2001: Nearly 35 years after Fred Trump's crime against Coney Island humanity, the Pavilion of Fun was finally replaced with a worthy successor. A minor league ballpark, home to the Brooklyn Cyclones (an affiliate of the New York Mets) was built and instantly became symbolic of a new era. This as the Cyclones themselves reminded all that Brooklyn is still an incredible sports town.
2005: Shortly after building KeySpan Park, the city, through Giuliani and his successor Michael Bloomberg, completely refurbished the terminal. With the four year project complete, the new complex stands looking better than ever.
2005: Great looks featuring a solar paneled roof aside, what the Stillwell Avenue Terminal truly prides itself on is being the most energy efficient train station in America.
2005: To the east of the vacant lots, both Astroland and Wonder Wheel Park chug along, albeit in tight quarters. Still, the darkest days, especially after the 2003 creation of the CIDC seemed to have been gone. Soon later this would prove not to be true.
2006: Crowds gather in and out of Astroland for SirenFest, an annual rock concert sponsored by the Village Voice.
2007: Joey Chestnut vs. Kobayashi, the Ali/Frazier of the gluttonous age. As Bill Maher once said, yet another reason "they" hate us. The popularity of the annual 4th of July hotdog eating contest (covered live by ESPN) has brought in holiday crowds that have come close to breaking Coney's single day record, set back on July 4th, 1955.
2007: While the minor league ball park finally brings life back to the west end of Coney's amusement district, Joe Sitt of Thor Equities brings new empty lots to the east end. After buying up most of the amusement area, Sitt would hold Coney hostage, with the hopes of getting Bloomberg to rezone the area for highrise hotels and condos.
2008: This includes the clearing of the Kaufman family's go-kart tracks.
2008: Over the past decade Dick Zigun's Mermaid Parade has become one of the biggest events in NYC. This despite the fact that the most recent parades seemed less festive in light of the possible rezoning of Coney Island.
2008: Astroland during its final year.
2008: Childs' Restaurant, west of the old Steeplechase Park (where the minor league ballpark now stands) and traditionally the western most point of the amusement area. Closed in the 1950s, Childs' became a chocolate candy factory and warehouse until the early 1990s. After remaining vacant for well over a decade, it was finally reopened by Lola Staar who transformed it into roller rink. Staar's rink however is on property owned by real estate developers, Taconic Investment Partners. Like Sitt's Thor Equities, Taconic also looks to cash in on Bloomberg's rezoning plans.
2008: In the b/g, a worker holds an orange "Save Astroland" sign.
2009: A springtime aerial exposing vast emptiness of the over four square city blocks which lie between the landmarked Cyclone to the east, and the new ballpark to the west.
With Astroland razed (notice the Luna Park houses behind Astroland's empty lots) only the decommissioned Astroland Tower, the landmarked Wonder Wheel and the small kiddie rides around it (still owned by the Vourderis family) kept the entire area from being completely vacant.
Not seen in the photo, another completely empty square block located west of the ballpark and the ballpark's parking lot. Mayor Bloomberg would later use that empty block for a summer circus.
2009: A closer look showing that the miniscule Wonder Wheel Park (barely 3 acres in size) as the only amusement park in all of Coney Island.
2009: Joe Sitt replaces the go-kart tracks and parts of Astroland with a collection of cavernous tents, serving as a gigantic flea market. Little cost for Sitt while waiting for Bloomberg to rezone Coney Island.
2009: The empty lots between Lola Staar's roller rink and KeySpan Park are finally put to use by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Looking to attract crowds and thus investors willing to take advantage of rezoning laws to come, Bloomberg brought Ringling Brothers back to the amusement section's west end. These circus tents, like the flea market ones, are only temporary. After getting approval for rezoning, Bloomberg announced plans to bring luxury condos to the area.
2009: Elephants, once a staple of Coney Island, are back. Of course these days circus elephants and the cruel treatment of them usually leave more depressed than amazed.
2010: The biggest year Coney Island had seen in nearly five decades. After getting the area rezoned Bloomberg did make good on a promise to bring back Astroland. The park was replaced with what is now called New Luna Park. Operated by Valerio Ferrari of Zamperla USA, an Italian based amusements giant, New Luna Park did not offer the iconic rides of its old namesake. Still, most saw it as a big step up from what had been seen at Astroland during its final days.
Between the circus, minor league park, and revamped amusement park, as well as Nathan's, a new beer garden (also brought in by Sitt) Dick Zigun's carnies, and landmarked rides like the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone, 2010 was Coney's busiest summer since the closing of Steeplechase. The Stillwell Avenue Terminal is in better shape than its ever been at anytime. The boardwalk, beach, and pier have all gone through major facelifts as well. Crowds over the past several years rival those of the early 1960s.
