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City Living: Surf, sand and change in Coney Island

Its more than The Peoples Playground for residents of Coney Island.

Within the acclaimed amusement park, world-famous boardwalk and spirited Surf Avenue, a community of informed and engaged Coney Islanders reside, and they say the waterfront neighborhood, despite some challenges, is one they wont leave.

Its my neighborhood; I love the people out here. If I stand outside for five minutes I see people I know, people my kids grew up with. It has that homey feeling, said Evangelean Pugh, a resident of 21 years and a member of the Peoples Coalition of Coney Island who moved there because of the beach. I can go out by myself on a Friday night and run into someone I know, and we can go to karaoke or catch the fireworks. You just get to know people.

Eddie Mark, a resident and former chairman of Community Board 13, said residents help each other out here.

Theres a bond here. You can call somebody down the block and tell them come over and have a barbeque or get a group of people that want to go and catch the fireworks or catch a movie on the boardwalk, he said. Theres always something to do in Coney Island.

He worked in Coney Island before deciding to move in.

I saw the neighborhood changing at that time and said it might not be a bad place to set my roots, he said. That was 19 years ago. When they put in a $220-million [Coney Island Stillwell Avenue Station] renovation at Stillwell Avenue I knew something was coming and to see what it is now, its going in the right direction.

Completed in 2004, the renovation of the 76,000-square-foot train station at Surf and Stillwell avenues restored its eight train tracks and added photovoltaic, or solar electric panels, on its glass roof making it more energy efficient. A 370-foot glass-brick wall showcasing the people and activities of Coney Island was also put up.

That isnt the only recent update to the southwestern Brooklyn enclave. The renewal and new additions of amusement park rides, like the newly-opened Thunderbolt at Luna Park, reclaims its glory of the 1930s and 1940s. The MCU Stadium, home to the baseball minor league team The Brooklyn Cyclones also experienced some rejuvenation. And development projects aim to revamp the residential side.

The amusement area is now radiating a fresh feel and the influx of chain establishments like Its Sugar, Applebees and a soon-to-come Johnny Rockets says Coney Island is once again a place to be.

Lets say you moved out of New York 20 years ago and came back, you wouldnt recognize whats going on, said Citi Habitats real estate agent Mark Martov. Its a night and day transformation.

Take a stroll down the boardwalk or Surf Avenue and in addition to the nautical fragrance of the nostalgic ocean-side haunt, you will come upon long-time seaside spots like Rubys Bar and Grill, Williams Candy, known for their cotton candy and red candy apples, The Original Nathans and the quirky Lola Star Boardwalk Boutique that offers Coney Island collectables.

The hotspot is also abuzz with new bars, blending in with the old joints, including Margarita Island and one of the newest biker bars in the scene, Coney Island Bar and Grill.

According to Mark, the former Community Board 13 chair, many single-family homes were built in the last 30 years bringing new blood to the nabe and adding diversity to the predominantly apartment and public housing real estate stock.

A mix of people -- the pioneers, I call them -- took a chance to come here. They chose to raise their families here and 30 years later remain, he said.

According to Martov, rentals often go quickly in the area. The median price of a one-bedroom on desired streets like West Fifth and West 12th is $1,400 per month, while a two-bedroom can go for $1,800 to $2,200 per month.

In terms of sales, he noted that a two-bedroom condo or co-op's average price is $350,000 to $400,000.

Last year a YMCA opened on Surf Avenue with Coney Island Commons, a mixed-use complex with 195 affordable housing units, situated above it. The revamping also went further north as improvements at Kaiser Park on Neptune Avenue gave residents hope that the neighborhood will improve even more.

But some, like Pugh, believe Coney Island largely a working- and middle-class area which, according to City-Data.com, is comprised of a majority of African Americans in addition to Latinos, older generation Italians and a new influx of Russians still needs a lot more development.

Locals dont want their neighborhood to get left behind as nearby areas like Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach experience a commercial and residential development boom.

People think its all fun and games and forget that people live here, Pugh, who is also on Community Board 13, said, describing the residential portion as left out. The improvement shouldnt end with the rides.

She noted that north of Surf Avenue could use more retail.

We want to see businesses come out here, she said, adding that right now we have to leave the island to shop.

Both she and Mark said an anchor store like Target or The Gap would make Coney Island more than a summer destination and help make activity here consistent.

We dont leave once the amusement closes, were still here in the winter months, Mark said, noting that residents also want to see a community/training center that offers more job skills and opportunities.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Mark said that many storefronts on Mermaid Avenue were forced to shut and werent able to reopen.

We used to have [sneaker store] V.I.M. on West 23rd Street and Mermaid [Avenue] but they left after Sandy. Something needs to fill the gap there, he said. Now is the time to entice people to come back. Everyone is looking for the next big thing, Coney Island can be that.