New York's Famous

The role of condos is provoking dissent over the coming redevelopment of Coney Island.

 

Coney
The Cyclone embarks on its first official ride this year, with Miss Cyclone
(front left) leading the way.

Credit: Cameron Davidson

No crowds are lined up for hot dogs at Nathan's Famous, no music wafts from Ruby's bar on the boardwalk. No screams come from the Cyclone roller coaster, whose nearly 60-degree opening drop, legend has it, once cured a coal miner who was born mute. (His first words before fainting: "I feel sick.") In early March, Coney Island's amusement district slumbers. Visitors are greeted here, on the Atlantic Ocean at the far reaches of Brooklyn, by a biting wind and an empty expanse of beach.

There are few signs that Coney Island, after years of neglect, is about to embark on a ride as gripping as any from its storied past. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials created the not-for-profit Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) in 2003 and so far have appropriated more than $85 million for the area's revitalization.  The initial optimism about Coney Island's future, however, has largely been overshadowed by controversy. In recent years, Thor Equities, a New York City real estate company, has bought nearly three-quarters of the land in the heart of the amusement district and plans to build not only amusements-recent drawings showed a glitzy, futuristic collection of rides and attractions-but also condos, even though the area is not zoned for residential use. Depending on one's stance, condos are either an economic engine necessary to fuel Coney's revival or a significant threat to its survival as an amusement district.

For devotees of Americana, Coney Island is hallowed ground. It was the nation's playground at the turn of the 20th century, the place where the hot dog, roller coaster, and fenced-in amusement park were invented. For some people, it represents one of the last vestiges of an old New York that is not gentrified or glossed over with a corporate veneer. Which helps explain why the fight over Coney Island's future-which will begin in earnest in the coming months and include Bloomberg and the city planning commission-stands to be so impassioned.

Dick Zigun is the unofficial mayor of Coney Island and a member of the CIDC. For more than two decades, he has run circus sideshows at Coney (Freaks! Wonders! And Human Curiosities!). In season, he has been spotted wearing a derby and an antique wool bathing suit, or with an albino python draped around his neck. When I meet him on this day in early March, he wears work boots and a gray jacket that covers his tattooed arms. "This is the final year of Coney Island as we know it," he says as I embark on a tour with him.

As we walk around the amusement district, it's difficult to envision Coney during its apogee, when millions of visitors each summer gawked at the spectacle of lights and mechanical wonders. "Coney Island, the way it is, is broken," says Zigun, his point punctuated by the trash-filled, vacant lots around us. "It needs economic development."

From the boardwalk, Zigun points out two of Coney Island's legendary landmarks?rare survivors of decades of demolition. To the west looms the Parachute Jump, a 262-foot-high web of steel that debuted at the World's Fair in 1939 and was moved here two years later. (It is now lauded, fittingly, as the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn.) And in the heart of the amusement district stands Deno's Wonder Wheel, a Ferris wheel that opened in 1920 and now enlivens the area with its brilliant shades of red and blue. The colors are especially striking because in the backdrop are the Luna Park Houses, five drab high-rise apartment buildings constructed in the late 1950s and early '60s. They were the work of former New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, "the antichrist of Coney Island," says Zigun. Moses hated the amusement district's "mechanical noise-making," sideshows, and overcrowding, and he eliminated much of it. He situated his Luna Park Houses on the site of one of Coney Island's original amusement parks, called Luna Park, and he used the site of another original park for the New York Aquarium, which was built in the mid-1950s.

Zigun believes that what's left of the amusement district's core should not be taken up by condos. Thor's presence, meanwhile, is already apparent. Signs are splayed across the fronts of two buildings: For lease, Thor Equities. A backhoe digs on Thor's land along Stillwell Avenue where go-cart and miniature golf courses once were. Across the street a sign advertises batting cages that no longer exist.

Astroland Amusement Park still stands along the boardwalk, though its demise is fast approaching. After my tour with Zigun, I meet the park's owner, Carol Hill Albert, in her office. Albert's husband was one of Astroland's founders in 1962. Last November, she sold the land to Thor for $30 million. Signs outside the park assure visitors that Astroland will be open for the 2007 season. Then it will go dark.

