CONEY ISLAND—There was a quiet calm with dark clouds overhead at Coney Island on Friday, March 24. The day before the amusement park would officially open for Memorial Day weekend, most of the few occupants were workers and construction crews doing last-minute repairs.
Carlo Muraco, co-owner of Fabers Gameworld, walked to the back of his arcade and pointed to a water mark on a wall about four feet high. Hurricane Sandy destroyed every machine he had.
“Sea monster came, took everything, then went back out to sea,” he said. “We had to throw everything out, start again.”
Muraco opened shop a week earlier than most, but the rainy days last week kept people away. The lights have been back on at Luna Park, Coney Island’s revitalized amusement park, but things are starting slowly.
A mechanical fortune teller is stuffed in the back. It looks brand-new, like the rest of the machines. The rest of the place is a different story. The ceiling has splotches of mold. The walls have scars left from the sea water.
Muraco said throwing out the broken machines was a painful process. “You have some machines and you’re not sure if they’re worth fixing.”
Damages were in the hundred of thousands, and insurance didn’t give him a dime. Yet that’s the game, Muraco said. “Sometimes I hit a home run, sometimes I strike out.”
The main boardwalk at Luna Park is elevated, not like his shop and those nearby, which are on the outskirts along Surf Avenue. He said the areas on the boardwalk weren’t hit as bad, thanks to the people who built it almost a hundred years ago having the foresight to make it high enough.
“We got complacent,” he said, and people built where they shouldn’t have. “We haven’t seen a disaster like this, and thought it couldn’t happen. But we find out it can happen, even in New York City.”
Out on the street, a man driving a small tractor dumped soil around a new tree while two other workers tamped down the dirt. Once the tree looks like it can stand on its own, Dee Battaglia gets down from the tractor to have a look.
“We planted 200 trees on Surf Avenue before Sandy destroyed them all,” said Battaglia, a manager at M&D Landscaping.
Friday was the first day Battaglia’s crew was back on the job. They were putting up 20 trees along Surf Avenue—just enough to make Luna Park presentable. The job got pushed to the last minute, Battaglia said, due to back-and-forth with the city over who was responsible for replacing the downed trees. “You can’t be responsible for mother nature,” he said.
Although work is still going on, Luna Park is in better shape than most areas. When you’re in a seasonal business, there’s only a several-month window to make a profit, and missing a season can be the end of it. And it’s for this reason that along the East Coast, boardwalks have been trying to open by the Memorial Day deadline. Most have succeeded, at least partially, with a few exceptions.
Many of the residential areas are still struggling, however. “All the surrounding areas are still really bad,” said Battaglia. “People don’t have the money to fix.”
“They’re hurting out there,” he said. “What I hear, everybody’s hurting.”
He adds, “Everybody’s got to help each other out. That’s the most important point.”
Hope For The Summer
Coney Island and Luna Park officially opened on Friday. The boardwalk itself is clean and ready to go. The once seedy outskirts of Luna Park have a coat of fresh paint, without a line of graffiti in sight.
Staff at several storefronts stood lazily near the counters ready for customers that rarely came on a rainy day, yet spirits and expectations for the summer season are high. For the people on the ground, while Sandy took most by surprise, the work they do endures.
Steve Turner, owner of Red Bone Products, has been in the game business for 17 years. If you’ve played a ring toss or threw a dart at a balloon anywhere in the world, you were likely using his products.
He and his team were setting up the game booths near the Wonder Wheel and the roller coaster. They drove in from St. Louis, Missouri, five days earlier, bringing the kind of enthusiasm Turner believes will soon fill Coney Island again.
“If people wanted to stay in business, they had to bring it fast, and bring the level back up, and by doing that it’s going to make it better for everyone,” he said.
Turner points down a side-street where his crew is working between rows of game booths. He said the place was starting to get a bad reputation, and people were already starting to avoid the outskirts of the amusement park.
“It was a rough place because it was sort of on the outside,” he said. “We’re bringing it back to the inside, and making Jones Walk, and the walkway down to the boardwalk, something that’s appealing to families, and upgrading the whole environment of Luna Park’s area around here.”
“Two days ago, this wall was full of graffiti. It was painted yesterday, this whole wall,” he said, and then pointed to the metal doors to the booths which still need attention. “This thing is going to be completely fixed, so that when people walk down here they don’t feel like they’re going down some place that’s nasty,” Turner said.
The games are all brand-new, and with the fresh start, the owners also took time to redesign in order to “bring back the old-time flavor of games from the turn of the century,” Turner said.
“Everything has its high and its low,” he said. “Well, Coney Island reached its low, but it’s coming back. New York needs a place for entertainment of this type.”
Despite the hardships, and despite the damage that’s still left, Turner said through his years working in the games business, he sees Coney Island pulling itself back up over the summer. He said there is Broadway and there is Coney Island, and “they are both entertainment, and they both have a place.”
What it comes down to are the people who keep coming back each year, and that’s not just the tourists or people wanting a day at the beach. In Coney Island, where the city has its plans, the people tasked with getting everything back up will be the people at the arcades and the booths, the people who turn on the rides. According to Turner, they’ll all come back, because this is what they do.
“Some people say, well I don’t want to be a carnie. But I mean there’s a place for everyone, otherwise we wouldn’t be successful and we wouldn’t do it,” he said. “We’re out here doing a service for a lot of people, and putting smiles on their faces—and that’s what makes it worthwhile.”