After nearly 50 years of doom and gloom, Coney seems ready to turn the corner.
The end of the 2010 summer season was less joyful. Joe Sitt bulldozed through Coney Island landmarks like the old Shore Hotel and the old Coney Island Bank building (pictured below) while the city gave Zamperla the greenlight to evict boardwalk bars and grills for more family friendly businesses.
2011: While the amount of rides has grown over the past several years, so has the amount of empty lots. The upcoming loss of Coney's notorious boardwalk honkey tonks, as well as the wood in that boardwalk, puts a clamp on any sense rebirth.
Even the expansion of New Luna Park, called the Scream Zone (pictured on the right) seems like a means to get the public to forget about Bloomberg and Sitt's true goals; to fill the area with high rise condos and commercial chain stores. A massive gentrification plan they're both working on to forever confine the amusement area to a measly 9 to 12 acres.
Then again, from its very inception, Coney has had its struggles. From the many fires, including the horrific 1911 tragedy, to even a hurricane which in 1893 washed away many of the original rides and stands.
Politically, one could say that Coney was doomed in 1894 when coincidentally, shortly after John Y. McKane's ouster, Gravesend and Coney Island were incorporated into the city of Brooklyn. Or in 1899, again coincidentally, shortly after McKane's death, Brooklyn was incorporated into New York City. Or later, when a section of the creek dividing Coney Island from Brooklyn was filled in to make it part of the mainland. Or in 1923 when the city took the beachfront from the bath pavilions which operated them, leveling over 150 businesses in the process. Or in 1939 when Coney fell into the hands of Robert Moses of the Parks Department who tore down even more businesses in expanding the beach and boardwalk. Or when Moses later surrounded the area with projects. Or later still, when Moses and Mayor Lindsay did nothing to stop the demolition of Coney's last major amusement park.
Still, in some form or another, it managed to survive. It managed to survive long after the many Coney imitators, which popped up in urban areas across the country during the pre-WWI years, eventually closed down. It managed to survive even after Walt Disney created a new type of pristine, safe, suburban, super sized theme park. Even after Disney imitator, Six Flags, brought a super sized theme park to New Jersey, Coney was still around, featuring three of the world's most renowned roller coasters well into the late 1970s.
It survived changing cultures and times. During the early 1900s, Coney Island brought us the world. Extremely politically incorrect exhibits featured indigenous people, carny freaks, little people, never seen before wild animals, re-enacted war scenes, halls of science, the first international beauty pageant dubbed "The World Congress of Beauty: 40 Ladies for 40 Nations" and of course, death defying rides.
After WWI, as the world became a smaller place, as technology advanced, as Coney's 250 foot tall observation towers were overtaken by skyscrapers not only in Manhattan, but even in smaller, more mundane places like Hartford, Buffalo, Milwaukee, and Portland, the lure of Coney still continued through a Nickel Empire. One which wowed the working poor the way upper classes were left dazzled decades earlier.
Despite slowly fading from its Golden Age, actors from the Marx Brothers, to Clara Bow, to Cary Grant, to Jackie Gleason, to Grandpa Al Lewis all came to perform as part of the Nickel Empire. It was there and not on Broadway where they each got their respective starts into show business.
Even after the WWII era beach transformation, Coney not only survived but prospered with its largest crowds ever.
Somehow, although barely, Coney also survived the '50s and '60s. Decades marked by white flight, and the creation of mass public housing around Coney's shores. Somehow, although barely, Coney survived the '70s and '80s. Decades marked by out of control crime, tumbling infrastructure, a nearly bankrupt city, and later still, crack.
Through the '90s Coney continued on, barely. Even with absentee owners allowing landmarks to sink, even with the jealousy fueled battles between rival land owners, even with poor city planning as well as the many other problems mentioned above, the dark clouds had finally started to clear. With the reduction of crime, crowds slowly returned.
In the 2000s the crowds truly came back. A final hurrah before Bloomberg and Sitt turn the bulk of it into Condos Island? Maybe not.
Maybe there is another Geroge C. Tilyou out there. Someone willing to take advantage of Coney's new crowds by giving them more to do. Someone who sees the rebuilt infrastructure but also the empty lots and recognizes it as a chance to build something grand. Not condos, but instead rides. Rides that can amaze today's masses. Someone who can bring 21st Century roller coasters to a 19th Century park. Is there another Tilyou out there?
The crowds, shows, and spirit is back. Let's pray, like the Sisters of Mer-Sea above, that Coney Island can be saved from the condo induced schemes that Bloomberg and Sitt have planned.*
A reminder, the Municipal Art Society is working on a plan called "Imagine Coney" which is looking to bring rides back to the People's Playground.