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Coney Island: A 21st-Century Attraction?

The old photographs tell it best: millions of incandescent lights, the luminous towers rising beside the sea, the electric wheels and fiery minarets, the throng on the boardwalk (women in long skirts, men with straw boaters), the exuberant bathers on the beach. There, off the boardwalk, are the monumental statues, alabaster colonnades, and broad lagoons. And the illuminated names: Luna Park, Dreamland, Steeplechase—all suggesting a fervent grab at things beyond human reach.
It’s strange to think of this now, looking at the empty weed-filled lots along the Coney Island boardwalk. Surf Avenue, once a ringing hub of revelry and amusement, now presents a series of junk shops. Coney Island’s Bowery, in former times the most riotous of its many riotous places, is now a neglected alley. (One resident, tapped for directions to the Bowery, said “You mean in Manhattan?”). The amusement district, once a solid 35 blocks of jangling bewitchment, now occupies only 13 blocks—and even they are interrupted by empty parcels of land.

Residents strolling in Coney Island, 2003. Photo by Peter Krebs.
Residents strolling in Coney Island, 2003. Photo by Peter Krebs.

What was once a vast playground that attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors each summer day now appears on the surface to be a beleaguered, weathered shorefront. Yet Coney Island is becoming increasingly more attractive to tourists and investors. New attractions and events are drawing more visitors to the area each year. A brilliant new subway terminal is expected to open at Stillwell Avenue before the 2005 beach season begins. And most significantly, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced on September 25th the creation of the Coney Island Development Corporation, an organization of 13 business leaders, real estate developers, and community representatives that will work to reinvigorate the neighborhood’s economy. “This is the moment,” says Chuck Reichenthal, head of Community Board 13 and a member of the new Development Corporation. “Year by year, it’s becoming more popular. The crowds have been getting bigger, and much more varied.” He cites inquiries from tourists all over the world, the thousands who attend Thursday night concerts at the bandshell, the ever-increasing popularity of the annual Mermaid Parade. All are signs that Coney Island might inherit a future to match its storied past.

But for all the outside interest and investment in Coney Island, it remains to be seen whether the residents of the neighborhood, the thousands of people living in the public housing towers that loom over the boardwalk, will benefit from the revival. Cynthia Sanchez, who heads the Coney Island Volunteer Information Cooperative, thinks not enough is being done to protect the interests of minority entrepreneurs and residents of the district. “Let me tell you something,” she says, “by 2010 or 2015, Coney Island will be all white. If you see any blacks out here, it’s because they will be hired to work here.” When a public housing apartment becomes available, she says, blacks and Hispanics are passed over in favor of white tenants, usually Russian immigrants. She says that despite the existence of a waiting list, people who have been in the country for only a few months get the apartment over people who have been on the waiting list for years. “It’s called ‘conquer and divide.’ Next election for City Council or State Assemblyman, they put in a Russian.”

In the first decade of the 20th century, Coney Island was so central to New York and America that Prince Wilhelm of Sweden traveled there twice during a diplomatic visit in the summer of 1907. If you went to Coney Island sometime that same summer, you might have taken the Brooklyn Rapid Transit down to the beach with tens of thousands of others looking to escape the heat of the city. You might have rented a swimming costume, changed in a bathhouse, and floated for a while in the Atlantic. Afterwards, you might have ventured into one of the three amusement parks, ridden any number of rides: the Loop-the-Loop, the “Canals of Venice,” “Trip to the Moon,” the “Human Roulette Wheel,” the Steeplechase race itself—a track with iron horses encircling the park, or you could have sampled from among more than 20 roller coasters. At night you could choose from any number of entertainments, from plays and early motion pictures to burlesques and ballroom dancing.

Today there is still plenty to entertain visitors to Coney Island—more than enough, in fact, to fill a long summer’s day. There’s the New York Aquarium and minor-league baseball at Keyspan Park. Between them are two amusement parks, Astroland and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, each offering a ride on the hoary but still entertaining classics: the Cyclone (which opened in 1927) and the great Ferris wheel itself (built in 1920). Then there are rides like those at a typical county fair: the Tilt-A-Whirl, Spook-a-Rama, the Scrambler. There are batting cages and a miniature raceway. There are clam shacks along the boardwalk and there is, of course, Nathan’s, which has been selling hot dogs for more than 85 years. In the evening you can have a drink at the venerable Ruby’s, and afterwards take in some fireworks. At the beginning of each summer there is the increasingly popular Mermaid Parade, and in August there is the Siren Festival, a day-long series of concerts by independent rock bands that attracted a record crowd of more than 150,000 in 2003. Things aren’t as novel or as varied as they were about a century ago, but it is still one of the most unique places in New York. And there is always the beach.

