Coney Island 8 Vow Not to Give Up Against "Goliath"

Snowdrifts on the third rail have the DNQ trains crawling along toward Stillwell Avenue like they were headed for the last stop on the Trans-Siberian. Polar bears have been seen canvassing the shallows. It's home to white skeletons of roller coaster steel and a brutal cold wind. It's Coney Island in the winter, Vladivostok to Manhattan's Moscow.

It doesn't sound like an inviting destination, but Central Amusements International, the American arm of Italian thrill ride maker Zamperla, is determined to turn it into one. So much so that eight historic boardwalk businesses were told by lease-holder CAI in November 2010 to pack up and make way for a development project worth millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs, with the aim of turning Coney Island into a year-round destination.

CAI announced last week that it will take over operation of the historic Cyclone roller coaster, built in 1927, along with adding new attractions and rides for the 2011 season, beginning April 16.

The "Coney Island 8" -- including local favorites like Paul's Daughter, Ruby's, and paintball attraction Shoot the Freak, which was illegally bulldozed by CAI in December -- accuse CAI, et al, of deceitful and underhanded tactics, citing assurances that they would be able to renew their leases and going so far as to commission plans and renderings for renovations, only to receive eviction notices. All eight have appealed the eviction and the decisive hearing is slated for February 16.

An architect's rendering of renovations for Paul's Daughter that was submitted to CAI in 2010.
An architect's rendering of renovations for Paul's Daughter that was submitted to CAI in 2010.

"It does feel like we're taking on a Goliath," said Ruby's owner Michael Sarrel. "They said that they have a vision of what Coney Island should be, and that the existing businesses don't fit into their vision." The New York Post reported in August of last year that CAI had said it wasn't "intending to clear house" and that there would "be a boardwalk business presence." Fast forward to October 29, when the surrender the premises letters arrived by mail.

Stepping into the former business's vacated properties as part of the new Coney Island vision will be the French food services provider Sodexo, which has a contract with CAI for all of the park's concessions operations. As one of the largest corporations in the world, it has an equally large portfolio of morally questionable and sometimes illegal business practices.

While he was Attorney General, Governor Andrew Cuomo led an investigation of the food giant and found that it was "overcharging 21 New York school districts as well as the SUNY system." Sodexo paid $20 million to settle the case. It had also paid a $80 settlement in a 2005 Washington, D.C., lawsuit "brought by thousands of black employees who charged that they were routinely barred from promotions and segregated within the company," according to the New York Times.

Sodexo already runs the concession stands at Luna Park, which reopened in May 2010, and will operate the Luna Park Cafe, a Surf Avenue restaurant scheduled to open this season.

For its part, "CAI has hired over 100 people from the community, and they are hiring more. Everyone is looking forward to it," said Community Board 13 District Manager Charles Reichenthal. Coney Island has an unemployment rate more than twice as high as the rest of New York City, according to the city's Economic Development Corporation, which is working with CAI to bring in the new development.

Libby Langsdorf from the EDC told that those developments would upon completion "create more than 5000 new units of housing, more than 500,000 square feet of new retail and neighborhood services, [and] 25,000 construction and 6,000 permanent jobs." Zamperla can back up the talk too, announcing last week that two new roller coasters -- Soaring Eagle and Steeplechase Coaster -- in an amusement park called "Scream Zone" will open in April 2011 to the tune of $12 million.

Local politicians, the EDC, and the community board have all sided with CAI and Sodexo in their quest for boardwalk dominance, yet the Coney Island 8 decry the amusement-concessions union as another step towards gentrification and one more away from affordable entertainment.

"Coney Island is a place where classes can mix. There are very few places that are beachfront properties where you have that," said Ruby's owner Sarrel.

Pamela Harris, 50, a youth organizer and lifelong Coney Island resident, says that it is time for the businesses to go, despite the trouble that Sodexo carries with its name. "They believe that they are fighting for the community, but they have never given anything to us. We have heard about the lawsuits, and that a lot of them have to do with their business partners, but now we'll have some more opportunities. Absolutely, bring it on!" Harris said.

Capitalism's winter offensive rumbles closer to bringing down the eight old timers on a seasonally abandoned boardwalk, and no one will be around to hear them fall. February's hearing could wipe away "preservers of the quintessential Coney Island experience" with the once-unthinkable blessing of the people who actually live there, but Michael Sarrel and his allies are not giving up.

"I am optimistically optimistic. I feel like right now we're in a coma. We're not dead but we're certainly not alive. As long as we're breathing without life support, there's always a chance."

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