A New Look and A New Project

Eleven years ago Astroland owner Carol Albert and author Charles Denson founded the Coney Island History Project as an oral history program whose mission was to record Coney Island in living memory. Little did we know that we would be capturing the last days of an important era in Coney history.

Since our founding, Coney Island has undergone a dramatic revival and been transformed. During the last tumultuous decade we were able to record important oral histories, including those of the last members of Coney's pioneer families as well as an extensive cast of characters who contributed to Coney's illustrious past. Some of the subjects, such as Matt Kennedy and Joe Rollino, were centenarians who vividly recalled and shared a hundred years of memories. Many other subjects passed away during the last decade but not before sharing their fascinating stories with us. 

With the launch of our new website we strengthen our mission of recording and archiving oral histories. The improved format and mobile-friendly web design provide a quicker and easier way to navigate and access our extensive library of archival materials and important information regarding Coney Island and our public programs. The expanded architecture allows us to add to the archive hundreds of interviews and unseen photographs, maps, and ephemera. New technology enables us to clean and restore older recordings, including two decades of recordings made by Charles Denson for his book Coney Island: Lost and Found. We can now begin sharing our vast archive of materials.

Also highlighted is our latest project: Immigrant Narratives of Southern Brooklyn. This project is an oral history initiative that records interviews with immigrants in both English and other languages in the Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Coney Island, Gravesend, and Bensonhurst. You can listen to the first oral histories from the series with New Yorkers who emigrated from Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, Pakistan, Cyprus, Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Poland and Mexico. The first interviews were conducted in English, Russian, Cantonese and Turkish. This program is part of the Cultural Immigrant Initiative 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 Oct 11th, 2015 in News and tagged with Coney Island History Project, website, oral history,...

On October 14, Charles Denson will give a talk and video/slide presentation about Coney Island Creek and the three NYC Parks that encompass its western end. The talk, sponsored by Partnerships for Parks and the Catalyst Program for Community Building, will be held at the Parks Department headquarters at the Arsenal in Central Park. Denson has documented Coney Island Creek for more than 40 years and is completing a book and documentary about this historic and endangered estuary.

The Coney Island History Project has partnered with Partnerships for Parks to create a self-guided walking tour brochure and markers for the Coney Island CreekWalk at Kaiser Park, installed in 2012. Charles Denson has also led walking tours and workshops for students at the City Parks Foundation's Coastal Classroom. Our newest Catalyst-funded project is signage for Calvert Vaux Park and an educational booklet. 

The Oct 14th program "Catalyst Dialogue: Parks as Space for Community Change" will highlight how community members have transformed park spaces into outdoor classrooms, active waterfronts and community spaces. In addition to the Coney Island History Project, presenting groups include GreenShores NYC, Bronx River Alliance, and City Life is Moving Bodies. The event is from 6:30-8:30 pm and is free of charge. The Arsenal Building is located at 830 Fifth Avenue.

Photo: CreekWalk Markers installed at Coney Island Creek in Kaiser Park in July 2012 were designed and created by Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project with a grant from the Catalyst Program. Photo © Coney Island History Project.

Coney Island’s history has been shaped by fire. Nearly every block of the amusement zone burned to the ground or was destroyed by fire during the first century of development. Many of the fires spread into massive conflagrations due to low water pressure in the community’s fire hydrants, a defect that allowed fires to spread unchecked. After the disastrous 1932 fire that destroyed four square blocks of amusements and residential buildings, the city finally built a new pumping station to serve the needs of the fire department.

The beautiful new pumping station designed by famed architect Irwin Chanin opened in 1938 on Coney Island Creek. The Art Deco structure was unusual for Coney Island and much different than most municipal structures which were commonly utilitarian and devoid of ornamentation. Chanin commissioned a pair of winged horse sculptures for the entrance to the elliptical limestone and granite Moderne structure, creating a magnificent monument amidst Coney’s ephemeral landscape. 

Decades later the building was decommissioned and sealed up, leaving it vulnerable to vandalism. The sculptures were saved and relocated to the Brooklyn Museum, where they are stabled next to the rear entrance. Nowadays, the Pumping Station survives in a state of arrested decay, surrounded by a community garden. The rear of the property bordering Coney Island Creek, is used as a popular fishing spot.

Numerous proposals have surfaced recently to repurpose the building for community usage including as a Coney Island ferry terminal, ecology center, or museum. The structure was proposed for a landmark designation in 1980 and languished since then until it was included in a “mass de-calendering” proposed last year by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Now its future is in doubt.

