Official Trailer: Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008
On Saturday, February 28th, Charles Denson will present a slide talk on the Coney Island History Project's mission and origins as part of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's Coney Island Symposium: An Intersection of Art and Identity. The exhibit Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008, which opened on January 31st at the Wadsworth, features more than 140 paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, posters, architectural artifacts, carousel animals, ephemera and film clips. The symposium begins with a keynote address by Exhibition Curator and Chief Curator Robin Jaffee Frank, followed by a series of panel discussions and special presentations.
Charles Denson has been a consultant and a member of the exhibit's project team for the past six years and has contributed numerous ephemera and prints from his personal archive, as well as writing a chapter for the exhibit's catalog. He also recorded descriptions of artwork for the show's audio tour. Selections from the Coney Island History Project's vast archive of oral history recordings were used in the "Step Right Up!" interactive listening station that accompanies the show.
"Robin Jaffee Frank first contacted me in 2009, during the show's earliest planning stage," Denson said. "At our first group meeting at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2010, Robin revealed her ambitious plan for a show that explored Coney Island in a way that had never been attempted before. Her Coney Island theme included artifacts, prints, film, sheet music, and the best examples of modern art as well as the classical paintings that depict the earliest years of Coney Island, a subject that I had always found fascinating. I am extremely honored to be a part of this exhibition."
Charles Denson and Robin Jaffee Frank, 2012
Among the artifacts in the Wadsworth exhibit is the 1955 Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, which was a popular attraction at the Coney Island History Project's exhibit center for the past two years. According to a review of the Wadsworth show in the Hartford Courant, "The five-foot-tall wall-mounted sculpture, loaned to the exhibit by the family who runs Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, is installed at the entrance to the exhibit galleries, flanked by two creepy paintings by Arnold Mesches, in which Cy presides over sinister-looking amusement parks."
The Coney Island exhibit is on view in Hartford through May 31, 2015 before traveling to the San Diego Museum of Art, July 11, 2015 - October 13, 2015; Brooklyn Museum, November 20, 2015 - March 13, 2016; and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, May 11, 2016 - September 11, 2016.
Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's Stacy Vourderis visiting the park's Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, which is part of the Coney Island exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT
After closing his Mermaid Avenue market in 2009, Jimmy Prince, now 82, remains active and was profiled in New York Magazine’s “My Day.” In the summer, he volunteers at the Coney Island History Project exhibit center, where his longtime customers are delighted to see him again.
“Prince of Mermaid Avenue,” a film about Jimmy Prince by History Project Executive Director Charles Denson, is now available for viewing on his Coneyologist channel on YouTube. The film won Best Documentary at the 2009 Coney Island Film Festival. This 60-minute feature is based on more than 60 hours of raw footage shot over a three-year period.
Jimmy Prince was the last link to what Mermaid Avenue meant to Coney Island in the “good old days.” The Avenue was once a bustling street of family-run mom-and-pop stores. Each block had bakeries, luncheonettes, five-and-dimes, clothing and shoe stores, furniture stores, delis, and butchers. It was a tight-knit community.
The city’s urban renewal plan of the 1960s called for the demolition of the entire West End, including Mermaid Avenue, and few businesses survived the development onslaught. Jimmy Prince transformed his Major Meat Market into the soul of an earlier era, a cordial oasis of tradition and hope, a throwback to what Coney Island was and what many dreamed it could be again one day. Prince worked at Major’s for sixty years, seven days a week, twelve hours a day, and formed a unique relationship with a community that hungered for respect.
When he finally faced retirement,the decsion to close the store dragged on for over a year. He dreaded making a formal announcement about the store’s closing, but his friends could sense it was coming. His loyal customers expressed their love for him and their fear for a future without him. This film documents Jimmy’s decision to retire and the painful process of leaving the Coney Island community that he loved and supported for so many years.
Jimmy Prince poses for photo with visitors from Spain on a recent Coney Island History Project Walking Tour. The Prince of Mermaid Avenue, who had just come from a walk to and from Sea Gate and a bite to eat at Tom's, stopped to regale the group with Coney Island stories
Boardwalk scene circa 1925. © Coney Island History Project Archives
Last December Councilmembers Mark Treyger and Chaim M. Deutsch sent a petition to the Landmarks Preservation Commission asking that the Coney Island Boardwalk be declared a scenic landmark. On December 17 the council members received a condescending and dismissive rejection letter from LPC Director of Research Mary Beth Betts. The letter outlined the reasons for refusal to grant Scenic Landmark status.
The commission’s response to Councilmember Treyger is troubling on many levels, the first being that the contents of the letter were lifted from a 2012 letter written by then LPC Chairman and Bloomberg appointee Robert Tierney. In addition to the “form letter” being an inappropriate response to the two elected officials, all of the reasons stated for the refusal do not apply to the Boardwalk.
Ms. Betts gave the following reasons for denying scenic landmark status: “The boardwalk was substantially altered by Robert Moses in 1939-41 from its original location and configuration. [And was] at this time straightened and extended east. The planks of the Boardwalk have been replaced numerous times over the years. . .”
To understand how ludicrous this reasoning is, one has to look at Ocean Parkway, a local Scenic Landmark granted landmark status in 1975. Ocean Parkway was originally a dirt road lighted by gas lamps. By the time it became a Scenic Landmark, the parkway had been resurfaced with asphalt, had its bridle path removed, and had been significantly altered when its northern end was cut off and put below grade as the entrance to the Prospect Expressway. Despite these alterations, Ocean Parkway still became a landmark. Therefore, a surfacing change and alterations should not affect the landmark status of the Boardwalk.
