Sitt Hits the Fans: When Coney Gets Tough, the Going Gets Weird
The battle of Coney Island may be serious business, but never let it be said that the combatants don't have a sense of humor. This weekend, two amusement-district store owners publicly celebrated skirmishes with their landlords, one with a wake, one a party—the latter featuring a most unlikely special guest.
Manny Cohen's Coney Island Arcade, a collection of video games and other attractions tucked into a corner storefront at the Bowery and West 12th Street, is on one of the few plots of prime Coney land not now owned by Joe Sitt's Thor Equities, the developer currently locked in a battle with the city and the neighborhood over his plan to bring beachfront condos to the boardwalk. But that didn't stop Cohen's landlord, Jeff Persily, from taking a page from Sitt's book, presenting Cohen with a lease including a copy of Sitt's infamous "confidentiality clause" barring tenants from "engag[ing] in any activities intended to oppose or address the redevelopment or rezoning of Coney Island." Cohen says when he balked at signing, Persily began eviction proceedings.
Cohen's response: Erecting a mock tombstone outside his store announcing "Coney Island, R.I.P." and featuring photos of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and Joseph Stalin labeled "Joseph Sitt" and "Jeff Persily." (Sitt is of Syrian background.) Cohen attached a copy of the offending contract for the edification of passersby. "Death Warrant Agreement," reads the spookhouse lettering. "If You Sign It, You're Dead! If You Don't Sign It, You're Still Dead!"
"I fought in two wars for freedom of speech," fumes the Israeli-born Cohen. "They say if I put the sign up Sunday, they're going to start evicting me." The sign went up Sunday at 3 pm; Cohen expects to find out at a May 7 court date what Persily thinks of his depiction.
While Cohen's legal beef is with Persily, he is just as steamed at Sitt, pointing to the "Berlin plywood wall" the developer has erected around his property across the street, isolating the few private amusement owners on the block who've held out and stayed in business. It is, Cohen believes, part of a scheme to darken the amusement district and clear the way for redevelopment: "I'm a paratrooper in the Israeli army—I'll jump from the Parachute Jump with a pink umbrella if he builds amusements."
An hour after the unveiling of Cohen's tombstone, the Coney old guard gathered at Ruby's venerable (and venerated) boardwalk restaurant for a celebration: Dianna Carlin's Lola Staar Boutique, given up for dead after Sitt refused to extend her lease after a squabble over that same gag order, had reopened, once again making the boardwalk safe for Cyclone baby tees and mermaid floaty pens. Sitt, explains Carlin, had called her the day before the "Save Coney Island" rally she organized at City Hall last month, and after an hour-long phone chat, ultimately agreed to extend her stay through October for "very little money"; Carlin didn't sign a confidentiality clause, she stresses, and plans to continue to speak out against Thor's condo plans.
The party featured a hot pink cake and the guitar stylings of Polar Bear Club troubadour Amos Wengler (his "Lola Staar Is Back," with its singalong chorus of "Don't mess with Lola/She's gonna react," was a particular hit). But all were upstaged when in walked Joe Sitt himself, dressed in shades and a polo shirt. As onlookers goggled, the developer grabbed a plate of sausage and onions, and greeted his erstwhile adversary Carlin like an old friend.
While Sitt wouldn't comment on the record—he spent much of his time at Ruby's ducking the videographers who dogged his every step—his Thor associate Digna Rodriguez-Poulton hinted that the fenced-in tire-strewn wasteland that currently occupies much of Thor's Coney holdings wouldn't remain that way all summer, with a circus a possibility in July or August.
Given the remarks passed around at the Ruby's bar, Sitt still has a long way to go to win over a skeptical Coney populace. ("You're Joe Sitt?" one patron gasped on meeting him. "You don't have horns!") Even Carlin, who once again seems hopeful about the future, with a sitdown scheduled with Sitt for next week to discuss his plans, isn't deluding herself that all is now copacetic: "It's all about bargaining tactics, and if that doesn't work, he could be back to evicting us all in a few months."