August 1, 2004
A Carnival in Suspended Animation
By LYDIA POLGREEN
Slide Show: Coney Island Still Waiting for a Rebirth
It was the bottom of the ninth of a scoreless game under a canopy of threatening black clouds, but the thousands of fans who had traveled from throughout New York City to Coney Island to watch the Brooklyn Cyclones play the Williamsport Crosscutters did not seem to mind. The 7,500-seat stadium was about three-quarters full, and when outfielder Ambiorix Concepcion sneaked in a run, stealing two bases and making it home on a wild pitch, the crowd erupted.
When the game was over, most fans filed to their cars, in a vast parking lot west of the stadium, though some stopped at Nathan's for a hot dog on the way to the subway.
"People come here for the ballgame, and then they leave," said Heshy Wiederman, who lives in Seagate, a gated community at the western end of Coney Island. "It's like Yankee Stadium. You go to a game, and then you go home."
From a sports perspective, the Cyclones are clearly a huge success. By the middle of this season, its fourth, the team had sold a million tickets, making it one of the most successful teams in minor league baseball. And psychologically, the stadium has given a flagging neighborhood a big boost, prompting talk of a Coney Island revival and drawing thousands of new visitors who not long ago might have written off the fabled resort as a crime-ridden, filthy place, which for many years it was.
"This was one of the biggest July Fourths we have seen in a long time" said Carol Hill-Albert, who along with her husband owns Astroland, one of two amusement parks that are the legacy of the 1920's and 30's, when such parks dominated the peninsula and thrilled 15 million visitors a season. "The Boardwalk was literally jammed, you could barely walk on it. Something is changing, something is happening. There is an excitement I haven't seen in a long time."
But from an economic development point of view, the return on the city's $39 million investment in the Cyclones is less clear. When the stadium was being built, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani predicted that the team would "serve as a catalyst to the revitalization of Coney Island, much as Disney's investment on 42nd Street helped turn Times Square around."
That has not happened. The Cyclones have given the existing amusements at Coney Island a leg up - the number of riders on the Cyclone roller coaster shoots up by about 30 percent after a win by the Cyclones, but by only about 15 percent when they lose, Ms. Hill-Albert said, and the hot-dog lines at Nathan's can be daunting.
But one look at the empty buildings and vacant lots along Surf Avenue reveals that the stadium has yet to spark a wholesale revitalization of Coney Island or to create a significant number of jobs.
Indeed, much of Coney Island, the ragged thumb to Brooklyn's patchwork mitten for half a century, remains in the same state of suspended animation it has been stuck in since the 1970's, when the bottom dropped so far that part of Coney Island's bombed-out streetscape became a set for "The Warriors,'' a violent film tale of a bloodthirsty New York street gang ruling ruthlessly over an urban wasteland. Those days are long gone - crime is down more than 70 percent from a decade ago, a drop mirrored throughout the city. But the barren streetscape remains, owing at least in part to a handful of property owners who have held vacant land and buildings in the neighborhood for decades.
"There are a lot of obstacles to development in Coney Island," said Charles Denson, whose book, "Coney Island: Lost and Found,'' chronicles the rise, fall and nascent rebirth of the neighborhood where he grew up. "There is a lot of unused land, but it is very tightly controlled by a few property owners, some of whom are rational and others who are not. Some have good intentions and others are just waiting for a big payday."
Peter Agrapides, the 68-year-old owner of Pete's Clam Stop, a local institution, gestured at the empty Shore Theater opposite his store, part of a row of derelict structures on the north side of Surf Avenue. "They have been empty for many, many years," he said. "I hope I'll live long enough to see it all rebuilt again like it used to be." In the old days, Kister's Carousel whirled, the towers of Luna Park glittered, and mile-long roller coasters climbed to the heavens, a spectacle that prompted one visitor to write in 1904, "Verily this is Dreamland, and one rubs one's eyes and pinches one's arm to see if one be really awake."
Public investment has flooded the neighborhood. The grim portal that was the Stillwell Avenue subway terminal will become, when it is completed next year, one of the grandest subway stations in the city, with a price tag of about a quarter-billion dollars. It will be the first major new building on the north side of Surf Avenue, giving the street a much needed face-lift. The Boardwalk has new bathrooms from the Parks Department, and the New York Aquarium is working on an expansion with a shark exhibit.
But private investment in the neighborhood has been harder to come by. Despite whispers that Disney is looking at one vacant lot, or that a hotel might rise on another, no shovels are close to hitting the dirt.
