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Coney comeback:Famed Brooklyn boardwalk gets spiffed up

Ruby'sBar Grill Coney IslNew York| PHOTO BY DAVE HOEKSTRA

Ruby'sBar and Grill at Coney Island, New York| PHOTO BY DAVE HOEKSTRA

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Coney Island is a New York neighborhood featuring a boardwalk and area with nearly 50 independent rides and attractions (it’s not an “amusement park”). Take the D, F, N or Q trains to Stillwell Avenue, the end of the line in Brooklyn. Rides open at noon and close at various times (hours/days of operation are seasonal, so check the website). The beach and the boardwalk are open year-round.

Before heading over to Nathan’s hot dogs, get assimilated at Coney Island, USA, 1208 Surf Ave.

The purpose of Coney Island USA is to defend the honor of American popular culture through innovative exhibitions and performances. They do a good job of answering questions and giving directions. Visit; (718) 372-5159.

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Updated: October 3, 2012 6:07AM

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Travel can be as fast-paced as a roller coaster.

But don’t make snap judgments. Things aren’t always what they seem to be.

This was the case during a late July visit to Coney Island, opened in the 1830s and the country’s oldest amusement park.

People had written off Coney Island.

But in 2007, Thor Equities announced plans for a $1 billion project that would include a year-round amusement park, hotel and time-share units on 10 acres of Coney Island. Everyone — including me — figured Thor would reconfigure Coney Island into a swank Disney/Miami Beach deal. In the fall of 2010 I had a farewell beer at Ruby’s Bar & Grill on the boardwalk. Ruby’s opened in 1934 and is the oldest bar on Coney Island. It was closing as part of redevelopment plans.

Guess what?

Ruby’s closed, remodeled and opened up again this past May. I’ve been to Coney Island a half-dozen times since my first Mermaid Parade in 1993 and have never seen it as crowded in terms of diversity as I did during late July. The neighborhood was filled with young hipsters and old wanderers singing a dusty Dion song. Numerous families from all walks of life were enjoying the rides. People were smiling.

Only a handful were on cell phones.

Coney Island continues to inspire. Attendance spiked to 640,000 in 2011, up from 400,000 in 2010, according to the city’s Economic Development Corporation, a key player in keeping the charm on-course.

“The new Coney Island has emerged,” said Dick D. Zigun, executive artistic director and founder of the non-profit Coney Island, U.S.A. The long-time “Unofficial Mayor of Coney Island” had been as gloomy as a sea storm front a few years ago.

Zigun admitted, “The new Coney Island is coming on strong. There were some modifications to the harsh earlier plans. That includes Ruby’s being able to stay. Where they might have wanted to put in franchises and a more European feel, instead you have Brookylyncentric businesses like Tom’s Restaurant (whose roots are in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) and Grimaldis’ (one of Brooklyn’s legendary pizzerias).”

Maybe I was melancholy because Coney Island is kind of a weird place to visit alone. But something will always make you laugh at Coney Island. I stumbled across Miss Coney Island and her dancing cats at West 12th Street and the boardwalk. I hadn’t previously seen this life-sized mechanical mannequin. For a mere quarter, she dances to boardwalk classics like the Drifters “Under the Boardwalk” and the Diamonds’ “Little Darlin’.” The cat dances at no extra charge. A sign near the quarter slot reads, “25 cents to fall in LOVE.” Her nearby motto reads, “Don’t Postpone Joy.”

And I smiled. This was cheaper than drinking at the Matchbox.

Earlier this year Miss Coney Island emerged from the off-the-beaten-path Jones Walk section of Coney Island, where she had been for 12 years. She made the move with Skin the Wire, Feed the Clown and other mechanical joys. Just like Joan Rivers, Miss Coney Island was remade with a new wig, makeup and a costume in which she resembles a late-1960s flower child. The dancing dame debuted at the Barnum Pavilion at the 1935 Danbury State Fair and had been rescued by Coney Island entrepreneur Benjamin Harrison.

“It’s now a socialist amusement park,” Zigun said. “The city has spent tens of millions of dollars acquiring the boardwalk property, designating it parkland, and sort of agreeing with me after 30 years that amusement parks are cultural and tourist things the government should encourage. The city acquires different properties and leases run out. Zamperla had eight years left, so Ruby’s and Paul’s Daughter (clam bar) got eight-year renewals, where prior to this they had been year to year. But the leases require major renovations, correcting all building violations and illuminated signing. There’s an overall look to the boardwalk but it is not uniformity.”

Earlier this year Yahoo Travel listed Coney Island as America’s third-most crowded beach (11,164,975 annual visitors), behind Miami Beach and first placers Venice Beach with 16 million patrons. I always tell people to head to Coney Island when they are in New York; September is a splendid month to visit because crowds are down, weather is cooler but the events are just as colorful: The 28th Annual Coney Island Tattoo & Motorcycle Festival gets under way at 6 p.m. Sept. 14, followed at 10 p.m. by the 10th annual Miss Coney Island Burlesque Beauty Pageant (the biker/tattoo festival begins at noon Sept. 15 and 16 and generally draws around 5,000 people), and the Coney Island Film Festival, which runs Sept. 21-23 (visit or call 718-372-5159).

“The changes on the boardwalk have addressed many issues in terms of infrastructure and health and safety concerns,” Zigun explained. “It is suddenly looking like an amusement park boardwalk. That’s government stimulus, which aggressively marches forward. (New York Mayor Michael) Bloomberg, the borough president, has about 14 months left in office. They are pushing the envelope and keeping their commitment to spend millions of dollars. But even next year before they leave office, Steeplechase Plaza opens (a 2.2-million acre public open space that will be the western entryway to the amusement district), and the B&B Carousel (handcarved and restored, originally in Asbury Park, N.J.) comes back. That’s government stimulus, but what is exciting is the private sector is jumping in. Surf Avenue is transforming from illegal furniture stores under previous zoning, that drop metal gates at 5 p.m. and darken the neighborhood, into a late-night eating and drinking strip.”

Zigun said Thor built its first building at the Coney Island anchor corner of Surf and Stillwell, catty-corner from Nathan’s hot dog stand. “It will have tenants next year and that’s where it is likely you will seeApplebee’s, Johnny Rockets and so on,” he said. “Thor owns major pieces of property and some are zoned for hotels.”

In November 2013, New York voters will cast ballots on statewide casinos. “Before I can speculate, voters have to approve,” Zigun said. “But if a casino comes to Coney Island it will take one of the 30-story Thor Hotel sites as well as a large lot behind Nathan’s, where their next project will be a two-story building with a Cineplex on the second floor and maybe a ride on the roof. That’s something the city has asked them to try and design.”

The possibilities of Coney Island (pop. 50,000) and boardwalks have touched many, including Bruce Springsteen, who in the ballad “Valentine’s Day” sang, “They say he travels fastest who travels alone.” Patience and empathy frame a meaningful lens for the traveler.

“Coney Island is working to reclaim it’s historic role as a world class tourist attraction,” Zigun said in carefully measured tones.

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