Can Coney Island Return to Its Former Glory?

Once upon a time, Coney Island was the place where your childhood fantasies came true. The stretch of beachfront in southernmost Brooklyn -- attached to land and technically not an island -- was known as a world famous resort at the turn of the 20th century.

"All of these things that we think of in terms of great entertainment centers -- Las Vegas, Disney World -- they're simply inconceivable without first happening here in Coney Island," said Michael Immerso, author of "Coney Island: The People's Playground."

Coney Island's side shows, or so-called "freak shows" featuring the strange and sublime, are still legendary. And its three amusement parks -- Luna, Steeplechase and Dreamland -- were revolutionary at the time.

"Luna Park was probably the greatest amusement park every imagined," Immerso said. "It was lit with hundreds of thousands of colored lights. Dreamland, its central tower was illuminated with white lights and could have been seen perhaps 30 miles out at sea."

At the time, Coney Island was at the epicenter of American pop culture, the place where new trends went on display.

"Coney Island invented the hot dog; we even invented soft ice cream," said Dick Zigun, founder of Sideshows By The Seashore and the unofficial mayor of Coney Island. "It's the place where most of America saw the electric light bulb, where people first saw the electric light bulb, where people first saw moving pictures."

Coney Island introduced the roller coaster to America.

"The Cyclone roller coaster in 1927, which still exists, many people consider the greatest coaster that was ever created," Immerso said.

But Coney Island was perhaps best known as the place where people came together, immigrants from all over the world who came to New York City in search of the American dream.

"It was one of the few places where people of all different ethnic groups interacted," Immerso said.

Even Hollywood had a love affair with Coney Island. Films such as "Brighton Beach Memoirs" were set there, and stars like Lana Turner graced its beaches. Woody Allen's quirky character in "Annie Hall" grew up underneath a Coney Island roller coaster.

Coney Island has grown up since those days, but not without some growing pains. Many of its parks burned down. Innovations like air conditioning and the automobile gave people the option to stay home or travel to more bucolic destinations, as opposed to Coney Island.

Then, financial crises in the 1970's drove many residents and businesses out of the area, leaving a once thriving tourist mecca with the reputation of an abandoned and crime-ridden eyesore.

Some of the area has been fixed up. But while the characters from the film "The Warriors" wouldn't recognize the brand new state-of-the-art subway station, or the beautiful new ballpark that the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones call home, much of the area remains in decline, a shadow of its former self.

Joe Sitt, a Brooklyn native and CEO of Thor Equities, wants to restore Coney Island to its former glory. His multi-billion dollar renovation plans include the construction of a multi-level entertainment center and even an enclosed water park to attract visitors year round.

"Probably what incited me to want to do this project was hearing great stories from my grandparents about Coney Island, and then my own son Jack, who told me, 'Dad, we need a place to go.' "

Sitt's proposed changes do not come without concern to Coney Island fans.

"What we don't want to see is development on a scale that overwhelms what we call the old honkytonk Coney Island," Immerso said.

Will Coney Island rise again? Remember, this is the place that was known for making childhood dreams come true.

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