Coney Island: Two words that, for many, evoke memories of summers at the beach in Brooklyn, eating Nathan's Famous hot dogs, enjoying rides and boardwalk games. The rides and beach at Coney Island have long attracted visitors to the area, and have become New York icons.
Events such as the Coney Island Film Festival and Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest, as well as the boardwalk amusements, welcome thousands of visitors each year. No matter how things shift and change in the city's neighborhoods, the slightly seedy, rumpled charm of Coney Island seemed like something that would endure.
Time will tell if that's actually the case. Coney Island is not immune to the city's hunger for real estate development, and to many, the heyday of the Coney Island boardwalk has passed. Proposed development looms, and these changes could alter the face of the area forever. For many, the very fate of their beloved, historic neighborhood hangs in the balance.
Coney Island is best known for its amusement park attractions and offbeat cultural events. Some of the offerings that are synonymous with the area include:
Astroland: Boasting that it's the largest amusement park in New York City, Astroland (1000 Surf Avenue) is home to many of the famed Coney Island park rides. For decades, children's rides have included the Carousel, Dune Buggy Jump and Teacups, while adults can enjoy wilder rides such as the Water Flume, Tilt-a-Whirl and Bumper Cars.
But perhaps most notably, Astroland is where visitors can ride the famous Cyclone roller coaster, which features a steel track on an almost entirely wooden structure. The Cyclone is a piece of New York City history, first opened on June 26, 1927. According to Astroland's website, this looping roller coaster is "the outdoor amusement industry's most famous, most influential, and most copied individual ride."
Rehabilitated in 1975, the Cyclone has been an official New York City Landmark since 1988. It was listed in the New York State Register of Historic Places in 1991 and was named a National Historic Landmark on June 26, 1991.
Although the park has closed for the season, it is uncertain whether the summer of 2007 was its last. Thor Equities purchased the park in 2006 and states in a press release, "In the future, Astroland will house a mix of amusements and attractions. Thor's vision includes the introduction of enclosed amusements for the 21st century that can operate throughout the year, as well as a new hotel that will be needed to accommodate the expected influx of visitors to the area."
Regardless of what Thor Equities' re-imagined Astroland looks like when all is said and done, the Albert family, the park's previous owners, will continue to operate the Cyclone.
KeySpan Park: Home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Class A affiliate of the New York Mets, Keyspan Park (1904 Surf Avenue) is a relatively new addition to Coney Island. The Cyclones played their first home game at the park only six years ago, during the summer of 2001. Although baseball is a rich part of Brooklyn's history, it had been absent from the borough for 44 years. Now that baseball is back in Brooklyn, the new park offers another fun summertime activity.
Deno's Wonder Wheel:One of the most iconic structures of Coney Island, people worldwide are familiar with the gigantic Ferris wheel (on the boardwalk at 3059 Denos Vourderis Place). The Wonder Wheel was built in 1920 and received official New York City Landmark status in 1989. The ride, which can hold 144 passengers, stands 150 feet high above the boardwalk. From its seats, riders are able to see everything from the skyline to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Wonder Wheel is but one of many rides featured at Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. Two arcades, 25 rides and live entertainment continue to attract visitors year after year.
The Mermaid Parade: The Mermaid Parade is not your average marching-bands-and-floats parade. Since its inception in 1983, the event has attracted scores of participants who dress—as the name suggests—in costumes that celebrate the sand and sea. The annual parade encourages its participants to be expressive in creating their costumes, which evoke pretty much everything from mermaids to amusement rides. The parade is reigned over by a different celebrity Queen Mermaid and King Neptune each year and features a costume ball following the festivities.
The parade was founded by Coney Island USA, a nonprofit organization that also produces the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. According to its website (www.coneyisland.com), the parade is an homage to Coney Island's Mardi Gras, which lasted from 1903 to 1954, "and draws from a host of other sources resulting in a wonderful and wacky event that is unique to Coney Island."
This year's parade was held on June 23, and 2007 also marked the event's Silver Anniversary.
Coney Island Past and Present
Coney Island was discovered by Henry Hudson in 1609 and gets its name from a Dutch translation of "rabbit island." It is thought to be named by Dutch settlers who observed the robust rabbit population on the island in the 1600s. The island became a resort destination following the Civil War, and became a peninsula in the early 20th century when the center of Coney Island Creek was filled in, permanently connecting it to Long Island.
The early 20th century also saw an increase in the number of people traveling to the beach area for the day—but the boom proved relatively short-lived. Following World War II, rising crime and the closure of area attractions such as Steeplechase Park in the 1960s led to a decline in visitors. From that time until the 1990s, when a new generation of nostalgic young New Yorkers "rediscovered" it, Coney Island became synonymous with faded grandeur and forlorn urban wastelands.
