Gene Ritter

We're sad to learn that our friend Gene Ritter, a Coney Island native, environmental advocate, commercial diver, and educator, passed away on November 19 at the age of 59. Gene battled his illness for so long and with such a vengeance that it's hard to believe that he's left us. He fought bravely, and it didn't seem possible that he could ever lose the battle.

My last phone conversation with Gene took place a few days before he died. We were trying to work out an issue concerning Coney Island Creek. Both of us had strong differences of opinion but were seeking the same goal. After a while I changed the subject and told him that I'd just seen the documentary about the successful Thailand cave rescue of the trapped students, and I asked him, as an experienced professional diver, what he thought about how the rescuers were able to put aside their differences and pull off the most unbelievable rescue in history. He told me that his kind of diving was different but he'd faced similar conditions.

I was using the story as a metaphor for how we could cooperate, but Gene shot right past it and got to the point. "If you panic, you die," he said. Bottom line. He said that when you're facing hopeless conditions, disorientated, with zero visibility, you can still find your way out as long as you don't panic. Gene never panicked. He was always focused on achieving his mission, no matter who or what stood in the way.

In 2016, I recorded a wide-ranging conversation with Gene for the Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive. He talked about growing up in Coney Island and night diving as a teen, Mark V diving in Kaiser Park, and the thrill of finding historic artifacts including the Dreamland Bell, the pilings of Dreamland Pier and live shells from World War II in Gravesend Bay. You can listen to the interview in our online archive.

Gene didn't have a lot of time to waste. He accomplished so much in his life and achieved great success as an environmental advocate and educator. Everyone who crossed his path was impressed with his passion and his drive for what he believed in. Those who participated in Gene's Coney Island Creek events became enlightened and encouraged. His work with Cultural Research Divers, NYSMEA, Making Waves, and STEM programs brought a new awareness to thousands of students and community members. I am honored to have worked with him on so many projects over the years. He will be missed. 

—  Charles Denson

A wake will be held on November 23 from 2:00-4:00PM and 7:00-9:30PM at McCourt & Trudden Funeral Home, 385 Main Street, Farmingdale, NY. The funeral Mass will be on Saturday, November 24 at 10:45AM, at St. Kilian Roman Catholic Church, 485 Conklin Street, Farmingdale. 

Gene Ritter

Gene Ritter

Gene Ritter

 

posted Nov 21st, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Gene Ritter, In Memoriam, obituary,...

The Surf Avenue Gate in the 1890s.

Coney Island recently lost one of its most historic landmarks when the Surf Avenue entrance to Sea Gate, with its gracefully sweeping wooden archway, was unceremoniously demolished to make way for a new streamlined gateway.

The eclectic wood-shingled Victorian, with its exquisite arches and domed towers, was built in 1897 as the grand entrance to a new community that sprang up at Norton's Point at the western tip of Coney Island. In 2012 the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy caused irreparable damage to the structure, forcing the relocation of the offices of the Sea Gate Association and the Sea Gate Police Department, which had occupied the building for more than a century.

Over the decades, the gateway suffered unfortunate alterations that resulted in the loss of the towers, wooden shingles, and other distinguishing features of the original design. The archway, however, remained intact until September 2018 when it was brought to the ground and crushed by an excavator.

When I was growing up in Coney Island Houses, my bedroom window faced the old gateway down at the end of Surf Avenue, and I remember the illuminated archway and Coney Island lighthouse behind it serving as reassuring nightlights against the black sky and the ocean beyond. In 1999 I was permitted to climb inside the arch (then used by the Sea Gate Association for storage, and accessible through a small trapdoor) to view the intricate maze of wooden trusses that supported the span. It's a shame that the building could not be saved and restored as this kind of architecture will never again be seen in Coney Island.

