Requiem for a dreamland
By Kevin Baker
They’re getting very near the end now at Coney Island. They’ve been tearing pieces off the place for years, and soon the bulldozers will be back again, pushing over the last, weathered links to the past on Surf Avenue. Next to go this spring will be the old Bank of Coney Island, and the Shore Hotel, and the Grashorn Building, which goes all the way back to 1889. They’ll take down what’s left of Henderson’s Music Hall, where they once put on shows the size of Broadway productions and where Harpo Marx made his stage debut.
A strip of faceless new buildings will replace the battered old ones, and the stands, with their small operators still holding on inside them, selling fast food and rides and games and T-shirts, will be replaced by . . . new stands selling fast food and rides and games and T-shirts. Then these new buildings will be torn down in turn, sometime in the next two or three or five or 10 years, and from their rubble will rise the new Coney Island, one that will be bigger and better and more exciting than it ever was before. Or so the story goes.
If it seems senseless, all this tearing up and building down, you have to understand that what’s really going on at Coney is a scam as old as the place itself, one that’s known in carny parlance as “a razzle.” It’s the same con New Yorkers have been subjected to all over the city for the past 10 years, a racket business and government run with almost breathtaking coordination against the rest of us. If it succeeds out in Coney Island, it will spell the demise, once and for all, of the city’s most iconic neighborhood, and right now, things are looking as bleak as they have ever been. But then Coney has a long history of somehow evading all attempts by outsiders to make it into something it doesn’t want to be.
The news that the wrecking crews will be back came just as Coney was looking forward to its best summer in years. The Ringling Bros. Circus is set to return, along with a new park run by Central Amusement International and featuring 19 tempting high-tech rides designed by the internationally renowned Zamperla company. On a windy Saturday in late March, workers were bustling about, hastening to install the infrastructure in time for the new park’s opening day on Memorial Weekend. The sun was out, and some of the small-stand owners felt optimistic enough to open up. Workmen walked the tracks of the Cyclone roller coaster, peering at each of its ancient wooden slats, while at Ruby’s Bar & Grill out on the boardwalk, the Blues Man and Mermaid Holly and Chocolate Jesus were leading a tribute to a late, lamented regular known as Master, the Whompa! Man.
Everywhere there was a sense of activity and purpose that was a welcome departure from the year before. The 2009 season was a disaster, after the developer Thor Equities bought up most of the old amusement area and reduced it to rubble. Coney had been nuked, and the place took on something of a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. There were reports of Chechen thugs pulling scams and roughing up patrons along Jones Walk. A strip club opened across Surf Avenue, as did a bowling alley that was known to hold dubious bachelor parties in a back room.
Adding mortal insult to injury, Thor brought in a flea market, promoted as “Flea by the Sea.” When the fleas took flight at the end of the summer, they left their plastic tenting behind, to be fouled and shredded over the winter months. Coney was literally blowing in the wind, and images of the desolation slowed business to a crawl.
The place seemed finished.
Somehow, Coney clawed its way back from the abyss—again. Over the winter, the city announced that it had finally resolved its long stalemate with Thor, agreeing to buy back part of the hostage amusement district and set into motion its own master plan for Coney. Then came the news that the bulldozers would be returning, filling the air with concrete dust and the sound of something ripping as they tore out the old heart of the neighborhood.
Something about Coney Island makes reality shimmy and flicker. Some way in which the sun and the sand converge, or how the long summer light plays along the boardwalk, that seems to make it hard for anyone to see or think too clearly—the perfect spot to reel in a sucker.
Back in 1893, Coney’s ultimate showman, George C. Tilyou, tried to buy the gigantic new Ferris wheel that had been unveiled at the Chicago Exposition. When he was turned down, Tilyou went back to Coney, set up a considerably smaller wheel, and stuck a sign out front. It read: “WORLD’S LARGEST FERRIS WHEEL.”
A few years later, when the mania for Coney was at its height, and anything at all seemed possible, a huckster named Samuel Friede announced the imminent construction of the most incredible building ever seen. The Friede Globe Tower was to be just that—an enormous, globe-shaped structure built around a central tower. At 700 feet high, it would be the tallest building in the world, with the most powerful searchlight ever made beaming from the top of its tower.
There would be 11 stories of residences, starting at 150 feet above the ground. Sandwiched in between the residential floors would be entertainment areas that would hold the largest ballroom and the largest theme park in the world, a revolving, glassed-in restaurant, an entire observatory, an “Aerial Palm Garden,” and an “Aerial Hippodrome” with enough room for a four-ring circus and 5,000 spectators. At night, it would look like a towering pillar of fire.
A combination of almost every attraction ever built or imagined on Coney, it took two whole seasons of much-ballyhooed groundbreaking, and drilling 30-foot foundation holes, before the whole thing was revealed as a lucrative hoax. Things are rarely what they seem at Coney, and the same razzles are pulled decade after decade, no matter how outrageous they are. It’s no wonder that the place has attracted some of the slickest operators in New York history, from Tilyou to Robert Moses to Fred Trump—to Joseph Sitt, Thor Equity’s chairman and CEO.
Like many rich men, Joe Sitt likes to tell stories that make his life into an epic. He is full of anecdotes and portents, such as the time that he was 11 and Sam Walton handed him a sweet in Benton, Arkansas (although he genially refuses to answer direct questions about just where he grew up, or the exact nature of his relationship with Coney’s blustery City Councilman, Domenic Recchia).
Sitt got his start, appropriately enough, as a teenager running flea markets in the parking lots of local racetracks. While still in college, he began grabbing up abandoned properties sold at tax auctions along East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx—the once thriving, integrated neighborhood famously devastated by Robert Moses in the 1950s—and converting them into urban retail strips.
Sitt’s company is named not after the Norse god, but a comic-book hero who protects Earth from intergalactic monsters, which “fit in with my concept of being the protector of the cities.” Much of his working life, as he tells it, has been spent fulfilling the unmet needs of embattled urban minorities. He started apparel chains such as Ashley Stewart, for instance, to cater to “a lot of African-Americans [who] happened to be fuller-figured, larger-size.”
Having made the world safe for plus-size black women, Sitt turned his full attentions to developing real estate. Or, more accurately—perhaps compelled by his wonderfully Dickensian name—he found he could make more money by acquiring key parcels of land and, well, sitting on them.
Thor Equities has actually developed some properties, such as the Palmer House in Chicago, but its real specialty has always been holding them hostage. A couple of years ago, the website for arts organization Coney Island USA traced, complete with pictures, the trail of Thor’s destruction around Manhattan and Newark.
Sitt’s modus operandi, it revealed, was to buy cheap buildings facing the “threat” of being landmarked or some zoning problem, in “an area being marked for redevelopment.” Existing tenants were forced out by means of raising rents or refusing to renew leases; new tenants were kept away by exorbitant demands for long-term leases. Then, as Coney Island USA summarized:
“Allow the building to deteriorate a bit. . . . Petition the city for removal of landmark status, rezoning and demolition permits. Send them renderings of some fantastic new building Sitt claims he wants to build with what the neighborhood supposedly needs in it. Once the rezoning and/or landmark approval and/or building permits get approved and any subsidies are handed out, suddenly put the property on the market to other developers.”
Probably the most successful example of this strategy was in the Albee Square Mall in downtown Brooklyn. In 2000, Thor bought the lease on the city-owned land from Forrest City Ratner for a reported $25 million. Sitt promised to build “the Bellagio hotel of malls,” including an enormous “Thor Galleries tower” and a million square feet of office and retail space.
Instead, over the next few years, Sitt let the property slowly deteriorate, while wheedling zoning changes from the city and an agreement that the leaseholder could buy the property outright for a mere $20 million. At the same time, he got all of Albee’s tenants to agree to give up their leases in exchange for space in the new, forthcoming mall. Everything was in place . . . and, in 2007, Sitt flipped the lease to another developer for $125 million—a cool $100 million profit. Currently, Albee Square is mostly flattened, awaiting grand new schemes of one sort or another.