Georganna Deas is a Coney Island resident who has lived in the area for more than 30 years. "I moved there for decent, affordable housing," she says, "and I've seen the community change. I've seen landlords letting buildings deteriorate, a lot of fires, and then the resurgence of more single-family houses built on vacant lots."
Coney Island proper sits between several other Brooklyn neighborhoods.
"On the extreme West End is Sea Gate, which is all private homes," says Charles Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project, about the private, gated community. Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach and Oriental Beach are to the east.
Today, the area is home to large Asian and Russian populations, as well as many other pockets of cultural diversity. Coney Island's residential streets are made up of mostly single-family homes and high-rise rental properties, with few co-ops and condos in Coney Island proper.
"In the mid-1960s, co-ops and condos were not as popular, and not part of the urban renewal of that time," explains Judi Orlando, executive director of Astella Development Corporation, a nonprofit, community-based organization that promotes and builds affordable housing and commercial revitalization for Coney Island. "When Astella started to build in the early 1980s, home ownership was a big thrust, resulting in a lot of single-family homes. Hopefully we'll be doing some affordable condos in the near future, and market-rate co-ops and condos will also be available."
Although the number of co-ops and condos in the area are relatively few, one area co-op is the Samburt, a limited equity cooperative community. Orlando also notes that a new co-op on West 15th Street was just built and is nearly ready for occupancy. Units in that building are priced at $475,000 for a two-bedroom and $650,000 for a penthouse unit.
"We're west of the amusement area," says Deas, "and that takes up a certain area that housing is not a part of. In Coney Island you have Seagate, subsidized houses, and single-family houses. Astella has built over 1,000 single- family houses. Across Stillwell Avenue you have Trump, Luna Park, Warbasse and Bright Water, the four large co-op complexes."
Average rental rates are difficult to gage, says Orlando, because may of the area apartments are subsidized, Section 8, or fall under Mitchell Lama rules. "Rents are geared toward people's income," she says.
It may be known for its amusement park rides and quirky attractions, but real estate is another element that has attracted people to Coney Island. According to the Coney Island History Project's website (www.coneyislandhistory.org), "Real estate has always been the driving force. The inspiration and motivation for Coney's magnificent artifice grew out of a simple formula: how to squeeze the greatest number of dollars out of the smallest plot of sand." This can be seen in current redevelopment efforts, as well as those of the recent past.
"There's a lot of speculation," says Denson. "Thor [Equities] is trying to put high rises in the amusement areas. A lot of people want to be near the ocean. It's a neighborhood in transition. Many residents are afraid that they're going to be privatized and lose their homes."
The future of Coney Island remains in question. While there will always be ocean views, plans for the buildings and properties overlooking the water are still not solidified. Thor Equities (whose principals declined to be interviewed for this article) has plans to redevelop parts of the area and some proposals envision an ambitious Vegas-like transformation featuring shopping, hotels and entertainment. The specifics of those plans are as yet unknown—or at least not public. To say the proposed redevelopment has been controversial would be an understatement, as plans have been met with resistance from area locals.
"There are a lot of changes, we're reading it just like everyone else is reading it," says Deas. "Most people are interested in the amusement park, but the residents are more interested in the neighborhood."
Thor has acquired approximately 10 acres of land in Coney Island, for which it's paid more than $100 million. According to recent press coverage of the deal, the company's potential redevelopment plans include retail space, new amusements (a 4,000-foot roller coaster and a new, multi-level carousel, to name just two), two full-service hotels, one of which will feature a water park, and time-share facilities. Proposed plans for the redevelopment at one point included luxury condos (now timeshares), although such a plan might run into zoning restrictions, according to neighborhood sources.
In addition, the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) was formed in 2003 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the City Council and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. This committee of 13 was charged with developing and implementing a planning process and economic strategy for Coney Island. According to the CIDC's strategic plan, some of the proposed improvements include new entertainment and retail amenities; an increase in year-round activities on Surf Avenue, which could possibly include a new hotel; and development of affordable housing on city-owned property.
"It looks like the aim of the redevelopment is to make Coney Island a year round destination, therefore bringing year-round employment to a neighborhood that is grossly unemployed," says Deas. "There's some consensus that residents don't want to see Astroland boarded up. Hopefully whatever comes in there will provide temporary or long-range employment for residents."
Coney Island's future depends in large part on any zoning change by the city, as well as changes in current, proposed redevelopment plans. For now, residents remain eager to see what's to come, and continue to make their voices heard in the battle over preserving the past and future growth.
"I love living here," says Deas. "We can walk to one of the best beaches in the city. We love the scenery and enjoy our parks, which are now being maintained. Anybody who lives here wants to remain here, and other people want to come here."
Stephanie Mannino is a freelance writer and published author living in Hoboken, New Jersey.