Carnival Games: Was Coney Island’s Rebirth Doomed from the Start?

Five years later, it's hard to see the rest of the way home.

The Cyclone, which dates to 1927, is one of few attractions that remain from Coney Island's heyday. (Celeste Sloman)

The Cyclone, which dates to 1927, is one of few attractions that remain from Coney Island’s heyday. (Photo by Celeste Sloman)

Keith Suber was born at Coney Island Hospital in September 1966, right around the time the spell that had seeded Coney Island in the world’s imagination, conjuring a “people’s playground” and a turreted “Baghdad by the sea,” finally broke. He is the brother of the murdered Molock, who ran the Seven Immortals street gang—inspiration for The Warriors—and the son of Romeo Samuel, who worked construction and made himself scarce. That he uses the surname of a mother he scarcely knew is perhaps partially a tribute to Mary Suber, the grandmother who raised him until he was a teenager in the Gravesend Houses, a forest of New York City Housing Authority buildings along Neptune Avenue.

A deaconess at the Coney Island Gospel Assembly, where a pastor known as Brother Jack presided, Sister Suber worked for Robert Moses’ Park Department, attending to the upkeep of bathhouses along the boardwalk. She taught Sunday school and occupied her grandson’s time with church. Keith’s memories of childhood are dominated by Brother Jack’s generosity and by chores completed at the church house, by his grandmother’s dignity and poise.

Strolling with him one day when he was about 11, she pointed to a young man bedecked in Seven Immortals regalia moving on Surf Avenue outside the Renaissance Revival hulk of the old Shore Theater, where Al Jolson and Jerry Lewis had played, and which had become an adult film palace. He was Raymond Samuel, a gang leader known on the street as Blue. Keith did not recognize him. “That’s your brother,” his grandmother told him.

The time had come, she felt, for Keith to meet his father’s side of the family. A few days later, Raymond introduced Keith to his other siblings—streetwise young men who went by Mousey, Timmy and Colonel—some 14 brothers in all, of whom Keith was youngest.

He began keeping late hours at the Carey Gardens project where his brothers congregated, smoking marijuana, drinking, snatching purses and breaking into cars. He would father his first child at 17 and join Casanova Crew, a clutch of DJs who came of age in the era of Rapper’s Delight. He would run with the Skeeter Boys, who pushed heroin and crack in the Coney Island projects through the 1980s and were ensnared in a DEA sting that shackled 24 co-defendants.

On Keith’s forearm is a flat glossed burn mark the size and shape of an Eisenhower dollar coin. On his arms and legs, the pale traces of bullet wounds. He has slept in prisons in Elizabethtown, New Jersey and in Allenville, Pennsylvania, been bused from Fort Worth to Seagoville, Texas, to Memphis, Tennessee. In a penitentiary in El Reno, Oklahoma, he joined the CRIPS. Having completed an eight-year sentence, he came home in 1997. But much attached to a brutal and uncompromising self-image—and unsure of how to make a life outside an illicit economy—he returned occasionally to prison for brief stints over the next decade.

On a recent morning, Keith woke in the Coney Island rooming house where he lives and met me near Nathan’s Famous on Surf Avenue. It was not yet 11, but the sun was high and flip-flopped visitors were already queuing for hotdogs. Since returning to his birthplace in 2008 from Albany, where he spent a few years trying to steer clear of treacherous hometown temptation, Keith has devoted much of his energy to the Suber Foundation, a mentoring and job placement organization he started to help young men avoid making the same choices he did.

Keith Suber, a former gang leader, works to train and employ troubled young men in Coney Island.

Keith Suber, a former gang leader, works to train and find employment for troubled young men in Coney Island. (Photo by Celeste Sloman)

The gangs of the Samuel brothers’ heyday have faded, but old beefs—and a gun culture one longtime resident described to me as reminiscent of the Wild West—persist. “This is a small community,” Keith said. “Pretty much all the conflicts that you see is mostly personal: ‘Your boy did something to my cousin years back,’ shit like that. These kids are picking up right where we left off.”

Brooklyn’s renaissance has not spread to Coney Island, which is not an island at all—a portion of its eponymous creek having been filled years ago—but a peninsula some four miles long at the borough’s southern extremity. One in six of its 50,000 residents lives in a NYCHA development, the bulk of which stand clustered well clear of carnival attractions in a neglected area called the West End.

