Grieving the demise of Coney Island’s temples of high-caloric American capitalism

By James Gardner | July 08, 2011 04:46PM

Top: the new Coney’s Cones; Bottom: the Coney Island Boardwalk

Ruby’s Bar and Grill, Cha Cha’s, Paul’s Daughter, Kris Greg’s Beer House, Gyro Corner, Beer Island, Coney Island Souvenirs: when the last traces of this summer season melt away, by the end of October, these down-trodden temples of high-caloric American capitalism, which line Coney Island’s famous Boardwalk between Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel, will pass away with them.

Last year, the seven concession areas negotiated a one-year reprieve from Zamperla, the Italian rides manufacturer and operator that is overseeing the transformation of Coney Island (their eighth cohort, Shoot the Freak, which completed the so-called “Coney Island Eight,” has already been razed). And when they vanish, the Boardwalk, as we have known it for the past half century or more, will be changed beyond recognition.

Already, however, as reported on NY1 Tuesday, a new eatery named Coney’s Cones is set to open on the Boardwalk, rising over the ghosts of the one concession that did not take the one-year extension. The new Coney’s Cones is nothing to write home about. It is a boxy red thing with blue accents, with seating available. What it does not have, and probably will never acquire, is that thick surface of sempiternal grease that continues to coat the seven other establishments.

The man directly responsible for the transformation is, according to NY1, Michele Merlo of CONYCO, who is based in Miami and has managed the Pelican Hotel down there. Come Nov. 1, he will take over the remaining seven spaces, out of which he plans to create four sit-down eateries. One of these will unite the pre-existent Concessions Into A Big Food Court called Mundo, with food offerings from around the world. Another will resemble a diner; called Da Ponte, it will serve breakfast from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

By the end of its transformation, Coney Island will be full of expensive pied-a-terres owned by well-heeled Europeans and South Americans. The present carnivalesque vulgarity of the place will give way to a post-modern approximation of the same, which will be family-friendly and safe for the middle and upper middle classes. In some sense what we are seeing here — as in Times Square — is coming full circle.

Coney Island, like Times Square, had once been the stomping grounds of all sectors of the public, only to become decidedly more working-class in the years following WWII. While it is true that Coney Island harbored a potential that has lain dormant for generations, there is a certain sadness in the disappearance of something that was so rooted, and for so long, in our culture. One recalls those lines of William Wordsworth: “Men are we, and must grieve when even the shade/ Of that which once was great, is passed away.”