Fall's bitter wind bit my neck, numbed my fingers and turned my cheeks beet-red as I biked to Coney Island to say goodbye to the good times.
Last week, Coney Island overlords Central Amusement International--the New Jersey-based operators of Luna Park, themselves a subsidiary of Italy's Zamperla--announced that nine boardwalk establishments would soon bite the bullet. Among the establishments with no place in Coney Island’s supposedly glitzy future: dive bar Cha Cha's, Shoot the Freak, food stand Paul’s Daughter and Ruby's Old Tyme Bar and Grill. In other words, Central was ripping out the boardwalk’s still-beating heart.
True, the boardwalk’s pulse has long been feeble, but this feels particularly cruel, like dismantling grandpa’s pacemaker just to get your mitts on the inheritance—in this case, blue-chip boardwalk property. It’s been reported that Central wants to replace these viable businesses with an ocean-view sit-down restaurant and a very large sports bar. Nothing says revitalization like watching the Knicks bumble away another game in spitting distance of the Atlantic surf.
This news struck me with puppy-hit-by-a-car grief. Ruby’s, Shoot the Freak and Cha Cha’s embody the gritty, gruff ethos of the pleasure district once described as Sodom by the Sea. It was a licentious land of hucksters and cheap thrills, cocooned in bright lights and cotton candy. By the time I arrived in New York, in 2000, Coney’s heyday had faded like a month-old circus playbill pasted to a wall. But there were still go-karts and merry-go-rounds, batting cages and games of chance, roller coasters and whirling rides designed to make you lose your lunch—a Nathan’s hot dog and a cold Bud at Ruby’s.
Photo-lined and cavernous, Ruby’s has served as the boardwalk’s nerve center and clubhouse since 1934. On sunny days, shirtless men with bellies like furry beach balls sit outside, smoke cigars and sun themselves leather-brown. After the Mermaid Parade, hundreds of garishly dressed sea-maidens and mermen swarm the bar for liquid sustenance. Ruby’s cocktails and beer warm up the Polar Bears after they dive into the arctic Atlantic on New Year’s Day. On his birthday in July, my friend Matt bikes to Ruby’s to slurp oysters and beer. Ruby’s is tradition.
And Ruby’s won’t go down without a fight—or at least a banging last party, as I discovered upon arriving at the boardwalk last Saturday. Though the bar has shuttered for the season, Ruby’s reopened for a rally. Outside the bar, Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers played tunes of honky-tonk and heartbreak.
A sign announced SHAME ON YOU, ZAMPERLA, while balloons offered the terser SUCK IT, ZAMPERLA. Attendees stepped right up to sign a save-Ruby’s petition, then sauntered to the bar for a beer and whiskey, which disappeared quickly. You could call it a drowning of sorrows. I call it a celebration of life. You best believe I’ll have keg of beer at my funeral.
I left Ruby’s to survey Coney Island. In the winter, Coney often looks desolate, like a boarded-up mining town gone bust. But today, Coney felt eerier and emptier. Vast lots where go-karts once raced sat empty and razed. The historic Bank of Coney Island was half demolished. For rent signs cloaked countless buildings. A lone car tooted its horn. Over the last decade, I’ve watched Coney Island get chipped away bit by bit by developer Joe Sitt. But this felt different: a wholesale whitewashing of the past in order to create a new future, one featuring condos that tower taller— and shine brighter—than the Cyclone.
I walked to the ocean and turned around to take in the view. From a distance, the music was faint, and Coney looked small, as insignificant as a gnat. This summer, I traveled up and down the Jersey Shore, finding thriving, raucous, neondrenched boardwalk scenes in Seaside Heights and Wildwood. “This is what I wish Coney Island was like,” my friend Corin told me, as we strolled past Seaside Heights funnel-cake stands, saltwater-taffy shops, arcades and water slides. It was as tacky as a polyester bellbottom suit, and I loved every sensory-overload minute. New Jersey has embraced the boardwalk, in all its trashy, separate-you-from-your-paycheck glory, while New York hopes to destroy its boardwalk culture and replace it with an antiseptic upgrade. The city cares about its historic structures, not its historic restaurants and bars. Goodbye, Ruby’s. Hello, T.G.I. Friday’s?
I headed back to the wooden boardwalk, which will soon be replaced by concrete. By now, paving over Coney’s past only seems appropriate.