It was a razzle to warm the heart of Samuel Friede—and in 2005, before it was even completed, Sitt turned his eyes to Coney Island. First, he laid out $13 million for some lots near Keyspan Park, the Mets’ minor-league stadium out at Coney (and the planned location of the Friede Globe Tower!), several of which the city had zoned for parkland. When, 14 months later, the city made it clear it would allow these lots to be developed, Sitt flipped them to another developer, Taconic Investment Partners, for $90 million.
He then moved in on the amusement district itself, 27 acres located between the boardwalk and Surf Avenue and stretching for seven blocks to the east of Nathan’s Famous. He plunked down $95 million to buy up dowdy little Astroland Park, and pretty much everything else but those landmarked perennials, the Cyclone and Deno’s Wonder Wheel. Now, Sitt morphed back into Thor, Protector of Cities. He started talking about how, growing up in Gravesend, he used to cut school so often to hang out on the boardwalk that he was called “Joey Coney Island.”
Coney, he insists, is “not our Coney Island—it’s the world’s Coney Island,” and he wanted to make it into a world-class, $1.5 billion resort. There would be a “Las Vegas component,” with a huge—you guessed it—Bellagio-style hotel. There would be shopping plazas and an indoor water park and futuristic rides, and an enormous fountain that would project images of mermaids and whales, and a mooring mast for a blimp to fly around advertising the wonders of the new Coney.
“It was supposed to be a hobby, this project—supposed to be a labor of love,” claims Sitt. “For us, it was to just bring things that would bring the traffic back to Coney Island, a place . . . that nobody cared about, you know. Coney Island was left for dead.”
To show everyone just how fabulous it would be, Thor leaked an artist’s rendering of what Sitt’s new Coney would look like. The remaining operators, hanging on at Coney by the skin of their teeth, looked past the Bellagio-style hotel, and the blimps and all the mermaids and the whales, and noticed that Sitt’s plan required 575—or maybe 975 condominiums—right in the heart of Coney’s amusement zone.
Sitt claimed that such a residential component—or at least time-shares—was necessary to make his new Coney a viable community around the calendar year. But once the amusement area was developed for housing, everybody knew it was over. This was the very heart of Coney, “the playground of the world” for over a century, the home of Skee-Ball and roasting corn and screams from the scary rides echoing out over the beach at night. Turn it into condos, and Coney Island could never be more than a pathetic shadow of its former self, with a few token rides and games.
Desperate, the preservationists and the small-businessmen looked to the city, which, going into 2009, remained adamant, refusing to change the zoning and let Sitt build anything. But the city, it turned out, had its own fantastic plans.
Coney Island has always suffered from grandiosity. It is always going to be the next Newport, the next Atlantic City, the next Disneyland or Las Vegas. Like the perfect mark, it has never been able to accept the limits of what it can be, or see the beauty of what it is.
What those who wish to improve Coney Island can never accept is the edginess, the streak of anarchy etched deep in the soul of any great carnival. The whole history of Coney Island can be written as the attempt to impose order and civilization on a place that always manages to elude it.
Already by the 1820s, New Yorkers were driving their carriages out to Coney across the old Shell Road, desperate to escape the smothering heat of the city. They built bonfires on the beach at night and danced around them, slipping the traces of Victorian propriety.
After the Civil War, the entire island was expropriated by a spectacularly crooked politician named John Y. McKane, who turned over most of the land to himself and his cronies and made it such a hotbed of vice that the newspapers called it “Sodom by the Sea.” McKane was so egregiously corrupt and violent, even in the heyday of Tammany Hall, that he was finally packed off to jail.
But a pattern was established. Again and again, corporate and government interests, often working together, would try to turn Coney Island to their own purposes through ever more ambitious schemes and fantasies.
First, they tried to make it into an exclusive resort for the wealthy by building a racetrack and elegant stick hotels. Wonderful 19th-century follies went up, such as “Coney’s Colossus,” a gigantic hotel built entirely in the shape of an elephant, complete with an observatory in its houdah, and a cigar shop in one of its legs. Before long, though, it was filled with whores and petty crooks.
“At night, its eyes glowed yellow above the bathhouses and band shells and carousels,” wrote Richard Snow, Coney’s most eloquent chronicler, in Coney Island: A Postcard Journey to the City of Fire. “Complex, facetious, and a little sinister, it was an augury.”
