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Whose Coney Island?

On a cold January evening, rain poured down onto the dimly-lit asphalt of Coney Island’s Mermaid Avenue, pooling in clogged gutters and dark, cigarette-stained alleys. Inside Our Lady of Solace Church, however, another storm was brewing, as hundreds of people assembled to discuss the future of the neighborhood’s once world-famous amusement park.

All photos by Hannah Johnson.
All photos by Hannah Johnson.

The Municipal Arts Society (MAS), a non-profit organization that does advocacy work around urban planning, design, and preservation issues, hosted the forum, an opportunity for the public to see the hundreds of designs submitted for the “new” Coney Island, and hear how a new amusement park could benefit the local community. As architects and urban planners presented surreal images of soaring new rides, glittering buildings and teeming crowds of tourists, local residents in the audience stirred uneasily. David Malmuth, a dapper young development analyst hired by MAS, told the audience how a “well-executed amusement park” could draw a minimum of 3.4 million visitors per year to Coney Island.

Expanding on Malmuth’s projection, Jasper Goldman, Senior Policy Analyst from MAS stated, “When Coney Island generates money, the Coney Island community will benefit.” MAS is currently advising the city on Coney’s redevelopment.

Then the slides stopped, and the sluices opened.

“I see a lot of fancy pictures up there, but what does all this mean for us here in Coney?” asked one woman. Heads nodded across the audience. A woman in the audience angrily followed her, “And why do we need all this new development when the city doesn’t even use the baseball park that’s already here?” referring to the seldom-used KeySpan Ballpark built by the city in 2000. The crowd crooned in agreement. Then, a young man in a leather jacket who had been hovering near the door stepped forward and spoke.

“There are a lot of people who, well, look like me—black men and women, people of color—who live in this community, some of them living on the streets,” said Kefar Sole, 36. “I’ve heard a lot of things tonight, but I haven’t heard anything about them.”

Goldman politely interrupted Sole, explaining that this meeting was just to offer ideas about Coney Island, not to debate the details of the rezoning. “There is an issue of affordable housing, and the gentrification that comes with success,” Goldman said. But a revitalized amusement park would be an “economic generator” for the city. “The amusement area is our priority.”

The “Vegasification” Of Coney?

Talk about a billion-dollar Vegas-style “glam rock” makeover for Coney Island has been circulating for some time now. But with the City Planning Commission set to decide this June on how the amusement park will be rezoned, such grand visions stand to get a major boost. The Bloomberg Administration has already completed a record 94 rezonings citywide, which have transformed neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn. As with these neighborhoods, the Coney Island rezoning will need to be passed by the Planning Commission and then approved by the City Council, a process that is expected to last into the fall.

Thor Equities, a large national developer headed by Joe Sitt, is the biggest potential beneficiary of the Coney Island rezoning, which will dramatically boost land values. Since 2004, the company has been buying up chunks of the amusement park section in anticipation of a rezoning. But for months now, Thor has been at loggerheads with the City Planning Department over who will develop Coney. Most of the remaining rides lie in a section of the old amusement park now referred to as “Coney East,” and city officials would like to turn it into a concentrated amusement district. But because Sitt owns the land there, they will have to go through Thor first.

The city and Thor have competing plans for revitalizing Coney Island. Both ambitious, the city’s appears more oriented toward the broader public. In their plan, Coney East would be developed as a public, year-round amusement park that would open onto the boardwalk. The rezoning would permit small hotels along Surf Avenue, and new streets and sewers would accommodate the millions of tourists who would flock to new, privately run rides.

City Planning officials argue that only the city can guarantee that Coney is both revitalized and at the same time remains truly accessible to an economically diverse range of New Yorkers. In the meantime, Sitt is threatening to break ground on his own amusement park. But his plans for Coney are unclear, largely because they have changed significantly from year to year. In 2005, when the economy was soaring, he vowed to bring “something like the Bellagio hotel” in Las Vegas to South Brooklyn. Four years later, his design looks somewhat more subdued, but an elephant fountain, a blimp tour and a Bed, Bath & Beyond are still in the mix. Whatever the final design looks like, it is likely to be a combination of a pay-at-the-gate amusement park and large retail stores.

