When the first structures were being built in Coney Island in the 1840s, the surrounding community was in uproar. Residents wanted to preserve the land’s natural beauty. In the early 1900s, the City of New York endeavored to condemn all buildings south of Surf Avenue and the amusement community of Coney Island opposed the city. Amusements on the beach were demolished under the direction of urban planner Robert Moses in the ’40s and ’50s. He cleared the land for the New York Aquarium, Abe Stark Ice Skating Rink and low-income housing. Once Moses was through with his Coney Island renovations, only a few areas remained protected for amusement use only and that small designation was a response to public complaints.
Fred Trump attempted to build luxury apartments on the beach in 1964. He spent a decade in court fighting for a rezoning to no avail. By the 1970s, few visitors traveled to Coney Island and the city attempted to bring popularity back to the area with gambling casinos, taking note from Atlantic City. Gambling remained illegal in Coney Island, however, and vacant lots dominated areas that would have been lined with slot machines and card tables.
Under Giuliani’s reign, the sporting complex called Sportsplex was erected. Because the Thunderbolt roller-coaster stood in the line of view from the stadium, Giuliani had it demolished one early morning. Bloomberg took interest in developing Coney Island, but when the Coney Island bid for the 2012 Olympics was lost, the plans for revitalization went to the Coney Island Development Corporation. A company called Thor Equities began buying up property in Coney Island and while evicting businesses along the boardwalk, they released a plan to build a luxury resort as well as a new amusement park. The city approved a plan to construct 4,500 new unites on the beach in 2009. Part of what makes Coney Island what it is is that the community has long-offered low-income housing, but only 900 of these new units are categorized as being “affordable.”
Ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, Coney Island’s future once again seemed to be in the fickle hands of fate. Coney Island was hit harder by the storm than many other areas of New York City. Salvaging what was left of the historic boardwalk and amusement area seemed nearly impossible in the wake of the treacherous storm.
“Our park is devastated,” Deno Vouderis, a member of the family that owns the Deno’s Wonderwheel Amusement Park, told NPR’s Zoe Chace shortly after the hurricane hit. The motors in his haunted house were dead. Everything she saw during her tour of his property seemed flattened. But when she made the trek out to Coney Island again for the opening day of the Wonderwheel Amusement Park, she saw something she hadn’t expected to see again, particularly not so soon after the storm: functioning rides, doors open for business and rides welcoming the public.
In a follow-up report on the destination, Chace worked to discover what revived Coney Island so quickly. Deno’s Wonderwheel Amusement Park didn’t have the kind of insurance that other structures throughout New York that quickly recovered and rebuilt did. While FEMA and other aid groups were doing their best to assist residents whose homes had been destroyed, Coney Island business owners followed an informal but traditional route and sourced the funds they needed to rebuild from family members, friends, patrons and other members of the community. The Vouderis family did this, as well. They also put a hefty amount of rebuilding charges on their credit card.
“We have here something that shows the resilience of New York,” New York Senator Chuck Schumer said on the Coney Island 2013 Opening Day. His mantra of the day, as reported by Chace, was, “Keep going and reopen.”
I went to Coney Island twice in January. I dressed in my snow gear and walked along the boardwalk and the beach. Most things were still closed; even the waves seemed eerily silent then. I went back again a couple weeks ago to an entirely different scene. People were lined up at Nathan’s and weaving in and out of the businesses that were open. Although much of the boardwalk was still closed that afternoon, oxygenated blood was clearly pulsing through the community. But the future of Coney Island, keeping with tradition, still seems vague. An Applebee’s is opening in June not far from the beach. A chain candy store will soon be doing business near the adored Williams Candy shop. Coney Island has admirably handled the blows from the hurricane, but how the small businesses there will weather the storm of corporate expansion remains to be seen.
While walking back to our car, a man beckoned my husband and me over toward him from behind his carnival game’s counter. The game seemed simple, though I knew the odds were against us. If my husband could just pay the couple bucks it took to play the game and then make every shot into the makeshift hoop, he could choose any prize he wanted, most of which were stuffed animals that looked like they’d been there for a while, and even get his money back. The catch? For every shot he missed, he had to lay down as much money as he’d already invested in the game. He made almost all of his shots, but the stakes began to raise and before we knew it, we were out of cash.
“Got money in your bank? There’s an ATM right there,” the man said, pointing to the conveniently placed ATM. My husband could have continued playing and won back all of the cash he’d spent, but we left the $10 with the man working the game. The owner of that stand, like the owners of all other businesses that have reopened in Coney Island, only has his gate drawn up today because he knows the rules of the game: keep investing even when the odds seem against you and hope the cash doesn’t run out.