—  Charles Denson

The Gate circa 1900.  © Charles Denson Archive

The  altered Gate, 2002 Photo by Charles Denson

The Gate is now a fence, October 1, 2018 Photo by Charles Denson

The Gate suffered severe damage in Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Charles Denson, Oct 2012

The new streamlined gate will include historic references to the old structure. Photo by Charles Denson

 

posted Nov 13th, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

Mathylde Frontus

The Coney Island History Project congratulates Mathylde Frontus on her remarkable victory in the New York State Assembly race! We have worked with Mathylde on projects in the past, including a presentation about Coney Island’s African-American History, and on Coney Island Anti-Violence measures.  For our Oral History Archive, we interviewed Mathylde in July last year about growing up in Coney Island as the eldest child of Haitian immigrant parents who instilled a love of learning and community service. The interview can be listened to online here.

posted Nov 8th, 2018 in News and tagged with Mathylde Frontus, New York State Assembly, Election,...

Astroland Remembered Photo Contest

In September, we asked you to share your favorite photos of yourself, family, friends or fans at Astroland taken anytime from 1962 through 2008 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Astroland Park’s closing. Thanks to all who took the time to look through their albums and enter the Astroland Remembered Photo Contest and for voting for your favorites! Photos ranged from childhood snapshots on kiddie rides to professional quality photographs of the park’s memorable attractions and poignant last day. We’re pleased to announce the winning photos, which will be exhibited at the Coney Island History Project next season on Coney Island's Opening Day – April 14, 2019. Congratulations! The People’s Choice and Jury’s Choice winners will receive a signed copy of Charles Denson’s book Coney Island and Astroland and tickets for the Coney Island History Project Walking Tour.

Astroland Remembered Photo Contest

People’s Choice Winner: Emmy Chindemi, “Early 70’s Kiddie Park”

“I was born in Brooklyn and yes, that is me and my sister sitting on the bear, I’m the one in the front my sister Joann is behind me. I believe I was 7 years old. My parents would always take us to Coney Island, I have a lot of favorite rides I loved, but the one thing I remember was the giant astronaut, in fact I might have a picture of me and my sisters sitting on his boot.”

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Astroland Remembered Photo Contest

Jury’s Choice Winner: Lou Dembrow, “Astroman”

“The closing of Astroland was an event that moved me deeply. I made a movie about Jimmy Prince and I experiencing it. “Astroman” embodies Coney Island’s democratic spirit of FREE TO BE ME! I began seriously photographing Coney Island in 2007. Harvey Stein, my teacher at the International Center of Photography, took us there in the 90's.”

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Astroland Remembered Photo Contest

Honorable Mention: Bruce Sherman, “Photo taken in the mid to late 60's, Kiddie Park area”

“My mother reminded me that I was three months old when we moved to Coney Island. My father took this photo of me at Astroland in the mid to late ‘60s. My brother Perry used to work in Astroland operating the Skyride. My mother was so scared of the ride she used to squeeze my hand while we were riding.”

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Astroland Remembered Photo Contest

Honorable Mention: Omar Robau, “Shooting Gallery”

"Walking through Astroland was always a novelty for me. No matter how many times, and there were so many, I would always feel that sense of nostalgia in the present. Coney Island, as a whole, felt like that to me. As if the past was in constant connection with the present and the future. This photo represents the variety of people with the variety of reasons for them enjoying Astroland on a variety of levels. For me, it ran deep for some unknown reason. An unknown but strong kind of love. Walking through there today still gives me that nostalgic feeling because the presence of Astroland, can still be felt there."

posted Oct 24th, 2018 in News and tagged with Astroland, Astroland Park, 10th Anniversary,...

Coney Island History Project Multilingual Brochure

The Coney Island History Project is seeking part-time interviewers to conduct audio interviews for an oral history project in the Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Coney Island, Bensonhurst and Gravesend.

Interviewers must have professional or academic training and experience in oral history, interviewing or radio reporting. They will conduct, record and edit audio interviews in English or another language for which we require interviewers such as Russian, Chinese, and Spanish. Interviewers are paid by the hour for the interview and editing. Additional work transcribing and translating the interview is also available. This project is ongoing and scheduling is flexible. Interviews along with transcripts are posted on our online oral history archive at https://www.coneyislandhistory.org/oral-history-archive. For info on our oral history program, see the article in the Fall 2018 issue of the U.K. Oral History Journal [PDF - page 25].

