September 4, 2009 / 3:29 PM / 9 years ago

Chic revamp may endanger Coney Island's freaky New York charm

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Would “The Warriors” recognize the Coney Island of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s dreams?

Beachgoers brave the high winds on the boardwalk at Coney Island, in New York, July 11, 2009. REUTERS/Chip East

The street gang at the center of the 1979 cult movie fought police and rival gang “Armies of the Night” as they trekked 27 miles back to their Coney Island turf from The Bronx.

New York City has revived since the Seventies, when street gangs ruled some of the graffiti-scarred neighborhoods in the city’s five boroughs.

Bloomberg, running for mayor for a third term as an independent, has built on those changes and now has Coney Island in his sights.

An oceanside neighborhood in Brooklyn long known for its amusement parks and boardwalk, Coney Island was in serious decline when “The Warriors” hit theaters, and it has continued on that downward spiral for 30 years.

Still, it is prime real estate, and Bloomberg wants to reinvent Coney Island as a year-round destination, with luxury hotels and 4,500 new apartments.

The mayor estimates his plan would create 6,000 permanent jobs, 25,000 construction jobs and give the area a $14 billion shot in the arm over the next 30 years.

Opponents of the plan, including residents, local workers, economists, and preservationists, fear it will drive out residents or doom them to menial jobs serving the wealthy.

“I think it will destroy Coney Island’s legacy as a world renowned amusement (center),” said Dianna Carlin, who runs Lola Staar’s Dreamland roller rink just off the boardwalk.

“I love that my store and roller rink sell to everyone from three-year-old Puerto Rican kids to 90-year-old Russian women,” she said.


A storied resort frequented by the likes of Diamond Jim Brady and actress Lillian Russell, visitors and city residents, Coney Island evolved into a playland for the rich and the poor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with hotels, amusements, and vendors like the famous Nathan’s hotdog stand.

Luxury hotels including The Elephant, which was shaped like one, opened after the Civil War. The neighborhood swelled with single-family homes, tenements, schools, and restaurants.

But a couple of World Wars, a Great Depression, and influxes of new immigrants and poorer families helped turn the tide on Coney Island.

Its celebrated Parachute Jump, Cyclone roller-coaster and Wonder Wheel are still silhouetted against the sky. Its beaches provide escape for the crowds. But homes have deteriorated, stores have closed, and families have moved away.

There have been attempts over the years to revitalize Coney Island, some spearheaded by local churches, but the money, the will or both fell short.

In July, after winning the Democrat-led City Council’s approval to rezone the area, Bloomberg said his plan would “return Coney Island to its former glory, ensure its future as a year-round destination for visitors and create a more livable, vibrant community for its residents.”

Proponents and opponents agree on one thing: Coney Island has been starved of investment.

“It’s a neighborhood with a significant amount of poverty, very few jobs and lots of abandoned lots,” said Seth Pinsky, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

He said the city has been the only major investor for two decades, renovating the Parachute Jump and boardwalk, and building a baseball stadium for the Brooklyn Cyclones.

Some historians blame Coney Island’s decline on former City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who used the Luna Park site for low-income housing, bringing in impoverished families from other boroughs.

Under Bloomberg’s plan, 35 percent of the new apartments would be for low- and middle-income families, Pinsky said.


The rest of the apartments would be upscale. Appraiser Jonathan Miller said it is not clear that focusing on the wealthy to extract the highest price per square foot is the best approach for an “emerging” housing market such as Coney Island.

But beyond the dynamics of a neighborhood that would be cast into transition, historian Charles Denson said new residents might want the amusement park shut altogether because of nighttime noise. Already, “people here in the apartment buildings next to the aquarium complain about the mating calls of the walruses,” he said.

A central premise of Bloomberg’s vision is making Coney Island a year-round resort.

Moody’s Investor Services credit analyst John Puchalla noted that most U.S. amusement parks are seasonal.

“You’ve got to have a compelling reason for people to come,” he said. “You have to constantly update the park.”

A 45-minute subway ride from midtown Manhattan, Coney Island also takes a one-two punch from the Atlantic Ocean in the winter when icy winds blow and concessions close.


The compelling reasons Coney Island thrived to begin with were its beaches and unique attractions.

Steeplechase Park created “a topsy turvy world with rides that encouraged people to come into contact with one another” and shed their inhibitions, said Juan Rivero, a spokesman for Save Coney Island, a community advocacy group.

It competed with Luna Park’s fantasy “Trip to the Moon” on a winged ship, and Dreamland’s “Lilliputia,” a small-scale village of 300 little people with its own fire department and beach.

Critics of Bloomberg’s plan say it will shrink the area allocated for outdoor amusements and let hotel developers block the ocean view.

Instead of an indoor mall with chain stores and attractions like a water park, they want Bloomberg to recruit artists and companies to develop technology and marketing for fairs and amusement parks, which would provide higher-paying jobs.

Coney Island entrepreneurs have said that property company Thor Equities has thwarted their investment plans. This summer, Thor booted out some amusement park vendors for missing rent payments and then let them back in — but just for the U.S. Labor Day weekend. Last year, Astroland amusement park closed after its owner and Thor clashed over a lease.

A spokesman for Thor, which typically buys and sells land instead of developing it, was not available.

Dick Zigun, who heads the arts group Coney Island USA, lamented that developers won out in the rezoning. Under New York City’s real estate policies, “doing the best quality job is not as important as looking after the interests of the people who own the property,” he said.

For now, Bloomberg’s plan is partly stalled until the city buys about a dozen acres near the boardwalk from Thor.

Not much is left of “old” Coney Island. Fires destroyed Luna Park and Dreamland. But, said Zigun, “There are still a number of rides, the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, the circus side show. Adult and children rides are open and will be operating into September.”

The Warriors would recognize those parts of the old neighborhood.

Additional reporting by Ciara Linnane and Franz Strasser;

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