Visitors still crowd the boardwalk, scarfing down hot dogs on what was dubbed the People’s Playground. But life for some Coney Island residents has become a drug-fueled hell amid soaring unemployment and a crumbling amusement park, site of the landmarked 1920s Cyclone roller coaster.
As the coaster accelerates to screams of white-knuckled joy, the future of Coney Island is itself in tumult over a tussle between two billionaires, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and developer Joseph Sitt.
The City Council on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly for the mayor’s 47-acre rezoning plan to turn the waterfront into a year-round destination with high-rise hotels, restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters and the city’s first new roller coaster since the Cyclone was built in 1927.
But unless Sitt sells his land, Bloomberg’s vision of a seaside paradise reborn would be seriously damaged.
And the city would have to consider eminent domain, the lengthy legal process to seize private property for public use.
On Wednesday, city officials were negotiating with Sitt’s Thor Equities for a possible deal to buy his 10.5 acres at the heart of Coney Island, Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber said.
The city also promises to bring thousands of construction jobs and new housing to the economically depressed neighborhood.
The 65,000 people who live in the gritty, declining projects and modest houses include black and Hispanic families, Asian and Russian immigrants, and transients.
Coney Island had “sunk further and further away from its previous glory,” Bloomberg said after Wednesday’s vote. “I think it’s fair to say that sinking has stopped.”
Yet Sitt has said he still wants to play a role in the future of his childhood turf.
“I’m the stakeholder. I’m the guy who controls this — it’s my sandbox,” the 45-year-old landowner said this month.
Sitt bought property under the old Astroland in 2006 for $93 million and leased it to the Albert family, which has operated the rides since the 1930s. After failing to reach a lease agreement with Thor, the family dismantled Astroland last year, leaving behind a desolate swath of land.
On another 20 acres just blocks from the beach, the city’s Coney Island Development Corp. foresees 4,500 new housing units and a park for area residents.
Ron Stewart, a 56-year-old parole officer who’s lived in the neighborhood for a half century, said there always were two Coney Islands: “the amusement area and the residents.”
“People would laugh at me when I said I live in Coney Island,” he said. “They’d say, ‘You live under the Cyclone? You live in the spook house?'”
These days, the amusement area at night is home to prostitutes and drug addicts, residents say.
“They kind of fill the gaps under the boardwalk,” said Aida Leon, who runs the nonprofit Amethyst Women’s Project, which helps people cope with domestic violence, addiction and HIV/AIDS.
Leon said HIV infection rates on Coney Island are three times that of the city’s, while the neighborhood has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates — 20 percent.
Six people were murdered in six weeks earlier this year.
The city plan would make 35 percent of the new housing affordable, with contractors hiring unionized workers from nearby and paying them living wages.
For now, Sitt has set up mobile rides and other spectacles on the scruffy, vacant acre once occupied by Go-Karts and batting cages. On weekends, there’s Flea by the Sea, a few tents where vendors hawk everything from purses and CDs to pickles and plants. And the Barnum & Bailey Circus erected its tents on Coney Island for the first time this summer.
The Wonder Wheel ride, built in 1918, has survived, landmarked like the Cyclone and the Parachute Jump.
On a weekday afternoon in July, a salty breeze blew across the boardwalk and stretch of sand.
Michael Burns, an ex-Marine, paid $3 to play Shoot the Freak, firing paintballs at a shirtless teenager protected by a helmet and shield, standing in a trash-strewn lot facing rifles.
Burns told his wife, a first-time visitor, that “this used to be the place to come” when in New York. But “it’s declined a little bit,” he added.
Coney Island fans say modernization could ruin its nostalgic allure with a wall of high-rises right where visitors step off the subway to an open view of the rides and Atlantic Ocean.
If there’s one man who captures the spirit of the Brooklyn beachfront, it’s David Adamovich, a Christian minister also called The Great Throwdini for his knife-throwing act at Zigun’s sideshow.
“Every time I think that Harry Houdini performed in a place where I’m performing,” Adamovich said, “it’s just wonderful. It’s keeping that heritage alive.”
Coney Island, he said, “is a charm in my heart.”
AP writers Sara Kugler and Suzanne Ma contributed to this report.