Unemployment in the neighborhood hovers around 13 percent—nearly double the rate in Manhattan and some 4 percent higher than Brooklyn’s average—and public recreational facilities and programming are scarce. Retail options, especially in the West End, are what real estate brokers call “immature,” lacking grocers, pharmacies and other basics. Coney Island remains among New York’s most violent districts, with a 2013 murder rate comparable to Brownsville’s.

Personal motivations guided Keith’s odyssey: the death of his brother, shot three times in the head in a project in the mid 90s; his children, of which he now has four; a 25-year-old cousin’s murder in 2010. But the Bloomberg administration’s Coney Island Revitalization Plan, adopted by the city council in 2009, furnished practical incentives.

“Anywhere you see scaffolding out here, we look at that like an opportunity,” Keith said, gesturing to the surrounding blocks. In the last five years, the city has poured $140 million into economic development, facilitating the opening of two new amusement parks—Luna Park and Scream Zone—boardwalk refurbishment and a variety of other projects. An additional $150 million has been allocated for infrastructural upgrades, the sore necessity for which was emphasized by flooding during and after Hurricane Sandy.

We moved up a ramp onto the boardwalk, where a weekday crowd strolled languidly. Keith pointed to the fresh weather-treated planks beneath our feet and east, to where hip-hop numbers pulsed from a strip of bright new bars and cafes.

Local youth programming and public recreation facilities are scarce. (Celeste Sloman)

Local youth programming and public recreation facilities are scarce. (Photo by Celeste Sloman)

He had enlisted neighborhood men—some of whom might have otherwise been pursuing less productive activities—to do demolition work in the restaurants and to lay boardwalk lumber, providing basic contracting tutorials as needed. With the help of local leaders, he’s secured promises for construction jobs on private projects and on sites funded by stimulus and Sandy recovery funds: in public housing, at the aquarium—which is undergoing a $157 million upgrade—at a $64 million amphitheater due for completion next year and elsewhere.

Keith is a broad, imposing man, 280 pounds with a heavy midsection and a gait befitting an ambulant vending machine. He wears a strap of stubble and baggy clothes, sneakers and flat-brimmed caps. Against his mass, his scars have the effect of bramble marks on a giant. “Me being who I am, being an OG and having the respect I do out here, I can have an impact like other people can’t,” he said. “I’m not telling some story I read in a book. I lived it.”

Still, the Suber Foundation’s placements are catch-as-catch-can. The city suggests that its plan will yield 25,000 construction jobs and 6,000 permanent ones, $14 billion in economic activity over 30 years. But a number of community leaders told me that few local residents have been employed on new tourism-centric work sites; inadequate training, education and difficulty acquiring union membership have hampered hiring. Jobs generated so far are mostly low-paying—seasonal, temporary or both.

The revitalization plan, produced by the New York Economic Development Corporation and a now-defunct subsidiary—the Coney Island Development Corporation—consists largely of a modernized resurrection of Coney Island’s storied past. But how such a vision might coexist with a residential neighborhood bearing little resemblance to the one that stood beside the coasters and carousels of old remains unclear. The here-and-now appeal of early 20th-century Coney Island honky-tonk—its ability to underpin the sort of world-class destination that planners are banking on—is likewise unproven.

“When I came home, I still wasn’t a good guy for a while,” Keith reflected. “I didn’t want to be hustling no more. I didn’t want to go back to prison. Just like a lot of people here today, I wanted to change my life, but I didn’t know how.”

Left, boosterish graffiti. Right, the parachute jump viewed from a distance. (Celeste Sloman)

Left, boosterish graffiti. Right, the parachute jump viewed from a distance. (Photo by Celeste Sloman)

If the flux of identity figures prominently in American experience and Coney Island in the marrow of national culture, then it is unsurprising that the neighborhood has for much of its history been worried by the vicissitudes of reinvention. Noting more than a century’s passage since the erection of Coney Island’s first resort hotel, in 1937 the New York Times called it a place “New York and much of America know intimately…swept by alternating waves of prosperity and poverty.” Already it had seen gangsterism, corruption and fire—crazed, then-fantastic-seeming innovation in early Ferris wheels and flumes. From the Civil War to century’s end, “Coney meant private beaches and summer homes, then…horse racing, three-card monte, beautifully-gowned women, chicken, lobster and champagne.”

By the 1930s, improved transit was ferrying New York’s wealthy to more far-flung destinations, and funneling to Coney Island en masse those who could “go no farther for their recreation than a five or ten cent fare [would] carry them.” Cramped and teeming, rife low-rent clamor, it was “dedicated primarily, and apparently permanently, to an era of orange drinks, sarsaparilla and nickel beer.” It was, in short, just the sort of thing Park Commissioner Robert Moses hated. “Certainly,” he said, “there is no reason to perpetuate out of doors the overcrowding of our tenements.”

