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Coney Island’s Crossroads

Coney Island’s Crossroads

The Wall Street Journal 10/4/2008


Coney Island’s Astroland amusement park closed earlier this month, a casualty of an ambitious attempt to remake New York’s famous seaside resort. In the past, a “new” Coney Island has always been grafted onto the one that predated it. We can only hope that Coney Island’s long-kept promise of entertainment and amusements accessible to all is not swept away in the rush to recast it as a year-round tourist destination.

An 1869 guidebook called Coney Island “The great democratic resort. The ocean bathtub of the great unwashed.” A decade later, a visitor, already observing extraordinary changes, questioned whether it was still the “people’s resort” or if it had become something else entirely.

What unfolded at Coney Island in the latter half of the 19th century was something fundamentally new. The birthplace of the hot dog and the roller coaster became the epicenter of America’s amusement industry and changed forever the way Americans experienced recreation. It was a place where people of every class and description, especially immigrants, came to interact and, in the process, entered our nation’s cultural mainstream.

Coney Island achieved its greatest fame at the beginning of the 20th century. Its classic amusement parks — Steeplechase, Dreamland and Luna Park — were a template for all that followed. The parks drew unprecedented numbers of people and made Coney Island famous the world over.

The crowds swelled during the Depression, when this Brooklyn stretch of sea, sand and boardwalk became the resort of last resort for a generation of New Yorkers. The Coney Island these millions visited was not a glittering Dreamland but a faded resort with affordable amusements that catered to people of modest means.

With the closing of Steeplechase Park in 1964, Coney Island entered a period of steep decline. Astroland, while built during the 1960s, seemed a vestige of an older Coney Island. Something akin to a carnival, it served as an anchor for the surviving arcades, game stands and sideshows that line Coney Island’s boardwalk, giving it that classic feel and honky-tonk tone during the summer. They too are now in danger of becoming collateral casualties of the revival awaiting Coney Island.

Today, very little of the old Coney has survived. The Cyclone and Wonder Wheel remain to remind us of its glory days. If Coney’s more modest artifacts are swept aside — the sideshows and boardwalk concessions that for generations have defined it — we will be left with Coney Island in name only.

In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg created the Coney Island Development Corp. to manage the resort’s revitalization and transform it into a “year-round visitor destination.” The CIDC’s mandate is to preserve Coney Island’s character by “protecting the amusement area in perpetuity.” It soon found itself at odds with developer Joe Sitt, who acquired 11 acres of land in the amusement district in anticipation of the redevelopment and wants to build an outdoor amusement park, a hotel, an enclosed water-park, and condominiums. The CIDC opposed housing in the core amusement district and envisioned a much larger amusement park. Last year, Mr. Sitt purchased the site occupied by Astroland and then agreed to lease it back to the park’s owner for a single season. Without an extension of the lease, Astroland must vacate the premises and dispose of the rides.

The CIDC faces other challenges. Last November it unveiled a redevelopment plan that set aside 15 acres of land for a “world class amusement park.” The plan won praise, but after criticism from Mr. Sitt and others, the CIDC issued a revised proposal that reduced the parkland to nine acres. It contends that the changes are necessary to ensure ample space for enclosed amusements that are viable year-round.

The revisions outraged many Coney Islanders, including Dick Zigun, founder of Coney Island USA, which sponsors the annual Mermaid Parade. Mr. Zigun, who quit the CIDC board in protest, said, “Everyone in the amusement industry feels betrayed by the current plan. The city needs to admit that the process has broken down and must reopen it.” He believes that the proposal to rezone the amusement district was watered down to accommodate Mr. Sitt and maintains that those resisting the changes aren’t opposed to development. “We are not asking for anything more radical than the city’s original plan. Coney Island cannot be the world’s playground unless it has amusements.”

The city acknowledges that Coney Island is at a critical juncture with Astroland closing and will soon begin the process of rezoning the redevelopment district to permit year-round entertainment venues, retail outlets, and some housing. It promises to be a lengthy and contentious process that requires the approval of several governing bodies and could take up to a year. “It is essential that we pass the rezoning now to save the ‘People’s Playground’ from further destruction,” argues CIDC President Lynn Kelly. “The city has made every effort to include the historical fabric of Coney in its plan, so that the essential character is not lost. It’s already apparent that Coney stands on a precipice, and more premature vacating of the land will push it over the edge.”

New York’s goal of making Coney a year-round tourist destination is worthy of support — but not in a way that leaves insufficient space for seasonal attractions and amusements that have become synonymous with Coney Island. The city hasn’t yet struck a proper balance. Under the current plan, too little land is allotted for the outdoor amusements, arcades and game stands that have long been Coney Island summer staples. The redevelopment zone comprises some 47 acres, and with the right zoning there can be ample space for year-round attractions without confining classic Coney Island amusements to a fraction of that area.

Eighty years ago, Giuseppe Cautella wrote: “When you bathe at Coney Island you bathe in the American Jordan. Democracy meets here and has its first interview skin to skin.” I do not doubt that a new Coney Island will emerge with first-rate amusements and year-round attractions to delight future generations, but we must, above all, respect Coney Island’s storied past and its promise of affordable fun for the masses. That promise is the very heart and soul of Coney Island.