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New York's Coney Island takes another wild ride into new era

By Victoria Cavaliere

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Change has come again to New York City's Coney Island seaside resort, famous since the mid-19th century for its carnival atmosphere, sandy beaches and amusement parks.

After decades of decay, the neighborhood in Brooklyn has been spruced up with new rides, restaurants and refurbished theme parks still called Dreamland and Luna Park in keeping with its rich history.

Long a summer haven on the Atlantic Ocean for blue-collar families, Coney Island now also attracts foreign tourists and affluent so-called hipster Millennials who have moved to Brooklyn borough in droves.

"Since the beginning of Coney Island, it was always a place of anarchy," said Amy Nicholson, maker of the documentary film "Zipper: Coney Island's Last Wild Ride" on changes in recent years, especially under former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a proponent of high-end development.

"It was always a place for outsiders. It was always a place for people of lower income, or very little means, to go and let off steam," Nicholson said.

Home to landmarks including the 150-foot-tall (46-meter-tall) Wonder Wheel, the 87-year-old Cyclone wooden roller coaster, Nathan's Famous hot dog stand and a boardwalk peppered with kitschy shops and sideshows, many small businesses and family-owned theme parks have been pushed out in the past five years.

Aging boardwalk staples including the Astroland amusement park, Shoot the Freak and the Zipper ride that turned visitors upside-down have been replaced by larger, state-of-the art rides. One famous ride, the Thunderbolt, is returning this summer after operating from the 1920s to the 1980s. This time it will be made of steel, not wood.

Coney Island, a four-mile-long (6.4-km-long) peninsula in southwestern Brooklyn, is one of New York City's most visually distinct neighborhoods. Controversy has often surrounded development and changes by various property owners at Coney Island since the 1840s, when the first structures were built.

Now, city officials want to transform Coney Island in the way Times Square in Manhattan was revamped in the 1990s, when peep shows and prostitutes were pushed out to make way for tourist-friendly restaurants and theaters.

The drive to revamp was accelerated by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, which washed out the boardwalk, temporarily shut the New York Aquarium and flooded businesses and homes.

TRANSFORMATION UNDERWAY

A major developer, Thor Equities, has snatched up stretches of beachside property with plans for new shops, restaurants, condos, hotels and other year-round entertainment.

The new development has brought more visitors, with 3 million people arriving by subway from May through September 2013, two-and-a-half times as many visitors as decade ago, the New York Economic Development Corporation said.

The new attractions are drawing tourists from far afield.

Vera Sveinsson, from Iceland, recently headed out to Coney Island for a day during a week-long trip to New York.

"I had seen Coney Island in movies and music videos but was told it was dangerous," Sveinsson said. "When we got here people said it's fun and to go, and we love it."

Artist Dick Zigun, known as the "unofficial" mayor of Coney Island and founder of the Mermaid Parade that kicks off the summer season, said the new visitors reflect changes seen across Brooklyn, New York City's most populated borough.

"It's the transformation of Brooklyn itself over the past few years to a vibrant middle class," Zigun said. "It's those families that are now coming to Coney Island, together with the hipsters, together with the tourists, in bigger numbers now."

Not all the neighborhood's old bones are lost: A tower for the long-shuttered parachute jump ride remains as a design element in the minor-league stadium that the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team calls home.

Some fans of the neighborhood remain wistful for the old days.

"It's not that we want it to be ratty and dirty. But you want it to be free and open and not corporate," documentary filmmaker Nicholson said. "There is this underlying carnival culture that is now gone."

(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)

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