Revitalization of Amusement: Coney Island’s Growth and Gentrification
New York’s amusement destination has seen rapid growth in recent years
There is without a doubt a certain fondness that encroaches upon a person when they visit Coney Island. Home to New York City’s only major amusement park, the neighborhood is home to a rich history of change, with that change continuing to the present day.
However, the last fifteen years have regenerated life for Coney Island, giving it a new breath of fresh air, which was the result of a multitude of projects, proposals, and rezoning. The revitalization of Luna Park in the late 2000s and early 2010s has contributed to a wave of gentrification, Neoliberalism and urban revanchism in the neighborhood as a whole.
As a South Brooklyn native and resident, I can proudly tell you that I’ve walked up and down the Riegelmann Boardwalk at least a hundred times, and experienced the unique vibe of the carnival rides, with that fried frankfurter smell always looming in the air. Coney Island is a place you want to be. But you may be surprised to learn that it was not always this way.
I wrote a piece a few years ago summarizing the rich history of Coney Island, including its rises and downfalls. I recommend you read that article first — it was also one of my first, so I’ve certainly advanced far forward in the writing process since that point. But I digress.
For review, Coney Island is located at the southern tip of Brooklyn. Located within New York City’s Community Board 13, the neighborhood of Coney Island stretches farther than its amusement park, boardwalk, and fresh beaches and ocean waves. This portion is home to a large array of carnival rides, games, venues such as the Ford Amphitheater and New York Aquarium, landmarks such as the Wonder Wheel and Parachute Jump, and numerous parks including the beach, Riegelmann Boardwalk, and other locations.
However, the neighborhood of Coney Island outside of the amusement park consists of high-rise buildings home to an estimated 114,000 people, 52.3% of which are foreign-born. The neighborhood has great transit access, with multiple bus lines and the Coney Island-Stilwell Avenue subway terminal serving four subway lines: the D, F, N and Q, and the B not too far off in neighboring Brighton Beach.
Prior to the reopening of Luna Park in 2010, the neighborhood, including the theme park itself and surrounding vicinity, was becoming increasingly dilapidated, with run-down shops and businesses across from the theme park, as well as lower tourism rates. According to David Lombino of The New York Sun, in the mid 2000s:
Even on a bright fall day, the streets that make up Coney Island’s amusement district seem worn and tired, more tumbleweeds than tourists.
Coney Island’s deteriorating state was becoming increasingly obvious, and the various proposals to turn the neighborhood around, which will be discussed, cultivated a massive change in the neighborhood. These changes increased land value around the amusement park, leading to the gentrification of Surf Avenue between West 8th and West 20th Streets.
The neighborhood also began to see a rise in Neoliberal urban development, with Coney Island once again becoming a tourist destination filled with new entertainment amenities, and urban revanchism, with the building of new luxury housing and office space around the theme park.
The turnaround for Coney Island sprouted in 2006. Long haunted by an empty past, and more than a half century of emptiness and despair, change was destined. One man, Joe Sitt, was ready to turn Coney Island around.
Sitt, the CEO of global real estate company Thor Equities, was sitting atop a mountain of money, and a mountain of dreams. Seeing the potential Coney Island had, but was slipping away, he proposed to “spend $1.5 billion to restore the amusement district to its former glory, transforming it from a place to spend a summer afternoon into a year-round destination.”
It was clear to him that the neighborhood was slipping away; The New York Times wrote in 2006 that:
Coney Island does not look like a treasure. It can be ghostly quiet in the winter. The amusement district has shrunk. There are many empty storefronts along Surf Avenue, which parallels the waterfront, and vacant lots covered in weeds.
Coney Island’s state of desperation was growing at an exorbitant rate. Thor’s proposal would at least try to change that around, but his visions of massive theaters, resorts and roller-coasters was still just that: a vision. It would be held back by a multitude of zoning regulations, with Thor stating that “it [needed] the city to enact a zoning change to allow residential and hotel development in the amusement district.”
