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People take part in the Mermaid Parade at Coney Island, in the Brooklyn borough of New York city.

People take part in the Mermaid Parade at Coney Island, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Photograph by Eric Thayer, Reuters

Johnna Rizzo

National Geographic

Published June 21, 2013

Coney Island is a jut of boardwalk, concrete, and amusements that brashly brushes up against the Atlantic on the southernmost edge of Brooklyn.

For that impudence, Hurricane Sandy shoved five feet of seawater onto the century-old-resort's streets and into its buildings, scuttling small businesses and ousting ground-floor apartment dwellers. About a quarter of those businesses are still rebuilding seven-plus months later.

Sandy almost stopped the neighborhood's biggest one-day tourist draw—the Mermaid Parade—from happening this June, too.

But it didn't, thanks to an unlikely source: the Internet. A kickstarter campaign funded this year's parade, paying for necessary infrastructure and police presence. The parade's founder, Dick Zigun, came up with the idea when the organization he founded to support arcane Americana, Coney Island U.S.A., couldn't foot the bill.

"We're at a point where our non-for-profit arts group, which earns 60 percent of its budget, has been closed for seven months," he says. "I can't commit organizational suicide for the sake of one more Mermaid Parade."

The biggest expense is the attendees. "We have to insure them and manage them," says Zigun. "The Mermaid Parade is bigger than Woodstock, and you can't run Woodstock with a hundred volunteers with their heart in the right place."

The Kickstarter campaign raised $117,000—enough that the parade will take place on June 22 at 1 p.m. Zigun is expecting thousands of mermaids and mermen, plus all manner of sea creatures, real and imagined.

Parade Routing

Zigun came up with the idea for the parade 31 years ago.

"It's a mashup of solstice celebrations, West African Yoruba festivals, and early 1900s cheesecake photography," he says. In other words, a combination of pagan rite and official summer kickoff that ends with hundreds of mortals dressed as mermaids moving into the sea.

The Mermaid Parade has been creating a seaside spectacle every June for 30 years. In 1983, fewer than 10,000 people saw it. But it grew in the late '80s; by about the year 2000, it was big enough that local politicians were getting complaints. Last year it drew about 750,000 onlookers.

Surreal moments mark the first three decades: David Johansen, a.k.a. Buster Poindexter, acting as King Neptune and making proclamations along the parade route; dozens of mermaids filling a nearby aquarium tank where walruses usually perform; a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus elephant marching down Surf Avenue.

Changing Face

"Floods and hurricanes and freaks" is how Zigun sums up the New York neighborhood at the moment. He believes his arts nonprofit is at the center of it.

"We're very proud of ourselves," he says. "We take ourselves very seriously as a center of American bizarro. We're in one of the cultural capitals of the world here in New York City, and run an art center serious about some of the points of American counterculture, like sideshows and burlesques.

"But both as a resident of Coney Island and a business owner," he continues, "I have to assume there will be flooding in the future. We've learned from our insurance adjusters and FEMA lecturers to rebuild smarter."

For one thing, Coney Island U.S.A. shifted its electrical systems several feet up off the floor. For another, its new bar is metal and pressboard, needing only to be hosed down if water fills the building in the future.

Classic Coney Island is getting a post-Sandy facelift in toto. Some changes were planned before the natural disaster.

"The parachute jump is going to have more lights on it than the Eiffel Tower," says Zigun. "And the derelict Child's Restaurant building is about to get a $50 million makeover and an amphitheater."

Other improvements have been made as a result of the hurricane.

Ninety-eight-year-old Nathan's, for instance, is already renovated—the vintage hot-dog vendor now slicked with sturdy metal counters. And the 90-year-old boardwalk has a layer of concrete girding it just under its slatted surface.

Future Tense

Still, the Mermaid Parade isn't likely to go back to business as usual next year just because Coney Island U.S.A. rehabs its own flood damage.

"Now that it's all grown up," says Zigun, "we need to make the Mermaid Parade a source of revenue, not a drag on its parents." It's a delicate balance, and crowdsourcing isn't likely to keep working year after year.

"We're looking at how to make it independent, so it's not always begging for money, but it doesn't get taken over by the 'evil empire' either," he adds.

It's not just the Mermaid Parade that's facing commodification, but Coney Island itself. Fortunately some early post-Sandy gentrifiers are going native. A city park-funded carousel is appropriately gaudy, says Zigun. The new Applebee's on Stillwell Avenue has a shark tank.

Since Sandy—and as a result of ongoing municipal rezoning and redevelopment—money is coming into the neighborhood from government and other subsidies. Local businesses are building on these foundations. Zigun calls this era of Coney Island history "amusement-park socialism."

"To see an illegal furniture store transition into a pretty well-done Applebee's with a shark tank inside, I say give me more of that," says Zigun.

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