Albert sits with her back to a window overlooking some of her park's rides, such as Dante's Inferno, "a classic dark ride that features a devil with a 30-foot tongue," she says, and the Astrotower, a red, doughnut-shaped observation deck that travels up and down a 253-foot-tall white pole. "I feel very sad," says Albert. "With construction planned on both sides of us, I didn't think we could sustain our business."

Albert says she has tried—unsuccessfully—to find land onto which she can move about half of Astroland's 23 rides. For more than 30 years Albert has also run the Cyclone, a city landmark across the street from Astroland. The Cyclone, she says proudly, turns 80 this year, and she will continue to operate it. The redevelopment will bring jobs, Albert acknowledges. But Coney is a tightly knit, blue-collar community that has never been corporate, she says. She worries that Coney Island's essence will be lost.

Coney Island's beginnings as a seaside resort were colorful, to say the least. Rail lines, streetcars, and steamships arrived in the 1860s and 1870s, and so did corruption. Under the leadership of political boss John Y. McKane ("houses of prostitution are a necessity," he famously said), Coney Island earned the sobriquet "Sodom by the Sea."

Amid gambling dens and crooked real estate deals, innovation flourished. In 1867, Charles Feltman began selling his "red hots" (frankfurters on a bun), giving rise to the modern-day hot dog. In 1884, La Marcus Thompson invented the roller coaster. His Switchback Railway, where the Cyclone now stands, had a 600-foot-long undulating track and traveled at a "frightful rate of speed," according to an early account?about six miles an hour. In 1895, Captain Paul Boyton opened up Sea Lion Park, with a roller coaster, a water slide, and an artificial lagoon—the world's first enclosed amusement park, which catapulted Coney Island into its golden age.

"It is blatant, it is cheap, it is the apotheosis of ridiculous but it is something more," author Reginald Wright Kauffman wrote of Coney Island in 1909. "It is like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone Park. It is a national playground and not to have seen it is not to have seen your own country."

Imagine visiting Coney Island during its heyday and beholding its grand amusement parks. The light bulb was a relatively recent invention, yet here was Luna Park, an "electric Eden" of minarets, domes, and other kinds of fantasy architecture adorned with 200,000 lights. One reporter compared it to Xanadu in Coleridge's opium-inspired poem, "Kubla Khan": "The brilliance and beauty and weirdness of it all beggars description."

Nearby was Dreamland; its Beacon Tower rose an astonishing 370 feet and had 100,000 lights. Inside were all manner of curiosities: "Midget City," a scaled-down version of 15th-century Nuremberg inhabited by 300 dwarfs, and Dr. Martin Couney's infant incubators, filled with premature babies. Imagine pushing your way through the crowds, the laughter, the chaos, to Steeplechase Park and racing its mechanical horses, or boating along the Venetian-style canals.

In the summer of 1909, 20 million people visited Coney Island, including Sigmund Freud, who reportedly said that it was the only thing about America that interested him. In 1920, the subway reached Coney (an express train from Times Square took 45 minutes), bringing immigrants and factory workers. The beach was often so crowded that the mass of bodies obscured the sand. Subway fare, a hot dog at Nathan Handwerker's stand (today, Nathan's Famous), admission to sideshows—each cost five cents. Coney Island earned a new moniker: the Nickel Empire.

"It was the most visible, one of the most remarked on, literally remarkable instances of the rise of a new commercial leisure culture," says John F. Kasson, a professor of history and American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book Amusing the Million describes how Coney Island's urban setting allowed visitors at the dawn of the new century to challenge the sexual mores of the Victorian age. "It became a laboratory for modern mass culture, became the epitome of that new kind of culture, whether people liked it or not."

Coney Island did indeed have its detractors. A "disgrace to our civilisation" is what the critic James Gibbons Huneker called it in 1915, "for when you are at Coney you cast aside your hampering reason and become a plain lunatic." Frederick Law Olmsted, among others, thought the working class would benefit more from pastoral recreation, and the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was forthright in his denouncement of Coney's "vomiting multitudes."

Robert Moses emerged as Coney Island's most influential critic in the 1930s. But Moses alone wasn't responsible for Coney's decline. The rise of television, air-conditioning, and Disneyland; crime and urban blight; politicians and real estate developers?all played a part. In the 1970s, word spread that casinos were coming to Coney Island, leading to frenzied speculation. Many landowners sat on vacant lots and waited for a big payday that never came. In 2001, talk of a Coney Island revival again gathered momentum when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani oversaw the construction, near the Parachute Jump, of KeySpan Park, a minor-league baseball stadium.

