A Cold Winter in Coney

Along a legendary boardwalk, a keeper of the freak-show flame races to reopen by summer.

A Cold Winter in Coney

Dick Zigun was ready for a two-foot flood. In three decades at Coney Island, every hurricane he had seen blew through like a tourist passing the boardwalk on its way up the coast—and he was not afraid of Sandy. Rather than evacuate, he spent the night at home on West Fifteenth Street, a few blocks from the water, his pick-up parked outside in case of emergency. By the time he realized emergency was here, it was too late to run.

“When the flood came, it came fast,” says Zigun. “When I saw water pouring in under the door, over the sandbags, the water was already knee-high in the street.”

Fearing the flood might knock him over, he waded across the road to take shelter in a friend’s second-story apartment. From the second floor, they watched the water—three feet high and rising. Four. Five.

Dick Zigun, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Coney Island”
Dick Zigun, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Coney Island”

When the tide ebbed after midnight, Zigun, a grizzled fifty-nine year-old, went home to grab something he’d forgotten in his hurry: his cat. He found Buddy floating on his mattress, safe and dry, but “a little freaked out.”

“He saved my expensive goose down comforter,” Zigun says. “He had gathered it up around him, so it wasn’t soaking wet, and he was warm. I grabbed the cat, grabbed my prescription medicine, grabbed my iPhone charger—you know, the essentials of life.”

For a moment, Zigun wasn’t thinking about Coney Island USA, the arts organization, sideshow and museum he founded in 1980. Since then, he has thought of nothing else. Long one of the most visible artists in South Brooklyn, the self-proclaimed “mayor of Coney Island” rules from Surf Avenue, where he has turned a ninety-five year-old restaurant building into the artistic heart of the amusement district. But since the storm, where once stood a bar, a theater and an ice cream parlor, nothing remains but “a big fucking mess.”

Coney Island USA stands as a monument to the ghosts of the boardwalk. Besides producing theater and overseeing the Coney Island museum, Zigun showcases burlesque dancers, strongmen and all those who are proud to call themselves freaks. Every summer, his group organizes the Mermaid Parade—a three decade-old party that has become one of the highest-profile arts events in the city. Here, the carnival spirit lives on.

A corridor inside the Coney Island Museum and Theater; November 2012
A corridor inside the Coney Island Museum and Theater; November 2012

Outside any sideshow, there is the bally platform, where a slick-tongued talker says whatever it takes to bring in the crowd. Zigun has been playing this part for three decades, not just for his own organization, but for Coney Island as a whole. In another life, he could have been a con man. Instead, he contents himself with playing the part of the huckster.

Coney Island, through all of its changes, has always been huckster territory. In the nineteenth century, political boss John Y. McKane swindled landowners out of most of the island (it was still an island at this time), building a criminal empire—complete with rigged elections, a private police force, and a flourishing prostitution industry—that lasted three decades before he landed in Sing Sing prison. Robert Moses tried like hell to replace the working-class amusement industry with pristine city parks, and succeeded in converting most of the neighborhood into high-rise housing projects. George C. Tilyou spent decades building an amusement empire called Steeplechase, and Fred Trump threw a party when he tore it down. And all the time, the workers on the boardwalk talked tourists into parting with their cash. See the show. Ride the ride. Visit sunny Coney Island.

In huckster country, there is no shame in trying to turn a fast buck.

When Steeplechase burned down in 1907, Tilyou posted a sign that could serve as a manifesto for a district whose most famous landmarks have nearly all been destroyed, whether by fire, development or hurricane:

“I have troubles today that I had not yesterday. I had troubles yesterday that I have not today. On this site will be erected shortly a bigger, better Steeplechase Park. Admission to the Burning Ruins—10 cents.”

