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New Yorkers Need This Unreality Check

By Froma Harrop

CONEY ISLAND, N.Y. -- Weird and downtrodden, but prime Brooklyn oceanfront, Coney Island as we know it may soon vanish. A developer wants to replace the people's carnival with hotels, retail and time-share units. You might as well try to turn Britney Spears into Grace Kelly. The threat of such a makeover has traumatized preservationists and the many fans of seedy Americana. This is war.

In truth, Coney Island as we know it is not Coney Island as we knew it. Little remains from the glory days. The Cyclone roller coaster (1927), Wonder Wheel (1920) and Parachute Jump (1939 and no longer operating) are landmarked, and Nathan's Famous still dishes out great hot dogs, but the old sprawl of amusement parks has shrunk to a pathetic few blocks. The view from the surviving rides is of empty lots and dreary housing projects.

Developer Joseph Sitt recently added the Astroland park to his considerable Coney Island holdings. These key three acres are now all that stands between the iconic urban playground and its total collapse. Sitt vows to close Astroland at the end of the season.

The big question: Why revive a decaying entertainment center when swankier development would bring in a higher class of customer and new tax revenues? This could apply to other "vintage" amusement parks facing similar peril.

Answer No. 1: Because poor people deserve their slice of downscale fun.

Answer No. 2: Because these old amusement parks are like family.

In a city obsessed with high finance, the arts and world-class shopping, Coney has offered generations of New Yorkers a much-needed unreality check.

Coney Island has always been a public space. There's no admission fee to keep out the down-and-out, no $20 parking charges and, actually, no need for a car. The subway stops a block away.

Also missing are corporate gatekeepers to ensure good taste and decorum. One amusement advertises "Shoot the Freak: Live Human Target" (with paint guns). Typical of the creaking technology is Spook-a-Rama, a 50-year-old dark ride featuring sword-wielding devils and jumping skeletons (pictures at www.laffinthedark.com/spook50.htm).

While the amusement area is a near ruin, you're still never alone at Coney. On a hot summer day, the refurbished beach resembles a shoulder-to-shoulder Weegee photo. The masses come in all races, speak a thousand tongues and are not of one mind on hygiene. Disney's controllers would have a nervous breakdown here.

Fortunately, Sitt remains far from realizing his vision. The dirt under Astroland is zoned for amusements. Other developers have tried to bully their way through the zoning restrictions and failed.

In 1964, Fred Trump (Donald's father) bought the famous Steeplechase Park in the hopes of building luxury apartments there. Before calling in the bulldozers, Trump had models in bikinis throw stones through the historic pavilion's stained-glass windows. But he couldn't get the zoning changed even after years of litigation.

Current city officials don't sound any more yielding. Of Sitt's plans to build a smart-set beach complex on amusement-zoned land, Amanda Burden, head of the New York City Planning Commission, said the following: "There is no way that will happen under this administration." (Guess she wasn't impressed by his offer to include a high-tech video arcade.)

There's now talk of a possible land swap: Sitt gives the city 10 amusement acres along the boardwalk in return for land slightly to the west and a green light for his project.

The day after Steeplechase Park burned down, in 1907, its owner, George C. Tilyou, posted a sign on which he promised to build a "bigger, better Steeplechase Park" and added, "Admission to the burning ruins -- Ten cents."

That's the spirit of Coney Island: Think big. Act bizarre. And build on ruins.

fharrop@projo.com

Copyright 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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