Which brings us to Joe Sitt, the president of Thor Equities. Sitt grew up in Brooklyn and as a kid spent so much time hanging out on the boardwalk, he likes to say, he got the nickname "Joey Coney Island." At 26, he founded Ashley Stewart, a chain of clothing stores for plus-size African American women, then later began buying cheap urban property and building upscale shopping malls. Reportedly, the 10 acres he bought in the heart of Coney Island's amusement district went for upwards of $150 million.

Sitt's vision for Coney Island, according to drawings by Thinkwell, a Burbank design firm, features the Leviathan, a roller coaster that will dip underneath and shoot up through the boardwalk; the Aviator, a twirling series of high-flying cars, individually controlled by joystick; and a three-tiered carousel?in all, 260,000 square feet of rides and amusements where Astroland now stands.

Behind the rides along Surf Avenue the proposed Coney Island Hotel would rise, with an indoor Ferris wheel, bumper cars, and restaurants. And farther west, near the boardwalk along Stillwell Avenue, would be another roller coaster, a water park, and a statue of a mermaid in a giant martini glass. This is also the site of four proposed buildings: a hotel, two time-shares, and a 40-story condo building, with approximately 900 residential units spread out among the four. The total cost of the plan, according to Thor: $2 billion.

Much of Thor's proposal mirrors the Coney Island Development Corporation's strategic plan to make Coney a year-round destination by attracting restaurants and retail to the amusement core. The CIDC supports rezoning areas on the fringes of the amusement district for housing (the first floors of those buildings would be reserved for retail and restaurants). But Thor contends that residential construction is needed in the heart of the amusement district in order to save it.

Without such housing, more than a hundred million dollars would be lost over the life of the project, says Lee Silberstein, executive vice president of the Marino Organization and Thor's publicist. If amusements were profitable, he says, Coney Island wouldn't be in its current condition. According to a poll that Thor commissioned last October, 62 percent of 400 Coney Island residents supported a limited amount of housing either "on or near the boardwalk." Thor's critics respond that the movement in the community against condos in the heart of the amusement district has since grown. And amusements are indeed profitable, they say; just look at thriving seaside destinations such as Ocean City, Md., and Wildwood, N.J. Perhaps the biggest concern is that condos would sprout like mushrooms. Who's to say future city administrations won't approve more zoning changes that will wipe out the amusement area? Give an inch now, they say, and watch Coney Island as we know it vanish.

Efforts are underway to save parts of Coney Island through historic preservation. Coney Island USA, a not-for-profit organization that Dick Zigun helped found to promote the arts, has applied for a handful of sites to become New York City landmarks. Among them are the Nathan's Famous building (1915), a former Child's Restaurant that opened in 1917 and is now Coney Island USA's home, and the Shore Theater, built in 1925. Taconic Investment Partners, a New York real estate developer, has plans to restore another former Child's Restaurant that opened in 1923 on the boardwalk. Dazzling terra-cotta ornaments—seashells, gargoyles, and Neptune, the sea god—line the building's front; so does graffiti, a testament to its recent neglect. The building will likely reopen as a restaurant or catering business.

Still, some people fear that Coney Island, whose bawdiness Walt Disney had disliked, could itself end up Disneyfied. "This is the last place where you can come down and see this kind of funkiness and spirit," says Charles Denson, author of Coney Island: Lost and Found. "It's kind of anarchy, really."

Anarchy is a good way to describe certain booths on the boardwalk. On the last day of March, a day before Coney's unofficial opening for the season, I return and see contestants lining up to fire paint balls at a performer wearing protective gear ($3 for 5 shots). He stands, paint-splattered, in a pen between two buildings, amid an odd collection of bowling pins, rusted cans, stuffed animals, and milk crates, as the owner of the attraction barks into a microphone, praising the shooting prowess of two contestants.