The area’s decline began after World War II, when Coney Island—America’s great ode to the machine age—itself became the victim of machinery. The automobile and its attendant system of interstates and highways allowed the city’s workers to live elsewhere. Ex-urbanites, living out in suburban New Jersey, Westchester County, and Long Island, could travel to the Jersey Shore or Jones Beach instead of driving into Brooklyn. As for the amusements, others were erected outside of New York, inspired by Coney Island’s success. Those in search of such thrills could find them in Westchester County’s Playland or New Jersey’s Asbury Park and Palisades Park. And greater availability of air conditioning meant that the cooler temperatures of the beach were no longer as alluring. It didn’t help that Robert Moses hated Coney Island’s amusements. His Parks Department took control of the beach, boardwalk, and amusement zone in 1938. When half of Luna Park succumbed to fire in 1944, and the other half closed in 1946, Moses erected high-rise apartments on the site. Despite the construction of a new park—Astroland—in 1962, a dramatic slump in sales during the 1964 season precipitated the final closing of Steeplechase Park that September. As “Auld Lang Syne” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” played out on the loudspeakers, the lights went out one by one, and the last of the three original Coney Island amusement parks went dark.

Later in the sixties and throughout the seventies, the crime rate began to rise across the city. Between 1968 and 1973 alone it is estimated that the crime rate in Coney Island rose by more than 112 percent, and it continued to rise steadily after that. The population of Brooklyn declined. Fewer and fewer people used the subways and buses, and Coney Island deteriorated further. It became the haunt of restless teenagers, and was avoided by most New Yorkers. There was some optimism in the eighties, when a few different ideas were considered—a new amusement park, a casino—but the stock market crash of 1987 put an end to them. One bright spot during that decade was the arrival of the Mermaid Parade, an annual event started by Dick Zigun and his non-profit organization, Coney Island U.S.A., in 1983. The often raucous procession of the seashell-bedecked and the scantily-clad attracted visitors from outside the area. Zigun says now, “The Mermaid Parade changed the media image of Coney Island. It used to be murder, gangs, and arson. Now it’s chic.” But it was not until the next economic boom, in the late nineties, that a number of positive signs emerged.

One such sign is Keyspan Park, which opened in the summer of 2001. The minor league baseball stadium, with a capacity of 7,500, is home to the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Mets farm team. In its first year of operation, the park sold out every home game. In 2002, the Cyclones drew approximately 317,000 fans, setting a league record for season attendance. Visitors to the park come to see a part of the city they might have otherwise ignored. They take in the boardwalk, the sea, the Parachute Drop—all of the things that still make Coney Island a unique place in New York and in America. “If you want a feeling of old Brooklyn,” says Reichenthal, “you go to a Cyclones game.” He remembers when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, and held the interest of the entire borough. And he remembers when they left for Los Angeles. “When Ebbets field died, part of Brooklyn died. When Steeplechase came down, it was another nail. But it’s back.” The stadium isn’t just attracting baseball fans: At the end of August 2003, Icelandic pop singer Bjork chose the stadium for one of a handful of American performances, drawing admirers from all over the East Coast.

Reichenthal sees Keyspan Park as one of two anchors for a rejuvenated amusement area. The other is the New York Aquarium, which is undergoing renovations on the site it has occupied since 1957. It attracts approximately 780,000 visitors every year and is central to any new development plans. Fran Hackett, a public relations representative for the aquarium, says that while attendance has been steady over the years, more Manhattanites have been making the journey. Two projects are underway to make the aquarium more attractive: a restaurant and an aquatic animal health facility. And by 2005 or 2006 a larger and more innovative shark exhibit is expected to open. With these added attractions and the proximity of the new subway terminal, the aquarium hopes to become a magnet for New Yorkers and tourists from out of town. And, Hackett notes, “We’re the only amusement open year round” on Coney Island.

The new Stillwell Avenue Subway terminal is expected to attract even more visitors when it opens in 2005, with a station house and entrance designed by the architectural firm di Dimenico and Partners, and platforms and train shed designed by Kiss + Cathcart Architects. It will feature the old terra cotta subway entrance and a new generator tower that will recall the glittering spires of Luna Park. The new terminal will replace the run-down station that often deterred prospective visitors. Dick Zigun says of the old terminal, “A lot of people who saw that station became so frightened that they turned around and never set foot on Coney Island. It was our house of horrors.”

