Thor wields its hammer in Coney

The Brooklyn Paper
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The battle for the Boardwalk has begun.

Coney Island’s biggest landlord, developer Joe Sitt, took his first steps last week towards remaking the honky-tonk neighborhood into a glitzy Vegas-on-the Atlantic — and already, the darts are flying within the tight-knit community of freaks, geeks, and other wonders of human curiosity.

The carnival conflict erupted when Sitt’s Thor Equities sent eviction notices to eight tenants who operate games, shops and amusement rides at a former dance hall known as the Henderson Building that the developer plans to demolish to make way for a man entrance to his proposed $1.5-billion indoor water park, hotel, megaplex and retail development.

The eviction notices hit the neighborhood like ammo from the Shoot-the-Freak game.

Suddenly, longtime carnival colleagues were trashing the developer — and each other — on the street and on Internet bulletin boards.

“Coney Island never had much trust to begin with and now people are faced with losing their jobs. They get scared and start saying stuff,” said Jimmy Carchiolo, who will lose his balloon-racing booth on Dec. 31.

Talk of who will be allowed to stay another season has been rampant since Sitt began negotiating with small property owners — many of whom had only “handshake” leases, a spokesman for the developer said — who operate businesses on his Sitt’s land along Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk.

“It’s hard to be forced out when you know other people get to stay,” Carchiolo said.

The fallout from the evictions has even reached Dick Zigun, whose Coney Island USA runs the famed Circus Sideshow. Zigun is looking for new digs, but has made no deal with Thor. Critics say it’s a matter of time.

“The time I’m an insider and my job is to get the best deal for Coney Island and Coney Island USA in the new Coney Island,” he told The Brooklyn Papers.

That deal, however, has made Zigun — a Coney stalwart — a target of those who accuse him of siding with developers and stabbing his neighborhood sword-swallowers in the back.

A man identifying himself as “Coney Blowhard” even went on Zigun’s own Web site to slam the sideshow king for selling out the very audience he created.

“The artsy kids [w]on’t want to come to the new Coney Island, and then what?” he wrote. There were other similarly rude, highly personal posts.

Even the game operators who will be able to stay, thanks to formal lease agreements, had spite to share.

“[Thor Equities] says Coney Island is their pet project, but it’s my life,” said Cesar Rafel, who operates five games on Henderson Walk and lives nearby.

“I own a small business, pay taxes and support my kids. All a new hotel or some shops is going to do is turn me back into a worker.”

In new renderings released this week, Sitt’s domain will be transformed by super-size street furniture styled after circus elephants and the mermaids that come out each year for Zigun’s trendy Mermaid Parade.

“We want jaws to drop,” said the developer’s spokesman, Lee Silberstein. “This is going to be the largest expansion of the amusement district that Coney has ever seen. There will be jobs, restaurants at every price point, all kinds of retail, the water park, a hotel where people could hold trade shows.”

But in order to turn a profit, the complex must be at least two million square feet and attract at least 13 million guests a year, Sitt told New York magazine last year.

Few believe the transition from honky-tonk to high-rise will be easy.

“Coney Island needs the new blood,” said Michael Sarrel, the owner of Ruby’s, a classic old-man bar that has been promised at least another year on the Boardwalk and a spot in the amusement complex.

“But for the people who are here now, what the change will mean is the end to jobs, $1 coffee and an affordable day out.”

Sarrel told The Brooklyn Papers that he didn’t plan to move to the new development.

“Honestly,, I don’t believe that would be something that would make any sense for us,” he said. “We are an outside place, take us inside and you lose the charm.”

Even Zigun, now recovering from the virtual blows to his ego, predicts a tough ride ahead for the home of the Cyclone.

“We haven’t had development for 70 or 80 years. We need it and it’s happening,” he said. “But there are questions of sensitivity and those seem to have gotten off on a wrong foot.”

Last week’s article about Coney Island redevelopment suggested that Coney Island USA founder Dick Zigun had made a deal to relocate his famed Sideshow and museum into the proposed Thor Equities development. In fact, Zigun has secured funding from the city to find a new location within Coney Island, but there is no formal deal with Thor Equities at this time. The Brooklyn Papers also reported that Zigun had removed some negative posts from his organization’s Web site, but it turns out that the person who wrote the comments removed them himself. The Brooklyn Papers regrets the errors.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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