Nathaniel Goodyear

Will the post-Sandy makeover lure visitors back?

The F train headed south in Brooklyn was filled with baseball fans like me and my family, headed out to see the minor-league Cyclones play a game at their waterfront stadium in Coney Island. It was a friendly and festive atmosphere. As we rumbled along the elevated tracks, I struck up a conversation with a young woman next to us who was on her way home.

She told us she was "Coney Island born and raised." Yes, she had been there for Superstorm Sandy and all of its aftermath. "Weeks with no power and no heat," she says, shaking her head. "It was bad."

Slowly but surely, she says, things were getting better. She was happy to see people coming out to watch the ballgames, ride the roller coasters, and splash in the surf. The whole place seemed to be coming back to life.

"Oh, and have you seen the new lights on the Parachute Jump?" she asks. "They’re amazing. It lights up like the American flag. It changes all the time. It’s so beautiful."

The 262-foot-tall Parachute Jump is one of the many icons of Coney Island, as much a part of the scene there as Nathan’s Famous, the Wonder Wheel, and the Cyclone. It was actually built for the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, designed by an entrepreneur who modeled it on Soviet paratrooper training towers, and was moved to Steeplechase Park in Coney Island two years later. Riders were hoisted up by a cable system and then dropped in a chute-assisted descent that lasted no more than 20 seconds. One couple even got married on the ride.

The Parachute Jump closed in 1968, the victim of hard times on the Coney Island boardwalk. Expense and safety concerns mean that it likely won’t ever again operate as originally intended. For years, it was left to decay and threatened with destruction several times, but eventually was named a city landmark and put on the National Register of Historic Places. But a 1992 restoration stabilized the structure, and now it’s hard to imagine Coney without it.

The Parachute Jump. Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Karthik Tripurari; Leni Schwendinger's light project. Image courtesy of Wikimedia user LightProjects

The Parachute Jump attracted its share of controversy, though. In 2006, a colored lighting system designed by the renowned urban lighting artist Leni Schwendinger was installed at a cost of $1.6 million, but the perennially grandstanding borough president Marty Markowitz soon proclaimed dissatisfaction with the result, calling for a more "bling."

Bling is what he got, courtesy of a $2 million, 8,000-bulb LED scheme funded by the Italian company Zamperla USA, which operates most of the rides on the boardwalk these days. The new lights were turned on for the first time on June 21, and suddenly Sandy seemed long ago and far away.

Protesters attended that unveiling of the new lighting system, asking, "Where are our priorities?" The amusement area is being restored quickly, they complained, while the residential and retail sections of the neighborhood are still in disarray.

It’s easy to understand their frustration, and there are legitimate concerns about the pace of rebuilding here and elsewhere in the city. But you can’t really blame that on the Parachute Jump. The boardwalk and the amusement zone are a major economic driver for the neighborhood, and a source of employment for many local people.

And to judge by the scene last Saturday night, New Yorkers are inexorably drawn to the bright lights of the Coney Island boardwalk.

Just a couple of hours after we arrived, as dusk fell over the crowded beach, we were sitting right under the Parachute Jump as the lights went on for the night. Colors coursed up and down its steel girders in a mesmerizing, ever-shifting array of colors. The American flag did, indeed, make an appearance. People stopped and stared for minutes at a time.

Right under the Parachute Jump, in an area of the boardwalk known as Steeplechase Plaza, there are a couple of other new attractions, as well. The old B&B Carousel, another once-endangered Coney classic, is back in a new neon-bedecked pavilion. Kids play in a fountain at the Parachute Jump’s base, where illuminated jets of water burst forth at seemingly random intervals, provoking shrieks of delight.

Image by Nathaniel Goodyear

Seven or eight months ago in this place, the lights were out and the boards were covered with sand and debris. The prospects for recovery seem uncertain then, and there is still a long way to go. But in the damp summer night, as light ripples through Coney Island’s attractions once again, you can feel a long darkness lifting.

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