As chairman of the mayor’s Slum Clearance Committee in the early 1950s, Moses initiated a brutal regimen of urban renewal—ostensibly to create a stolid, year-round community and to chasten a bawdy amusement district—that would continue until 1970, when Carey Gardens’ final brick was laid. The old Coney Island, Moses considered, was “romantic only at night and in mid-summer, rotting inside and out in spite of nostalgic fables.”

Waterfront acrobatics on the Coney Island beach. (Celeste Sloman)

Waterfront acrobatics on the Coney Island beach. (Photo by Celeste Sloman)

Edwin Cosme was a young child living with his parents in a basement apartment when Hurricane Donna made landfall in Coney Island in 1960. After the storm, salvaging what little they could from their ruined home, the family moved to a second-floor walkup in the West 20s and later, to the Gravesend Houses.

The son of Puerto Rican immigrants—his mother tended to the house while his father made bootleg rum and dabbled in loan sharking—Mr. Cosme grew up amid arson and gang violence. Bulldozers scraped away historic bungalow communities and high-rise warehouses for the city’s poor and elderly grew from their rubble. Graffiti and vermin flourished in a neighborhood shot-through with blackened buildings and lots abandoned in white flight. Tourism plummeted.

Since serving prison time in the 80s for firearms trafficking, Mr. Cosme has become a neighborhood advocate and a community fixture, running a pair of businesses and a youth athletics program. Tanned and compact, with slow speech and nimble movements, he is greeted on the street by passersby who grin at him involuntarily, as if at a beloved and slightly-mischievous uncle.

On a Friday afternoon in May, he welcomed me at the Mermaid Avenue bakery he owns and lives above, and we walked to his hair salon a few doors down, where a small group of women chatted amiably in Spanish as children played nearby. At the building’s rear, we climbed a rickety staircase to a patio and Mr. Cosme arranged folding chairs around a weathered card table. In the distance, the Wonder Wheel and Parachute Jump made dreamy silhouettes against a cloudless sky.

Mr. Cosme is an unabashed redevelopment skeptic. “It was great going to the rides as a kid,” he said. “But it was tough growing up in the neighborhood. I’m not against development, but all the money goes back out. The community is not benefiting from the amusements.”

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, consultants and nonprofit groups seemed to descend on his neighborhood in eerie concert with newly available public money. “How can these people come into the West End now?” he asked. “Where were they before Sandy?” (Perturbed by a slow trickledown to storm victims, city councilman Mark Treyger, who represents Coney Island, recently introduced a bill—together with Eric Ulrich, of Queens—calling on the Department of Investigation to monitor the use of the billions of dollars in federal recovery funds New York has received, and to investigate potential fraud and abuse.)

In outlining such doubts, Mr. Cosme and others I spoke with seemed to refer not merely to Coney Island’s latest overhaul, but to a long history of unrealized promises made in the name of opportunism.

“Since I was a little girl, they’ve been saying, ‘Coney Island is going to be this, Coney Island is going to be that,’” Mathylde Frontus told me. “There is a feeling that you have the residents on one side and the powers that be on the other.”

Ms. Frontus is the founder and executive director of Urban Neighborhood Services, a nonprofit offering a variety of supportive programming. Excepting time at Harvard, Columbia and NYU, she has lived in Coney Island for all of her 36 years. “A lot of anger and dismay have sprung from feeling like the forgotten stepchildren of the amusement park,” she said. “To see resources flowing to beautify a parachute jump, for example, is frustrating. There are people here that harbor hard feelings from many years ago.” (The EDC devoted $5 million to the jump.)

Real estate speculation, alongside clams and sideshow freaks, represents one of the neighborhood’s most time-honored traditions. In the 1960s, Fred Trump bought the land occupied by the defunct Steeplechase Park—the last to close of Coney Island’s golden-age parks—declaring the era of amusements dead in anticipation of erecting luxury condos. But the city refused to rezone the parcel residential and Trump leased it to a small-time carnival operator, selling eventually to the city amid a land boom fueled by the rumored coming of casinos. Casinos, too, failed to materialize, and a public-private scrum involving diverse participants and land-use proposals and resulting, mostly, in a proliferation of vacant lots, continued through the 1990s.