Massive rezoning would be required to get Sitt’s plan rolling. Additionally, Thor was facing competition from other real estate owners, who had been purchasing land in Coney Island. Among them was Taconic Investment Partners, which, according to Curbed NY, “[had] gotten less ink than Thor Equities, but…[had] bought up about 350,000 square feet of Coney Island real estate since 2003”. Alas, the city began proposing rezoning plans for Coney Island, which conflicted with Thor Equities’ vision of having residential developments within the amusement park, which was prohibited.
Finally, in 2009, the New York City Department of City Planning approved the rezoning of Coney Island’s amusement district, and on May 29, 2010, the new park opened to the public. Erin Durkin of the New York Daily News called it the “new Luna Park — modeled on the old amusement mecca that drew revelers to Coney for the first half of the 20th century”. But although 2010 saw Coney Island’s first major development in decades, there was still work to be done.
Coney Island would slowly evolve over the next several years, with new rides, attractions, and eventually development outside the park, to come. Residents and tourists were told to, according to Durkin, “expect vacant lots and construction sites interspersed with new attractions for years to come as the city pursues a decades-long redevelopment plan”.
In 2011, Coney Island’s first roller coasters in almost a century, the Soarin’ Eagle and Steeplechase rollercoasters, were opened. It was a major step in the revitalization of Coney Island, because, according to Reuters:
…the first new roller coasters to be built at Coney Island in eight decades were opened…as part of efforts to reverse the decline of New York City’s world-famous theme park.”
Additionally, the city vowed that this new revitalization of Coney Island would be an economic benefactor for the city and its residents, because, according to Reuters:
Under the revitalization plan, the City [was] spending more than $150 million on improvements to Coney Island…Mayor Bloomberg says the investment will result in 6,000 permanent jobs and create $14 billion of economic activity in New York over the next 30 years.
At this point, it was clear that Coney Island had been reborn, and the best was yet to come. Or was it?
With the reopening of the shiny new, grandeur Luna Park in 2010, Coney Island has seen a large range of expansions since: the aforementioned Soarin’ Eagle and Steeplechase rollercoasters — the first in eighty years — the Thunderbolt rollercoaster in 2014, and the proposed “new large-scale water ride, adventure park, and public plaza with open-air food options and an arcade, using 150,000 square feet of city-owned land”, according to Jen Chung of Gothamist, which was supposed to open in 2020, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic — its disassembled parts still lay in a closed-off section of West 15th Street, visible from the Boardwalk.
All of these expansions are great for the amusement park portion of Coney Island, but what about the rest of the neighborhood? The district outside of the amusement park has seen some revitalization: over the course of the 2010s, Surf Avenue has become gentrified, with old, run down shops replaced with franchise restaurants, pizzerias, ice cream shops and the like.
The abandoned, block-long Lago Furniture was converted to an IHOP, and the empty lot on the corner of Surf Avenue and West 8th Street, sandwiched between the West 8th Street-New York Aquarium subway station, was transformed into a large two story development featuring office space, the Teraza Restaurant Lounge, and a drive-in Starbucks.
Gentrification has occurred in Coney Island with the revitalization of new shops along Surf Avenue, as discussed, but also with new residential developments, such as the vast residential development at 1709 Surf Avenue, which is under construction now and is expected to comprise 1,000 apartments when it completes.
Additionally, there is the large mixed-use development located at 3003 West 21st Street, which, according to Devin Gannon of 6sqft, “includes 7,000 square feet of retail and commercial space on its ground floor as a way to embrace the atmosphere of the nearby boardwalk”. The building contains affordable housing catering to veterans and low-income New Yorkers, containing “82 studio apartments for homeless veterans and 52 apartments for those earning at or below 60 percent of the AMI”, again according to Gannon.
These developments surround MCU Park, the stadium home to the Brooklyn Cyclones Minor League Baseball team. MCU Park is just one Coney Island’s many parks: with 95% of residents in Coney Island living within walking distance of a park or open space.
