New York’s faded playground: can Coney Island recapture lost glories?

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New York's faded playground: can Coney Island recapture lost glories?
© Edward Freeman


New York's faded playground: can Coney Island recapture lost glories?
© Edward Freeman

Coney Island has long struggled to beat the seasonal exodus and reinvent itself as a year-round resort. Could the unexpected popularity of its New Year’s Eve parties kickstart the transformation of one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods?

Coney Island, home of New York’s famous amusement district, hangs from the south coast of Brooklyn like a foot testing the water of the Atlantic Ocean. The boardwalk is just blocks from the Belt Parkway, the southern loop of the city’s highway network. Six bus routes wind up here, four from Brooklyn and two from Manhattan. Four subway lines terminate in the grand Stillwell Avenue train-shed, across the street from Nathan’s Famous hot dogs and a short walk from the wide, sandy beach.

These links to the metropolis, though, do little to stem Coney Island’s strong seasonal outflow. In the autumn, the human tide begins to recede. Lifeguards pack it in in September; Luna Park closes on 1 November. By Christmas time, the most popular tourist attraction in Brooklyn feels more like a Maine fishing village, and the crowd on the boardwalk is so small you can say hello to everyone you see.

You wouldn’t know it, but it’s been a decade since the city began an effort to transform Brooklyn’s summer resort into a year-round destination. In 2003, Mayor Bloomberg created the Coney Island Development Corporation to spearhead a new plan for the area and manage investment. It was the CIDC, for example, that took charge of finding a builder for a new amusement park in 2009, and coordinated new affordable housing. The first key goal of the 2005 Coney Island Strategic Plan, the CIDC’s guiding document, was year-round activity.

On a recent December morning in America’s playground, the lighted windows of Tom’s Restaurant shone over a rain-darkened boardwalk. Inside: Rich Demosene, from Brooklyn, having breakfast with two friends visiting from Miami. Bill Ferrara, organising the evening meeting of a local motorcycle club. Two couples from Oxford, England, on the last day of a trip to New York. “They always come here on the last day,” the counterman observed, when his patrons had trundled into the cold. […]

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