In 2005, Thor Equities, a developer known for shopping centers and property flipping, unveiled plans for a garish, Las Vegas-style resort in the amusement district, where the company had assembled a substantial tract. Amid protests from locals who feared that Coney Island’s historic character—however blemished—would be effaced, the Bloomberg administration, which was by all accounts comically out-negotiated by Thor chieftain Joe Sitt, bought 6.9 acres from the developer for $95.6 million. (Thor retains considerable area holdings—a great portion of them fallow, to the consternation of all concerned.)

Ed Cosme at his salon and Mathylde Frontus at the office of Urban Neighborhood Services. (Celeste Sloman)

Ed Cosme at his salon and Mathylde Frontus at the office of Urban Neighborhood Services. (Photos by Celeste Sloman)

For a roller coaster ribbon cutting, sunshine is wanted, and early June proved uncooperative. Finally, on the second Saturday of the month, rain gave way to a morning of near-oppressive brilliance, and a guitar-sized pair of scissors arrived at the boardwalk to shear the sash from the new Thunderbolt, the $9 million polished steel namesake of the wooden original demolished 14 years ago. On hand to stoke an already-jubilant crowd of perhaps 50 were Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, state senator Diane Savino and EDC president Kyle Kimball.

“We’ve all been part of this renaissance in Coney Island!” Ms. Savino declared from a barricaded area reserved for speakers and press. Mr. Kimball predicted that the neighborhood would be “restored to America’s playground.” Mr. Adams recalled the first Thunderbolt’s cameo in Annie Hall. No mention was made of the old ride’s appearance in Requiem for a Dream.

Silver confetti and golden streamers issued from above the entry gate, and the first official riders embarked over the coaster’s graceful orange track, whose loops and turns over a long, narrow stretch of land suggest double-dutch ropes frozen in air. From the boardwalk, the ride seemed to operate almost in silence.

As the crowd dispersed, I joined Nate Bliss, a senior vice president at the EDC, at an outdoor table at one of the restaurants where workers from the Suber Foundation had been employed. (The organization also participated in the Thunderbolt’s construction.) Mr. Bliss has been working in Coney Island for nine years, serving as president of the CIDC and lately playing the role of development czar.

Barely over 30, he makes the impression of a person several years younger but unusually poised. Trim and clean-shaven, wearing razor nicks and a crisp white shirt, he might have been running for student senate. He has the candidate’s relentless optimism, offset by flickers of sardonic derision, and an air of lifelong precocity.

With good reason, Mr. Bliss is popular on the boardwalk. Visitorship has increased every year since the storm, reaching more than 3 million during the 2013 season and, by the EDC’s reckoning, setting a one-day attendance record on Memorial Day this year. (Mr. Bliss declined to name a precise figure; on July 4th, 1947, 1.3 million people are thought to have mobbed the beaches.)

“Sandy was a blip on the radar for the arc of the amusement district,” he told me.

Visitors in the vicinity of the Coney Island Wonder Wheel. (Celeste Sloman)

Visitors in the vicinity of the Coney Island Wonder Wheel. (Photos by Celeste Sloman)

The bounce-back was facilitated by a 2009 adjustment to Coney Island’s zoning, which had gone badly out of date, limiting a huge swath of the neighborhood to outdoor amusements to the exclusion of more diverse development. Reduced to about 12 acres, the amusement district now stands on city-owned protected parkland, and is augmented by an additional 15 acres designated for complementary entertainment, hospitality and retail purposes.

Prior to the rezoning, Coney Island’s amusements were few and ailing. “If you lose the amusements, you lose the Coney Island brand, which you can leverage to create opportunities for private investment, to unlock affordable housing,” Mr. Bliss said. (A yet-unrealized portion of the EDC’s plan provides for 5,000 new housing units, 900 of them affordable; a willing builder has yet to materialize and progress on prerequisite public works improvements has been slow.)

Sporting fresh polish, neighborhood culinary mainstays like Nathan’s, Ruby’s restaurant and Paul’s Daughter co-exist with local and national chains including Grimaldi’s, Applebee’s and, soon enough, Johnny Rocket’s. Larger-scale retail, including supermarkets, ought to follow. “Now we have a nice mix of old and new,” Mr. Bliss said. “Surf Avenue has a strip that allows it to be busy on a rainy day, on a winter day. You have Japanese, Italians and Germans finding their way down here in January.”

This is where things get tricky. The city’s plan calls for a year-round destination attracting domestic and international tourists. There is, however, no evident route to that product—no successful modern model for it.