A few doors down is Lola Staar, a souvenir shop owned by Dianna Carlin. The sky is brilliant blue, but Carlin's store, the size of a large walk-in closet, is dark. Carlin was recently evicted after she got into a dispute with Thor over her lease for this season. The day before, she helped stage a protest against Thor's plan on the steps of City Hall. Now she picks through the remains of her store: a snow globe with the Parachute Jump inside, T-shirts depicting the Elephant Hotel (a 19th-century landmark that was indeed elephant-shaped), Luna Park postcards. Coney Island, Carlin says, has both a bright circus atmosphere and a gritty, seedy underbelly. Simply put, it's real. I ask her how its authenticity can be preserved in the face of development. "That's the big question," she says. "A great start would be for small, unique businesses to be encouraged to open up here."

Opening day, April 1, begins on a gloomy note. A light rain falls; the temperature hovers in the low 40s. Shortly after 11 a.m., Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz presides over the annual blessing of the rides at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. A few minutes later, Markowitz breaks an egg cream (blended milk, seltzer, and chocolate) against the front of the Cyclone roller coaster, another annual tradition. As a marching band plays, the Cyclone—screams rising over rattling boards—makes its first official run of the season.

Crowds are sparse. Some visitors gather outside Dick Zigun's sideshows. Two women on stilts?one wearing a black garter and blue wig, the other, sequined purple pants?entertain onlookers with an impromptu dance show. Amos Wengler, the so-called Bard of Brooklyn, climbs onto a stage with his guitar and breaks into song. The refrain: Save Coney Island. The lyrics: Don't let them take it away. The world wants it to stay. And: We don't need no condos here, no high-rises.

Coney Island's future for now is in the hands of the CIDC. Its president, Lynn Kelly, was aboard the Cyclone for its first run of the season. Small businesses, she says, are what "keep Coney Island authentic" and give it its "charm and sassiness"; efforts must be made to help them thrive in the new Coney. The main issue, however, is zoning. The CIDC hopes to maintain the importance of the Parachute Jump by using its height, 262 feet, as a guideline for future construction, she says?significantly shorter than a 40-story building. The corporation will issue recommendations to the New York City Department of City Planning, which will then start the rezoning process. Some speculate it may not begin until the fall.

Amanda Burden, the chairwoman of the planning department, opposes residential development in the core. So does Markowitz, who told me, right before he broke the egg cream on the Cyclone, "I don't mind seeing a hotel, trade center, convention center, things like that, but if we allow housing in the heart of the amusement area, what's going to happen, clearly, is that the residential section will grow, amusements will decrease, and Coney Island will be gone."

Many locals were heartened in August 2005, when Bloomberg saved the Bishoff & Brienstein Carousell, the last remaining hand-carved carousel in Coney Island. It was in danger of being auctioned off; the city bought it for $1.8 million. That the carousel is being restored and will reopen under the Parachute Jump suggests that Bloomberg and the city council are sensitive to Coney's heritage. But precedent has shown what can happen when a real estate developer decides to use heavy-handed tactics against the city. Many years ago, Fred Trump (Donald's father) bought Steeplechase Park, the last of Coney's original amusement parks, and pressured the city to change the zoning so that he could build high-rise apartment buildings. Steeplechase's main attraction was the Pavilion of Fun, a five-acre steel-and-glass building. "It was one of the most beautiful structures in New York," says Charles Denson. "Trump tore it down, and he did it in such a spiteful way. He invited the press and handed out bricks, had people fling bricks through the glass facade." The date was September 21, 1966; Denson was 12 years old. Trump was fearful the pavilion might become a landmark and had hoped that the city, faced with a vacant lot, would cave to his zoning request. It never did. The site is now home to KeySpan Park.

Lee Silberstein denies that Thor would try such a tactic; after all, he says, the project's success hinges on maintaining Coney Island's allure. Thor recently suggested putting all of its proposed 900 or so residential units in one building away from the boardwalk, and reducing the height of a time-share building near the boardwalk so it matches that of the Parachute Jump. The company also gave Dianna Carlin a new license agreement; her store will stay open this season. Critics worry that such gestures are nothing more than attempts at public relations.

Carlin, for her part, says that Coney is known for its behind-the-scenes machinations. She remains skeptical of Sitt's intentions but is heartened by his change of tone. "Hopefully it'll be great for Joe Sitt, he can make tons of money, and it'll be great for Coney Island," she says of the redevelopment. "That's the ideal scenario everyone is trying to work towards."  

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