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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM CONEY ISLAND, N.Y.

Kicking the Bad News Aside, Many Answer Call to Go Play

Parks: Opening day for the historic boardwalk drew hundreds, despite some lousy weather.

April 21, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — First there was no winter. Then came August-like heat in April, and on Saturday the skies darkened over Coney Island, bringing chilly winds and sheets of rain.

But if New Yorkers were fazed by the bizarre weather this year, they didn't show it. Hundreds flocked to the boardwalk's unofficial opening this weekend, and the amusement park that shut down for a long, dreary winter began creaking back to life.

"You've got to be a little meshuga to come out here on a day like this," said Jules Allen, a retired actor, sitting on a park bench near the immense Ferris wheel that gives Wonder Wheel Park its name. "But you can't hide in your apartment. You have to live a little."

Beyond the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, New York had its share of trials in recent months: There was anthrax panic in the early fall, the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in the Rockaways just before Thanksgiving, political agita over a $5-billion municipal deficit in January and February, and a long spell of bone-dry weather that aggravated a regional drought.

Yet there were signs Saturday that people here are shaking off months of bad news. As he watched his kids climb into the Tilt-A-Whirl, Michael Ceretta, an assistant principal at a Brooklyn public school, said he almost felt a civic obligation to have a good time.

"I think New Yorkers will go out of their way this spring and summer to enjoy themselves in public, especially after what's happened here," Ceretta said. As he spoke, rain clouds opened up over the boardwalk and sent amusement park ride operators scurrying for cover.

The children couldn't have cared less. "What a scary ride," said Chloe Locarro, 7, tumbling out of the Astro-Whirl and shaking water out of her hair. "I think I just had a heart attack!"

As he stood near a ramshackle food stand offering paper plates of clams, shish kebab, Italian sausage, fried shrimp, pizza, corn dogs and french fries, Manhattan Realtor John Gallagher said his family plans to come to Coney Island regularly this season, rain or shine. For them, he said, having a good time is more important than ever.

"I don't care if it pours today or for the next three weeks," Gallagher added, watching his two children climb into a miniature boat ride. "If only for the Cyclone, I'm here."

That's the world-famous wooden roller coaster, which was whipping screaming customers up, down and around, much as it has since opening in 1927. "I'm going to take that big ride," he said. " . . . You have a truly insane experience. It's definitely not Disneyland."

Not even close. This place has been dying and deteriorating for so long, it should win a medal for endurance. Once a poor man's ocean paradise, Coney Island is now a ghost of its former self. Vacationers fled long ago to more hospitable beaches, in the Hamptons and other areas.

Yet somehow, like the city around it, Coney Island keeps getting off the mat. Travelers from around the world still flock to Nathan's Famous hot dog stand, and a new minor league ballpark has drawn thousands of new visitors to the old beach community that once seemed to epitomize summer fun.

"People will never stop coming here, even on a lousy day like this," said Mike Goldstein, who has worked on the boardwalk and in the amusement parks here for 48 years. "What you have now, with the rain, is the hard-core crowd. They come out religiously, no matter what."

Some make a special pilgrimage for the Blessing of the Rides at Wonder Wheel Park. Every year, as winter gives way to spring, a priest conducts a brief ceremony in the shadow of the Ferris wheel, voicing hopes that summer will be happy and safe for all who come here.

The immense, 400,000-pound wheel, built in 1920, was said to be the first recognizable American landmark visible for millions of immigrants who sailed into New York harbor at night.

For some, the old magic's still there.

"I smell summer!" said Eddie McDowell, a self-described boardwalk poet, as he clambered out of the Ferris wheel. "Bless the wheel, bless the rides. Bless us all."

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