Desired skills:

- Fully proficient in English and at least one other language such as Russian, Chinese (Cantonese or Mandarin), and Spanish, or another language for which we may require interviewers

-Training and experience in oral history, interviewing or radio reporting

-Provide samples of previous interviews or audio recordings

-Experience with recording equipment and digital editing

-Ability to work independently

-Excellent written and communication skills

HOW TO APPLY

Please send cover letter, resume, links to previous interviews or audio recordings to coneyislandhistory[AT]gmail[DOT]com

posted Oct 21st, 2018 in News and tagged with oral history, bilingual, interviewers,...

Coney Island History Project Walking Tour

Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson leading a workshop and walking tour for teachers as part of the Brooklyn Public Library's Brooklyn Connections, a professional learning program for educators

Stroll through Coney past, present and future with the Coney Island History Project Walking Tour! This year, visitors from near (New York City, Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey), far (California, Florida, Louisiana and Oregon) and around the world (Costa Rica, England, Germany and Spain) joined our weekend tours. Among the groups for whom we conducted special tours this season were the Brooklyn Public Library's Brooklyn Connections, a professional learning program for educators; the Historic Districts Council’s Six to Celebrate, a preservation advocacy initiative; and Transition Network, a national organization for women over 50. School groups, company outings, and private groups celebrating reunions and birthdays also joined us for special tours.

Offered year-round, our 1-1/2 hour, wheelchair accessible tour includes a private visit to the Coney Island History Project's exhibit center. Tours are based on History Project director Charles Denson's award-winning book Coney Island: Lost and Found, the interviews from our Oral History Archive, and other primary sources. Visit our online reservation site to see the walking tour schedule and purchase advance tickets online. Tickets are $25 and help support the free programming of the Coney Island History Project, a 501c3 not-for-profit organization.

All Coney Island History Project Walking Tours are weather permitting. If a tour is cancelled due to the weather forecast, ticket orders will be refunded. If you have a question or you would like to schedule a private tour or group visit, please email events [AT] coneyislandhistory [DOT] org.

posted Oct 21st, 2018 in Events and tagged with Tours, Walking Tour, Coney Island,...

Astroland Remembered Photo by Charles Denson

Photo: © Charles Denson

"Astroland Park, created at the dawn of the space age, mirrored the wide-eyed optimism of the early 1960s and helped Coney Island survive the closure of Steeplechase Park," writes Charles Denson in Coney Island and Astroland.  

On Saturday, September 8, the Coney Island History Project will open special hours to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the closing of Astroland Park, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park will have a free movie screening in the Astroland Rocket, and former Astroland employees are hosting an Astroland Reunion in Coney Island.

From now through September 29, the public is invited to enter the Coney Island History Project's Astroland Remembered Photo Contest on our websiteEnter the Astroland Remembered Photo Contest! and Facebook page. Share your favorite photos of yourself, family and friends at Astroland taken anytime from 1962 through 2008. Winners will receive an autographed copy of Coney Island and Astroland and a Coney Island History Project Walking Tour for you and three of your friends. Winning photos will be exhibited at the Coney Island History project next season on Coney Island's Opening Day! 

Astroland Remembered Photo Contest

Photos: © Coney Island History Project/ Astroland Archives

Astroland fans, friends and former employees are invited to visit the Coney Island History Project's exhibit center on September 8 from 1-5 PM to view historic artifacts, banners, signage and photos of Astroland's unique attractions including the Astrotower, Diving Bell, Rocket and Sky Ride. Admission is free of charge. Visitors may record their memories of Astroland for our oral history archive and bring photos to reminisce over and scan for our collection. The Coney Island History Project was founded in 2004 by Carol Hill Albert and Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, creator of Astroland Park.

