A 21st-century makeover for a quirky amusement park

Residents of New York's Coney Island welcome - warily - a pricey face-lift.

Lilliputia, a miniature village teeming with midgets, intrigued the world when it opened in 1904 at Coney Island's Dreamland. Back then the seaside resort was the inventory of the outrageous and far-flung.

A hundred years later Coney Island is still a center of "American bizarro," in the words of Dick Zigun, whose Sideshows by the Seashore, a longstanding freak show here, provided an old-fashioned brand of fun one recent afternoon with worm eaters and flame breathers.

But if the current of eccentricity still runs through Coney Island, larger political and corporate forces are now also at play. Step outside the sideshow, ladies and gentlemen. Changes are under way.

A new $280 million subway terminal with a solar-paneled roof to help power the station is under construction. New public bathrooms and quaint wooden gazebos line the 81-year-old boardwalk. Old fixtures such as the hawkers of used goods are getting kicked out. And a plan to pump more verve - and cash - into the seaside neighborhood is in the hands of powerful consultants.

Many residents and local business owners eagerly await revitalization. But others fear corporate attention could change the character of the place and price some locals out.

After all, says John Lambros, owner of Puzzles Bar and Grill a few blocks from the sea: "We sell hot dogs here, not shrimp fricassee."

In the 19th century, Coney Island introduced the world to roller coasters and the frank on a bun. Today residents hope the burst of capitalist attention will polish this American icon - whose string of electric lights prompted one early visitor to call it an "electric Eden," another "Sodom by the sea" - which has been largely neglected since World War II.

"Up until five years ago, [Coney Island] seemed to whittle away," says Mr. Zigun, who moved here in 1979. Some of the original Coney Island still stands. But many rides have burned down or been cleared away to build public housing projects. "[We] went through very rough times."

Coney Island came onto the radar again in 2001, with a new ballpark for the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Mets farm team. While it hasn't brought as many profits as anticipated, says Al O'Hagan of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, it has helped. Visitors no longer have to fear what's "under the boardwalk."

"I used to dread Monday mornings because there'd be calls that this happened and that happened, and where were the police?" says Mr. O'Hagan. "That doesn't happen anymore."

The Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) announced this spring that accountants Ernst & Young and designers David, Brody & Bond will head the new strategic plan - expected to be released this fall.

Judi Orlando, executive director of Astella Development Corp. and a member of the CIDC board, says the study will focus on developing a Coney Island that entices year round. Plans could include a sports complex, an enclosed water park, or an aquatic-themed hotel.

Locals say the attention has piqued the interest of some developers. "There's lots of sniffing around," says Chuck Reichenthal, district manager of Community Board 13. "I get calls of rumors, that Trump bought one building, Disney bought another. [Residents] want to know what is going to happen."

Some say the sudden attention is ruining the essence of the place. Daryl Parrett, a Coney Island native who has been selling used electronics at a flea market under the tracks for 15 years (illegally since the land is zoned for amusement use only), will be evicted June 30.

"This is part of the Coney Island redevelopment project. They are beautifying Coney Island, and we aren't beautiful," he says. "They are pouring millions into this area right now. It may be good for big business but not for the community."

Mr. Lambros says he, too, worries about what change could mean for him. "Nobody knows anything," he says. "But when you spend $300 million on the last stop in Brooklyn, something is going on."

There is a danger of being priced out, says Zigun, but not anytime soon. He thinks quirky, urban Coney Island will survive. Where else, after all, do "Hasidim sit next to homeboys on rides?"

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