Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

Summer always goes by too fast! With only four more weekends till Labor Day, the Coney Island History Project announces a series of themed history weekends at our exhibition center to pique your interest in sharing your Coney Island stories. For inspiration, listen to some of the oral histories in our online archive before you visit. You may also listen to excerpts from the History Project's oral history archive at the exhibition center via our new SoundStik audio handset. 

Interviews are recorded in person during exhibition center hours- Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays thru Labor Day, 1-7 PM - or by appointment year-round. We have recorded interviews in English, Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, Turkish and Italian!

SCHEDULE AN ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW:

August 10 and 11, Under the Boardwalk and On the Beach... Favorite memories, outings with family & friends, first trip to Coney Island--even if it's today--because memories are in the making.

August 17 and 18, Childhood Days... Carousel and kiddie ride memories, being tall enough to ride the Cyclone or Parachute Jump for the first time, your very first memory of Coney Island.

August 24 and 25, Neighborhood Coney Island... Did you grow up or live here? Visit family or friends who live here? Have a summer job in the amusement area or work in the neighborhood?

August 31 and September 1-2, Romantic Coney Island! Did you meet your true love in Coney Island, go on your first date or fall in love here?

The Coney Island History Project is located at 3059 West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, just a few steps off the Boardwalk. View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films, and this season's special exhibit "Salvation by the Sea." Admission is free of charge.

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive
Listen to excerpts from the Coney Island History Project's oral history archive at the exhibition center via our new SoundStik audio handset.

Lead photo: Jiangxin Jin recording an oral history for the Coney Island History Project with Yi Xin Tong, an artist from China's Mount Lushan who has lived in Gravesend for six years. He describes Coney Island Creek as "the place that I can feel closest to home in New York."  Photo: Coney Island History Project

National Night Out

This Tuesday, August 6th, is National Night Out, an annual event that promotes police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie. Coney Island's 60th Precinct, PSA #1, and Transit District 34 are hosting this year's block party on our block - West 12th Street between Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk. Enjoy music, free food, bounce houses, vendors, giveaways and more from 5-8 PM. The Coney Island History Project will open our exhibition center for the event and give away souvenir buttons while supplies last. The 60th Precinct National Night Out is sponsored by Deno's Wonder Wheel and Investors Bank.

posted Aug 5th, 2019 in Events and tagged with National Night Out, Night Out New York, Night Out,...

City of Water Day

Wildlife Conservation Society volunteers visit with Charles Denson at the History Project's exhibit table; group photo of City of Water Day attendees; and Charles Denson frees a live horseshoe crab found tangled in monofilament fishing line.

On July 13, the Coney Island History Project exhibited at the 5th annual City of Water Day in Kaiser Park. Our table offered our "CreekWalk" walking tour brochures for Kaiser Park and Calvert Vaux Park, as well as the illustrated panels from the History Project's Coney Island Creek exhibit. Hundreds of community members spent a day on the shoreline of Coney Island Creek, learning about the history, future, and ecology of the once neglected waterway. The educational event was sponsored by the Coney Island Beautification Project and the Waterfront Alliance.
 

posted Jul 19th, 2019 in News and tagged with City of Water Day, Coney Island Creek, Kaiser Park,...

Coney Island History Project

Red, white and blue-clad visitors at the Coney Island History Project on July 4th. 

In the tradition of Coney Island's sidewalk photo studios of the past, visitors to the Coney Island History Project are invited to take free souvenir photos with Cy, the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, and Coney Island's only original Steeplechase horse. Browse through our Flickr album to see photos from the Coney Island History Project's 15th anniversary season and previous years.
 

Enjoy this video recap of our 8th Annual Coney Island History Day at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project. This year’s event, on June 9th, celebrated Coney Island’s immigrant heritage with performances of classical ballet and Ukrainian folk dance by the Russian Ballet Theater School of Russian Ballet; Afro Haitian drumming by Gaston “Bonga” Jean-Baptiste; songs in the Turkish and Rumeli tradition by Jenny Luna; traditional Chinese dance by New York Music and Dance Organization; and mariachi music by Mariachi Real de Mexico de Ramon Ponce. 

Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project spoke of the historic role that Coney Island has played in welcoming immigrants: “When immigrants sailed into New York Harbor at the turn of the last century, the first thing they saw wasn’t the Statue of Liberty; it was the towers and bright lights of Coney Island,” Denson said.

“Twenty million immigrants came through New York between 1880 and 1920. Immigrants fleeing persecution and seeking freedom didn’t find it right away. Instead they found life in stifling tenements, and backbreaking labor. Most worked long hours, six days a week. Coney Island became their escape. At Coney Island they found fresh air and affordable recreation. Coney Island became the pressure valve for New York City.”

The 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 1st, 2019 in Video Posts and tagged with

Mermaids still keep watch over Mermaid Avenue.