Ten years after the legendary park's closing, the heritage continues at the Coney Island History Project and Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. In 2014, the History Project teamed up with the Vourderis family, owners of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, to bring back the iconic Astroland Rocket, which has a new home adjacent to the Wonder Wheel. Originally built as the "Star Flyer," the Rocket was the first ride at Astroland and defined the park's space age theme when it opened in 1962. As one of the first of the "imaginary" space voyage simulators constructed during the Space Race, the attraction showed simulator films of "rocket rides" while the chassis "rocked" its viewers to outer space. 

On September 8, from 12-6 PM, visitors are invited to sit in one of the Rocket's 26 seats and watch the movie The Rocket Has Landed. The 18-minute film by Charles Denson tells the history of the Astroland Rocket and its journey back to Coney Island after being damaged by Hurricane Sandy while in storage on Staten Island. Admission to the Rocket and movie screenings will be free of charge. The giant gorilla from Astroland's Dante's Inferno has also found a new home, outside Deno's Spook-A-Rama, and stands ready to pose for souvenir photos.

Astroland Bumper Cars at Deno's Wonder Wheel

Photo: © Jim McDonnell

When Astroland closed, its rides went to parks around the world and one of the stars from its Surf Avenue gate joined the collection of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's Barbieri bumper cars, the largest bumper car ride in New York City, is the only Astroland ride currently in operation in Coney Island.  Go for a nostalgic spin under its magical rainbow-hued pavilion located adjacent to the Wonder Wheel. For ticket info, visit Deno's website. Deno's Wonder Wheel Park is open daily through Labor Day, and on weekends and school holidays  through the end of October.

A group of former Astroland employees has organized a September 8th reunion with a BBQ and music from 2-7 PM at the Unknown Bikers Club on Coney Island's Bowery, next to the Nets store. All former Astroland employees and friends as well as the public are welcome to attend. Donation is $10 at the door. For information, visit the Facebook event page.

Photo: © Coney Island History Project/ Astroland Archives

Photo: © Coney Island History Project/ Astroland Archives

posted Aug 30th, 2018 in Events and tagged with Astroland, Astroland Remembered, September 8,...

Coney Island History Day

[POSTPONED] We're sorry, due to the rainy forecast on Saturday, August 11, and on Sunday, we are postponing our 8th annual History Day event for this weekend. We plan to reschedule it with the same programming for a date in September or October and hope you will join us then. Sign up for our e-news (link at bottom of page) or follow us on social media for updates!

Eighth Annual History Day
Saturday, August 11th, 2pm-6pm
Rain Date: Sunday August 12th

Celebrating Coney Island's Immigrant Heritage!
 
At Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and
The Coney Island History Project
 
Free Live Music, Entertainment and History!
 
Hosted by Deno John Vourderis, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and 
Charles Denson, Coney Island History Project 

In the early 20th century Coney Island's most popular souvenir photo-stand props consisted of small boats named The Mayflower. Recent immigrants could pose as Mayflower passengers, freedom-seekers  celebrating liberty on the shores of the World's Playground.

For more than a century, Coney Island served as the true historic "melting pot" for New York City's immigrant population.  It remains a place of great diversity, where people of small means enjoy an affordable day of free recreation on the beach and Boardwalk. Coney Island continues to be a destination for immigrants, the place to assimilate with people of all nationalities. It's where they finally find true freedom and become Americans.
 Coney Island History Day

Enjoy History Day performances by musicians and dancers representing the traditional culture of countries from which people have emigrated to Coney Island:

Mariachi Real de Mexico de Ramon Ponce -  New York's premier mariachi  - 3:00PM

Brighton Ballet Theater School of Russian Ballet - Local students from school founded by Irina Roizin perform classical ballet and Ukrainian folk dance - 3:30PM

Paolo Buffagni - Modena-born tenor moved to New York to take up a career in opera and lives in Sunset Park - 4:00PM
  
New York Music and Dance Organization - Bensonhurst-based Chinese dance troupe founded by Julia Liu - 4:30PM

Gaston "Bonga" Jean-Baptiste -  Master Haitian drummer  - 5:00PM
 
-Plus DJ Joe Gonzalez, special guests and table top displays representing New York City's immigrant diversity including the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, Center for Traditional Music and DanceBrighton Ballet Theater School of Russian Ballet and New York Music and Dance Organization. Desert Island, a store in Brooklyn featuring illustration and comic art from around the world, will distribute free copies of their Coney Island-themed issue of Smoke Signal.
 