"We read in the newspaper that Coney Island has a big future," said Vladimir Zats, who has been selling antiques and bric-a-brac on Surf Avenue for more then 20 years and hears each new plan to revitalize Coney Island with a little more skepticism. "But it isn't here yet."
In September 2003, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg formed the Coney Island Development Corporation, to spark ideas and attract investment to the neighborhood, and he put one of the city's top economic development officials at its helm. The corporation is now meeting with residents, businesses and community groups to come up with a master plan for the neighborhood.
It is not the first time city officials have set their sights on remaking this corner of Brooklyn. In the 1930's, New York's controversial master builder, Robert Moses, who hated Coney Island's honky-tonk atmosphere, set his sights on making it more like his beloved Jones Beach, a tranquil resort on Long Island that he had completed the decade before. He tore down ornate restaurants and bathhouses to make room for more beach, and over the next two decades the city rezoned much of the vast amusement district for low-income housing and erected glowering towers of drab brick that still dominate. With few jobs to support the huge influx of poor people, the neighborhood that had once amused millions quickly descended into despair, becoming a place of violent drug gangs and prostitution.
This time the city hopes to get it right. It has hired a battery of consultants to develop a master plan that they hope will transform a still seedy, seasonal destination that relies on nostalgia to draw visitors to a small set of attractions, into a shining year-round entertainment mecca.
"Coney Island is an extraordinary resource that frankly can be doing much more than it is," said Joshua Sirefman, chairman of the development corporation and chief operating officer of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. "We are trying to figure out what the right kind of development is, how to increase economic activity and make it a year-round destination by enhancing what's there and making a place that can both serve as regional attraction but also work well with the neighborhood around it."
The corporation hopes to build on the baseball stadium's popularity and find ways to link it to the slow but steady revival already taking place here - among the hordes of magenta-haired hipsters who came for a recent alternative rock festival, dozens of sets of twins who came for what was billed as the world's largest gathering of twins, and thousands of families from across the city wanting to taste a little bit of that old carnival magic.
For these visitors, Coney Island has slowly become what it once was - a wonderland by the sea, just a subway ride from the stifling heat of the city, packed with whimsy that can be found nowhere else but on this oddball peninsula.
"To me, Coney Island is magical," said Roman Macia, a preschool teacher from Dallas who rode the subway from the Upper West Side to eat a Nathan's hot dog and stroll on the Boardwalk on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon. When he was a little boy growing up in Camaguey, Cuba, he said, his grandmother would regale him with tales of visiting the Boardwalk in the 1930's. He never forgot the stories, and comes back whenever he can. "I always come here when I am in New York, no matter what."
Some people credit the Cyclones for putting for Coney Island back on the map. But many in the neighborhood say that other factors also played a role, including the drastic drop in crime and the overall improvement in the economy, which gave the working-class families that are the mainstay of Coney Island's amusement industry the cash to spend on a day at the beach and on the Boardwalk.
"I'm glad that they are here because they forced the city to pay attention to Coney Island," said Dick Zigun, artistic director of Coney Island USA, a nonprofit arts group that runs Sideshows by the Seashore and a museum and organizes the annual Mermaid Parade. "With their short season, they draw about 300,000 people, which is hardly a drop in the bucket. We get that many people in a day at the Mermaid Parade.''
And Coney Island's rebirth will have to contend with the social ills that cling to its seashore. Public housing still dominates the neighborhood and crime has not disappeared entirely. Last month, a notorious drug dealer was gunned down at the corner of Mermaid Avenue and 24th Street. Standing at the desolate corner near a street tribute to the dealer, who was known as Dada, Verzon Fonville, a 35-year-old former drug dealer and felon turned community activist, said change had come slowly to the western, most populated end of Coney Island.
"They talk about rebuilding, but west of Stillwell it is a very different story," Mr. Fonville said, gesturing at the knots of teenagers congregated on Mermaid Avenue's litter-strewn corners. "The kids around here have nowhere to go. There are no jobs for the people who live here. The revival hasn't gotten here yet."
Still, longtime Coney Island residents and business people say the neighborhood's current upswing differs from the nostalgia-fueled hope that opens each sunshiny season, only to be dashed when Labor Day rolls around and the receipts are counted.
"Right now there is a lot of optimism," said Judi Orlando, director of Astella Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that has built low cost single-family houses in Coney Island for 25 years. "People believe that this could be it, the moment they have been waiting for."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company