Woody Guthrie's 1950 song "Mermaid's Avenue" suggests that there's never been a mermaid on Mermaid Avenue, or at least that he's never seen one:

But there’s never been a mermaid here
On Mermaid Avenue
No, I’ve never seen a mermaid here
On Mermaid Avenue
I’ve seen hags and wags and witches;
And I’ve seen a shark or two
My five years that I’ve lived along
Old Mermaid’s Avenue

But Woody was mistaken. Just a few blocks from his home on Mermaid Avenue six stone mermaids could be found peering down from the roof of a one-story brick retail building, keeping watch over their namesake avenue. I remember the mermaids well from my childhood. At that time Mermaid Avenue was still a major shopping district with a lot of interesting architecture, but most of the buildings would be lost to urban renewal in the 1970s. 

The History Project recently received a request asking if the mermaids were still there:

"I remember a building on Mermaid Avenue on the southwest corner, and it was a one story commercial building.  The facade was a series of mermaid busts that ran along the building just below the roofline. What was interesting about these mermaids was that they were bare breasted, and they were all pinching their right nipples. My question is, would you know if there was any significance to the mermaids' pose, and is it possible that there are any photos of the building available."

Yes, the mermaids are still there! A little weathered and partially covered by signs and wiring, they still watch over the street that Guthrie once called home. All but one has lost her tail and, as far as the unusual pose, perhaps they are just a little bit shy and are trying to cover up. Here are some recent photos of the sculptures. We won't reveal the location as it's more fun to discover them on your own.

– Charles Denson

A beautiful mermaid above a beauty shop on Mermaid Avenue.

The only Mermaid Avenue mermaid that still has her tail.

A mermaid strikes a pose on Mermaid Avenue.

 

 

posted May 3rd, 2019 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Mermaid Avenue

Seaside Home

The Coney Island History Project's special exhibition for the 2019 season, opening on Memorial Day Weekend, Saturday, May 25th, is "Salvation by the Sea: Coney Island's 19th Century Fresh Air Cure and Immigrant Aid Societies."

During the late 1800s and early 1900s Coney Island served as a place of salvation for European immigrants fleeing poverty and persecution. Charitable Summer Seaside Homes for the poor, supported by the city's wealthy, provided impoverished immigrant mothers and children with a respite from steaming, disease-filled tenements.  
 
At the same time, Coney's expanding amusement business provided business opportunities for immigrants of small means. This exhibit explores a little-known era of Coney Island's history by examining the role that the beachfront played in saving lives and providing a livelihood for the waves of immigrants that fled their homelands to seek freedom and new lives in America. Our exhibit tells the story through photos, articles, maps, and oral history.  

Salvation by the Sea at the Coney Island History Project

2019 marks the 15th anniversary of the Coney Island History Project! Since the History Project's inception in 2004 with a portable recording booth on the Boardwalk and the inaugural season of our exhibition center in 2007, we have proudly offered "Free Admission for One and All!" at our exhibits and special events. Our exhibition center is open free of charge on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day. We're located at 3059 West 12th Street, adjacent to the 12th Street entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, just a few steps off the Boardwalk.

View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past.  Share and preserve your Coney Island memories by recording an interview for our Oral History Archive. Take free souvenir photos with the iconic Spook-A-Rama Cyclops and Coney Island's only original Steeplechase horse, from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name. Among the rare treasures on display is Coney Island's oldest surviving artifact from the dawn of the "World's Playground." The 1823 Toll House sign in our collection dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to "the Island" was 5 cents!

Coney IslandHistory Project Oral History Archive

Among the additions to the Coney Island History Project's online Oral History Archive are the following audio interviews recorded by Charles Denson, Jiangxin Jin, Julia Khanina, Kaara Baptiste, Ruonan Zheng, and Samira Tazari. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story, sign up here.

Bensonhurst native Ralph Avella was 16 years old when he became the youngest member of the Coney Island Parachute Jump's operation crew in 1961 after graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School. This interview is probably the best description ever of how the Jump operated and what it was like to ride it.

Crystal Isley shares memories of growing up in Coney Island Houses in the 1980s and '90s. After a happy childhood growing up in a close-knit community, things started to change and ducking from gunshots became normal. "Either people saw Coney Island as the end-all, be-all, or they wanted more. I was one of the people who wanted more," recalls Crystal, who now lives on Ocean Parkway but says Coney Island will always be her home.

Yi Xin Tong is an artist from Mount Lushan, China, where he grew up learning calligraphy, poetry and fishing from his grandfather. At Coney Island Creek, which he describes as "the place that I can feel closest to home in New York," Yi Xin spends his time fishing for striped bass and flounder and creating videos. He recorded two interviews: one conducted in Mandarin and a second in English.

Khonya Epstein, 91, author and leader of the Holocaust Survivors Group at the Marks JCH of Bensonhurst, is a Ghetto Survivor and World War II Veteran. A native of Mogilev, Belarus, he tells the harrowing story of how he escaped the Nazi massacre of the Jewish ghetto and joined a partisan brigade at age 13. This interview was conducted and recorded in Russian and includes a Russian transcript and an English translation.

