Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Lucio Schiavone has spent 26 years with the gilded menagerie at this Brooklyn merry-go-round.
Lucio Schiavone whistles and hums the organ’s tune as he slips between wooden horses. The wispy-haired Schivaone, who grew up in a small town near Naples, has tended to the Prospect Park Carousel’s carved menagerie for 26 years.
Schivaone catches the bus to work each morning, and there’s plenty to do before the amusement opens to the public at noon. He keeps the inside tidy, sweeping out scruff from the nearby trees, ushering mice back outside. He gestures to a pile of leaves mounded in the grass. A few hours before, “they weren’t over there. They were all over here,” he says.
By the early 20th century, many urban leisure spots were home to merry-go-rounds—especially at the end of transit lines. Prospect Park had been home to a carousel on and off since the previous century.
A local named H. Bacon wrote a letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in April 1951, urging the city to reinstate a carousel near the zoo:
Some of those who used to enjoy those happy rides are still around—and the precious spot is still there.
Yes, indeed, some of them would go back for the grand opening of a merry-go-round in Prospect Park. And with them would be new customers. Their children’s children have heard tell and are standing on line—just waiting for the day.
The carousel did reopen, but it eventually slumped into disrepair. By the time it closed again in 1983, it had slid off balance and skidded off its wheel. Tapes of tinny music spun in place of the busted organ.
In 1988, the Prospect Park Alliance enlisted Schivaone, then working as a painter and sculptor, to help repair the amusement’s 51 horses, giraffes, chariots, and more. In an $890,000 restoration, a team replaced knocked-off limbs and matted tails, retrofitted 312 stained-glass panes, and added mirrors, lights, and panels depicting bucolic local scenes. They consulted sketches by Charles Carmel, who designed the carousel for its first life at Coney Island, where it was one of a dozen or so merry-go-rounds dotting the beach. The restorers stripped as many as 20 layers of paint, returning the horses to their original colors and gilded glory. The effort was led by Will Morton, who left Schiavone a hefty instruction manual for keeping up the work. To Schiavone, the guide was “like his Bible,” his wife tells me.
Schiavone has been following those instructions ever since, performing exacting maintenance: He shimmies up to the top of the wooden beams, or sweeps, to grease them with oil; he polishes the brass poles until his arms ache.
Meanwhile, he’s become as much of a local institution as the ride itself. Schiavone loves the kids, who stream through in little herds. “Entrance, exit, entrance, exit all day,” he says. He laughs as he mimes the faces they make on the ride, scrunching their cheeks, sticking out their tongues. (Compared to amusements designed to wrench shrieks from riders, the carousel feels fairly tame. Schiavone only recalls one kid ever throwing up.)
Standing in line with his toddler daughter, Lauree, Ron Oberlender tells me that the ride is a family tradition. He brought Lauree to the carousel for her first birthday, “and then we had her second birthday party here, and we became regulars,” he says. In the summer, they come at least once a week. “Lucio is a wonderful character. She took a shine to him really early on,” Oberlender adds. “We call it Lucio’s carousel when we go elsewhere.”
Some of those one-time regulars come back decades after their first ride. On a recent Saturday, Michael Bonilla drops by to say hello on a visit home from college; he grew up nearby, and has been coming to the carousel since he was four years old. Bonilla says the ride kindled his love of music. The attraction hasn’t lost its charm, Bonilla says. “It still has that childhood feeling.”
Schiavone recognizes him and scurries over, arms thrown wide for a hug. “When are you going to get married?” he asks. Bonilla reassures him. “I have a girlfriend now,” he says.
Schiavone, now 75, will retire in December, at the end of the season, but he won’t disappear. He thinks he’ll come back as a volunteer, maybe helping kids fasten buckles. “I can’t stay away,” he says.
Other changes are in store for the carousel, too: Council member Laurie Cumbo, who worked at the ride as a teenager, earmarked $500,000 for an upcoming restoration.
But for now, the bell clangs three times. “That means, ‘Guys, get ready, we’re going to start!’” Schiavone calls. He presses a green button. The organ swells; the ride rolls along. The toddlers take another spin, sparkly sneakers dangling above the metal stirrups. Each time the carousel whirls by, a gallery of grown-up hands waves from the perimeter. Bonilla, who is filming the organ, grins and tips his baseball cap at the riders. The ride slows, then stops—and at the end, a round of applause.