Next they tried to bring out the middle class by building Coney’s three legendary amusement parks: Tilyou’s Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland. These were truly phenomenal, the most beautiful amusement parks ever built—a fantastic Dr. Seuss collection of towers and domes, minarets and lagoons and whirling, spinning rides—nearly every inch limned with millions of individual light bulbs that blazed at night like nothing ever had before.
It was a huge hit—so phenomenal that people wrote waltzes and popular songs to celebrate the opening of a new park. The three parks remain, to this day, the most gorgeous amusement parks ever created, and around them, the amusement areas of Coney sprawled out to some 60 acres.
Even so, a spirit of lawlessness kept creeping back in. The middle class came, but so did Manhattan’s gangsters, tooling around the neighborhood in their brand-new automobiles, taking potshots at one another. Coney had its own Bowery, full of low dives and girlie shows and brothels.
Yet apart from these back-alley entertainments, the sense of anarchy, the whiff of real danger, was inherent even in many of Coney’s sanctioned family attractions. Its rides were designed to knock people together, scare the wits out of them, and encourage sexual contact.
There was a hand-operated roller coaster that went flying out over Surf Avenue one day, killing four passengers. There were elevators that were rigged to crash, dance floors that were greased to make you fall, park benches strung with electric wiring to give you a zetz and get you up and on your way, spending money. In its tableaux and staged plays, devils dragged young women down to Hell, towns flooded, volcanoes erupted, tenements burned, cities were pounded to ruins by battleships. There was an “Incubator Theatre,” where you could watch actual premature babies struggling for life, and “Son-of-Ham” shows, where you could throw a baseball at the head of a black man. There were not one but two miniature cities filled entirely with dwarves and midgets, and a dwarf dressed in a clown suit who hit patrons with a cattle prod for the amusement of their fellow customers.
In their most notorious performance, Coney’s entrepreneurs brought Tom Edison’s men out to electrocute an elephant named Topsy for the “crime” of having killed two men, one of whom fed it a lighted cigarette.
Even the millions of individual light bulbs that gave the parks their mesmerizing beauty could seem forbidding. When all the rides shut down for the night, the lights could be heard making an ominous hissing sound. One observer wrote, “The view of Luna Park . . . suggests a cemetery of fire, the tombs, turrets, and towers illuminated, and mortuary shafts of fire.”
Exquisite as the lights were, there was something fearsome and dreadful about them, a premonition of burning cities to come, all over the world. Parks that had been touted as decent entertainment for America’s white middle-class had morphed into something else—something a little terrifying. Coney had burrowed deep down into the psyche of America, of the modern world—maybe too deep for its own good.
Back in this century, the city was prepared to save Coney Island from Thor. Even before Sitt made his move on Coney, the Bloomberg administration had spun the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) off from the New York Economic Development Corporation (NYEDC).
Development corporations, for those unfamiliar with the bewildering layers of public, quasi-public, and private organizations that now constitute our government, are officially “nonprofit corporations serving the city.”
This description exudes a sense of selfless philanthropy. But, in fact, what it means is that development corporations exist outside the democratic process, as bodies composed of whatever functionaries and political allies the mayor chooses to appoint, and unaccountable to anyone else.
In 2005—coincidentally, the same year that Sitt first showed an interest in Coney Island, and also the one and only election year that he and his family have ever displayed a real interest in electoral politics, sprinkling at least $40,000 in contributions among Councilman Recchia and other officials around the city and the borough—the CIDC began rallying neighborhood groups, city government departments, and public interest organizations such as the Municipal Arts Society (MAS) to come up with an alternative plan that might save Coney Island.
Many of the smaller operators and preservationist groups out at Coney had been trying for years to talk to the city about plans for rebuilding the island, about bringing in new jobs and entertainments, and utilizing its empty lots. But any suggestions for such human-scale, incremental improvements were ignored. Instead, the city insisted, a grand plan—a new grand plan—was needed.
Hearings were held. Charrettes were held. Participation was invited from all sides, and many of Coney’s year-round residents and small-business owners enthusiastically took part. The MAS issued its own, spectacular artists’ renderings of what Coney Island might look like.
