Dick Zigun is a mayor, even though he’s never gotten a vote for it.
The self-styled “unofficial mayor of Coney Island” is a cofounder of nonprofit Coney Island USA and a champion of Coney Island’s unique history and flavor.
For the past three decades, he’s worked to bring quirky events that are fun for Brooklynites and tourists alike to Coney. Coney Island USA runs the sideshows, the Coney Island Museum, and the Coney Island Film Festival. Zigun has founded now-famous Coney Island events like the yearly Mermaid Parade, an annual costumed Summer Solstice sea-themed revel. With his now iconic derby hat, he’s come to symbolize all that is strange and wonderful about the neighborhood.
Formally trained in performance art, Zigun studied at the Yale School of Drama, has written a number of plays, and appears on television frequently. Recently, we spoke with Zigun about his origins, why he chose his unique career path, and what makes Coney Island a special place.
Brownstoner: Could you tell us a little about your origins and what brought you where you are?
Zigun: I grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut — it’s sort of known as the bad neighborhood of Connecticut. But if you grow up in Bridgeport and you want to take pride in your hometown, you look to P.T. Barnum, who was the mayor of the town. The big event every year in Bridgeport is a month-long Barnum festival during the summer. During my childhood, I was a Barnum “scholar” of sorts. Jumping ahead, I got two fancy degrees in theater, including an MFA from Yale School of Drama.
If you want to be in theater, you want to be in New York. Because of my weird upbringing, I didn’t aspire to Broadway, I aspired to Coney Island. I wanted to create performance art about popular culture here — 38 years later, it’s more or less worked out.
What about this place kept you coming back?
I had an advantage not being a native New Yorker — I didn’t watch my childhood playground become ridden with gangs and graffiti. When arrived here, I was a little bit stupid, but also a little bit brave. Back in the late 1970s, everyone was looking at Tribeca and South Street Seaport, but I wanted to come to Coney Island. I was impressed when I arrived how many businesses were run by healthy elderly people from the golden age of Coney Island. There’s something about the salt air that preserves the body but rots the mind: They were healthy but out-of-their-minds crazy. I wanted to take on the role of preserving old Coney Island for those who came after me.
You’ve been called the Mayor of Coney Island. How did that nickname come about?
I’m the “permanently unelected mayor of Coney Island.” That nickname was deliberate. From the start, I’d gotten into wearing derby hats as a look, based on old postcards of Coney Island. From the start of the first Mermaid Parade, I used that look. Based on the first Mermaid Parade, I was hired as the public relations director of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce. I knew that visual communication was important. If my image was going to be in public, I could communicate a lot by the way I looked, in addition to what I said. As the PR director, I made the name up and people bought in because I had the look.
How has preservation gone in Coney Island, amid the issues from Sandy five years ago?
It was devastating, no mistake about that, but it forced many businesses to renovate, whether they wanted to or not. The entire neighborhood had to renovate at the same time — it allowed businesses to make changes that they’d wanted to make. For example, Nathan’s was completely destroyed and gutted, but they hired a good architect who made it look like it was the old place and fit with Coney Island.
Where do you see Coney Island going in the future?
Coney Island is saved for the next 50 years. It comes down to viability and infrastructure. Salt air is a real problem for architecture and structures. The Coney Island that existed before the rezoning eight years ago was broken. Between investment from the city and private enterprise, Coney Island is in its best shape in years. Things are much more family friendly than they were — we’ve landmarked buildings, we’ve restored some buildings – and the potential is there for locals and tourists alike for a very successful Coney Island going forward.
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