Tilyou’s improved Steeplechase lasted until it was claimed by the wrecking ball in 1964, as part of a spasm of urban renewal that reduced the boardwalk to a shell of itself. After decades of blight, Coney Island’s revival began in the mid ’90s, and it was a renewed amusement district that greeted October’s storm. Hurricane Sandy dealt $400,000 in damage to Coney Island USA’s two-building complex, making it among the worst hit—if not the worst hit—arts groups in the city. The first floor is completely gutted. There aren’t even burning ruins to see.

Coney Island is “integral to the emotional memory of the city,” says George Shea, a publicist who oversees the annual Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest. “There are a lot of cities in the world. There’s Portland, Maine, there’s Portland, Oregon. They have no Coney Island. Without getting into the world of bromides, Coney Island is the land of possibility. You can say or do whatever you want.”

Just as some aging Brooklynites still shed a tear when they think of vanished Ebbets Field, there are those who cannot let go of the sepia-toned Coney Island of their youth. Dick Zigun is not one of these. He grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where P.T. Barnum once served as mayor. The Zigun family furniture store was on Barnum Avenue; a statue of Barnum watched over the beach, and each year, the Barnum festival featured a parade of school children dressed as Lavinia Warren and General Tom Thumb, the little people who were among the star attractions of the Greatest Show On Earth.

“At nine years old,” Zigun says, “I was already a Barnum scholar, and knew that elephants and midgets were patriotic.”

After receiving a master’s in playwriting from Yale in 1978, Zigun moved to Coney Island, “a little bit brave and a little bit stupid,” in search of a loft to use as “a staging area” for his plays. He comes from the tradition of “’60s experimental New York theater,” he says, and his plays have a “funhouse” vibe.

In true Coney fashion, his loft burned down halfway through renovations, but Zigun didn’t leave.

“By that point,” he says, “I had sand in my shoes.”

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In the late ’70s, Coney was battered by riots, crime and botched urban renewal. But Zigun saw the history beneath it—not just the nostalgic fantasy, but a legacy of carny spirit that is more American than apple pie. In his office a few days after Thanksgiving, the Cyclone just outside the window, he gave his spiel:

“It’s the place that invented amusements parks, invented the hot dog, invented the roller coaster, but it’s different from homogenized, standardized, suburbanized amusement parks off the Jersey Turnpike—if there are any off the Jersey Turnpike any more. It’s full of New Yorkers—half-naked New Yorkers!—with a New York attitude and a New York mix of races and countries and languages.”

“In Coney Island they will play the music louder, run the ride faster, and paint Beyoncé or Biggie Smalls on it instead of Britney Spears. That’s the difference. It’s New York City’s amusement park.”

To celebrate that New York attitude, Zigun staged the first Mermaid Parade in 1983—a solstice celebration featuring floats and freaks, overseen by King Neptune and a bevy of beautiful mermaids. The first parade had more marchers than attendees, but as Coney Island rebounded in the 1990s, it became an institution, and Zigun along with it. In Coney Island, Zigun says, “the Mermaid Parade is the biggest day of the year, even past Fourth of July.”

Coney Island USA moved to its current location, at 1208 Surf Avenue, in 1996, and bought it in 2007 for $3.6 million. Last year, the group purchased the ice cream parlor next door, where they continued selling sundaes and egg creams in order to pay off the mortgage. They have expanded their community outreach, organizing events like a children’s Halloween parade, and they offer training programs designed to produce what Zigun calls “a new generation of circus idiots for the twenty-first century.”

“We’ve created the first sideshow school,” he says, “where people can learn to stick their hand in a bear trap or swallow a sword. If there’s going to be a national center of sideshow arts—fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, snake-charmers—Coney Island is the right location.”

The brackish flood reduced the sideshow stage to scrap. Where swords had been swallowed and snakes had been charmed, splinters of rotten wood were left on the sidewalk to await the junkman.

