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Coney Island at a crossroads

The waning days of summer are always bittersweet on Coney Island. But in recent years, the angst isn’t just a simple case of the end-of-season blues. It’s a gnawing uncertainty about how much of Coney’s treasured lore will survive into the next summer.

Two years after the disappearance of the Kennedy-era Astroland, Coney Island watchers are ever mindful of how precious the neighborhood’s remnants are.

On Shore Avenue, Dick Zigun, the unofficial mayor of Coney Island, pointed to historic structures on Surf Avenue that eluded attempts at landmark protection and could soon be demolished.

Structures such as the circa 1889 Grashorn Building, which is Coney’s oldest, are threatened, as is Henderson Music Hall, where the Marx brothers launched their careers.

“The street from Nathan’s to the Cyclone is fairly intact and looks pretty close to the way it’s looked for the past 100 years, which is invaluable as a movie and TV location,” Zigun said.

Thor Equities, which plans to redevelop those sites, points to plans for a “family-friendly games, food, shopping and other activities,” according to a statement.

Preservationists resist the characterization that the original buildings are lacking, and insist the structures could be saved and their use reimagined.

Proprietors of longtime businesses along Riegelmann Boardwalk were alarmed after the landlord, recently hailed for reopening the iconic Luna Park on the Astroland site, asked them to justify their business plans to win new leases.

Anthony Berlingieri, who owns Shoot the Freak and Beer Island, said his operations and others have kept Coney Island alive during the hard times, and that they deserve better treatment.

That they now have to justify their existence is frustrating.

“We feel like we’re successful,” he said, indicating that he’s willing to work with Central Amusement International.

Without offering details, a spokesman for the firm said “that tourists and all who care about Coney Island will soon have more good news to cheer about on the Boardwalk.”

Charles Denson, author of “Coney Island: Lost and Found,” echoed Berlingieri and suggested that there is a danger in having a single large operator control so much of Coney.
“The truth is all these businesses have been there for decades, and if the people who visit Coney Island didn’t like them, they would be out of business,” he said.

The redevelopment uncertainty that has hung over Coney did not deter New Yorkers from sheer enjoyment on a recent Sunday.

Jessica Masiello, 21, who works at a vintage balloon-racing game along the Bowery, looks forward to improvements in the neighborhood, but was quick to add: “I want certain things that have that flavor to stay the same.”

Denson, who also runs the Coney Island History Project, put it this way: “Once the old-time businesses start to close down, I think people will start to question whether this was the right direction for Coney Island.”

For much more coverage, including an elaborate photo essay by amNewYork photographer RJ Mickelson, please explore the PDF of the issue HERE. Coverage begins on page 18.

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