Connie Scacciaferro, 86, remembers going to Coney Island Beach as a child in the 1930's and a teen in the '40s. Among her childhood memories are her youngest sister getting lost and finding her eating ice cream at the police station; a cousin being saved from drowning by her father and uncle; and rides on the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway and the Cyclone.

Jewel Hough lives in Brighton Beach and has been working at Coney Island's Deno's Wonder Wheel Park for the past 18 years. She describes her favorite rides ("The Tilt-A-Whirl, I love it!") and the process of making cotton candy and candy apples at Deno’s Sweet Shoppe.

Ahmed Hussain, 24, has spent every summer since he was eight in Coney Island helping out in his family's stores in the amusement area. What he enjoyed most about growing up in Coney was his friendship with the operators of Faber's Fascination Arcade and Shoot Out the Star, whom he describes as his mentors.

Alito Hernandez shares memories of learning to breakdance as a young boy in the 1980's and the history of Fresh Kids crew in Coney Island. “They would break till dawn when I met them. I was a baby. I was inspired by them," recalls Alito, who says the Polar Express was the crew's stomping grounds and they practiced at Our Lady of Solace schoolyard.

Olga Lozar is a Sea Gate resident and Coney Island Polar Bear Club member. She talks about the pleasures of winter swimming and first learning to swim in the alpine lakes of the Caucusus Mountains. This interview was conducted and recorded in Russian and includes a Russian transcript and an English translation.

Song Xin is an artist who used traditional Chinese paper cutting techniques to create Tree of Life, a public art work in the Bay Parkway subway station in Bensonhurst. “The place is a new immigrant hub. I am one of them," says the artist, who moved to New York from Beijing in 2000. This interview was conducted and recorded in Mandarin and includes a Chinese transcript and an English translation.

The Coney Island History Project has over 330 oral histories archived online.  Most are in English, with long-time or former residents, workers or visitors.  In recent years we began recording interviews with immigrants and foreign-born New Yorkers both in English and other languages including Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and Turkish who live or work in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods in Southern Brooklyn.

posted May 2nd, 2019 in News and tagged with

Jane's Walk NYC Coney Island

Missed our annual Immigrant Heritage Tour of Coney Island for Immigrant Heritage Week? The Coney Island History Project is pleased to offer this special walking tour free of charge on May 5th at 1PM as part of Jane's Walk NYC 2019! Organized by the Municipal Art Society of New York, the festival includes over 200 free guided walks and takes place the first weekend in May every year to coincide with urban activist Jane Jacobs' birthday.

Among the stops on the Immigrant Heritage Tour of Coney Island and the stories of struggle, success and achievement are Nathan's Famous, founded in 1916 by Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker; Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, where the landmark 1920 Wonder Wheel was purchased by Greek immigrant Denos D. Vourderis as a wedding ring for his wife Lula; and the B&B Carousell, created in 1919 by German and Russian immigrants and now Coney's last hand-carved wooden carousel. The tour will also highlight businesses operated by immigrants who have recorded their stories for the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive.

Tickets must be reserved in advance via the History Project's eventbrite page and reservations are limited to 2 per person as capacity is limited.  The tour starts in front of the Coney Island History Project, 3059 West 12th St (adjacent to the 12th Street entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park), Brooklyn NY 11224. The tour ends at the B&B Carousell, 1615 Riegelmann Boardwalk, Brooklyn, NY 11224

The walking tour takes 1 hour and 15 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes, depending on the size of the group. Walking tours are held rain or shine. We reserve the right to cancel tours in the event of potentially dangerous weather.

This program is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and New York City Councilman Mark Treyger.

posted Apr 30th, 2019 in Events and tagged with Jane's Walk, Jane's Walk NYC, Jane Jacobs,...

Estuary Day

You're invited to the 5th annual It's My Estuary Day on Saturday, May 4, from 8:00AM-3:00PM, a day of service, learning and celebration along Coney Island Creek in Kaiser Park! The free event will include underwater robotics, oyster monitoring, diving demonstrations, water chemistry techniques, seining, microscope viewing of plankton, displays by environmental organizations, host talks, coastal clean up, lunch and networking.

Featuring over 40 partner organizations, this annual community event is organized by the Cultural Research Divers, BMSEA (Brooklyn Marine STEM Education Alliance), and NYSMEA (NY State Marine Education Association), and hosted by Making Waves, a coalition of stewards caring for Coney Island Creek and Kaiser Park, of which the Coney Island History Project is a member.

Stop by the Coney Island History Project's table to learn about our free programs, including our exhibit center, which opens Memorial Day Weekend. Pick up a copy of the Coney Island CreekWalk at Calvert Vaux Park booklet produced by the History Project for Partnerships for Parks. Visitors may also take a self-guided walking tour by following the markers created by the Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project for CreekWalk at Kaiser Park.

Estuary Day

posted Apr 30th, 2019 in News and tagged with Coney Island Creek, Estuary, It's My Estuary Day,...