An icon of New York's Coney Island, the Astroland amusement park, is closing its doors after nearly 50 years. Victoria Cavaliere reports that Astroland's owners and the residents of Coney Island say the shutdown marks the end of an era and also brings up questions about the future of the oceanfront Brooklyn neighborhood.
When Astroland opened in 1962 it represented the future of amusement theme parks, boasting state-of-the-art rides and attractions operating with an outer-space theme.
The park is a fixture on the Coney Island boardwalk, best known for the Cyclone, its wooden roller coaster ride and the Wonder Wheel, a seaside landmark. Astroland's 22 rides and three game arcades provided jobs for up to 300 people.
The amusement park was a family venture. In 2006, its owners, Jerome and Carol Albert, sold the land to real-estate developer Thor Equities for about $30 million. The Alberts had retained rights to operate the park, but disagreements over terms of the lease and worries about the developer's ultimate plans for the site led to Astroland's demise.
Carol Albert said she was forced to close permanently on Sunday because the real-estate firm refused to meet to discuss her lease, which expires at the end of this year. She says an answer was imperative, since she was waiting to order equipment for repairs and also wanted to give her employees an answer about their future.
"I had indicated there would come a day that I would have to form a deadline and I did, and there was no response to the deadline. So we had to end the park and move out before the lease is up," she said.
The men and women who collect tickets and operate the rides at Astroland said they were devastated to learn it would be closing. Gloria Aviles, the chief of a fire-engine ride popular with young children, has worked there for the past eight years.
"We are like a family. I'm going to miss this," she said.
Albert says she hopes to sell the park in its entirety, but may have to sell each ride individually at auction.
"My father-in-law and my husband made all the choices about what rides were going to be here and where they were going to be placed. It's an expression of a vision, and I'd like to keep it together," she said.
Although Astroland is departing, the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel are safe from the developer's wrecking ball, and are expected to stay in operation. Both of the vintage attractions were given city landmark status years ago and cannot be demolished.
Astroland has been by far the biggest amusement center on Coney Island, which has been a favorite holiday destination for Americans in the New York area since the 19th Century. It is the birthplace of the hot dog and is known for its kitschy rides, street performers, sand beaches and family-friendly atmosphere.
Charles Denson, a Coney Island historian and author of the book "Coney Island: Lost And Found," says the area's amusement parks were special because they were affordable and accessible to everyone - including, in recent years, an increasing number of Russians and other foreign-born Americans. Denson says there is growing concern that as the amusement industry wanes, developers may seek to build more generic stores and condominium apartments in the neighborhood.
"It's really sad, but symbolically, besides the obvious problem with losing Astroland, is that it could be some sort of signal they really don't want amusements here. Or if they do it will be some sort of branding thing where they have some kiddie rides on the boardwalk and it will be overshadowed by condos and a shopping mall. It's not what Coney Island is about," he said.
Thor Equities could not be reached for comment, but the development group issued a statement saying it was in touch with numerous amusement operators to discuss a "permanent year-round development."
Meanwhile, visitors expressed surprise and sadness at the news that Astroland would be shutting down. Marie Chism, who visits Coney Island from Manhattan, said she did not believe the park would actually shut down.
"It's tragic. It's like a death in the family of New York," she said. "It's very fundamental in Brooklyn."
But Astroland's final chapter may be still to come. A few days after the park's announced closure, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said hope is not yet lost, and that city officials are trying to step in and get a one-year renewal of Astroland's lease.