Many of the neighborhood’s parks have been renovated and revitalized as well, such as Seaside Park, a new development adjacent to the Ford Amphitheater which includes greenery and state-of-the art playground rides for kids. This redevelopment of Coney Island’s parks and green spaces has further reiterated the presence of gentrification in the neighborhood.
Coney Island has also seen new life in relation to Neoliberal urban development. The changes to the neighborhood over the past decade have turned it into an “authentic and charming neighborhood where small-scale entrepreneurs could flourish”, according to Reuters, emphasizing the Neoliberal urban development which emphasizes market-oriented development, arranged and applied by private developers.
Additionally, Coney Island has seen an uptick in urban revanchist policies, with its gentrification, large-scale private developments such as the new residential complexes, and return of the upper classes with the wealthy-paradise Ocean Dreams development at 3514 Surf Avenue.
However, besides the Ocean Dreams complex, which is over sixteen blocks away from the amusement park, the rest of the neighborhood of Coney Island outside the immediate vicinity of the theme park has seen little growth or gentrification, which has painted an uneven picture for the district. The neighborhood suffers from a 45.2% rent burden and a 24.4% poverty rate, which is almost a quarter of the residents, and is above the Brooklyn average of 20.9%, and the city average of 19.8%.
The redevelopment and revitalization of Coney Island has largely focused on the amusement park area, while neglecting the rest of the neighborhood. The one development that has occurred outside of the amusement park area, Ocean Dreams, benefits the rich, doing nothing for the vast majority of Coney Island residents who live below the poverty line. According to Hannah Frishberg of The Bridge, much of the development occurring in Coney Island is nugatory for its residents.
There’s no supreme demand for luxury rentals or luxury condos. Coney has many needs and problems…But much of the development going on provides little relief for those issues. Ocean Dreams has no affordable housing…[Residents] have to put up with disruptions — parking, traffic, noise — to produce luxury developments that aren’t intended for most of them.
While the vast majority of redevelopment in Coney Island hasn’t benefitted its residents directly, the gentrification and evolution of Neoliberal urban development and urban revanchism in Coney Island has put it back on the map as a vital New York City destination.
What was once a desolate wasteland of decaying amusement rides and overgrown lots, only just over a decade ago, has now become a booming entertainment zone home to established venues, mixed-use developments, luxury residential towers, and small businesses along Surf Avenue.
The revitalization of Coney Island, the largest change in the neighborhood’s history, has begun. Get the hot dogs ready, because Coney is ready for you.
Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.
- Bagli, Charles V. “Down by the Boardwalk, a $1 Billion Revival Plan.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 July 2006, www.nytimes.com/2006/07/04/nyregion/04coney.html.
- Chung, Jen. “Coney Island’s Luna Park Is Getting Log Flume Ride, A Ropes Course, And More!” Gothamist, Gothamist, 23 Aug. 2018, https://gothamist.com/arts-entertainment/coney-islands-luna-park-is-getting-log-flume-ride-a-ropes-course-and-more.
- Durkin, Erin. “It’s Gonna Be a New Coney Island, Baby! 19 Rides Added to Luna Park.” Nydailynews.com, New York Daily News, 9 Apr. 2018, www.nydailynews.com/new-york/gonna-new-coney-island-baby-19-rides-added-luna-park-article-1.198180.
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- NYC Community District Profiles. NYC Planning, New York City Government, 2020, communityprofiles.planning.nyc.gov/brooklyn/13.
- Reuters Staff. “Coney Island Gets First New Roller Coasters in 80 Years.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 21 Apr. 2011, www.reuters.com/article/us-rollercoasters-idUSTRE73K57P20110421.
- Stracqudane, Robert. “Fleshing Out the Coney Island Visions.” Curbed NY, Curbed NY, 18 Jan. 2007, ny.curbed.com/2007/1/18/10598410/fleshing-out-the-coney-island-visions.