Living beneath the roller coaster - a Coney Island idyll

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Mae Timpano lives alone under the old Thunderbolt Roller Coaster in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Surrounded by the Thunderbolt's tracks and towers, her sprawling, two-story wood frame house resembles a fantasy movie's forgotten set. It is known by everyone who saw it in Woody Allen's ``Annie Hall'' and by the millions who annually stroll down Coney Island's boardwalk.

But to the 61-year-old former waitress from Brooklyn's Bay Ridge section, her house under the coaster is just as plain and ordinary as, well, home.

Battered and pockmarked like much of Coney Island, which only now is beginning to emerge from years of neglect, the Thunderbolt towers over this sand-swept peninsula like some great dinosaur from a bygone epoch. It was once a centerpiece of a gaudy summer playground that lured a million funseekers a day with the promise of a five-cent subway ride, a nickel ``Nathan's Famous'' hot dog, and 33 rockin', rattlin' rides for a blue 10-cent ticket.

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But eight years ago the Thunderbolt's owner died, and its last carload clattered to a halt. The roller coaster's demise was another step downward in Coney Island's long slide from fame to despair. Fires, mismanagement, and rising liability insurance costs had already idled other rides and left a housing complex and vacant lot to mark the sites where the once great Luna and Steeplechase amusement parks stood.

A decade ago, ill-conceived and uncoordinated attempts at urban renewal, coupled with the municipal government's fiscal crisis, drove hundreds of families from the area, yet added 10,000 units of subsidized housing, according to community activists. Some long-time residents say the massive infusion of families dependent on welfare overwhelmed the residential district, forced 361 out of 400 businesses from the commercial district, and made Brooklyn's southernmost community a nearly desolate ghetto - willfully ignored by City Hall, cut off from the rest of Brooklyn.

Despite its mix of honky-tonks, burned-out buildings, and an amusement area that has shrunk from 20 ocean-front blocks to three, Coney Island still attracts 13 million visitors each year, according to the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce. Many pose for photographs in front of Ms. Timpano's L-shaped house with its roller coaster crown.

She says that she normally doesn't talk to strangers. But on a sparkling clear, late spring afternoon, Timpano stuck her head out of her kitchen window, peered at a sideview mirror angled down her driveway, and shouted a welcome to a visitor.

A short woman with silver hair and a plucky Swedish face, she claims she was never really bothered by the screeches and screams from past Thunderbolts hurtling overhead, though rides shook the house, and glassware danced across tabletops during the 15-hour day, seven-day-a-week summer season.

Now that the rides have stopped for good, her only difficulty is in getting food and service deliveries. ``Some places just hang up when I tell them I live under a roller coaster,'' she laughed.

Like many Brooklyn women before her, Mae Timpano arrived in Coney Island in 1946 to work in the old Kirsh's Restaurant, a long-gone hash house down on Surf Avenue. It was there that she met Fred Moran, whose father George built the Thunderbolt over what was then the Kensington Hotel.

The senior Moran cut off the top floor and covered the building with a web of tracks and steel bracing that soon became the great Thunderbolt Roller Coaster. He then knocked down the hotel's sundry cubicles and moved in with his wife and family.

Timpano remembered her Sunday visits to the Morans and their Thunderbolt as a time when Coney Island ``was really just a small town, visited by millions.''

In a place where P.T. Barnum introduced the freak show to America and Cary Grant discovered show biz as a stilt-walking juggler, raising a family under the Thunderbolt was the stuff of Coney Island legend. But after just two generations, the declining health of Fred Moran, George's son, silenced the coaster.

Yet there are still some signs of life and occasional hope in Coney Island.

On four formerly vacant lots, 450 single-family homes have been built with federal and state subsidies under the leadership of the community-based Astella Corporation, and another 500 are planned. Last year, 12 new stores opened on Mermaid Avenue, once a strip of drugs, prostitution, and numbers running. Plagued by soaring liability insurance costs, the Cyclone Roller Coaster survives to celebrate its 60th birthday this year.

Authors of a newly released study call Coney Island ``a series of opportunities waiting to happen,'' but the more ambitious development projects for Coney Island have not yet gotten beyond the planning stages:

A proposal by the Brooklyn Sports Foundation for a combination minor league baseball stadium and sports arena for college athletics in Coney Island is stymied by the decision of the New York Mets to claim a territorial right that prevents any professional baseball team from playing within 10 miles of New York City.

A $95 million plan to build a new Steeplechase Park, announced in 1985 by Horace Bullard, the founder of the Kansas Fried Chicken chain of 22 restaurants, is being revised to include additional land acquisitions.

A $100,000 study, compiled by Iron Hill Associates of Brooklyn for the National Park Service, said the time is right for a comprehensive renovation of Coney Island's two-mile ocean front.

Mae Timpano recently decided to sell her house for an undisclosed sum to Coney Island Resorts, a private group that has contracted with the city to build the new Steeplechase. Developer Horace Bullard reported that design plans cannot accommodate the present structure.

``I wish we could keep the Thunderbolt, the house, and Mae inside it,'' said Mr. Bullard. ``It's a real attraction. There's nothing else like it in the whole world. But we need the space.''

Like many of her neighbors, Timpano hopes a new Coney Island will emerge from the rubble.

``It would take a lot of work,'' she mused, ``but I'd love to see Coney Island come back.''

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