The city has offered Thor Equities $110 million for the land needed to realize their plans, but negotiations are deadlocked, with Sitt reportedly demanding double this amount in profit. The city is playing down the possibility of using Eminent Domain to seize Sitt’s land, but the Environmental Impact Statement clearly states that boardwalk land “could be acquired through condemnation, as necessary.”

Meanwhile, many of Thor’s critics, including city officials, argue that Sitt is merely speculating on the land and has no real interest in developing it. In fact, an 11th hour deal between Sitt and the city looks increasingly likely. “He’ll get his money’s worth, not only for the amusement park, but in a hotel or something,” said Amanda Burden, the director of the New York City Department of City Planning. “He should take the last best offer.”

Many Coney residents favor development, but are suspicious of both plans. With some of the highest unemployment and poverty levels in New York City, Coney Island is desperate for new jobs which, not surprisingly, both the city and Thor Equities promise their plans will create. But the diverse local constituency, which includes poor and working-class Pakistani and Russian immigrants, blacks, and whites, is divided over the redevelopment. Some residents view any new investment as a boon for their dilapidated corner of Brooklyn. After all, it’s been years since major new businesses opened up in Coney. Others are afraid that either plan will lead to higher rents and gentrification. If there is a consensus between the two camps, it is simply that something must change.

“People are going to have to help themselves,” said Jim Prince, 77, as he knotted and clenched his hands, gnarled by sixty years of swinging a butcher’s knife at Major Prime Meat Market on Mermaid Avenue. “The development of the amusement park will be like a virus spreading,” he said.  Prince meant this as a positive statement, explaining, “We need to get rid of the criminal element that has been plaguing us for years.” Prince, who is white, spoke in the sepia-drenched nostalgia common among older Coney Islanders. “The youngsters today have no pride, no idea what Coney Island is all about, its history. I raised seven children here. One was a lifeguard for seven years. That’s what I’d like to see—more pride in that part of Coney Island.”

A Gilded History, A Conflicted Future

Coney Island has changed a lot since its heyday in the 1920s, when the subway first screeched to a halt near the shore, the boardwalk’s first planks were laid, and Nathan’s perfected its now-ubiquitous hotdogs. Then came the Great Depression, World War II, the automobile era and Disney Land. Coney’s popularity rose and fell like the rickety rails of The Cyclone rollercoaster, and sections of the once-sprawling park closed down, only to open again under new management. All the while, a constant flow of entrepreneurs and real estate moguls promised to return the amusement park to its gilded age.

If the Coney Island of the 20th century was a carnivalesque spectacle by the sea that attracted primarily the middle and working classes, 21st century schemes promise—or threaten—to make things more upscale. Thor Equities’ plans include not only a glitzy new amusement park, but also mega-hotels and large retail stores in Coney East. But the city will need to balance the goal of remaking it as a tourist attraction with the needs and priorities of local residents, which can be accomplished by ensuring, for instance, the creation of living-wage jobs and affordable housing. City Planning officials claim that their plan will yield 6,000 permanent jobs, 25,000 construction jobs, 950 hotel rooms and 4,500 housing units—900 of them affordable. But the city’s affordable housing allowance could be more than offset by a general rise in property values and, therefore, rents across the area. Even Nathan’s near century-old store could eventually be shuttered, as its lot will be rezoned to allow for 15 stories.

“This could not be a more critical time for Coney Island,” said Burden recently at a symposium on Coney’s future. “Now it’s a shadow of itself, and that provides an opportunity but it also shows that we are at a fork in the road where we could well lose Coney Island forever.” She sketched out the city’s plan to divide the historical amusement park, now half empty lots, into three sections, the largest of which, Coney East, would contain old and new amusements as well as small hotels. Residential and retail would be confined to Coney West and North. By concentrating amusements to the east, the city’s rezoning plan would allegedly allow for the creation of two public parks along the boardwalk. It would also keep the entire amusement park “open” to those who, like so many who come to Coney, can’t afford the rides.

“The only way to preserve the amusements in perpetuity is for the city to take control of the 12 acres on the boardwalk where the open amusements are located,” Burden reiterated. This is the land that Thor Equities owns. After City Planning finished its slideshow, Dan Jennings from Thor Equities showed his own, complete with the elephant fountain and music by the Beastie Boys, circa 1986.