Few non-profits are lucky enough to have a financial manager willing to respond to a hurricane by having a sleepover. But as Sandy loomed off the seashore, Debi Ryan got out her sleeping bag, two changes of clothes and a smorgasbord of canned food. After all, somebody had to watch the snakes. The sideshow’s reptilian stars occupied a stylish two-room “snake condominium,” which featured a swimming pool and running hot and cold water, and they would need looking after if the sea came in the door.

Like Zigun’s house, the sideshow was prepped for a two-foot flood. At first, that seemed like plenty.

“When the building breached, and the water started to come in, it stayed on the lower side for a while,” Ryan says. “It was where we thought it was going to be. It rapidly went from mid-calf, to knee, to mid-thigh, to waist, in minutes. It was like, crap, get the snakes!”

Coney Island USA’s flooded facilities (Photos courtesy Patrick Wall)
Coney Island USA’s flooded facilities (Photos courtesy Patrick Wall)

A retired New York City paramedic, Ryan was never afraid during the flooding. “That building is a fortress,” she says. But because floodwater and electricity do not play well together, she was happy when the lights went out, and she was able to wade over to the snake condo and rescue the reptiles.

“I will tell you,” she says, “you never want to pick up a twelve-foot albino python that’s scared. They’re very cranky during that process.”

Safe and dry on the second floor, Ryan looked out the window at the waterlogged amusement district. Across the street, the water was halfway up the front of the new Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, just two feet below its massive Brooklyn Bridge sign.

Surf Avenue had turned into the East River.

That week, the sideshow was running its annual Halloween spectacular, and the bar was decorated with dead body mannequins. When Zigun’s crew opened the doors the next morning, they were greeted by plastic corpses bobbing in toxic filth. House manager Patrick Wall appointed himself clean-up czar, and made it his mission to protect employees and volunteers from foul water and poisonous mold.

“There has to be a firm line of leadership in a situation like this,” says Wall, a goateed forty-year-old with a contractor’s no-bullshit attitude. “So I erred on the side of caution at every single point. You didn’t get in without a suit, without a respirator, you didn’t touch anything without gloves.”

With a collector’s instinct inherited from his furniture-dealing father, Zigun has spent years filling Coney Island USA with antiques, from a fifty-year-old jukebox to vintage boardwalk games. The style was very loud, very kitschy, very Coney Island.

“To my shock,” he says, “we threw out everything.”

The bar, the gift shop and the theater are gone. Thirty thousand dollars’ worth of lighting equipment, recently donated by Ringling Brothers, was destroyed before it could even be unpacked. The ice cream shop’s equipment was uninsured, and will not be replaced, leaving the candy-striped parlor a gutted pit, where visitors are warned not to linger for fear of mold. The company pick-up truck was repossessed by Geico, and the snake condominium is no more. On the plus side, Zigun says, “we saved a lot of beer.”

(Photo courtesy Patrick Wall)
(Photo courtesy Patrick Wall)

“The labels fell off. We’re not gonna sell it to the public, but we’ll probably drink it.”

For the first few days, the sideshow’s core worked alone, not wanting to share with strangers the melancholy that comes from tossing a life’s work to the curb. It wasn’t long before the scavengers came, Wall says, “spreading the sickness of the storm everywhere they took the stuff.”

“People are picking up soggy posters drenched with floodwater, and they’re like, ‘It’s history!’ And I’m like, ‘It’s disease!’ This is how the zombie apocalypse starts.”

When they realized the extent of the damage, Zigun’s team appointed five clean-up committees, subdividing the tasks and finding work for the dozens of volunteers who appeared as soon as the water receded. Friends of the theater donated cleaning supplies on Amazon Wish Lists, and the building was emptied out by Thanksgiving at minimal cost.

Once the demolition job was complete, there was nothing to do but wait for money to rebuild. The real work can’t start until the electrical system is replaced—a $50,000 job for an organization with an annual operating budget of just over $1 million. Ryan, the group’s finance manager, spent the holidays looking for an electrician who could do the wiring in stages, or for a small down payment, so that work could begin while she navigates the labyrinth of FEMA assistance and Small Business Administration loans. Some grants have come in, including $25,000 from the Andy Warhol Foundation, but the city’s cultural office has told her not to expect FEMA money before 2014. Ryan’s strategy, she says, is to be the squeakiest wheel she can be.

