When people hear “Coney Island,” the first words that come to mind are probably Nathan’s, Cyclone, beach, boardwalk or some combination of the sort. They are part of the very little remaining of the original Coney Island. Due to major redevelopment and investment by Central Amusement and others the area is under a massive transformation. With each passing week the gates of places that closed long ago are being lifted, properties are being bought and curiosity is growing exponentially.
Taking the subway lines D F N and Q into Coney Island’;s recently remodeled eight-track Stillwell Avenue Station, it is easy to see construction everywhere. Upon exiting, visitors can’t help but wonder if the area is even open for patronage. Excavators are humming, bulldozers are crushing, concrete mixers are huddling and spitting out the groundwork, the pavement, onto which many new restaurants, shops, games and rides will go.
“What did they do with the batting cage? I used to take my son there all the time,” said Chef Frank Rodriguez of Callahan Catering, noticing the changes.
The season has gotten off to a slow start because of the unfavorable weather and a true lack of ways to amuse one’s self for more than an hour or two. Many old amusements are gone and the new ones have yet to be erected.
Since World War II, most of the original amusements or structures have been destroyed or replaced. The boardwalk was pushed back,removing the municipal bath house. The New York Aquarium replaced Dreamland and Abe Stark skating rink, old rides.
The new MCU Baseball Park, construction of Steeplechase Plaza, high-end restaurants and the debated plasticization of the boardwalk are swiftly swallowing the memory of Coney Island.
The Dreamland fire on May 26, 1911 (the largest fire in New York City prior to the Sept. 11 attacks) began in the middle of the night, on the official opening day of the summer season, in the “Hell’s Gate” section of the park and was the starting point to many unfortunate changes and losses experienced by the area.
In time, the casinos, beach clubs, resorts, hotels, Coney Island’s theatre building, the SeaGate ferry and the iron piers for steamboats would all be lost. In the 1950s, the area is almost rezoned to be all residential. Only a small portion was saved for amusement.
Millions of people would visit the beaches crowding the area to the point of immobility and danger. In the 1970s, gang violence and other crimes picked up and low-income housing brought in residents that could not afford to participate in the amusements. Greener, less crowded areas like Long Island beaches and state parks became easier to access. Movie theatres and homes acquired air-conditioning causing Coney Island to lose its luster.
Most people see that the area has been neglected and the proposed changes as stagnant and altogether unlikely. Even so, they remain hopeful.
“Do I think that Coney Island will ever become a higher end place? No. Do I hope? Yes,” said Isabelle Babot, a resident of Sea Gate. “People are afraid to invest into a high-end restaurant or retail when everyone living around here is basically poor, on welfare and whatever else.”
She also said that the summer season can be difficult for locals.“The people who visit are so uncivilized. They behave like animals throwing their trash everywhere and the later it gets the more belligerent and dangerous.”
Business owners and residents of all ages are willing to let go of the nostalgia for a new beginning.
The “Shoot the Freak” booth has been bulldozed and longtime staple restaurants are evicted while empty lots are filled with new businesses. Developers are trying to bring things up to date, modernizing and making the creaking coasters and buildings safe and inviting.
Stav Stern, a resident of the Olivia building in Manhattan, said he was concerned about the safety of rides, even years ago.
“I took my sister there seven years ago and never looked back,” Gould said. “It probably had to do with the antique rides. The roller coaster is especially terrifying, every turn you feel like a screw is going to pop out and send you flying like E.T.”
Making Coney Island a destination again especially beyond the summer months is a goal of developers.
“We are trying to make the area a year round attraction,” said Nathan Bliss of the Coney Island Development Council. “The old Beer Garden will become a ’higher end’ restaurant but emphasizing that it won’t be high end per se.” He also noted that many restaurants are being developed along the boardwalk and in theSteeplechase Plaza around the former parachute jump.
Residents, visitors and employees of local businesses express a common interest in the dining of Coney Island, or lack thereof.
“There is no restaurant scene here. I pack my lunch every day because anything aside from a deli sandwich or a Chinese food platter is too far to order, “ said pharmacy owner Arie Bolshem. “You can only eat that for so long. What is here is mediocre at best. The Chinese place next door (former Oriental Palace) closed because of continuous robbery. The owner’s son had been beaten for the end of the day cash deposit.” His employees agree.
Michelle Palkin, resident of Luna Park building complex on West 8th Street, said it’s about time someone stepped up and made something of the waterfront.
“I would like for there to be some real seafood restaurants. I’ve lived in this are for so long and the only thing I’ve tried is Nathan’s, on which note, I hate fast food,” Palkin said. “That’s all that comes to mind, hot dogs, cotton candy, soft-serve ice cream, pizza and 3-foot-long piña coladas. I’m not interested.”
Their hopes are closer to reality than they think. Dining development is not really being publicized that much but it is definitely on its way. If you walk down the boardwalk or Surf and Mermaid Avenues it is clear to see the changes. The construction workers are open about the fact that they are working on properties set to mostly be restaurants and some retail.src=”http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/jrn3510s12h/files/2012/05/P5017812-300×225.jpg” alt=”" title=”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA” width=”300″ height=”225″ class=”alignnone size-medium wp-image-582″ />
People think that “Coney Island” is only comprised of West 8th Street (entrance to theaquarium) to the baseball park which is on 19th street, leaving twenty by three or so blocks virtually unthought-of. There are a few new developments along Mermaid Avenue like pizzerias, boutique supermarkets, cell-phone stores, pharmacies and banks.
Coney Island is getting through the basic necessities of residents first by developing its local retail center, Mermaid Avenue, a more promising investment.
As Mermaid Avenue grows and the housing market picks up contractors are investing in new residential spaces which are selling cheap and fast to many interested parties.
“We bought our penthouse condo a few years ago on 15th Street and its value is steadily growing. It is close to the Beach and the subway but there is nothing to do here,” said Roger Gelfand. “The real estate situation reminds me of what happened with the SoHo lofts. No one wanted to go there, but people bought anyway and look at it now.”