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June 04, 2007
On a Coney Island afternoon, as the screams echo from deep inside the haunted house and laughter rings above the thump of the bumper cars, the good times would seem destined to roll on forever at the Astroland Amusement Park.
Carol Albert knows better.
Her husband's family opened the venerable beachfront attraction in 1962, delighting generations of visitors across the years with its simple surfside charms. But the end is three months away at Astroland, which goes dark shortly after Labor Day holiday (Sept. 3) — all the neon and the rides and the booths rolling out on a tide that will never return.
In its place comes a planned $2 billion (euro1.5 billion) Coney Island makeover, a proposal to convert the once-seedy stretch of Brooklyn into a year-round stop with a swanky Vegas-style hotel and glitzy indoor attractions. Albert, who sold the 3-acre (1.2-hectare) family property for an undisclosed price to developer Thor Equities last November, remains in intermittent denial about Astroland's impending demise.
"It's like a lightbulb that goes on and off," Albert says. "There are moments when you really realize this is the last year, and you feel absolutely terrible. And then there's a flicker and you think, 'This can't be happening.'
"I guess that's the best way to describe it."
Albert sits in a nondescript two-story gray building, tucked off a street named for her late father-in-law, that serves as Astroland's cramped headquarters. Its walls are covered with pictures and memorabilia from 45 years in the amusement park business, a mini-museum of Coney Island history.
When Dewey Albert debuted Astroland during the Kennedy administration, a New York Times story described the amusement park as "the first major project for frivolous purposes in Coney Island in 25 years."
Its name reflected the Cold War space race and the future, with "space age rides" that replaced tamer local fare like the famous Feltman's Carousel. A red, white and blue rocket ship, now an artifact of the past, still rises above the rides with "ASTROLAND PARK" painted across its fuselage.
Across the next four decades, the park became an anchor for the ever-changing neighborhood — surviving through hard economic times, urban renewal, racial tensions, the crack epidemic.
"Coney Island was reflecting what was going on in larger society," Carol Albert recalls. "There were quite a few years here when there were very lean times."
In recent years, as Coney Island rebounded, so did Astroland's fortunes. But now the neighborhood's rebirth will come partly through the death of Astroland, which faces extinction as surely as departed predecessors like Luna Park and Dreamland.
"I certainly don't feel bitter," Albert says. "But I'm disappointed."
For the park's employees, the last season brings the promise of emotional and financial upheaval once September arrives. Astroland employs 370 workers, many of them seasonal help (including a recent influx of Polish and Russian immigrants from neighboring Brighton Beach).
The park's staff is a quirky bunch: The operator of the park's pirate ship ride comes in on his days off to climb aboard for a spin. "This is what I mean about unusual people," says a deadpan Albert.
But many of its key personnel work 12 months a year, with careers going back more than two decades.
Operations manager Mark Blumenthal is marking his 26th summer between the boardwalk and Surf Avenue. He's as much a part of Astroland as the smells of cotton candy and suntan lotion — except next summer, Blumenthal and the park will both be gone.
"It's going to be very, very tough," he says evenly, walking down Astroland's main drag, a keen eye still cast toward the rides, the vendors, even the smallest piece of trash on the ground. "You know, I'm focusing on having a great year this year. The reality will set in a little later."
Albert, a former writing teacher at Bryn Mawr College, has offered job retraining and placement programs to her less-skilled workers. Employees without high school diplomas can get their GEDs. The programs were set to begin in the fall, after the gates at Astroland are locked for good.
Blumenthal pauses during his tour of the park to watch a baby carriage built for two swing past, carrying twins. He looks at the children and their mother before growing a little misty.
"Sometimes people come up to say, 'I remember you from when I was small,"' he says. "That's when it hurts."
The April opening of Astroland's last season kicked off with a Brooklyn tradition: Borough President Marty Markowitz smashed a bottle of chocolate egg cream against the Cyclone roller coaster.
Reporters from Spain, Germany and the Netherlands turned out for the bittersweet beginning. A video crew for an HBO documentary recorded the scene.
By Memorial Day 2008, Astroland's lot will house something very different — although it's unclear what.
Thor spokesman Lee Silberstein declined to go into detail, saying only that "it is likely that interim uses will be introduced next year on Astroland." This summer, Thor is bringing an enormous inflatable water slide and a circus to two of its vacant Coney Island properties.
If all goes according to plan, Coney Island's new incarnation debuts in 2011. Albert said she felt Astroland couldn't survive for three years during the construction, prompting her to peddle the family property.
Among the locals, there's little doubt that the character of old Coney Island — "a combination of the U.N., and the circus, and some spontaneous act," says Albert — will disappear with the old tenants.
And there's no doubt that personal touches like those brought by the Alberts will leave with them. Each spring, Astroland opened on weekdays around the Jewish holidays for the local Hasidic community.
Before anyone arrived, the park's staff wrapped fabric around any overexposed mermaid figures in deference to the conservative guests. The park also hosted an annual day for the widows and children of dead police officers — an event recalled fondly by Coney Island native Louie Scarcella, who spent 28 years with the NYPD.
Scarcella remembers opening day at Astroland, when crowds flocked to the 275-foot (84-meter) tall Astrotower (it's still there). He's spent his entire life in the neighborhood, and worked as a boardwalk carny before becoming a cop. He'll be around for closing day at Astroland, too.
Scarcella knows the good times are supposed to return to Coney Island in a few years, but he wonders if it will ever be the same once Astroland is razed.
"Once that's all gone, Coney Island's heartbeat will no longer beat," he says. "Coney Island is going to be put to sleep."
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