Soon, the CIDC had a comprehensive plan, one that would address all of Coney’s needs and problems. The neighborhood’s crumbling infrastructure would be rebuilt, the old Shore vaudeville and movie theater would be renovated and reopened, and parking and mass transit would better connect the island to the rest of Brooklyn and the city. Lynn B. Kelly, president of the CIDC, promised to preserve the 27-acre amusement district and all of its “treasured icons” in a dynamic video presentation for its website.
What’s more, it was promised that significant measures would be taken to improve the lives of its 50,000 year-round residents. Some 4,000 to 5,000 units of new housing are to be built, 1,000 of them “affordable.” Six thousand permanent jobs are to be created, along with 25,000 construction jobs, and there will be 500,000 new square feet of retail added to an area that, as Kelly rightly points out, currently lacks a “decent supermarket, a place to buy a book, a pair of shoes.”
The video is as good as any Coney spieler. It features vivid images of a trashed, graffiti-ed Coney Island (although what most of the images actually show is the recent block-clearing by Thor and the city).
Really, really cool artists’ renderings—the same artists’ renderings that have accompanied almost every newspaper and TV news piece on redeveloping Coney—were included. They depict a Surf Avenue that looks like the Ginza on steroids, restaurants and boutique hotels lining the boardwalk, block after block of translucent, low-rise buildings, threaded with green spaces—and the highest, wildest, most incredible amusement park rides ever built.
Only a veteran Coney skeptic would notice that one of the amazing new rides is obviously an exact replica of the Friede Globe Tower.
Or that, lurking in the distance, dwarfed by all the magnificent roller coasters, there is what looks very much like a residential high-rise.
Or that almost all of the problems the CIDC is now promising to fix are ones created in the first place by the government, and usually by government in the guise of quasi-private special authorities, answerable to virtually no one—much like the CIDC.
In their rush to make money, the proprietors of Coney’s three matchless, original amusement parks were careless about translating them into stone, and over the years, they started to burn and deteriorate. Even so, the crowds came to Coney in greater numbers than ever after World War I. In the 1920s, the city ran subway lines out from Manhattan, building the beach and the boardwalk, and pushing back the individual operators who used to roll barbed wire out into the surf—to claim their few feet of sand.
It was over the next three decades that the legendary crowds came to Coney, the famous Weegee pictures of grinning mobs sitting cheek-by-jowl along the sand—an estimated million people, one-eighth of the entire city, on the Fourth of July, 1947.
These were the days of “the nickel empire,” when dark rides, whirling rides, shooting galleries, roller coasters, freak and geek shows, tattoo parlors, and any number of other entertainments lined both sides of Surf Avenue for a solid mile. There were 48 of Coney’s fabled bathhouses by then—Stauch’s and Silvers, and Claret’s and Bushman’s and Ravenhall’s—offering saltwater and freshwater pools, dry and wet heat saunas, awful celery drinks, solariums for nude sunbathing, and all of the rest of the city’s wonderfully eccentric Jewish health culture. There were summer beach bungalows, and solid, year-round working-class and middle-class neighborhoods complete with movie theaters and their own shopping districts.
“Coney Island has never been an amusement park. It’s a New York City neighborhood that has amusements,” points out Charles Denson, a longtime Coney resident and the author of the incomparable history of the place, Coney Island Lost and Found, and it was in this period that Coney, as a vibrant, diverse neighborhood, reached its zenith, with a permanent population of 100,000 that doubled in the summer.
It was almost inevitable that such a lovely, viable haimishe world should have attracted the attention of the city’s arch nemesis, Robert Moses. The Power Broker went to work on Coney in the late ’40s and ’50s much as he did in the Bronx, determined to convert its slightly dilapidated, much-cherished humanity into his same-old, same-old Corbusier master plan of towers surrounded by parks and cars.
Moses “improved” the boardwalk by tearing a new path for it right through a swath of businesses and the municipal bathhouse—thereby discouraging any and all potential investors. He planted the city’s aquarium out on the site of the old Dreamland Park, where no one wanted it and no one came to see it. He tore down the venerable working-class neighborhood in central Coney Island known as “the Gut,” and started a rampage through the neighborhoods and amusements on the west end of the island, courtesy of federal funds provided under the Title I urban renewal program.
