How Sandy Has Changed the Game in Coney Island

Timothy Bidon Aug 17, 2013

Coney Island’s boardwalk, hit hard by Hurricane Sandy at the end of last October, is bustling again. Opposite the Stillwell Avenue subway station, Surf Avenue is now home to a brand new Applebee’s restaurant and an It’s Sugar candy store. Summer visitors are pouring into Luna Park, Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park and the New York Aquarium, and on blistering-hot weekends Coney Island’s fabled beach is packed. But just a few blocks north and west, in the residential parts of the neighborhood, recovery is barely under way.

“We’ve been doing everything on the up-and-up for 20 years,” said Jane Parmel, who runs a party-planning business at the corner of West 15th St. and Mermaid Avenue. She lost $150,000 in equipment and supplies to the storm’s rising waters. “In those 20 years I’ve employed over 100 people, and I can get nothing back from the city that I’ve paid taxes to.”

Around the corner from Parmel, Magda Perez has received one $15,000 loan from the Small Business Administration. Perez and her husband Sabino Eugenio, a retired butcher, opened Mermaid Prime Meats last October with a the hope of providing groceries at affordable prices to their fellow Coney Islanders, more than a third of whom rely on food stamps. In order to use food stamps in a business, that business must have an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card swipe machine, which is provided by New York State in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the wake of Sandy damage, the state has stalled on providing Perez with a machine, which has caused her business to dwindle. Now, the Perez and her husband struggle to keep their shelves stocked. Many other businesses in the area have fared worse, remaining shuttered because they could get neither direct assistance nor loans.

“Right now there are so many dead zones where there are no banks or supermarkets,” said Perez, a 45-year resident of Coney Island. “Before the storm there were local stores where you’d run in and get what you need, now you have to go out of your way.”

New York City has funneled $72 million in federal recovery money to small businesses. But according to its Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), that money is just a fraction of what’s needed: Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters covered an area with more than 18,000 businesses that employed at least 200,000 workers.

Working through the NYCEDC, a powerful, quasi-governmental entity dominated by mayoral appointees, the Bloomberg administration is preparing to channel a total of $90 million in federal recovery funds into five storm-impacted areas of the city. The initiative, known as the Neighborhood Game-Changer Investment Competition, covers the shorelines of southern Manhattan, southern and eastern Staten Island, the Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront, southern Queens and southern Brooklyn, which includes Coney Island.

However, struggling small business owners like Parmel and Perez need not apply. According to its website, the NYCEDC has requested proposals for “transformational projects” that will leverage significant additional private investment for large development projects.

Elizabeth Bird of the watchdog group Good Jobs New York has been following the Game-Changer competition and the status of post-Sandy small business loans closely. “This kind of competition is clearly aimed at the big players,” she said. “It certainly doesn’t take into account, at least on the outside, what the needs are of the community base, [of] businesses that are already there.”

Poor Man’s Riviera

Once known as the “Poor Man’s Riviera,” Coney Island has been a popular summer destination for working-class New Yorkers for more than a century. At the end of World War II, public works czar Robert Moses built thousands of units of public housing in Coney Island. Moses used the area as a dumping ground for residents displaced by the massive “urban renewal” projects he was carrying out in other parts of the city. Today, Coney Island has a year-round population of about 50,000 people and a median household income of $32,000, compared to the citywide median of $49,000.

In Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York, where waterfront development is booming and maximizing real-estate industry profits is close to a sacred cause, many see Coney Island as an underperforming asset in need of a dramatic facelift.

“Bloomberg believes that the future of this city is attracting more people with money, building a luxury city, a city for wealthy people,” said Tom Angotti, professor of urban affairs at Hunter College and author of New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate. “Economic development is all about bringing money in.”

Visions of a Coney Island makeover have danced in city planners’ eyes for the past decade. Working through the Coney Island Development Corporation, the Bloomberg administration announced in 2005 a plan for a “mixed-use” development that would include a new year-round amusement park for “world-class” operators and 4,500 units of new housing, more than 80 percent of which would be sold or rented at market rate. However, Brooklyn real-estate speculator and shopping-mall developer Joseph Sitt was quietly snapping up prime parcels of land. By 2005 he held much of the best real estate along Surf Avenue, from the Brooklyn Cyclones’ minor-league baseball stadium to the Cyclone roller coaster.

