Of the dwindling seaside attractions still standing at Coney Island this summer, “Shoot the Freak” is perhaps best suited to the Brooklyn beach community’s exciting new demilitarized-zone motif.
From a platform off the old rickety boardwalk, patrons fire paintball guns at a slow-moving but well-padded masochist mingling amid the weeds and debris of an old vacant lot between two not-yet-demolished graffiti-covered buildings. In the background, beyond some vibrant “LIVE HUMAN TARGET” signage, lie the fenced-off ruins of the go-cart racetracks and batting cages torn down this past January.
“Shoot that freak in his freakin’ head!” boomed a bouncer-sized announcer challenging passers-by to join the freak-shooting action on Saturday afternoon; he laced his loud hawking with a sense of urgency: “This could be our last year, folks! They’re gonna tear us down and put up a parking lot.”
“Condos!” interjected one twentysomething hipster-spectator in dark sunglasses, adding an ironic “Awesome!”
Few operators along the Coney Island boardwalk even dare to discuss developer Joseph Sitt’s controversial plan for razing and reconstructing the ancient amusement district.
A gag order included in many retailers’ existing short-term leases actually prohibits it: “Licensee shall not engage in any activities intended to oppose or address the redevelopment or rezoning of Coney Island …. Licensee shall not make any statement to any person concerning or relating to the redevelopment activities.”
Even Tammy the Fortune Teller, whose curtained-off palm-reading booth presently sits within the planned demolition zone, declined to comment to The Observer on Coney Island’s future.
Yet Anthony Berlingieri, inventor and proud co-owner of “Shoot the Freak,” is outspoken on the controversy.
“I’m for the redevelopment,” Mr. Berlingieri told The Observer over Memorial Day weekend, the traditional opening salvo of summer—possibly Coney Island’s final summer as New York knows it. “Coney Island could definitely use a face-lift.”
Critics say that Mr. Berlingieri could use a muzzle. Other vendors along the boardwalk have branded him a traitor for all his recent pro-developer remarks to the press. Many are suspicious of the paintball purveyor’s seemingly cozy relationship with the bulldozer-revving landlord Mr. Sitt and his firm, Thor Equities.
Mr. Berlingieri readily acknowledged having personal dealings with the developer, though he wouldn’t describe himself as a collaborator so much as a survivalist.
Unlike other operators facing eviction this fall, he explained, “Shoot the Freak” has been promised a place amid the luxury condos, hotel, indoor water park and more upscale Disney-like attractions that Mr. Sitt has envisioned for the site. “I’ve been asked back,” Mr. Berlingieri said. “Joe Sitt called me personally at home.”
His detractors think he’s being naïve: Really, how many luxury-condo-dwelling paintball aficionados do you know?
“There will be no ‘Shoot the Freak’ at the new Coney Island,” predicted nearby merchant Dianna Carlin, whose tiny Lola Starr T-shirt shop reopened this spring after overcoming a prior eviction battle with Mr. Sitt.
Ms. Carlin, one of the few vendors who refused to sign Mr. Sitt’s gag rule, has emerged as an unlikely leader of the “Save Coney Island” campaign. “No one is opposed to redevelopment,” stressed Ms. Carlin. “It’s about preserving Coney Island’s character.”
This past March, the opposition group staged a protest at City Hall intended to sway city officials to reject Mr. Sitt’s requested rezoning of the amusement district to allow for residential development—a message somewhat thwarted, Ms. Carlin said, by the developer’s apparent P.R. tool from the nearby paintball concession.
“There’s really not too much left to save,” argued Mr. Berlingieri, who noted that the amusement district has been in steady decline for decades, with many lots sitting vacant long before Mr. Sitt started buying up property. “Where were the protests 50 years ago?” he asked. “Thor Equities are the only ones who’ve ever stepped up to revitalize.”
Several iconic Coney Island attractions—including the rickety, whiplash-inducing Cyclone rollercoaster and scenic 150-plus-foot-tall Wonder Wheel—are already city-protected landmarks that Mr. Sitt can’t touch. Same goes for the long-defunct Parachute Jump structure, commonly referred to as Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower, and the original Nathan’s hot-dog stand, built in 1916.
And the nonprofit group Coney Island USA, which operates the freaky circus-themed Sideshow by the Seashore, is in contract to buy its own 12,000-square-foot building along of Surf Avenue for more than $3 million.
The contested turf, therefore, mostly boils down to a dense, three-block-long stretch of video arcades, bumper cars, kooky haunted houses, various food and beverage vendors, and trite plush-toy prize contests.
Does the public really care if that stuff gets bulldozed? It invariably depends on what comes next.
“I think people would accept anything new or futuristic—Coney Island’s always been about new technology—as long as it’s used for recreational purposes,” said Charles Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found.
“But not for housing,” Mr. Denson stressed. “That would kill it. Once that land is rezoned, it’s worth a fortune. Condos would sprout like mushrooms.”
If history is any indicator, Mr. Denson said, Coney Island will survive the Sitt era, just as it has endured various bust-and-boom periods in the past.
Not everyone is so optimistic.
Take Coney Island Arcade owner Manny Cohen, whose most popular attraction these days isn’t skeeball or video games but the large “Coney Island R.I.P.” sign out front; it depicts the developer Mr. Sitt as the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad.
Mr. Cohen is presently contesting the eviction of his 27-year-old business in court.
Yet while his counterpart, Mr. Berlingieri, chose to make nice with the powers that be and now envisions a new spruced-up boardwalk-area setting for “Shoot the Freak,” the arcade owner seems resigned to an inevitable relocation outside New York altogether.
“It’s all greed here,” Mr. Cohen said. “I’m going to Vegas.”