Perhaps the worst part of Moses’s depredations, as always, is that they were committed in the name of social progress and urban improvement. Determined to build a sort of Jones Beach with housing projects, he vehemently rejected the claim that Coney could go on much as it always had, insisting in 1958 that the area was “rotting inside and out in spite of nostalgic fables.”
At first, he at least put up some decent, economically integrated public housing, but before long, the city was simply warehousing everything it could out in Coney: the sick, the old, the indigent; social-welfare services of every kind. Even after Moses was finally toppled, the city went on like some science-fiction, cyborg race programmed to destroy, using Title I funds to bulldoze block after block of perfectly good, affordable, occupied housing, annihilating the bustling shopping district along Mermaid Avenue—where, until the late 1960s, you could find a book, or a supermarket, or a pair of shoes.
Private developers grabbed up the spoils of all this public blockbusting, especially Fred Trump, father of Donald, who filled in what had been the Gut with towers of his own. Trump also bought the still-profitable Steeplechase, the last of the great parks, for cheap (mostly because Marie Tilyou, granddaughter of the park’s founder, preferred to see it demolished, rather than entertain the black residents from many of Coney’s new projects).
When Trump caught wind of a rumor that the grand old lady of Coney might be landmarked under the city’s new preservation laws, he moved fast. Hastily scheduling another demolition, he paused only long enough to hold a party inside the park the night before the wreckers were due. To make sure he drew some publicity, Trump invited six leggy showgirls and handed all his guests bricks—bricks they were invited to hurl through the legendary, painted glass trellis that housed most of Steeplechase.
The supposed standoff between Sitt and the city continued for months, animated with many threats and dire warnings. Thor was reportedly demanding $130 million for its Coney Island holdings, which the city reportedly considered extortionate. Sitt and Dom Recchia played their parts as well as any two grifters who ever worked the midway, with the Councilman alternately denouncing the developer as a “heartless person who only cares about money” and comparing him to the Gestapo, insisting, “I am not doing no private developer’s bidding” . . . and ultimately pleading, “Thor Equities is saving the city millions of dollars. They assembled all this for you. . . . You made promises and commitments to Thor Equities that you are not living up to here.”
Then, suddenly, it was over. A deal was reached. The city would buy up just 6.9 acres of Thor’s holdings, for an astounding $95 million—a price that approached that of top Manhattan frontage. Thor would keep the rest of its land and the right to develop it, although it was only rezoned to allow “hotels” as well as amusements. The agreement was presented as a great victory for the public, a deal that would now allow the CIDC’s incredible plans for transforming Coney Island to move forward.
The devil, as in any good razzle, lay in the sleight-of-hand. The rezoned amusement area would allow—theoretically—freak shows and rides and tattoo parlors. But it would also allow major indoor entertainments, such as bowling alleys, restaurants, clubs, movie theaters, and shopping galleries—the sorts of businesses that would utterly transform the nature of Coney, making it much like anyplace else in the city.
The CIDC defended its plan by identifying hotels as a “significant piece” of the revamped amusement district, vital to luring “year-round tourism” and “24/7” business to the area. Under the new zoning, four hotels as high as 30 stories tall can be built between Surf Avenue and the sea—with Thor retaining the rights to develop three of them. But this only raises another question: What will make “tourists” venture out to Coney Island in the middle of winter?
Bowling alleys? Movie theaters? Or, perhaps, casinos, Ed Koch’s witless proposal for reviving Coney back in the 1980s?
Or perhaps nothing at all. Both the city and Sitt now insist that they can build absolutely nothing but tourist hotels on these sites—not condos or even time-shares.
“It’s against the law,” Joey Coney Island protests when it is suggested that any hotels built on Coney might be converted to condos or time-shares, sometime in the very near future. “Can they? Listen, if you want to ask, you know, ‘Can somebody kill somebody?’ Yes, physically they can. But it’s against the law.”
But as we’ve just witnessed, zoning regulations are a tad more flexible than the laws against murder. Once Sitt or some other developer erects 30-story “hotels” that stand vacant and moribund throughout the long winter months, is the city really going to sit back and let them go bankrupt? Order the towers torn down?
