“There’s no doubt in my mind that Coney Island will survive... that Coney Island will rebuild, because it’s what we do.”
–Debi Ryan, CIUSA controller 11/20/12
When I first heard about Hurricane Sandy, I wasn’t terribly concerned. I hit the grocery store and made sure the cats and my boyfriend Ray and I had enough food, but storm warnings in New York are usually the Boy Who Cried Wolf; New Yorkers rarely get more than a long weekend without them.
I’ve been a wallflower at Coney Island since moving to New York in 2001, but I’ve been actively involved since winning the Miss Coney Island Burlesque Beauty Pageant in 2010. The pageant was reinvented in 2002 by Bambi the Mermaid as a burlesque take on pageants, and every year the audience votes for the new queen of Coney Island.
For me, Coney Island is Wonderland and I’m Alice. It’s the one place that instinctually feels like home while, at the same time, it constantly presents me with new, strange, and wonderful delights.
Coney Island USA (CIUSA) -- the not-for-profit arts organization that has produced the Mermaid Parade for 30 years, as well as the only 10-in-1 sideshow left in the world and other quality quirky arts entertainment -- hosts the pageant, and survived last year’s storm mostly fine.
Debi Ryan, CIUSA controller, and a few managers planned to spend the night there for Sandy, if only to move things if the water breached a few inches. We thought we were prepared. We assumed life was going to be more or less the same after the storm. We were wrong.
Before Sandy was a flicker in a meteorologist’s eye, Ray and I had ended our lease because we were going to be on a burlesque and sideshow tour in November. We were going to put our stuff in storage and stay overnight with Debi on October 30, then leave for our Halloween show. A day before the storm, our first few venues cancelled because they were in flood zones.
Ray and I weathered the storm itself embarrassingly well, ordering take-out and having the #firstworldproblem of flickering lights. At CIUSA, members of our sideshow family were moving to the second floor museum with two albino pythons because the ground level –- including the recently renovated theater, dressing room, gift shop, and bar -- had already flooded to their waists and it wasn’t even high tide yet.
After the storm, Debi walked with CIUSA Assistant Manager Katie Wirth through the toxic water in order to get to her son Chris’ nearby apartment. Chris and Tim, of Huckster Fabrication, lived on the third floor of a building that only flooded up to the second level, and Serpentina, the CIUSA snake charmer, made sure the muck stayed outside and the apartment remained clean, however dark and cold.
The first few days after the storm, around 10 people crammed into this apartment with no heat. They had no access to hot water, or water at all. The city put a warning on tap water, declaring it unsafe to drink, even if boiled. This meant basic things like hot food were out of the question. And then there were the psychological effects: “What the fuck is in this water that boiling it won’t keep us from dying?!”. On top of that, all of their vehicles had drowned at a time when there was no public transportation, no electricity and no nearby food.
Eventually, a CIUSA staffer arrived with a car lent to the organization, and everyone loaded up and drove to the first open diner they could find. Remarkably, Boardwalk businesses were spared. “Walking in to Tom’s [Diner] was like, this spot of pristine.” Christine, manager of the flooded out Coney Island staple Denny’s Ice Cream, shakes her head with a smile on her face. “It was unbelievable.” Everyone I’ve talked to shares the sentiment that Tom’s being open and having coffee was a breath of fresh air. Even the Red Cross didn’t have coffee, but the pamphlets they were handing out on how to prepare for the next disaster made great napkins.
In a few short days, Tom’s diner, the newest business on Coney Island, proved itself to be a true community center. By now, everyone was out of cash (there were no functional ATMs) but Tom’s opened a tab for CIUSA , which has since been repaid in full.
From what I’ve seen in Coney Island, it’s obvious that Sandy wasn’t a hurricane -- she was a tornado. On one block, the aquarium was only three hours away from having to evacuate due to toxicity, while on the next block a sushi joint suffered no damage. CIUSA was underwater up to the banner line, while a few doors down, the miniature of Coney Island is untouched.
Back in landlocked Brooklyn, Sandy officially cancelled our tour. November came and, since no one could get a truck with gas, my former landlord cut us some slack -- but we still had to move. Luckily, Debi said we could stay with her while we figured things out, so we crammed what we could in Ray’s car and headed to Coney Island.
We had nowhere else to go, but there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I’ve always felt an unexplainable visceral connection to Coney Island and if we had to rebuild, I wanted to help.
As we drove up Neptune, past burned-out, abandoned cars and cement blockades haphazardly strewn across streets, my heart was in my throat. It was eerily quiet yet somehow buzzing, as though the shock hadn’t worn off the neighborhood itself, not just the people. I felt dizzy but hopeful as we approached Debi’s house and saw the biggest shock of all: Debi’s house, standing across the street from the beach, was somehow absolutely untouched, while the houses on either side had clearly flooded. It was as though a protective dome was lowered over Debi’s home, and after all I’ve seen this month, I can’t help feeling like it was spared for a reason. Everyone who has passed through this house has been displaced in one way or another by the storm, but, based on the high spirits here, you wouldn’t know it.
I've been living here for about a month and this home has become the center of the people who make the People’s Playground great. In addition to the residents of the house (who also make up a portion of the CIUSA staff), the regulars have included miscellaneous volunteers and various staff including the security guard and even once or twice the unofficial mayor of Coney Island Mr. Dick Zigun himself -- along with four cats, two dogs, one python, and me: Lefty Lucy -- Vice President of Miss Coney Island.
As soon as they could, the core staff of CIUSA got to work taking photos for insurance adjusters, filing paperwork, planning community events, and more. I did odd jobs; I was Miss Coney Island on call! Some days I’d help Dick Zigun salvage items from his nearby home (which also flooded), I’d power wash pieces at the sideshow, or I’d visit the outside world with the car for rare commodities like Tide and cigarettes.
Unfortunately, we quickly learned that the entire ground level of CIUSA was destroyed. We’ve each had our personal moment of heartbreak during all of this, but for me, it was seeing the entire back area -- which used to house the dressing room, bathroom, shower, snake enclosures, and staff lockers -- that made me really feel the loss. All of those years of memories, and now it’s just a long, cold hallway.
But even though our world was flooded out, there were some inconveniences we were spared. We had enough volunteers that we accomplished three days of work in one afternoon, ample food donations to keep those volunteers fed, and fuel a member drove in from Connecticut so we didn’t have to wait in gas lines. Coney Island USA and the people who work there inspire a sense of community that make a person drive gallons and gallons of fuel for three hours just so CIUSA could continue to serve the community.
We have the people, skills and spirit to rebuild, but we can’t do anything until we raise the funds. Demolition was completed about a week ago -- and now, we wait. We’re hosting benefits, art auctions, evacuating our salvaged inventory in our gift shop, and everything else we can think of to help raise funds to enable a spring opening.
In the last month, I’ve seen how absolutely incredible the people I work with are. And I don’t just mean they are nice or good or hard working, which they are. These are people who are the change they want to see in the world, and I’ve seen each one put Coney Island USA and this community before their own well being.
The storm may have washed some physical things away, but it left the people behind, and with them room for a billion new Coney Island dreams.