To the millions of tourists who visit every summer, Coney Island is the Riegelmann Boardwalk, the Cyclone, Nathan’s Famous and the New York Aquarium. But to the people who live there all year around, Coney Island is the place where they shop, send their kids to school, go to church or synagogue and put down roots.
Building a bridge between the two Coney Islands is part of the mission of the non-profit organization Alliance for Coney Island.
Formed in 2012, the alliance works to promote the neighborhood to the outside world. “We think of ourselves as being your one-stop-shop for everything you need to know about Coney Island,” Alliance Executive Director Alexandra Silversmith told this newspaper.
In recent weeks, the non-touristy portion of Coney Island has been getting the bulk of the alliance’s attention with the organization hosting such activities as the unveiling of spectacular Christmas lights on Mermaid Avenue, one of the neighborhood’s main commercial strips.
The Christmas lights ceremony, which was held on Nov. 28 and included children singing Christmas carols and adults giving out free hot chocolate, was fun but had a serious purpose, according to Silversmith.
The holiday lighting is part of an effort to give Mermaid Avenue and its merchants a boost, Silversmith said. “We see it as a crucial first step,” she told this newspaper. “We hope to bridge the gap between residents and small business owners,” she said.
The Christmas lights, which were erected along a mile-long stretch of Mermaid Avenue from Stillwell Avenue to West 33rd Street, “give a sense of hope,” Silversmith said.
The Arker Companies, a real estate developer planning to construct an apartment building on West 28th Street, footed the bill for the holiday lights. The ceremony was co-sponsored by the alliance and Councilmember Mark Treyger, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood.
“We have heard for years from merchants and from residents that they would like better lighting on Mermaid Avenue,” Silversmith said.
Residents, in particularly, have long complained that it’s too dark at night to shop on the avenue.
It’s vital to Coney Island as a whole to have a vibrant and healthy Mermaid Avenue, Silversmith said. “Mermaid Avenue is the heart of Coney Island,” she added.
The avenue is lined with scores of small mom-and-pop stores, as well as the Coney Island Library and a Work Force 1 job training center. “It also has a lot of legacy businesses that are family-owned,” she said.
To get a better sense of the concerns of small business owners in Coney Island, the alliance worked with the city’s Department of Small Business Services (SBS) to conduct a needs assessment of merchants.
The assessment, which was compiled in a 20-page report that can be found online at https://on.nyc.gov/2Rsjgpr, contains lots of interesting tidbits. For example, there are two stores, Wilensky Hardware, at 2126 Mermaid Ave., and Friscia Pharmacy, at 1505 Mermaid Ave., that have both been open for 97 years.
The report found that a high proportion of storefronts in Coney Island are in need of physical improvements. Another issue is the large number of vacant lots and vacant storefronts that “disrupt the continuity of the retail corridors,” according to the report.
It has been heartening to the alliance to see business owners rebuild in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Silversmith said.
Coney Island sustained heavy damage in the massive storm that hit New York City and the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012.
The alliance received a storm recovery grant from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. Under the terms of the grant, the alliance was able to arrange for supplemental sanitation services for Mermaid Avenue to give the thoroughfare a cleaner, more inviting look.
The SBS report also provides a snapshot of Coney Island. Of the 32,000 full-time residents of the neighborhood, 37 percent are white, 27 percent are African-American, 23 percent are Hispanic or Latino and 11 percent are Asian.
The Alliance for Coney Island sponsors 33 events a year, including a July 4 fireworks show, Friday Night Fireworks in the summer, a music festival, a children’s Halloween Parade, and a New Year’s Eve event.
This year, for the first time, the alliance sponsored a Weekend Walks event on Mermaid Avenue. The street was closed to vehicular traffic on Sept. 8 for a Back-to-School event that featured the distribution of free backpacks to kids. Weekend Walks is a city-wide program of the Department of Transportation in which pedestrian plazas are created on commercial streets for a day.
The alliance is also a partner with the organizers of the New Year’s Polar Plunge, which is celebrating its 115th anniversary this year.