“We still have to pay staff, still have to keep the lights on, still have to pay gas, still have to pay the insurance. I just got the water bill, and I wanted to say to the water company, ‘No, you have to pay me for all the water I had to take out!’”

Of course, everyone in Coney Island has these problems, and the homeowners who sustained the same level of flooding can’t count on corporate funding or a volunteer army to help them dig out.

The attention paid to Zigun’s organization by articles such as this one rankles Judi Orlando, executive director of the Astella Development Corporation, which has been fighting for Coney Island tenants since nearly a decade before the first Mermaid Parade. When the hurricane destroyed her offices, she set up shop in a trailer, where she worked to help locals with the paperwork necessary to secure aid. To her, Coney Island USA is a distraction, a draw for outsiders that does little for the year-round community, and she believes rebuilding efforts should focus on homes, schools and hospitals first.

“When you have four feet of water in your living room, and all your furniture is destroyed and you have to replace your boiler, your sheetrock and get all new furniture, that’s your basic concern,” she says. “You’re not saying, ‘Oh, what should I do: rebuild or go to the sideshow?’”

One of Astella’s long-term goals is to draw the neighborhood’s seasonal and year-round populations closer. As they have for more than a century, many locals depend on the amusements for work, and the health of the boardwalk is intertwined with that of the surrounding neighborhood. But, she says, “Dick doesn’t have the capacity to hire people during the summer, unless they have a specific talent like eating fire, or something like that.”

“Coney Island USA is bad, yes, but if I’m gonna prioritize, give me Coney Island Hospital,” Astella adds.

Conversely, City Councilmember Domenic Recchia, a longtime booster of Coney Island USA, thinks the work done by Zigun & co. bears invaluable symbolic weight.

“Everybody’s worried about everybody’s houses,” he says, “but you know what? Life has to go on. Coney Island USA has always been there. They developed the Mermaid Parade into a citywide festivity. It brings attention. It brings tourists. It’s an economic engine for the businesses.”

Ever since he donned his first straw boater and bathing costume, Zigun has had a knack for self-promotion. By drawing attention to himself, he draws attention to Coney Island. If he’s an occasional distraction, he need not apologize. The man runs a sideshow. Self-promotion is the huckster’s right.

Ginny Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres, an advocacy group that helps nonprofit theaters secure funding and performance space, captured his attitude in a sentence.

“Defeated,” she says, “is not Dick’s style.”

The city’s 2009 rezoning of Coney Island consolidated the amusement area, replacing sideshow games with what will eventually be retail, chain restaurants and condominiums. At the time, Zigun derided the plan as “a shopping mall by other names,” but now he admits that, though the new construction lacks character, it’s better than no construction at all.

“However controversial the rezoning was,” he says, “everything they’ve said they’d build new they have built.” Most visible of the new construction is Luna Park, home to the first new roller coasters the neighborhood had seen since 1927—including the Steeplechase, a horse race ride designed in homage to the star attraction at George C. Tilyou’s long-gone park.

Across the street from Coney Island USA, empty storefronts will be replaced by an Applebee’s and a Johnny Rockets. “That might not thrill a lot of people,” Zigun says, but the foot traffic they provide will be “very good for us.”

The last two summers have been Coney Island’s most profitable in years, and the neighborhood’s cheerleaders have no doubt that the area will bounce back.

“Coney Island’s gonna rise again,” says Recchia. “It has the Coney Island flavor. It’s not just about jobs. It’s not just about rides. It’s about sixty thousand people who came together to help each other. I’ve never seen such a beautiful sight.”

