Since November, I've been working on a long feature for Narratively about Dick Zigun, self-proclaimed "mayor of Coney Island," and his arts group, Coney Island USA. Best known as the man who invented the Mermaid Parade, Zigun is a charismatic, bombastic and occasionally divisive figure whose life's work was mangled by Hurricane Sandy. I was turned on to the story by Ginny Louloudes, of ART/NY, and spent the next few months hanging around the Boardwalk, interviewing artists, and devouring the unbelievably readable Coney Island: Lost And Found.
Want the lede? I'll give it to you for free. The rest of it, well, you can get that for free too.
Dick Zigun was ready for a two-foot flood. In three decades at Coney Island, every hurricane he had seen blew through like a tourist passing the boardwalk on its way up the coast—and he was not afraid of Sandy. Rather than evacuate, he spent the night at home on West Fifteenth Street, a few blocks from the water, his pick-up parked outside in case of emergency. By the time he realized emergency was here, it was too late to run.
“When the flood came, it came fast,” says Zigun. “When I saw water pouring in under the door, over the sandbags, the water was already knee-high in the street.”
Fearing the flood might knock him over, he waded across the road to take shelter in a friend’s second-story apartment. From the second floor, they watched the water—three feet high and rising. Four. Five.
Dick Zigun, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Coney Island”
When the tide ebbed after midnight, Zigun, a grizzled fifty-nine year-old, went home to grab something he’d forgotten in his hurry: his cat. He found Buddy floating on his mattress, safe and dry, but “a little freaked out.”
“He saved my expensive goose down comforter,” Zigun says. “He had gathered it up around him, so it wasn’t soaking wet, and he was warm. I grabbed the cat, grabbed my prescription medicine, grabbed my iPhone charger—you know, the essentials of life.”
For a moment, Zigun wasn’t thinking about Coney Island USA, the arts organization, sideshow and museum he founded in 1980. Since then, he has thought of nothing else. Long one of the most visible artists in South Brooklyn, the self-proclaimed “mayor of Coney Island” rules from Surf Avenue, where he has turned a ninety-five year-old restaurant building into the artistic heart of the amusement district. But since the storm, where once stood a bar, a theater and an ice cream parlor, nothing remains but “a big fucking mess.”
At 3,700 words, the resultant story is the longest journalism thing I've ever written, and I think it's turned out pretty well. (The second-longest was the time I spent two weeks pretending to know enough about the legal system to cover a very colorful court battle in Long Island. It sneaked onto the cover of the Observer because it happened to run the week the editor in chief got fired. Timing is everything!)
The pictures above don't have anything to do with the story, but I took them a couple of weeks ago, on my last day doing interviews at Coney. The one of the guy with the metal detector makes me so happy, you can't even imagine.
Have I mentioned lately how hungry I am for summer? I've been checking this website so often, it might as well be my homepage.