Sitt used his ownership to evict many amusement operators in the area, touting ever-changing plans for luxury hotels, a $1.5 billion “Las Vegas–style” resort along the beach, and even a blimp service that would provide aerial tours of the city while broadcasting: “THE BOARDWALK AT CONEY ISLAND.” At the same time, he demanded that the city allow him to build giant condominium towers on the south side of Surf Avenue, right up on the beach.

After years of gridlock, Sitt and Bloomberg struck a deal in 2009. The city purchased 6.9 acres of Sitt’s land east of Stillwell Avenue for $95.6 million so it could move forward with building the new amusement district. The city paid approximately $320 per square foot of land, a price comparable with property in central Manhattan. Sitt is free to build high-rise hotels and boutique shopping centers on his remaining land west of Stillwell Avenue.

Disaster Capitalism

With change already coming to Coney Island, Hurricane Sandy may turn out to be a boon for developers.

If the NYCEDC doles out any of its Game-Changer money to Coney Island (which seems quite possible, given how hard Bloomberg has fought to put his stamp on its future), those funds will almost certainly be used to further advance the city’s redevelopment plans there. Meanwhile, as storm-battered businesses like those of Jane Parmel and Magda Perez wither, their demise could clear the ground for further gentrification. After all, if developers are able to repopulate a commercial corridor like Mermaid Avenue with trendier, more upscale shops and businesses, moving to Coney Island would become that much more attractive to the affluent market-rate renters the city hopes to draw to the area.

For Angotti, it’s an example of “disaster capitalism” in action — a concept familiar to many New Orleanians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Sandy was, and is for the disaster capitalists, an opportunity,” he said.

But this “opportunity” excludes those who already inhabit Coney Island. And with a lack of transparency on the part of the city, the neighborhood’s year-round residents and business owners are left in the dark about their futures. “They fixed the boardwalk,” said Perez. “But what’s happening with the rest of the community? We need to know: where’s the rest of the money going?”


A Short History of Coney Island

«1895» Coney Island becomes a popular amusement destination for New Yorkers with the opening of Sea Lion Park, the first amusement park in the area. The same year, the iconic Steeplechase Park opens.

«1903» Luna Park is the only amusement park in Coney Island that retains it’s name today, but it’s beginnings stretch back to the turn of the 20th century.

«1916» Nathan’s Famous hot dog restaurant opens near the boardwalk. Nathan’s will go on to be a national franchise and a household name with its Independence Day hot dog eating contest being watched across the county.

«1920» Coney Island becomes more accessible to the average New Yorker as subway service is extended to Stillwell Avenue, and now amusement seekers can enjoy the newly-opened Wonder Wheel.

«1927» Coney Island becomes a “high thrill” amusement park as the Cyclone roller coaster opens. The Cyclone remains in operation to this day, thrilling generations of New Yorkers.

«1940s & 50s» Robert Moses begins his slum clearance crusade, pushing low-income families to Coney Island to live in high-rise housing projects. A significant portion of Coney Island residents still live in public housing.

«1966» Real estate developer Fred Trump (father of Donald) razes Steeplechase Park to the dismay of many and replaces amusements with high-rise apartments.

«1981» Coney Island sees its first Mermaid Parade. It now draws thousands of tourists to the boardwalk.

«2005» The Bloomberg administration reveals its development plans for Coney Island as developer Joe Sitt quietly buys up parcels of land in the area, evicting many longtime amusement operators.

«2009» Following years of gridlock, the city and Sitt finally strike a deal and development plans for Coney Island can be set into motion.

«2012» Hurricane Sandy devastates Coney Island.

«2013» Coney Island’s boardwalk sees a surge of tourists and new business, complete with new chain stores such as Applebee’s and It’s Sugar, while businesses on Mermaid Avenue struggle to re-open.

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