The Lookout

In a roller coaster’s return, a symbol of recovery for Coney Island after Sandy

Holly Bailey
The Lookout

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The Cyclone in Coney Island (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

NEW YORK—Erik Knapp was just 7 when he took his first turn on the Cyclone, Coney Island’s famed wooden roller coaster. His mother had insisted that he was too young to ride the old rickety coaster, but his grandfather took him anyway, and to hear Knapp tell it, it was love at first ride.

In the years since, Knapp, who is now 47, estimates he’s ridden the coaster “at least 2,000 times” and says he’ll ride it until the day he dies. As proof, he points to a gigantic tattoo of the Cyclone he had inked on his right bicep many years ago. It’s a permanent depiction of the coaster’s iconic red Cyclone sign and a train of passengers falling on the ride’s first major drop. Seated in the front seat alone is a skeleton.

“That’s me,” Knapp says, grinning. “This ride is such a part of my life. I have never lost the thrill of it, and I don’t think I ever will.”

But in October, Knapp worried he might lose his beloved ride forever in the fierce winds and flooding of Superstorm Sandy. A massive nine-foot storm surge wiped out many businesses along Surf Avenue, Coney Island’s main strip, and flooded the 86-year-old coaster. But unlike the Jet Star, the coaster in Seaside Heights, N.J., which collapsed into the sea and became an iconic image of Sandy’s devastation, the Cyclone stayed put. And on Sunday, it reopened—along with the Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel and the rest of the amusement park that city officials once feared might not be able to recover in time for this summer.

“Coney Island is open!” Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz declared as he and Sen. Chuck Schumer christened the Cyclone’s reopening by smashing a wine bottle full of egg cream on the ride’s first car.

But all around Coney Island, there are still signs of Sandy’s wrath.

Down the block, the original location of Nathan’s Famous hot dogs remains closed. Its customers have been rerouted to another location on the boardwalk as it tries to reopen later this spring. Coney Island USA, home to vintage games and a freak show, is still closed after flooding caused more than $400,000 in damage to its historic building. And the nearby New York Aquarium also remains closed after heavy damage. Staff there say they hope to reopen by May.

On Sunday, across the street from the Cyclone, about a dozen local residents quietly protested the hype surrounding the amusement park’s reopening. Waving signs that read “People Live Here” and “Coney Island is Not Back,” they accused city officials of focusing more on getting the rides open than helping to rebuild the rest of the neighborhood.

“In a lot of buildings, we still don’t have heat. We don’t have a library. We don’t have a police station. We don’t have a post office,” said Dana Monroe of the People’s Coalition of Coney Island, which organized the protest. “Where are the grand openings for things that actually help the people who live here?”

Jeri Gventer, who works with seniors who live on the west end of Coney Island, complained that many of the senior centers in the neighborhood remained without needed repairs. In one building, the elevator has been out of service since Sandy—a big deal because many elderly residents can’t climb stairs very well, if at all.

“This neighborhood is very poor,” Gventer said. “We can’t do these things without help. And we just feel ignored.”

Across the street, Markowitz said he sympathized with their plight—and blamed delays in receiving state and federal aid as the reason for the slow recovery in the neighborhood. He pointed out that the Cyclone and the rest of the amusement park had opened so quickly in part because the owners of the facility had used their own money to make repairs instead of waiting for public help.

But Markowitz insisted the amusement park would help Coney Island’s recovery because many of its employees live in the neighborhood, and it would likely spur additional redevelopment. But, he added, that doesn’t mean the job in Coney Island is done.

Motioning to the protesters, Markowitz said, "It's right for them to be here, so they put right in front of those that have that responsibility, which is Sen. Schumer, the Assembly, the Senate, Congress, City Council, borough president, all of us, to make sure that we stay focused on resolving their needs.”

But for Knapp, the Cyclone’s return was more than just the reopening of his favorite thrill ride. In October, his home in nearby Gerritsen Beach suffered severe flooding in Sandy, and he said he's spent the past five months slowly trying to rebuild and recover from the storm.

“The Cyclone coming back is not just an important symbol of recovery for the neighborhood, it’s important to me. It gives me a sense of normalcy,” Knapp said.

So on Saturday night—as he has for the past eight years—Knapp got in line outside the Cyclone at just after 8 p.m. so that he could be the first to ride the coaster on its reopening day. He camped outside with a group of friends.

Just after noon on Sunday, he bounded up the roller coaster's entrance ramp and jumped into the train’s first car, where he proudly showed a group of reporters his Cyclone tattoo and the word “CYCLONE” shaved into his hair. He was so excited he could barely sit still.

“Last night was one of the coldest nights I’ve ever spent out here, but it was worth it,” Knapp said. “I love the Cyclone. I love Coney Island. It feels good to be back.”

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