x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The wildest ride yet for Coney Island

Plans to redevelop the famous amusement park have been hampered by the competing interests of business, politicians and residents

The New York City mayor's office is hoping to develop an 11-hectare amusement district on the Atlantic Ocean site.
The New York City mayor's office is hoping to develop an 11-hectare amusement district on the Atlantic Ocean site.

NEW YORK // Denos Vourderis's upbringing is the envy of any child. As the heir to Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park at Coney Island, he was often found riding the big wheel instead of doing homework or attending school.

Now 27, Mr Vourderis has the blessing of his father and uncle to take the park into the 21st century by installing solar panels on each of the iconic big wheel's cars, which would generate half of its running power. He is going ahead with the plans even though the fate of Coney Island has for years remained subject to competing grand visions, which pit city politicians against developers and often leave local residents sceptical about any progress in reviving the area's past glories.

"I put half my salary of about $15 (Dh55) an hour back into the park and hope to set an example with the solar panels because I really care about the environment," said Mr Vourderis. "I've worked on the wheel all my life and take it one day at the time as far as all the plans are concerned. We'll see what happens because they change all the time." Coney Island faces the Atlantic Ocean on the southern edge of Brooklyn and each year still attracts millions of visitors, many drawn by its seedy and bohemian atmosphere while others take their children for a relatively cheap day out by the sea.

The area's heyday was in the pre-Second World War era, when many more fun-fair rides competed for the attention of the city's working classes. The amusement area has since shrunk, with the official city-landmarked Wonder Wheel, Parachute Jump and Cyclone roller coaster standing out. There is a smattering of tattoo parlours, freak shows and Nathan's fast-food outlet, which hosts an annual July 4 hot-dog eating competition.

The administration of Michael Bloomberg, the New York City mayor, hopes by August to have completed a public approval process to develop an 11-hectare, year-round amusement and entertainment district and create housing, retail and transport facilities for the 50,000 residents in the area, which has a jobless rate of about 13 per cent. The plans have been six years in the making and are further complicated by Joseph Sitt, the head of Thor Equities property company, which has bought several hectares of land within the amusement area and is engaged in tough bargaining over the sale of his land to the city.

He has also put forward his own development ideas, much to the consternation of many locals who believe that shopping malls and condominiums would destroy the area's heritage. Mr Vourderis shrugged when asked about the city's proposals. "Anything they do to develop this area has to be good," he said. "But, and I hate to bring it up, look at the World Trade Center." He was referring to the stalled development at the September 11 site as property moguls and city authorities still argue about plans and funding.

Seth Pinsky, the president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, said any development faced hurdles because of the city's high population and building density, which required co-operation from a host of partners, including business, residents and politicians. "The decline of Coney Island was incremental and it took a while to recognise what was happening. New York is largely built out and we have to accommodate a lot of issues and building consensus takes a long time."

Once the re-zoning process was completed, he hoped private sector companies, including those from overseas, would step in to invest. He said the development could proceed regardless of whether or not Mr Sitt sold his land to the city or not. "We'd like to put in interim amusements on the park land by the summer of next year," he said. "In five to 10 years' time, we should have a rebuilt neighbourhood with low- and middle-income housing and thousands of new jobs."

Over at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, which this year includes a fire-eater, snake-charmer and physically disabled contortionist, Scott Baker took a break from his job of trying to talk passers-by into attending the show and said he hoped fervently that any plan safeguarded the area's unique character. "We hear a lot of rumours and it's still very early in the season and people don't yet know what's going to happen," said Mr Baker, who is a trained actor. "We are unique, the only not-for-profit, classic sideshow and the brand name in the business."

Meanwhile, Sunny, Mr Vourderis's mix-breed dog, continues to spend his days mostly sleeping in car number four on the Wonder Wheel and his nights guarding the site. "The previous owners of the park also had a dog that liked going round on the wheel because it's much cooler up there," said Mr Vourderis. "It's a fun tradition to keep." sdevi@thenational.ae