Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade in danger after Superstorm Sandy

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

It’s been more than six months since Superstorm Sandy ravaged the coastal areas of New York and New Jersey, but the deadly storm is on the verge of claiming another high profile victim.

Coney Island’s famed Mermaid Parade, an annual event dating back to 1983 in which thousands of people dress up like fantastical sea creatures and march through the streets to welcome the beginning of summer, is on the brink of cancellation because of damage from Sandy.

While the parade route hasn’t been affected, the parade’s organizer, Coney Island USA, suffered nearly $500,000 in damage when Sandy sent more than five feet of water into its headquarters along Surf Avenue last October. Rebuilding the facility—which includes a museum dedicated to Coney Island as well as a performance space for the area’s legendary freak show, burlesque dancers and old-time strongmen—has left the nonprofit group cash-strapped and unable to front the estimated $190,000 cost of the parade.

On Monday, the group will launch a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of raising the funds needed to hold the parade, which is tentatively scheduled for June 22. It attracted 750,000 people last year and has generated millions in revenues for businesses in Coney Island, which was hard hit by Sandy.

“It is painful to say it, but if we can’t raise the money, there will be no Mermaid Parade. For real,” Dick Zigun, head of Coney Island USA and the founder of the parade, told Yahoo News. “It would be a blow to the neighborhood and to the city. But we just can’t afford it.”

The parade, which has been described as a cross between Mardi Gras and Burning Man, usually has been paid for by a mix of registration fees, corporate sponsorships and proceeds from the Mermaid Ball, an annual gala held after the march. But this year’s ball has been derailed, according Zigun. Its usual location—the New York Aquarium—also sustained heavy damage from Sandy and has been closed since last October. The same thing goes for other potential venues in the neighborhood, including the Abe Stark Roller Skating Rink, which is being rebuilt in the aftermath of Sandy.

While Coney Island USA’s museum and events center is aiming to reopen later this month, lost revenues from the last six months have taken a major toll on the nonprofit group, which was created to help preserve and promote the neighborhood’s arts and culture and attract new visitors to the area. The Mermaid Parade was launched as part of that outreach and soon gained international attention, luring participants from around the world attracted to the weird, quirky nature of the event.

Even celebrities have shown up. Actor Harvey Keitel and singers David Byrne and Lou Reed are among those who have served as the parade’s King Neptune—the honorary male grand marshal. Last year, the Mermaid Queen was actress Annabella Sciorra.

“This is a people’s parade, a free event. We don’t make money. We usually come close to breaking even or lose money, which is normally fine by me,” Zigun said. But after Sandy, he added, his top priority has been getting Coney Island USA running again.

“This year, I can’t sacrifice everything for the Mermaid Parade. I can’t let the organization commit suicide,” he said.

As one of the most popular traditions in Coney Island, the Mermaid Parade has enjoyed the backing of city officials, who offered to let Zigun cancel this year’s event without fear that permits would be harder to get in 2014. But Zigun insists he doesn’t want to do that—arguing the Mermaid Parade is important to a neighborhood that is still struggling to get back to normal after Sandy.

“(The parade) is the symbolic heart and soul of the rebirth of Coney Island, dating back to 30 years ago,” Zigun said. “The last thing we need is for Sandy to take this away.”