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Coney Island opens last season before renewal

NEW YORK (Reuters) - With the traditional crash of a bottle of egg cream, Brooklyn’s borough president on Sunday launched the Coney Island amusement park’s last season ahead of a major redevelopment that will raze much of the lovably seedy boardwalk area.

Hundreds of roller coaster enthusiasts, local characters, politicians and residents braved light rain and 40-degree (four degrees Celsius) temperatures for the annual opening of the world famous Cyclone roller coaster, marking its 80th year, at a ceremony tinged with poignancy.

“This is a very emotional day,” said Carol Albert, whose family owns the 45-year-old Astroland park, home to the Cyclone and other thrill rides.

“It’s breaking our hearts” to be closing the park, Albert said, but added that the plans would yield “a new, exciting and improved Coney Island.”

Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz vowed, “We’re entering into the best days. The promise is not only to preserve Coney Island, but to make sure that the best days are yet to come, both preserving and expanding” its scope.

He then broke a bottle of egg cream, a New York concoction of chocolate syrup, seltzer and milk, on the roller coaster’s front car before a raft of dignitaries, including Miss Cyclone, piled in for the heart-stopping inaugural plunge.

Developer Thor Equities plans a $2 billion amusement, retail and residential project along the boardwalk. The plan, which some reports have characterized as “Vegas-style,” includes more than 20 new rides.

Besides amusements, it envisions entertainment, what it calls a “family hotel” and indoor water park, retail spaces and residential condos and hotel timeshares.

But iconic Coney Island sites will remain. In addition to the roller coaster, the Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel and the Steeplechase parachute jump that, while no longer operational towers over the playground, are all protected from the wrecking ball by their U.S. national landmark status.


But other hallmarks like the Astro Tower observation ride and Dante’s Inferno, immortalized in a Spencer Tracy film of the same name, will be torn down.

Coney Island, with its mile-long beach, boardwalk and amusements made famous in songs and fiction, peaked in the 1920s, when hundreds of thousands of day-trippers used the new subway lines that extended all the way to the borough of The Bronx to escape sweltering tenements.

After World War Two, the rise of air conditioning, the automobile, street gangs and the suburbs sent the area, like other city neighborhoods, into decline and neglect.

But the beaches remained a constant draw. More recently the 2001 debut of a new ballpark for the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team, a reconstructed boardwalk and the multimillion dollar reconstruction of the sprawling subway terminal have helped thousands of New Yorkers and tourists rediscover the destination.

The redevelopment of Coney Island is only the latest move to rehabilitate -- some would say ruin -- what are seen as New York’s City less-reputable areas.

Rudolph Giuliani, when mayor, presided over a major cleanup of Times Square, banishing porn shops and theaters and ushering in tax breaks for major corporations and family-oriented entertainment conglomerates like Disney. The Meatpacking district around West 14th Street has also been cleaned up of prostitutes, transvestites and gay leather bars.

The residential components of Thor Equities’ plan in particular have drawn critics’ ire, including some 100 Coney Island devotees who rallied at City Hall on Friday.

“Coney Island has an amazing history that needs to be preserved,” said Angie Pontini, Miss Cyclone 2007. “A luxury condo in the heart of the amusement district is not what people from around the world go to Coney Island to see.”

Opponents of the Thor plan fear long-time side shows such as carnies, grease-laden snacks and the popular “Shoot the Freak” boardwalk game, the object being to shoot a live “freak” with paintballs as he dashes about a pen, will disappear.