“I think we all share the goal of restoring Coney Island to its greatness,” Jennings began, in sly conciliation. “But it’s no secret. I think we have sincere differences with the administration on how to get there.”

“When we bought the properties in Coney Island, we wanted to avoid Eminent Domain,” Jennings said soberly. “Our goal was to assemble enough land on which to build a project, and we feel like we have enough land to do that.” Hence the elephant fountain.

Joe Sitt’s lawyer Jesse Masyr took the podium next. “Our major issue with the city’s proposal is that we believe that the future of Coney Island lives in the ability to do private development,” Masyr said. “It’s part of the history of Coney Island.” The city’s plan, including its demand for two new parks, “will doom this area to be no amusement at all,” he argued.

Moreover, the city’s plan to keep retail out of Coney East was nonsensical, Masyr said. “We really do believe that the retail is unrealistically small and doesn’t acknowledge how leisure dollars are spent today by consumers. Shopping is part of the leisure experience.” Of course, Coney East is where Thor owns nearly all its land, and retail is what Thor does best.

But there are signs that Thor’s emphasis on private enterprise is more of a bluff than a belief. After the symposium ended, Jennings admitted, “If the price is right, we won’t stand in the way of development.” Meanwhile, Thor’s summertime “Festival by the Sea” has yet to take off. Rows of metal frames stand where amusement tents were promised, their silver shining like bleached bones in the summer heat.

The standoff between the city and Thor Equities has simmered for years, with city officials accusing Sitt of speculating without the intent to build. Sitt paid roughly $93 million for his 57 properties in Coney East, but turned down an offer from the city government of $110 million last November. He has publicly said he wants as much as $250 million, but, according to documents filed with the city, may settle for close $160 million. With property values dropping in Brooklyn, the city actually lowered its offer to $105 million this April.

But as Thor vies for more money from the city, Coney Island and its residents are left in limbo. Coney entertainers are annoyed by the city’s “now-or-never” approach and irked that it has already “watered down” its plans for the amusement park.

“The city has not been as focused on excellence, and it is because there is a nemesis,” said Dick Zigun, head of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow and a vocal critic of Thor’s private development plan.  “Now it is not Darth Vader. It is not the Evil Empire,” he said of Thor, “but the city initially had a major compromise” to concentrate amusements in Coney East. Instead, by promoting its own retail-heavy vision of the area, Thor had caused the city to scale back its plans for the amusement district and tone-down its promises to the community. “I’m begging that Thor will take a reasonable profit and go away sooner rather than later,” Zigun said.

Complaints are as common as grains of sand in Coney, but they spread far beyond sight of the sea. Despite its name, Coney Island Avenue betrays little connection to its namesake amusement park. The howling wind that whips up the boulevard smelling of sea salt is the only reminder of its proximity to the boardwalk. Here, between boarded-up buildings and Bollywood posters, is the office of the Coney Island Avenue Project, a non-profit organization founded in the wake of September 11, 2001, to protect the civil rights of South Asians swept-up in federal anti-immigrant raids.

“What’s in it for us?” asked Bobby Khan, the organization’s director. “I’ve belonged to that neighborhood for about the last 14 years. I don’t have that rosy picture to present, those documentaries or films, that rosy picture of Coney Island that looks like heaven, or a dream. It’s a fairytale for me,” he said angrily.

“I’m talking about the people who wait at the intersection of Stillwell, Surf and Coney Island avenues for someone to come and ask them to work, who hardly survive,” Khan said. “What will their lives be like with the addition of this amusement park?” Maybe, just maybe, he said, new amusement jobs could go to Pakistanis.

Today, New York has become a city of exclusive enclaves, where shopping districts have become synonymous with public space. But Coney Island, what Joseph Mitchell once called “the summer resort of those who have only a few nickels to spend for hot sun and seawater,” is one of the last places where New Yorkers from all walks of life melt together like ice cream on the boardwalk.

On a warm day in late May, most of Thor Equities’ properties remained empty, its promotional gazebos largely vacant. Families still followed their awe-struck children from tent to tent. Chicken bones and candy wrappers still dotted the sidewalk. Coney Island needs jobs and new businesses, but it doesn’t need a new identity. Whichever plan is approved, one question haunts the rezoning effort: Can Coney really keep its soul?


Michael Miller

Michael Miller is a journalist based in Mexico City.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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