Dress on the boardwalk is resolutely casual. (Celeste Sloman)

Dress on the boardwalk is resolutely casual. (Photo by Celeste Sloman)

Still, Coney Islanders feel bullish. The neighborhood inspires fierce loyalty. When I visited him at the Coney Island History Project, a tiny museum and nonprofit he runs beneath the boardwalk, the journalist, author and near-lifelong resident Charles Denson offered hedged optimism: “People couldn’t understand why the community wasn’t more excited about the latest round of development,” he said. “Well, we’ve been through this before. It’s really hard to undo what Robert Moses did. You can’t just put up some new rides and have everything be O.K. So far, what you’re seeing is not a lot of long-term opportunities—it’s a 30-year plan. We haven’t seen the other part of it yet.”

And the other part remains vague. When the aquarium is finished, the city-funded portion of the amusement district’s revitalization will be complete. It will fall to private enterprise to drive further growth, and no effective mechanism exists to connect residents with fresh economic opportunities, should they ever arrive. It is difficult, finally, to conceive of visitors traveling to spend Christmas in a hotel an hour’s subway ride from Broadway. Hot dogs, chain stores and water parks have only so much pull.

But Mr. Bliss was insistent, if not quite logical: “We could search for models all day long,” he said. “Really, it’s no different than other transit-oriented developments, from Downtown Brooklyn to Hudson Yards. We envision it almost as an alternative to the Jersey shore, only closer. But I think Coney Island is its own thing. This is a place that produces powerful nostalgia. The best inspiration for Coney Island’s future is really Coney Island’s past.”

When he arrived in 1909, Freud judged Coney Island “the realized unconscious of its age,” a not-entirely-complimentary appraisal, which nonetheless indicates the extent to which the place beat out the rhythms of the era. Today, on the sunny mid-summer beaches of Coney Island, one has—as in bygone days—scant breathing room. You might hear very little English, though Chinese and Spanish have largely replaced the German and Italian of old. The speakers are day-trippers, mostly, and members of New York’s embattled working class. Travelers of means are more likely to use discount Internet travel sites to reach the Maldives, Patagonia or jungle-choked Cambodian temples.

Coney Island kitsch is no longer emblematic. It does not reflect the city’s—let alone the country’s—pulse. The nostalgia of Mr. Bliss’ description is really something sadder, stranger and more seductive—a longing for a time few of us can remember, and whose resurrection therefore appears to contain infinite possibility. It invites us to flip past unpleasant intervening chapters. But if the attractions of historic Coney Island do not appeal to the tastes of modern extended-stay vacationers, more recent local history yields little guidance for an immediate way forward. It can be difficult to accept that simply restoring one’s best self might not be enough to wash away mistakes of the past.

Young men passing time on the street in Coney Island. (Celeste Sloman)

Young men passing time on the street in Coney Island. (Photo by Celeste Sloman)

Keith and I board a cab piloted by a genial Caribbean driver unconcerned with his fare. We pull away from the Stillwell Avenue subway station, where the D, F, N and Q trains terminate, and turn onto Mermaid, passing a curbside produce market where a man with a plastic-handled machete stands beside a store of spiny tropical fruit. We pass a barbershop with door propped, blasting rap music from an amplifier, and an African hair-braiding parlor. We pass Ed Cosme’s bakery and the storefront office of Urban Neighborhood Services, dormant retail spaces and churches closed since the storm.

We pass Carey Gardens and the Gravesend Houses, where one 17-year-old killed another last Christmas Eve, and a project at 27th Street, where 25-year-old Shawn White was shot dead in a stairwell two days later. We pass the corner where a 10-year-old boy caught a stray round the last Saturday in June. We pass NYCHA facilities where mold creeps and community centers stand shuttered, where last winter, boilers broke and apartments went cold. Slowly, we roll by a memorial mural where dozens of names are painted.

“I know damn near everybody on that wall,” Keith says.

We are in the West End now. Ranks of housing projects seem to copy or repeat themselves. To Keith, we could be nowhere else, but for an outsider, landmarks are unapparent. Coney Island carnivalesque is not in evidence. The only salient distinguishing characteristics—the only hints of a seaside locale—are lingering storm damage and a sulfurous breeze.

The sun is bright and the blocks mostly empty. Outside bodegas, young men loiter, crouched atop overturned plastic crates. We turn north and then east on Neptune. In a driveway that cuts between the parking lots of two housing projects, a shirtless man shouts unintelligibly at a motorcyclist.

“Most people,” Keith says, “they don’t even know this is here.”