Or will our elected representatives once again fall in line, throw up their hands, and allow the “hotels” to become residential towers?
Hotels or not, the towers would transform the very nature of Coney, especially combined with the lots Taconic now holds, which are also eligible for 30-story residential towers—26 of them in all. These could be a very far cry from the bright-green low-rises the CIDC’s video now imagines. Such a conglomeration of skyscrapers—potentially thirty 30-story towers in all—would form an enormous wall around the old amusement district, turning it into a gigantic seaside development, garnished with a few token carny rides. If, that is, residents paying top dollar for their condos would tolerate any amusement rides at all, disturbing their sleep and their views.
So at last came the big reveal, the end of the razzle. All opposition to the plan was immediately steamrolled in the usual, efficient style of the Bloomberg administration.
City Planning Chief Amanda Burden warned the Municipal Arts Society against raising any objections: “It is imperative that the rezoning process and timeline not be jeopardized by any reconsideration of our proposed rezoning boundaries or urban design parameters. . . . It is imperative that this rezoning proceed expeditiously, otherwise the Coney Island amusement area that we know and love will cease to exist. We welcome ideas about how to best design, structure, and program a year-round amusement district with an open and accessible Amusement Park as its centerpiece.”
After this unelected official imposed the limits of what public comment would and would not be tolerated, unelected CIDC head Kelly laid down the law to the small operators and the preservationists, intoning that the city “might never have this chance again to save Coney.”
Just in case anyone didn’t get the message, the bulldozing along Surf Avenue will provide a final object lesson—much as Robert Moses’s blitzkrieg through the old boardwalk or Fred Trump’s trashing of Steeplechase Park silenced dissent in the past. Organizations such as the preservationist group Save Coney Island have been moving to create a historic district throughout the old amusement district. Now they can try preserving the dust.
“It’s what we call Phase 1,” Sitt says, describing the demolitions.
Out on Coney, the small operators protested, but hunkered down. They are, many of them, the same people who did so much to keep Coney alive during the grim decades after the money ran out, when the island was all but abandoned by the city and brutalized by crime and racial conflict and poverty. It was they who kept Coney going through the 1970s, and ’80s, and ’90s, when all City Hall could think to propose were Koch’s casinos, or Rudy Giuliani’s gift of a $39 million ballpark to the Mets.
They were the ones who understood the lessons taught by the likes of Jane Jacobs in the ancient battles to defeat Moses, the idea that city neighborhoods must evolve organically, that they must be tended to and kept to a human scale. Slowly, year by year, piece by piece, it was they who put Coney back together again, made it once again a place with a touch of anarchy but little real danger and a remarkable variety of entertainments.
Coney Island today is a place where you can drink beer, “shoot a freak,” see a geek, see a burlesque show, see fish, catch fish, eat fish, ride the Cyclone, ride the waves, win a kewpie doll, play Skee-Ball, go to a ballgame, see a band, lie on the sand. It is the last stand of the demimonde, the last place where you can feel the openness and the energy of 1970s New York, stripped of the accompanying dread of crime and decay.
The city and the developers they favor now propose to rescue us from all that, just as, in the past, they “rescued” a unique, prosperous community of 100,000 people by turning it into a bereft, isolated slum of 50,000 people. Where, 50 years ago, an unaccountable, unelected city authority tore down much of Coney Island under “Title 1,” now an unaccountable, unelected city authority endorses tearing it down again under “Phase 1.” And once again, anyone who objects is accused of championing “the nostalgic fables of the past.”
It’s not just Coney. Much like Thor Equities, Michael Bloomberg’s administration has forwarded its development schemes everywhere with “renderings of some fantastic building.” On and on it goes, from the Olympics and the West Side Stadium, to the gargantuan “airport village” in Jamaica, to the wall of condos planned for the Queens and Brooklyn waterfront along the East River, to the Hudson Yards project on the West Side, newly revived—an endless carny game of bait-and-switch, sold on the promise of one amazing, futuristic building after another, none of which ever seem to get built.
A veritable catalog of such swindles—past, present, and future—can be found in a triumphalist 2006 copy of New York magazine on “Tomorrowland”—the Oz-like New York it imagined would exist by 2016.
