A Sea Change at Coney Island?

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

NEW YORK -- The rumors waft along the boardwalk, floating from the lips of gossipy locals, strong as the scent of ketchup and sauerkraut on frankfurters under the scorching Brooklyn sun. Didyahear? The rides may soon be closing. See, the go-karts, they're already gone. What's that you say? They're going to knock down the place and rebuild? Whadayatalk. This can't be the last summer of Coney Island.

No. By most accounts, it is not. But it could be the last summer of Coney Island as we know it.

The birthplace of the roller coaster and the American hot dog is set to fall into the same powerful grip of New York City gentrification that cleaned up Times Square and brought luxury lofts to Hell's Kitchen. Thor Equities, a mall and commercial real estate developer, has amassed much of Coney Island's six-block-long amusement area, with public hearings expected later this summer on a $1.5 billion redesign of the area into an upscale techno theme park with retail space, high-rise timeshare towers and hotels.

True, Coney Island has seen better days. From its glittering start as a pioneer of American amusement -- a turn-of-the-last-century menagerie of racetracks, novelty rides and vice -- the magical sandbar on the edge of Brooklyn has morphed into a shrunken husk of kitsch.

It nevertheless hung on as a bastion of old-time New York shtick and a refuge in this hyper-priced city for families and lovers seeking shoestring laughs. Chuy the Mexican Wolf Man still performs his high-wire act at Sideshow by the Sea. A ride on the storied wood-and-steel Cyclone costs $6. Add a greasy lunch on the boardwalk and you're out just 10 bucks.

Change is already afoot. Landlord disputes and squabbles with the eager developers, who hope to break ground within 18 months, caused the operators of Coney's Island's miniature golf course, boat ride and go-karts to close this year, leaving parts of the area boarded up. More plan to hit the road by summer's end.

Talk now is of luring the likes of Starbucks and T.G.I. Friday's to a district long famous for independent food stalls with hand-painted signs. A modern "Coney Island Park" with a vertical roller coaster and digital hall of mirrors would replace the cheap carny rides and decidedly low-tech game arcades that dot Astroland, Coney Island's largest surviving amusement park.

Supporters of the snazzy redevelopment say the run-down place needs a new look -- "a Coney Island for the 21st century," better suited to New York's evolution into a city that is safer, cleaner and richer than at any point in its modern history. But other New Yorkers are aghast, seeing it as the symbolic last nail in the coffin of the rough-edged fun that once made New York New York.

This city's once-serendipitous streets, they say, have gradually devolved into a bland collection of chain stores, over-conceptualized restaurants and upscale retail spaces that, while larger and higher-priced, increasingly have little else to separate them from similar fare elsewhere in America. They point to redeveloped Times Square, now kid-safe and complete with the world's largest Toys "R" Us, but bereft of urban vibe. They look at SoHo, once an edgy artists district with affordable lofts now fully transformed into multimillion-dollar spaces for Wall Street executives and the stores that love them, including Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Chanel.

The cheap thrills at Coney Island stood apart from the ubiquity.

"It's all a chain of sad events," said Fran Lebowitz, the noted New York denizen and author. "Manhattan has become psychotically expensive, turning Brooklyn, where no one used to go, into the home of the $8 million condo. Now they've set their eyes on Coney Island and we'll lose that, too. . . . What we are losing -- no, have already lost -- is the authenticity of New York."

Not fair, say some on Coney Island, who look to the unabashed wealth elsewhere in the new New York with envy and desire.

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