Interview: Dick Zigun, Mayor of Coney Island, on What's Good and Not So Good About the City's Coney Plans
Photo (c) Robert Schaffer.
Dick Zigun is the artistic director of Coney Island USA. His Sideshows by the Seashore not only features the last "10 in One" sideshow, but showcases burlesque, houses a museum, and plays hosts to many events, including the Coney Island Film Festival, and is the headquarters of the Mermaid Parade, which Zigun helped create. He's been a Coney resident for over 30 years, a tireless Coney enthusiast -- "the place where the hot dog, the roller coaster, and soft ice cream was invented," he proclaims -- and advocate for its interests, and has long been considered its unofficial mayor.
I recently met wet with Zigun to discuss the future of Coney Island. First I asked him how a kid from Bridgeport, Connecticut wound up in Coney.
"I got out of grad school in 1979," he told me, "and I was hanging out in L.A., and I got influenced by this play, 'Kid Twist' which took place in Coney, so I came to New York. Where else could I go with two degrees in theater but New York? I started checking out neighborhoods, Tribeca, South Street Seaport, even Times Square, and I had this wacky idea to check out loft spaces in Coney Island, found something I liked, signed a lease in 1979, spent months renovating it. And then it burned down."
"It's funny," he said, "what I was afraid of in '79 is happening now. Talk about being 10 years ahead of your time, I was 30 years ahead, in thinking I had to grab my chunk of real estate before gentrification gobbled it up. But for about 20, 25 years Coney was the neighborhood time forgot, and suddenly the forces of gentrification are here. Thor Equities snatched up Astroland, the city is now buying properties, and Coney is on the cusp of major change.
"But I'm now well situated, I had a 30-year head start! We own the Sideshows building, no mortgage. It guarantees, that with the changes, the Sideshow, the Mermaid Parade, the Museum and burlesque will also be here."
I asked Zigun if Coney should change.
"You can't stay with the status quo, because the status quo is, Coney Island is already broken. Before the rezoning in July, some 60 acres were zoned for amusements, but only 12 were actively in use. There was too much glass-strewn landfill, empty properties that's not really historic Coney Island, and that's a neighborhood that's broken..."
Photo (cc) mikesalibaphoto.
But though Zigun has been at the forefront of efforts that got the Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone, and Childs Restaurant landmarked (and are now turned toward getting the Shore Theater and other Coney treasures the same status), he doesn't want the place preserved in amber.
"To answer the question: Yes, Coney has to change, has to rebuild. It's just a question, will it be done the right way or the wrong way? The Mayor started with a pretty good quality plan that I supported, but then they watered down the plan, which is when I resigned from the Development Corporation. For all the fighting and screaming, we didn't lose everything, we had an influence. The Mayor's plan originally had 15 acres for amusements, got shrunk to nine; now it's up to twelve-and-a-half acres. So we did win something for the years of screaming."
He has no problem with building hotels at Coney. "They do need to build hotels, hotels are fine, tourism is fine, it all depends where you put them. It was reasonable... to want [the hotels] on the North side of Surf Avenue instead of the South. This is not an unreasonable request, but we lost that fight...
"The question is, if you're going to rebuild world-famous Coney Island -- New York's amusement park Coney Island -- and you want it to be a world-class tourist attraction, for locals as well as for those who visit from out of town, is it going to be big enough? With the limited space, they're jamming too much into the core areas, including hotels, so it's a shame they didn't move the hotels across the street."
(Although the city has a history of messing things up, consider the South Street Seaport: They at least preserved a lot of the buildings on the area, which Zigun would like to be seen done in Coney as well.)