Coney Island USA is currently planning a benefit concert, and will hold its annual fundraising gala on March 9th. A government-funded heating renovation, which will allow them to remain open year-round, is going ahead as planned. They have pushed their opening day back from Easter to Memorial Day, but until the rewiring is completed, there’s no telling if the space will be ready in time. At least two months of revenue will be lost. As for the Mermaid Parade, Ryan hopes the city will chip in.

“We’ve been throwing a free party for Coney Island for thirty years,” she says. “It would be really nice this year if the city stepped up and said, ‘Let us foot the bill.’”

Meanwhile, Zigun says that the Coney Island that emerges from the hurricane will not be version 2.0, “but more like 4.0 or 5.0.”

“The history of Coney Island is burning down, or suffering disasters like this one, and rebuilding,” he explains. “It may be smaller, but the reality is that by this coming summer, you’ll have a bigger amusement center than you’ve had since the early 1960s.”

Marie Roberts, artist-in-residence at Coney Island USA, has roots in the neighborhood that go back to the nineteenth century. Her grandfather was the fire chief, and would have inspected the sideshow’s Surf Avenue building to make sure it was up to code. Two of her uncles were electricians on duty the night of the 1911 Dreamland fire; another uncle was literally a snake oil salesman. Speaking on the phone a few days before Christmas, she said her family “spoke carny at home.”

Coins placed on towels in front of a Tatooed Girl painting at the Coney Island museum; November 2012
Coins placed on towels in front of a Tattooed Girl painting at the Coney Island museum, November 2012.

“Even to this day,” she said, “you know the madeleine in Proust? Nathan’s French fries do that. They bring you back.”

In seventeen years painting street-level banners and murals for Coney Island USA, Roberts’ work has never been graffitied. She spent the weeks after Sandy sharing her second-floor studio with her colleagues at the sideshow, who converted her space into clean-up headquarters. As they discussed rubber gloves and respirators, Roberts salvaged as many banners as she could, drying the rancid water out of them one at a time.

“Nothing that happened in Coney Island,” she said, “not the drugs, not the lawlessness, not closing Steeplechase, has broken my heart the way that Sandy has broken it.”

Of the most visible landmarks remaining from Coney Island’s glory days—the Cyclone, the Parachute Jump, and the Wonder Wheel—the Wheel is the oldest. During the flood, salt water destroyed its computers and corroded its motors, and the park that owns it suffered $3 million in damage.

“Every year before Christmas,” Roberts said, “the people that operate the Wonder Wheel put a cross on top of it. I’ve had a big lump in my chest since Sandy happened. I can’t seem to get rid of it. And a couple of weeks ago, I was on the train, and I looked out, and there was the cross on top of the Wonder Wheel. And my reaction was, ‘Oh my God. They thought to keep up the tradition for the holidays.’

“I’ve spoken to so many people who are not Christian but who had the same reaction. It felt like hope.”

On a blustery, unseasonably warm Sunday in January, Zigun sat in an office above his ruined theater. Electrical work has been progressing slowly, but he still expects to be open by Memorial Day. The first scheduled event will be a strongman competition, held on the street outside the sideshow on May 19th.

“As of that weekend,” he said, “we will be back to normal.”

On his screen was a draft of the “Burlesque Manifesto,” an adapted version of a piece he wrote in the early ’80s, which will be read at the March gala. He considers it the foundational document of modern burlesque, and he wants to use it to remind the world that the art form’s revival began on Coney Island.

Zigun’s house remained without heat, and a new delay from the gas company meant at least another week of cold. “I’m staying there unless it drops down into the twenties,” he said. “And then I’m couch-surfing. That’s gonna be all this coming week.”

Snow was forecast for the next day. But that afternoon, the sun was bright, the air was cool, and the shore was alive. Russian women strolled the Boardwalk. A couple sat on a bench, sharing a six-pack of Hoegaarden. On the beach, a man with a metal detector looked for treasure.

Squint hard, and it felt like summer.