Staten Island’s boardwalk revival

Updated on May 23, 2014 at 5:30 p.m.

– When RoseAnn McAllister, 60, smells the salty ocean air at South Beach, she feels seven years old again. Her family would come from Manhattan to spend their summers in a bungalow they rented by the boardwalk. She remembers playing at the arcade and riding the roller coaster by the beach.

Decades later, McAllister and her husband, Joseph, bought a house in the area. And when the air was just right, they could hear the roller coaster from the nearby South Beach Rides rumbling in the distance.

“I was on that [roller coaster], our son was on those rides and our grandchildren were on those rides,” said McAllister, whose father still has one of the rowboats from the old amusement park. “The memories there can never be taken. Those were the best years of my life.”

Before Photo Courtesy of the Sabbatino Family

When the South Beach Rides closed, the amusement park was torn down and replaced with townhouses. Beachland Amusements, the arcade that was next to the amusement park, is now a Key Food.

But those days are long gone and Beachland Amusements and the South Beach Rides, the last remnants of the popular vacation destination, closed a decade ago. Since then, the city has been trying to rekindle the boardwalk’s glory days.

Fantasy Shore Amusement Park, the first of its kind in decades, is scheduled to open on Saturday, May 31, 2014. The new Midland Beach kiddie park will feature four rides, including Staten Island’s only roller coaster. Construction is also underway for a $72.7 million indoor track and field facility in Ocean Breeze Park, which spans Midland and South Beach.

Nine-year-old Jack Schmidt is too young to remember the last time there were rides by the beach, but is looking forward to the new park.

“I ride my bike here. And we used to go the beach,” said Schmidt. “But [an amusement park] might give us something to do during the summer, because the park closed down.” Schmidt is referring to the playground on Father Capodanno Boulevard near Sand Lane that has been closed since Hurricane Sandy.

Midland Beach was one of the hardest hit areas during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. This year’s plan for an amusement park came, when the Parks Department sought ideas to re-invigorate the boardwalk after the storm’s destruction. The city requested proposals for the project in March, and New York Carousel won the bid. The company has a temporary lease to operate the seasonal amusement park this summer, with the hopes of eventually becoming a permanent fixture at the beach.

Prior to the hurricane, the city’s revitalization efforts included a catering hall, an upscale seafood restaurant, and a café that opened on the boardwalk in 2005. The eateries have attracted more visitors from around Staten Island, but the Parks Department hopes these new development plans will attract tourists from other boroughs, like in the old days.

“NYC Parks is so excited to be adding a new amenity to Staten Island’s waterfront,” said Tara Kiernan, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. “The new children’s amusement park will be a great addition.”

Long time business owners like John Toto of Toto’s, a restaurant across the street from the boardwalk, hope the new attractions will remind residents of the fun they had growing up at the beach and bring them back to the neighborhood.

“I’d like to see continued positive development,” said Toto, “where people can come and spend the day here as families and enjoy themselves. It was something that we had here many years ago.”

A century ago, Staten Island’s boardwalk was a bustling tourist spot with hotels, amusement parks and concert venues. Tourists from around New York City would stay in bungalows along the beachfront.

Before Photo Courtesy of the RoseAnn McAllister

The boardwalk has changed a lot over the past century and many of the attractions that brought tourists have disappeared. It still gets packed with locals during the summer, but doesn’t draw large crowds like those seen in the 1900s.

The area of South Beach was named for its popularity as a destination among New Yorkers in the 1800s and 1900s. It was called South Beach, despite its location on Staten Island’s northeast shore, because it is south of the other boroughs. At that point, it was also the southernmost developed area of the island.

Art Siegel, 73, used to ride his bike to the beach from West Brighton in the 1950s when he was 11 years old. Spiegel and his friends would cash in bottles they collected by the boardwalk. After four or five hours, they’d have $5 to $7 dollars that they would use to ride the dodge ‘em, or bumper cars, and other rides at the amusement park.

“That was like a fortune,” said Siegel. “We’d go on the rides, and of course eat a lot of hot dogs.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, a series of fires, water quality problems and the Great Depression destroyed the boardwalk and hurt businesses in the surrounding neighborhoods. Teenagers took over the parking lots at night. And sporadic fires continued on the boardwalk through the 1990s, when part of it was replaced with a stone path.

Since then, the boardwalk has become safer and more popular among families, with fireworks displays and fairs throughout the summer. Now, people come to the boardwalk to jog, enjoy a beachfront lunch, or fish on the pier. New businesses are opening in the area and are doing well despite the damage done by Superstorm Sandy.

Before Photo Courtesy of the RoseAnn McAllister

The Fishing Pier of 1903 was destroyed during the 1930s and 1940s, like much of the boardwalk. A new pier was built in 2003. It’s popular fishing spot with a good view of the Verrazano Bridge.

The Fantasy Shore Amusement Park will allow a new generation of families to create memories on the beachfront.

None are looking forward to it more than the Sabbatino family. They operated the rides in South Beach since 1947 when the amusement park was on the boardwalk. It later moved to Sand Lane.

Jean Sabbatino, 87, worked in the ticket booth at the park that was run by her husband, George, and his father before that. She spent every day of the week at the park and met a lot of families from the neighborhood there.

“I loved every minute of it,” said Sabbatino. “Every day was a memory.”

Jean and George’s daughter, Madelyn, grew up at the park. She remembers spending hot summers in the ticket booth, and how her father hand painted every horse on the Merry Go ‘Round each summer.

He retired and sold the park in 1985. It closed down a few years later.

“I was sick, I was so upset,” said Sabbatino. “I considered buying it back.” But with a young son, she didn’t have the time or resources to operate it on her own. She was glad to hear that rides will be returning to the area.

Madelyn Sabbatino still lives up the block from the site of the old amusement park, now townhouses, in the house her grandfather built. She plans to take her 10-year-old son, Joseph, to Fantasy Shore when it opens, but thinks it will be a bittersweet moment.

“The first time I brought him to an amusement park, I got choked up,” said Sabbatino, who was reminded of her childhood at the South Beach Rides. “I never knew what it meant until now. It’s an experience that, growing up, I would not have changed for the world.”

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