Wood and concrete sections of Coney Island-Brighton Beach Boardwalk. Photo © Charles Denson
The LPC’s statement that “the Boardwalk was substantially altered” and moved from its original location is also untrue. Only a five-block section of the 2.7-mile structure was moved, and the new section was built to the original specifications.
Perhaps the most shocking reason for denying landmark status was the staff’s incredulous statement that the Boardwalk has no historical or cultural significance. “In the opinion of the staff,” they pompously declare, “the most important period of significance in the history of Coney Island as a seaside resort pre-dates the construction of the boardwalk.”
While the staff’s inaccurate reasoning about “alterations and surfaces” can be attributed to sloppy research, their statement that the 1920s were not a “significant” period in Coney Island’s history shows an astounding display of ignorance. For some unknown reason, the staff has decided to downplay Coney Island’s important post-World War I history. And this despite the fact that nearly all of Coney’s designated landmarks are from that period.
During the 1920s, following the closure of the race tracks and elite hotels, Coney Island became the “People’s Playground.” The shorefront was expanded and reclaimed by the city and opened to the public, and the Boardwalk was opened and became the island’s Main Street, celebrated in legend and song. New theaters and hotels were constructed, public transit brought millions to the shore, and the Boardwalk, free to all, was the centerpiece. It was the symbol of Coney Island’s resurrection. Even from an engineering viewpoint, the Boardwalk has great importance. The structure was built in the ocean surf and the beach built around it, the first time hydraulic pumping had been used to create an artificial beach.
The following are the Landmark Commission’s stated criteria for a scenic landmark:
To become a scenic landmark, an outdoor site must be: At least 30 years old and have "a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the City, state, or nation" Any landscape feature or aggregate of landscape features
The Boardwalk meets every one of these requirements. It’s certainly one of the most scenic locations in New York City. The historic battle to reclaim the shorefront it stands on, the engineering breakthroughs enabled its construction, and the important role it plays in the lives of both visitors and...(read more)
Coney Island History Project volunteer Daniel Ioannou carrying the Terminal Hotel sign which was rescued just before the building's demolition. January 4, 2015. Photo © Charles Denson
Many people have expressed their dismay over the tragic loss of the historic Terminal Hotel, a beautiful building located on one of Coney Island's busiest intersections. We're happy to report the Coney Island History Project was able to salvage the Terminal Hotel's sign thanks to a coordinated effort by CIHP volunteers Daniel Ioannou and Keith Suber, and CIHP director Charles Denson. After remaining in close contact with the building's owner and the demolition contractor, we were able to retrieve the sign shortly after the fire department completed their investigation.
The Terminal Hotel site has now been cleared and the sign exists as the last remnant of the historic structure that was gutted in a spectacular multi-alarm fire on December 18th. It joins the Coney Island History Project's collection of signage from Astroland, the Playland Arcade, Steeplechase and other vanished places in Coney Island.
The one-hundred-and-ten-year-old Terminal Hotel on the corner of Mermaid and Stillwell Avenues operated as a hotel until the 1970s. The upper floors were abandoned and boarded up after it closed. A series of restaurants occupied the first floor over the years, and the new Food Center and Turkish Restaurant that recently opened on the ground floor after Hurricane Sandy were part of a much needed revival of the area and will be missed.
Demolished Terminal Hotel building on Mermaid and Stillwell Avenues, Coney Island. January 6, 2015. Photo © Charles Denson
Happy Holidays from the Coney Island History Project!
It's going to be an historic New Year's Eve in Coney Island as the 8,000 LED lights of the landmark Parachute Jump ring in the New Year, followed by the first fireworks show of 2015. This free, family-friendly event marks the beginning of a new tradition and is sponsored by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, NYC Council Member Mark Treyger, and the Alliance for Coney Island.
The Coney Island History Project exhibition center will open for the season on Coney's Opening Day, which is Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015. In the meantime, we continue to offer weekend walking tours that include a private visit to the History Project's exhibit center. During the winter, the 1-1/2 tours are offered Saturdays and Sundays at 1pm by advance reservation only. Visit our online reservation site to purchase tickets for the year-round walking tours or email email@example.com for info on booking a group or school visit.
During this busy holiday season, please take a moment to sign Council Members Mark Treyger and Chaim Deutsch's public petition calling on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the historic Riegelmann Boardwalk as an official Scenic Landmark. Currently, there are a total of nine Scenic Landmarks in New York City, including Prospect Park, Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn.
"For nearly a century, Coney Island's wooden boardwalk has provided the public with a rustic observation platform, a cool, soft, raised promenade that captures ocean breezes and affords a respite from New York City's hard concrete jungle. Much like the unfortunate destruction of Penn Station before it could be landmarked, the 'concrete solution' to the Boardwalk's maintenance problems is shortsighted and ill advised. This historic structure must be protected and preserved," said Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found.
Photo by Charles Denson, 1974
The one-hundred-and-ten-year-old Terminal Hotel on the corner of Mermaid and Stillwell Avenues that burned on December 18 operated as a hotel until the 1970s. The upper floors were abandoned and boarded up after it closed. A series of restaurants occupied the first floor over the years, and the new Food Center and Turkish Restaurant that recently opened on the ground floor after Hurricane Sandy were part of a much needed revival of the area and will be missed. The fire has dealt a serious blow to one of Coney's busiest corners.
Photo by mrwdib via Instagram