Summer Ends at Coney Island

As a developer keeps plans for the park under wraps, longtime boardwalk tenants wind down their last season.

Coney Island postcard

It's one of the oldest and most famous amusement parks in the world, inspiring attractions as far away as Australia and countless works of art, from the early films of Thomas Edison to the Futurist canvases of Frank Stella.

Now, after decades of relative decay, Coney Island's boardwalk and rides are facing extensive redevelopment, plans that some say will rejuvenate the faded resort and that others fear may destroy the park's unique, raucous identity.

Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg rescued Coney Island's last carousel from being auctioned and relocated; the city will pay $1.8 million for the B&B Carousel, part of the park since 1932. While the carousel will remain open, however, a developer has purchased huge chunks of the park's boardwalk property for plans that remain undisclosed. Longtime leaseholders have been told to move by the end of the summer.

Named after the rabbits (in Dutch, konijen) that once populated its shores, Coney Island developed over the 19th and early 20th centuries from a seaside resort of elegant hotels similar to Cape May, N.J., to a bawdy midway of theaters, beer gardens, dance halls, and thrill rides that catered to working class New Yorkers—the so-called "Nickel Empire" where most games and attractions cost five cents. The world's first roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, debuted at Coney Island in the summer of 1884. Other thrillers followed, including the 150 foot-tall Wonder Wheel (1920); the Thunderbolt (1924), an early steel-framed coaster; and the bone-rattling Cyclone (1927). The rides rose up from the fanciful towers, domes, and minarets of the amusement parks Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland, whose electric illuminations writer Maxim Gorky called "fabulous beyond conceiving, ineffably beautiful."

Coney Island's glittering skyline was featured on the original cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" and was consumed by flames in the 1953 film version of Ray Bradbury's "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms." Bodybuilder Charles Atlas, comedian Jimmy Durante, and actor Cary Grant all got their start at Coney Island—the last as a man on stilts.

As the 20th century progressed, Coney Island began to show its age. A series of apocalyptic fires decimated Dreamland in 1911 and Luna Park in 1944, and Steeplechase closed in 1964. Robert Moses' Coney Island Houses, a low-income housing project of 1956, boosted the local crime rate. The clam shacks remained, as did Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs, but the terra-cotta-encrusted Childs of 1928, once the largest restaurant in the world and one of the park's most elegant structures, closed its doors in the early 1950s (the building is currently for sale for $8 million). To new generations, many of its early thrill rides may seem quaint. Nonetheless, Coney Island has continued to serve as a summer haven for thousands of thrill seekers, tourists, and locals.

But change is in the air. In 2001 Keyspan Park, a Little League baseball arena, opened nearby to much fanfare. The following year the city ordered the demolition of the dilapidated Thunderbolt, which it deemed a public heath hazard. Now a mega-development could sweep the area.

Thor Equities, Inc., a New York-based development corporation known for luxurious shopping malls and urban projects, has bought a large parcel of land that extends from 12th Street to 15th Street along the boardwalk. The site includes many much-loved attractions, including the famously louche Ruby's Bar. Thor has yet to release detailed plans for the site, although a hotel and spa, a multicultural center, an indoor water park, and a retractable-roofed arcade have all been mentioned as possibilities.

"We want to capitalize fully on Coney Island's reputation as an absolutely non-generic destination," says Lee Silberstein, Thor's publicist. "We want to bring it back to its glory days, to what people would have remembered 40 or 50 years ago," he says, pointing out that none of the officially landmarked rides are directly in the path of redevelopment.

Thor intends to work closely with community organizations such as the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) a City of New York affiliate dedicated to the economic revitalization of the area, Silberstein says. Founded two years ago by Mayor Bloomberg, the CIDC's mission, according to its Web site, "is to capitalize on the recent successes in Coney Island to help the area transform itself from a seasonal economy to a more robust, year-round business district." The group hasn't yet revealed concrete plans for this goal regarding Thor's involvement.

"The biggest challenge at Coney Island is to make it a year-round destination," Silberstein says, alluding to the possibility of an enclosed arcade of shops and stalls.

Brooklyn-based author and journalist Jim Knipfel calls that a mall. "Good things can be done, but I don't think they involve shopping malls and spas," Knipfel says. "Coney Island isn't what it was 50 years ago or a hundred years ago. It couldn't be, and it doesn't have to be. It's a place where the best things are free or close to it, where anyone can go and have an amazing day with just a few bucks in their pocket."

Others object to development, including a restaurateur who goes by the name of Joey Clams and whose gyro stand is among the businesses facing closure under Thor's plans. "Are they going to take us out and replace us with an Applebee's or an Olive Garden?" Clams asked the Daily News. "Knishes, hot dogs, shish kebab—that's what makes Coney Island."

In the wake of Thor's development, rent hikes may snuff out more family businesses and smaller attractions, warns Dick Zigun, the founder of the nonprofit Coney Island USA. "Rent is becoming a problem because the 10-year leases have all been replaced with year-to-year ones as property owners wait for a boom," Zigun says.

Coney Island USA is a nonprofit that many credit with the grassroots revitalization of the park. Since Zigun founded the organization in 1983, it has created and managed numerous art shows, theatrical performances, and the immensely successful Mermaid Parade, a bawdy Mardi-Gras like festival at the beginning of every summer that involves bikini-clad revelers in satiric costumes who shimmy down Ocean Drive.

Like many others, Zigun is waiting for Thor to reveal its vision for Coney Island. "It seems premature to criticize a plan that doesn't exist yet," Zigun says. "There's no point in preserving Coney Island at its lowest point."

Whatever happens, Coney Island seems likely to hold its place in the American identity, whose very mutability is its most permanent feature. Whether future incarnations of the nation's first amusement park will include the beloved, inexpensive, historic attractions and authentically tattered atmosphere is anyone's guess.

David V. Griffin is a freelance writer living in New York City.  

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