For better or worse, New York City is the land of constant renewal. Over the last century, newer and higher skyscrapers overshadowed older ones, poor and working class neighborhoods transformed into expensive and trendy hotspots and the luxurious beachfront resorts of Coney Island evolved into an amusement center and then a source of urban blight. The long and winding history of the development of Coney Island real estate and its future is tracked in a great primer by Salon.
We have spilled a lot of digital ink on the history of Coney Island, starting with the competing resort days of Manhattan and Brighton Beach, the days when the area was the source of bizarre spectacles like the public electrocution of an elephant and the efforts of those who failed to transform the area into a glittering paradise after it fell into decay.
Salon’s article, though, tackles the onset of modernity, and the woes it caused at the People’s Playground:
This was once a singular place, an amusement park so grand and unusual that on an average weekend in its heyday, visitors mailed a quarter-million postcards to friends and relatives. Luna Park, the flagship attraction that burned down in 1916, drew nearly 100,000 attendees each day. By the time the subway reached Stillwell Avenue, in 1918, the area drew still more visitors. Weegee’s iconic 1940 image of Coney Island beachgoers jammed together like sardines today hangs in restaurants up and down the boardwalk, a memento of the glory days.
In the ensuing decades, population loss, television, cars and air conditioning undercut Coney Island’s appeal. New York’s urban planning czar, Robert Moses, hated its tawdry arcades and thrill rides. He transformed the eastern end of the amusement district into a home for the relocated New York Aquarium. The housing projects with which he rebuilt Coney Island became some of the city’s most depressed and dangerous.
Jumping from Coney Island’s decay, the report delves into those who changed Coney Island through land use and zoning battles, property squatting and tenant evictions; the horrendous city planning pains that birthed the new New Coney Island, for better or for worse:
As the city grew rapidly in the ’90s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani set his sights on Coney Island. Like [Robert] Moses before him, he bulldozed a roller coaster to build a recreational facility, this time a minor league ballpark for the Brooklyn Cyclones. The Bloomberg administration eyed the island as a potential site for the 2012 Olympics, and in 2003, commissioned the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) to examine the possibility of revising the restrictive C7 zoning that since 1961 had sheltered carnies and coasters (and a few vacant lots, as well) from market forces.
But a Brooklyn developer named Joe Sitt stole the limelight from CIDC, announcing a $2 billion plan in September 2005 that made the Las Vegas Strip look dull. Sitt had shrewdly purchased over a dozen acres of the old amusement park in anticipation of a rezoning gold rush, and hoped to bring in marquee clients like Dave and Buster’s, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and the Hard Rock Café.
It’s fair to say New Yorkers were horrified by Sitt’s plan — he responded by toning it down in later renditions — but what happened next was worse. Unable to build on his new land, Sitt chose instead to destroy it. Two years after his gaudy dreamchild was plastered on the cover of New York magazine, his development company, Thor Equities, began to evict tenants in what was both a premature move towards development and, many observers reckoned, an attempt to force the city’s hand. Coney Island grew barren. “They paved paradise to put up…. what exactly?” asked the Brooklyn Paper.
The present reality of Coney Island, influenced by Bloomberg’s efforts to redevelop and rezone seemingly the entire city, and the events of Superstorm Sandy, has attracted a corporate presence to the boardwalk, no matter how nauseating some might see it. Salon’s report touches on the fears some have of the quixotic spirit of the area being stamped out forever:
What’s in store for the amusement area? “We will never make Disney here,” CAI president Valero Ferrari told the New York Times, ”but it will be something more… refined, cleaner, a little more year-round, if that’s possible, with sit-down restaurants and sports bars.”
The company hired Miami Beach restaurateur Michele Merlo to re-envision the boardwalk, with plans that call for, among other things, a food court with international cuisine. “Maybe one day,” he said in an interview with New York 1, “you can come and read your book outside on this nice boardwalk, sit in nice comfortable chairs and have a nice cappuccino or ice coffee.”
The report is well worth soaking up and you can do so by clicking here.