinge, and hundreds of people make their way to America's most fabled resort.

(Sorry, Mickey, you and the rest of the Disney empire are second fiddle to a hot dog, invented on Coney Island by a butcher named Charles Feltman in 1867. The Brooklyn shore's status as a seaside attraction predates the Civil War.)

Some folks make a special trip to the end of the Q and W subway lines to see if Isabel would be anything to remember.

It isn't.

Although talk of the hurricane is in the air, blaring from televisions in boardwalk bars and rolling off the tongue of a young Latino man serenading a girl on Surf Avenue - "Isabel," he croons, "Is-a-bel" - the storm is not.

Folks come to Coney Island this day for the reason people always have: the ocean.

A Chinese couple are married on the beach and pose for wedding photos - in tux and white gown - on huge rocks breaking the surf.

Joe Farkis, a Manhattan native and librarian at a Christian Science reading room in Madison, Wis., brings his young daughters for their first glimpse of the place they'd heard Dad talk so much about.

"It took me a real long time to get used to not being here," says Farkis as though time enough had not yet passed.

And a 28-year-old hairdresser named Bryano Miranda comes from Flatbush to sit and let his mind drift back to his abuela's house in Puerto Rico, a place where only a small dirt path stood between the front door and the beach.

"I come here to remember being a little kid," says Miranda. "It's a way to put your troubles away for awhile."

To forget about Coney Island's troubles, take a note from the rabbi and the hairdresser: Look seaward, and put the town behind you.

"Coney Island is poor, dirt-poor," says the Rev. Patrick West, pastor at the century-old Our Lady of Solace Catholic Church, a struggling congregation at 17th Street and Mermaid Avenue. "We're always giving out food."

Yet Coney Island is in the midst of a bona fide comeback, yet another in a long history of giddy heights and brutal downs: fires and chronic arson, political corruption, real estate swindles, the whims of popular diversions, and, since about the time Steeplechase Park closed in 1964, poverty, crime and drugs so bad that the midway served as a refuge from the more threatening grotesques of the neighborhood.

(Of the old Steeplechase, only the 260-foot spire of the Parachute Jump - Brooklyn's funky Eiffel Tower since 1941 - remains, protected by landmark status.)

Coney Island's latest rally is being staged by a pair of refurbished subway terminals, expected to open next year, a Home Depot (of all things), the energy that comes with a new wave of immigration - Mexicans following recent influxes of Russians and Poles - a museum devoted to the freakier aspects of old Coney Island and, most beautifully of all, baseball.

On the Steeplechase grounds - "You just kept getting your parents to let you ride until you got on a horse that won," says Farkis - a diamond sparkles under artificial light.

Home of the minor-league Cyclones, named for the shore's famous roller coaster and the first pro baseball club in the borough since the Bums of Brooklyn left for Los Angeles in 1957, the ballpark has been drawing about 300,000 people a year since it opened in 2001.

"Broken-hearted people come in all the time," says Anna Isaacson, who runs the Brooklyn Baseball Gallery at the stadium. "They want to share their stories."

On the day of Isabel, Isaacson moves Casey Stengel's Dodgers jersey to a dry place and a soaked Barry Glass walks out of the surf to tell stories of Coney Island eternal.

"The water stays warm through Thanksgiving," says Glass, 56, a retired New York public school teacher.

"This boardwalk was full of amusements when I was a kid, and it's all gone now," says Glass, whose grandparents left Eastern Europe for America about the time the subway line from Manhattan to Coney Island was completed in 1920.

"They're trying to bring things back with miniature golf and new public restrooms, but it's nothing like the colonies of bungalows and the bathhouses that used to be everywhere."

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