-Record the names and memories of your family's first visit to the World's Playground and scan their photos for the Oral History Archive at the Coney Island History Project 

Father Eugene Pappas
 - On History Day, Father Eugene Pappas, Coney Island native and pastor of Southern Brooklyn's Three Hierarchs Greek Orthodox Church for the past 35 years, will broadcast a live radio show from Deno's Wonder Wheel Park about Coney Island's immigrant heritage. The radio show will be from just after 1pm until 2pm on WNYE COSMOS FM Hellenic Public Radio  and will be followed by his opening remarks at 2pm on the Dreamland Plaza Stage. Guests on the radio show will include Dennis Vourderis of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project. Tune in at 91.5 or listen live at cosmosfm.org/podcast.
 
The opening ceremony at 2pm will be followed by Free Live Entertainment from 3-6pm on the Dreamland Plaza Stage located at 3059 West 12th St next to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park (between Bowery Street and Boardwalk).
 
About Deno's Wonder Wheel Park
Built in 1920, Deno's Wonder Wheel is the iconic centerpiece of the Coney Island skyline and the heart and soul of the amusement and entertainment district. Deno's Wonder Wheel Park founder Denos D. Vourderis, the 8th of 22 children, immigrated to the United States at age 14 to pursue the American Dream. He was born in Greece in 1920, the same year as the Wonder Wheel that he would buy in 1983 as a wedding ring for his wife, restore to its original state and build his park around. Deno's Wonder Wheel Park has the best selection of rides for kids and over 21 thrilling attractions including the classic haunted house dark ride, Spook-A-Rama, and Stop the Zombies, a state-of-the-art virtual reality interactive ride, game and movie in one air-conditioned theater. The park is owned and operated by Dennis and Steve Vourderis and their sons, the second and third generations of the Vourderis family. Deno's Wonder Wheel was designated an official New York City landmark in 1989 and West 12th Street, between Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk, was co-named Denos D. Vourderis Place in 2001. Deno's Wonder Wheel will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2020. 

Coney Island History Day
 About the Coney Island History Project
The Coney Island History Project is a not-for-profit organization that aims to increase awareness of Coney Island's legendary past and to encourage appreciation of the Coney Island neighborhood of today. Located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, our exhibition center is open free of charge on weekends during the summer season. Emphasizing community involvement, the History Project records and shares oral history interviews; provides access to historical artifacts and documentary material through educational exhibits, events and a website; and teaches young people about local history and develops programs in conjunction with local schools, museums, and other organizations. Our multilingual offerings include a brochure in 10 languages, English and Chinese language walking tours, and oral history interviews recorded in several languages. The Coney Island History Project was founded in 2004 by Carol Hill Albert and Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, creator of Astroland Park.  Executive director Charles Denson is a Coney Island native, a noted historian, and the author of the award-winning book Coney Island: Lost and Found.
 
Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project
3059 West 12th Street, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY 11224
D, F, N or Q train to Stillwell Terminal
Phone: 347-702-8553 (Coney Island History Project)
Phone: 718-372-2592 (Deno's Wonder Wheel Park)
http://www.coneyislandhistory.org
http://www.denoswonderwheel.com
events[AT]Coneyislandhistory[DOT]org

DCAThe Coney Island History Project's programs are supported in part by public funds from the NYC Dept of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the NYC City Council, New York City Councilman Mark Treyger, and our members and contributors. 

posted Jul 26th, 2018 in News and tagged with Coney Island, immigrants, History Day,...

