NEWS: Tattoos are not the only way to preserve Coney Island

From Courier-Life Publications:

A Coney Island Without Nathan’s? Not If They Can Help It
By Joe Maniscalco

This week Coney Island USA’s Artistic Director Dick Zigun announced that he will have a version of the Nathan’s Famous Hotdog sign tattooed on his leg as part of TLC’s “Miami Ink” cable TV show.

But could Zigun’s leg someday become one of the few spots left in Coney Island where the iconic imagery is put on display?

It could if the City of New York’s grand plan to reinvent the historically vibrant amusement center as a year-round tourist attraction supplants the intrinsically democratic honky-tonk culture that gave it rise in the 19th century.

On Sunday, a group of panelists including Zigun, architectural historian Jane Cowan, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation Executive Director Andrew Berman and Director of Preservation & Research Melissa Baldock and Coney Island Museum Curator Aaron Beebe met at the Coney Island Museum at 1208 Surf Avenue to discuss ways of preserving the past while allowing for new development.

“The last thing we want to do is turn Coney Island into something it is not,” Cowan warned.

To that end preservationists have put Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs on the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues at the top of a list of Coney Island locations they are endeavoring to landmark with the help of a grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund.

Other sites on their list include such notable attractions as the B&B Carousel, Shore Theater and original Childs Restaurant, which now houses the Coney Island Museum.

The question of how landmark designation would work within the context of new development is one that preservationists have yet to answer, however.

“Preserving the soul of a place is something that has not yet been mastered,” said Berman.

Preservationists do have ideas about how it might be accomplished. For instance, Baldock stressed the importance of maintaining Coney Island’s openness – the antithesis of closed amusement parks like Disneyland or Great Adventure – and keeping its pedestrian scale.

One way to do that would be to landmark narrow Coney Island walkways. such as Jones Walk, which now separate clusters of attractions.

To help keep small businesses in the amusement center thriving, Cowan suggested that city could take a page out of Rye Playland’s book in Westchester County where the municipality actually owns the park.

Berman’s group successfully helped win landmark status for much of Manhattan’s meatpacking district.

As a compromise between stringent landmark status and loose zoning laws, Berman suggested that “in many ways Coney Island would be the perfect candidate for Special District designation.”

“We don’t want it to become like a museum or sanitized,” said Cowan.

Those interested in preservation also don’t want to see Coney Island gentrified with new residents pushing out the old.

“New residential development inside the amusement core should absolutely be forbidden,” said Baldock.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation has engaged the Miami-based Arquitectonica firm to undertake urban design work in anticipation of future rezoning in Coney Island.

Zigun, who holds one of the 13 spots inside the Coney Island Development Corporation, declined to comment on the plans, citing a confidentiality pledge.

As for Nathan’s itself, a member of the Handwerker family – close relatives of Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs originator Nathan Handwerker – reported that the corporation responsible for the restaurant’s day-to-day operations recently signed a 20-year lease with the family to continue operations in Coney Island.

That could change one day – and then what? How would possible landmark status – which makes altering the façade of historically important buildings virtually impossible – affect new owners who may want to turn Nathan’s Famous into a taco joint?

These are questions that must be addressed, according to preservationists.

Cowan said it was important to act now “rather than waiting for the 11th hour, so we can get ahead of the game.”

Key elements of Coney Island history have already succumbed in recent years. In 2000, the city tore down the old Thunderbolt rollercoaster which used to stand next to what is now KeySpan Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones.

Coney Island bid farewell to Phillip’s Candy in 2001 when work began on the new Stillwell Avenue Subway Terminal.

For those who would like to see Nathan’s Famous and other Coney Island gems preserved in places other than Zigun’s body, preservationists encourage members of the public to write letters to city officials in the Bloomberg administration.

“I think that having the bones of the building for people to see is incredibly important,” said Baldock.

Nathan Handwerker was posthumously inducted into the Coney Island Hall of Fame this week during ceremonies held at the Grand Army Plaza Library.

©Courier-Life Publications 2006

Posted Under: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *