Another day, another New York City casino rendering in the inbox. This one depicts a showy new tower just off the Coney Island boardwalk and will be called “the Coney.” Information is still scanty, but the images depict a casino hotel of 25 stories or so with a colorfully ribbed, swoopy exterior boxed in by Luna Park, the Cyclone, and the Wonder Wheel. The website is dominated by talk of “revitalization” and “resiliency” and “economic opportunity” plus pictures of Coney Island’s remarkable past. It’s largely the work of Thor Equities, the developer that has been pushing a Coney Island overhaul for two decades and has partnered with Saratoga Casino Holdings and the Chickasaw Nation to run the casino and with Legends for the entertainment. It will compete with plans for five other sites, including Times Square, Hudson Yards, and the area just south of the United Nations.
There’s a case to be made for this location. Although the amusement area of Coney Island is no longer the ruin it once was, the neighborhood undeniably still needs energy and investment, and hotel-casino jobs are (mostly) unionized and pay decently. Multiple subway lines terminate right by the amusement area, so although any new building will unavoidably bring in some traffic, it may not be so bad. Most of all, Coney Island is historically a raffish place; its very ethos is one of naughtiness and minor grift. You went there, especially in the old days, to play arcade games you were unlikely to win, to watch a hot girl swallowing swords, to gorge yourself on Nathan’s hot dogs and sugary treats, to visit a wax museum devoted to horrible crime scenes, and to preen and ogle your fellow beachgoers. It is a place where the most awesomely disgusting American event imaginable plays out every Fourth of July. This strip of land has spent more than a century as a place for titillation and acceptable sinning. Why not (goes the thinking) build in the taxable version of vice?
The counterargument — and a really compelling one — lies 130 miles to the south. In 1976, Atlantic City (like Coney Island) was a formerly middle-class resort that had become a seaside wreck. New Jersey’s voters offered it the lifeline of gambling licenses, and developers rushed in. The first casino opened in 1978. What happened, by the best of reckoning, was that the two blocks closest to the water got flooded with flashy hotels and buses full of gamblers, a passable number of local residents got jobs, and the city as a whole stayed poor and desperate. (Donald Trump’s casinos went bankrupt. Who goes bankrupt when millions are being spent on games in which the odds are literally stacked in your favor?) The place is littered with names of failed plans: the Sands, the MGM Grand, the Revel. It is an outstanding example of income inequality, a city where the median income in 2020 was under $30,000 and the poverty rate exceeded 30 percent. Admittedly, Atlantic City had deep problems before 1978, and some money has since flowed there that otherwise would not have — but you can’t argue that gaming was the salvation everyone believed it would be. The busloads of gamblers come in and go back out; they leave some of their money behind with the casino and hotel operators, but not a whole lot of it migrates into the rest of town.
That said, it’s unlikely to happen. Even Thor admits it’s a long shot to get the single downstate casino license considering the crowded field. A failure to launch would be apt, if only because Coney Island is such a crowded graveyard of grand plans that go nowhere. After Steeplechase Park (its first major amusement center) closed in 1964, Fred Trump bought the spectacular old glass-and-steel shed and demolished it for redevelopment — then abandoned ship and cashed out, leaving the lot empty for decades. Starting in the 1970s, Horace Bullard, a local character, bought up a lot of land and tried to rebuild a big amusement area. He had City Hall’s support for a while, but he couldn’t quite pull together enough financing fast enough and the Giuliani administration preferred its own plans to his, crushing his dream. (He died in 2012.) The Shore Theater — a long-dormant, badly water-damaged landmark movie house and office building just off the boardwalk, formerly one of Bullard’s properties — is reportedly becoming a hotel, but that project too seems to have slowed down. Coney Island has for generations been a place of moderately illicit fun, and we all know what happens after a day of that: You face real life again, probably with a hangover.