Yellow Submarine Coney Island History Project

Coney Island Creek's Yellow Submarine Quester I. Photo © Charles Denson

What can we learn about New York City and its waterfront from its boats? Stefan D-W of the Waterfront Alliance's Waterwire is inviting those across the maritime world and beyond-historians, planners, artists, business people, scientists- to share their perspectives on NYC History in 10 Boats. Below is the sixth installment, with Charles Denson, reprinted from Waterwire, with additional photos from the Coney Island History Project's Collection.

Iolas

Ferry service to Coney Island began in the summer of 1845 when the steamboat Iolas left the Battery at 7am and arrived at the western tip of the island about an hour later. The little ferry made four trips a day to the dune-covered sand bar that would soon become “The Playground of the World.”

Shamrock

Coney Island’s little-known connection to the America’s Cup was centered at the island’s Atlantic Yacht Club at the mouth of Coney Island Creek where, in 1899, Sir Thomas Lipton’s Irish racing yacht Shamrock was berthed while competing in the world-famous event being held in New York Harbor. The Shamrock was defeated in all three races by the New York Yacht Club’s defender, Columbia.

Shamrock

Saranac

The wreck of the three-masted wooden schooner Saranac became a popular “ghost ship” attraction after it ran aground and was abandoned alongside the Steeplechase Pier in Coney Island around 1907. Steeplechase owner George C. Tilyou decided not to remove the wreck and instead decorated the ship’s masts and rigging with colorful flags, advertising it as a monument to the last days of proud sailing ships.

Flying Dutchman

During the early days of Prohibition, Coney Island Creek was a main landing point for rumrunners. Many yachts built at the Wheeler Shipyard were modified into rumrunners that could outrun police boats and revenue cutters patrolling offshore. In September 1923, a 40-foot modified cruiser named Flying Dutchman partook in a dramatic, three-mile gun battle with police before beaching at Coney Island Creek. One of the Dutchman’s crew was shot by police, four others were arrested, and the boozy contents of the boat was taken to police headquarters at the Battery.

Noah’s Ark

The whimsical vessel was actually a nautical-themed funhouse on the Boardwalk in front of Steeplechase Park during the 1920s and 1930s. After entering through the gaping mouth of a blue whale, visitors navigated a maze that led to encounters with captain “Noah” and his animal pairs while the entire attraction rocked back and forth.

Noah's Ark

Hemingway’s Pilar

Ernest Hemingway’s famous 38-foot deep-sea fishing boat, the Pilar, was built on Coney Island Creek at the Wheeler Shipyard in 1934. Hemmingway’s fishing adventures on the Pilar became the inspiration for his novels The Old Man and the Sea, and Islands in the Stream. The boat is now on display at Finca Vigia, the Hemingway Museum in Havana, Cuba.

Gold Star Mother

Gold Star Mother was a Staten Island ferryboat, one of three with feminine names launched in 1937. The name came from the “Gold Star” honor and flag awarded to mothers of soldiers killed in battle during World War I. The ferry, one of the first to be fueled with oil rather than coal, was in service for several decades before being retired and transformed into a floating methadone clinic. The vessel was towed to Coney Island Creek where it was eventually dismantled for scrap in 1975.

Wheeler Patrol Boats

The Wheeler Shipyard on Coney Island Creek built and launched 230 patrol boats used by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. The 83-foot wooden craft served in all theaters of war, and many are still in use today as private fishing boats.

Coney Island Creek’s Yellow Submarine

Quester I is a homemade submarine, built on Coney Island Creek in 1970 by Jerry Bianco, a Brooklyn Navy Yard welder. Bianco hoped to raise the Andrea Doria, an ocean liner that sank in the Atlantic in 1956. After taking the sub on several successful test runs in Gravesend Bay, Bianco was unable to raise the funds to continue his salvage project and the sub was abandoned. It broke loose of its moorings in a storm and now lies as a famous wreck at the mouth of Coney Island Creek.

New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret is a 45-foot marine skimmer that began operation in 1997 as part of a citywide floatables containment program. The vessel appears after heavy rainfall to skim up tons of Coney Island trash washed into the creek’s sewer outfalls during summer storms.

Egret

posted May 22nd, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with boats, Coney Island, Coney Island Creek,...