The Coney Island Development Corporation could be another key to the area’s revival, although it is only in its beginning stages. Judi Orlando, head of the Astella Development Corporation and a member of the new Development Corporation says, “We come from different places, but we have a commitment to Coney Island.” She says this is a unique time because three critical supporters—Mayor Bloomberg, Borough President Marty Markowitz, and City Council Member Domenic Recchia Jr.—are all involved.

One model under consideration is the Vision Plan produced by Orlando’s Astella Development Corporation. Astella is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating affordable housing and jobs and improving the quality of life in Coney Island. Its plan contains a number of proposals: a sports complex, a new amusement pier with ferry service to Manhattan, a collection of theaters, restaurants, and nightclubs along Surf Avenue (which could also become a “ceremonial boulevard”), a hotel over the aquarium, a waterpark, a casino, and a trolley service for the entire five-mile stretch between Brighton Beach to the East and the gated community of Sea Gate to the West. There is even talk of reopening the Parachute Jump. In many respects, the Vision Plan sounds like a blueprint for creating another version of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which many urban scholars have criticized for ignoring the needs of the surrounding local population.

Orlando, for her part, observes that many of the proposals in the Vision Plan would require progress in other areas before they could be put into effect. The trolley service, for instance, wouldn’t be necessary unless there were more attractions for it to service. The most viable at the moment, according to Orlando, are a new pier, which will create more commercial space and allow for ferry service, a bike path (already funded), the creation of a business improvement district, the construction of a sports complex that will combine all of the suggested sports-related projects, and a new hotel that will draw tourists and provide a significant number of jobs. Some proposals, like the casino, are not as easily realized. “I’m leery about casino gambling,” Orlando says, “because I haven’t seen where it helps. It would have to be planned in such a way that it helps the community.”

Crucial to the current plans envisioned for Coney Island is whether New York gets the 2012 Summer Olympics. If it does, then getting financial backing for many of the proposed plans for Coney Island will be easier. Chuck Reichenthal notes that in order for New York to get the Olympics, “You’ve got to show that you’re doing something.” Coney Island is one place that is ripe for construction. It also offers the perfect vantage point for Olympic sailing events. Orlando says that the Olympics are “very important. The Olympics are the catalyst for a lot of development.” And there is time. “We got the stadium up overnight,” she says. “Things can be done.”

But for all the optimism surrounding the creation of the Development Corporation and the suggestion of brighter prospects, not everyone is happy about changes in Coney Island. Dick Zigun is disappointed that representatives from the amusement district are absent from the board. “It was a purely political process,” he says. Since the amusement owners don’t have any electoral weight, Zigun believes they aren’t allowed any input.

Community activists like Cynthia Sanchez of the Coney Island Volunteer Information Cooperative are also worried. Sanchez has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, and ran (unsuccessfully) for City Council on a Green Party ticket in 2001. She advocates better health care for the uninsured, more rights for tenants living in Coney Island’s many housing projects, and greater awareness of hazards to the oceanfront environment. She also lobbied for Keyspan Park to hire more people from the community. While admitting that many conditions in Coney Island are improving, she doesn’t like the way things are progressing for the area’s minority residents. Coney Island, she says, “is in a revitalization stage. There should be jobs. There should be improvements.” But those benefits, she argues, are not being distributed equally.

Sanchez believes that favoritism prevents Coney Island’s poorest residents from sharing in the dividends of redevelopment. Referring to Keyspan Park, she says, “If we hadn’t protested and sat down with the developers, no one from Coney Island would be working there.” Coney Island, she says, “is like a family. You’re going to lose the mamas and the papas to Home Depot. You’re losing the family connection.” (A Home Depot opened in Coney Island near the end of 2001.) “My heart goes out to Coney Island because the people who don’t speak out feel that they have to leave. The kids have nothing.”

Sharon Zukin, Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, is unsurprised by the process Sanchez describes. “Cities engage in redevelopment to encourage market forces,” she says. “The goal is less to create jobs than it is to raise property values.” She says that Coney Island’s distinctive history makes it “a logical place for that kind of development.” Zukin also notes that there are enough vacant spaces along the boardwalk to accommodate substantial development.

Throughout 2004, the Development Corporation will be hosting a series of meetings, at which they will consider the many proposals for improving the area. Whether the concerns of local residents will be heard, however, is not yet clear. But, given time, Coney Island might once more become what the Brooklyn Eagle referred to at the end of the 19th century as “the noblest watering place on the continent.” How their decisions will benefit local residents remains to be seen.


Arthur Vaughan

Arthur Vaughan is a writer based in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 03-JAN 04

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