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The season's first visitors to Coney Island can already see that the batting cages and the go-karts along Stillwell Avenue are gone, as is a miniature golf course that went up just a few years ago. From the base of the Wonder Wheel on West 12th Street all the way to the bus lot behind Nathan's, bulldozers have cut a large swath, leaving little more than barren asphalt and a few stray tires surrounded by a plywood fence.
It looks like a construc- tion site. And that's what it's meant to be, according to its owner, Thor Equities.
Two summers ago, Thor CEO Joseph Sitt announced a huge redevelopment project in Coney Island, featuring an indoor water park, a hotel, and even a rooftop landing pad for blimps. All this would be financed by beachfront condos towering as high as 50 stories over the boardwalk.
Sitt says high-priced housing is vital to his business plan; the city insists that condos in Coney Island would violate the hard-fought rezoning plan that the community and the city's Economic Development Corporation have hashed out over the past several years.
Thor's plans sparked a recent "Save Coney Island" protest on the steps of City Hall, including marching bands and at least one mermaid (with sideburns).
But what's at stake is far more than a view of the Parachute Jump unobstructed by balconied towers. While Thor denies it, denizens of the amusement district fear the developer is preparing to raze and leave fallow as much as two-thirds of Coney's amusement district. The idea would be to hold the heart of Coney Island hostage to force the city to rezone and let Thor cash in on condos.
If Sitt follows through with stated threats to wait for a new mayoral administration in 2010, Coney Island's already diminished amusement district could spend years as a torn-up wasteland, leaving only the Cyclone, Dino's Wonder Wheel Park, Sideshows by the Seashore, and Nathan's standing amid a vast empty plain.
"You're still going to have a beach," Charles Denson, an author of two books on Coney Island history, says of a post-Sitt era. "You're still going to have a boardwalk, if they still fix it up. And the memory of Coney Island will survive. But I think people will be disappointed when they come down and just see vacant lots."
Dianna Carlin, a boardwalk shopkeeper who was forced to close last month after a run-in with Thor, says company officials "are sacrificing the livelihood of small businesses such as mine and using the prospect of a shut-down Coney Island as leverage against the city in their negotiations." This summer's demolitions, she warns, are just "the beginning of what is to be a vicious war over the rezoning of Coney Island."
Coney Island has been considered ripe for redevelopment seemingly ever since there was a Coney Island. By the 1940s, two of Coney's three Golden Age amusement parks, Dreamland and Luna Park, had succumbed to fire; Robert Moses, the city's great redeveloper who never hesitated to remake a neighborhood with a sweep of his hand, replaced them with the New York Aquarium and the Luna Park Houses. Moses also bulldozed the ancient working-class neighborhood known as the Gut, handing over the land to Fred Trump, father of Donald, to build still more high-rise housing.
Once Steeplechase Park, with its famed mechanical horse-race ride and soaring glass gaming pavilion, shut down in the mid '60s, all that was left was an echo of the beachfront's onetime glory: the landmarked Cyclone and Wonder Wheel, and around them a collection of small-time amusements offering arcade games, Skee-Ball, and the occasional carnival ride and spook house.
But the crowds never stopped coming. In the 1970s, when the great old bathhouses along the boardwalk seemed to be burning daily, millions of people a year still visited. Even now, the tattooed hipsters who visit Sideshows by the Seashore or the annual Mermaid Parade are still far outnumbered by the throngs of mostly working-class families who descend on Coney Island every summer for the same reasons they always have: sand, sun, and entertainment, all for the price of a subway ride and a fistful of game tokens.
"It's always been popular with people of small means who can't afford to go anywhere else," Denson says. It's also served as a place for new immigrants to gain a foothold in running businesses. "You didn't need a lot of money to get in," he adds. "You could run a game or an attraction for the season and make enough money to get ahead."
Rumored casinos and other phantom developments never materialized, and for decades it seemed Coney Island would remain in slowly crumbling stasis. Then, in 2001, Mayor Rudy Giuliani spent $39 million to build KeySpan Park for the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones on the old Steeplechase site. (He also razed the derelict Thunderbolt next door, sending in bulldozers at 6 a.m. to pre-empt those who were hoping to have the 75-year-old wooden coaster landmarked and perhaps reopened.) Another $240 million in MTA money followed to build the airy new Stillwell Avenue subway terminal, and city-built comfort stations and playgrounds began sprouting along the beachfront.