Living beneath the roller coaster - a Coney Island idyll
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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.