Therein can be found a headline that reads, “Brooklyn (Like It or Not) Will Get a Shimmering Frank Gehry Crown.”
It refers, of course, to the Atlantic Yards project, where somehow no shimmering crowns ever appeared—only plans for a cheesy, college-style fieldhouse, built to house a bad basketball team owned by a mysterious Russian oligarch. In the process, the city—which currently claims to be unable to afford to let schoolchildren ride the subway at half-price—may well have squandered nearly $200 million for the cash-strapped MTA, money it left on the table in its rush to hand the site over to a single mega-developer that ended up flipping the whole project.
Just down the page, in the same New York article, is a mention of another coming attraction in Tomorrowland: the Thor Galleries Tower, in Albee Square.
The real problem here, though, isn’t Joe Sitt, or even Mayor Mike, the developers’ buddy, but the driving force behind them and so many other mayors and developers over the years. It’s a mentality, a secular religion, a form of warped corporate progressivism that insists order and sterility and profit can always be imposed upon the vast creative anarchy of this city.
Down on Coney Island, they know better. They lick their wounds and hope, and await the Zamperlas, who have decided to call their three new acres of amusements “Luna Park,” in a welcome acknowledgment of the past. It will even feature the spinning neon crescent moons that used to front the old Luna entrance. The new Luna Park has a 10-year lease, which is also welcome news, since it likely means that no 30-story towers will be going up on Surf Avenue for a while yet.
Joe Sitt is in no hurry. He deplores the way that “all the politics started” over Coney, and mentions no plans for “Phase 2” beyond erecting the low stands along Surf Avenue that he wants to have open by 2011.
“In terms of Coney Island? Coney Island, you can’t ask me. You really have to ask the city of New York. We have to follow the city’s time card, so to speak,” he demurs, citing the lack of adequate sewerage and electricity in the amusement district—another subsidy, apparently, that the taxpayers will be expected to provide. “When the new Coney Island is gonna happen . . . you know, three years, five years . . . or 10 years? So far, they’re looking like they’re gonna be somewhere closer to 10 years.”
There’s always another deal somewhere. In an article headlined, “Empty Storefronts Blot Union Square Area,” The Wall Street Journal reported last month that “landlords . . . holding out for brand-name tenants and higher rents,” were refusing to extend long-term leases to smaller retailers, turning San Francisco’s Union Square into a wasteland of empty storefronts.
“It’s like a major theme park losing its rides,” fretted Joe D’Alessandro of San Francisco’s Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“I’m very willing to be patient,” said one of the leading landlord holdouts, Joe Sitt of Thor Equities.
‘It has never been this small—it’s never been this vulnerable,” Charles Denson worries over the amusement area and the future of the neighborhood. “The city’s been trying to get control of Coney Island for about 140 years. And now they’ve just about succeeded. They’ve always wanted to have control.”
Yet Coney Island has faced worse supervillains. Horrible as the new demolitions will be, nothing permanent will be going up right away, not with the economy still staggering—and 10 years is a long time. Among other potential pitfalls, nobody at Thor or the city seems to have paid much heed to the fact that Coney is essentially a barrier island at a time when scientists almost universally expect global warming to bring rapidly rising sea levels. In what could be Coney’s ultimate revenge, all those marvelous towers could make a lovely reef.
“I think the island is both welcoming and malicious. I think it’ll thwart them in some way,” says Richard Snow, who remembers seeing the remnants of the foundation holes dug for the great Friede Globe Tower, still visible into the 1970s. “I think I know enough about Coney to say that it won’t work out the way anybody’s saying it will.”
They’re opening up again at Ruby’s Bar & Grill and all around the boardwalk, willing to give it a try for another summer, and then another, and see what happens. This is how it has always been. The tribute to Master, the Whompa! Man (given name: Genaoro Venegas Rivera) climaxes with a brief display of his portrait painted on Ruby’s metal shutter—the most truthful artist’s rendering that has been drawn down at Coney Island for a long, long time. Ruby’s house band—a guitar, a pair of bongo drums, and three women backup singers—breaks into a new number, a simple song with the chorus repeated over and over: “We love Coney Island! We love Coney Island!”