On October 8 there will be a public hearing to decide the future landmark status of this important building. Coney Island has lost many historic structures during the last few years so it is imperative that this important community asset be saved for future generations. – Charles Denson

Please sign the Art Deco Society of New York's petition:


For more information about the public hearing or to submit written comments to save the Pumping Station, visit the Landmarks Preservation Commission site at:




Congratulations to Eddie Mark, the new District Manager of Community Board 13, from all of us at the Coney Island History Project!

Photo taken at the Coney Island History Project on August 15, 2015, the 25th Anniversary of the Sand Sculpting Contest. Eddie is sporting one of the vintage tees from his collection.

posted Sep 19th, 2015 in News and tagged with Eddie Mark, Community Board 13, District Manager,...

When Frank Newlands contacted me last year we began an animated conversation that led to a long time mystery being solved. As a child I was impressed by the dazzling lights of Steeplechase Park, the whirling rides and great steel-and-glass pavilion were a sight to behold. The fourteen-acre park was covered with glittering necklaces of bright bare bulbs. The glowing interior steel latticework of the pavilion was particularly impressive, each beam and girder lined with bright diamonds. But I always wondered: how do they change all those bulbs? And who keeps them all lit? Frank was able to provide the answer, as it was his job to climb everything from the parachute jump, to the dizzying heights of the pavilion, to the top of the Steeplechase tower, and change the old-fashioned light bulbs. And he operated without a net! Frank Newlands' interview tells the inside story of what it was like to work at the magnificent Steeplechase Park in its last days.  – Charles Denson


posted Sep 16th, 2015 in Director's Blog and tagged with

The Coney Island History Project is seeking freelance bilingual interviewers to be part of a team conducting audio interviews for our oral history program. We are recording interviews with immigrants and foreign-born New Yorkers in both English and other languages in the Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Coney Island, Gravesend, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst.

Interviewers must be fully bilingual in English and at least one other language and have professional training and experience in oral history or radio reporting. We are also looking for interviewers with an interest/expertise in Caribbean, Latin American, Italian American, and African American culture and studies. Please see our updated ad at idealist.org for details and share it with your bilingual friends and colleagues.

Our first set of oral history interviews for the new project includes New Yorkers who emigrated from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Japan, Pakistan, Cyprus, Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Poland and Mexico. Interviews were conducted in English, Russian, Cantonese and Turkish.

Photo: Samira Tazari interviewing Cornel Chan for the Coney Island History Project’s Oral History Program.  ©  Coney Island History Project

posted Sep 11th, 2015 in News and tagged with Coney Island History Project, oral history, bilingual,...

Coney Island History Project

We were excited to see write-ups about the Coney Island History Project in Sing Tao, the world's largest Chinese newspaper! The articles are about the Coney history slide talk we gave on September 2nd at the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn in Gravesend. Archivist Jen Garland presented the talk, which was interpreted into Cantonese for us by Rodney Lau, former senior translator at the United Nations. Thank you to Paul Chan, Senior Center Director, for inviting us, and to Terri Jeu, Program Manager, for facilitating our visit.

The program is part of our outreach efforts in Southern Brooklyn where we are recording oral history interviews  with immigrants and foreign-born New Yorkers in English as well as languages such as Chinese, Russian and Turkish. 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.

Sing Tao Daily

Paul Boyton

Doesn't Craig Dudley, great grandson of Paul Boyton, look like his famous ancestor? Boyton built Coney Island's first enclosed amusement park - Sea Lion Park- in 1895. Erected on what would later become Luna Park, Sea Lion Park was a small collection of rides featuring the Shoot-the-Chutes water ride and the Flip-Flap looping coaster. Live sea lions also entertained visitors. Craig visited last weekend and posed for a souvenir photo with Charles Denson in front of the Coney Island History Project's History Wall honoring his great grandfather. The History Walls are at Surf Pavilion on Stillwell Avenue.

History Walls Coney Island History Project

The five kiosk exhibit is an offshoot of the Wall of Fame that the History Project opened in 2005 on West 10th Street next to Astroland. Our goal was to honor the unsung visionaries, impresarios, inventors, craftsmen, and artisans whose creativity and ingenuity helped shape Coney Island. The project was later expanded to include landmarks and architectural history. Among the 15 honorees first inducted a decade ago and featured on the History Walls are Dr. Martin Couney, whose Coney Island incubator exhibit saved over 5,000 young lives; Lt. Commander James Strong, who built the Parachute Jump; Granville T. Woods, the African-American inventor of electric roller coasters; and Lady Deborah Moody, who founded the town of Gravesend. Visit our album on flickr to see more photos of the Walls.

posted Aug 26th, 2015 in News and tagged with Paul Boyton, History Walls, Coney Island History Project,...

Coney Island City Councilman and former history teacher Mark Treyger spoke fervently about the history of America's First Playground at the 5th Annual History Day at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and State Senator Diane Savino also spoke about Coney Island's history and its future at the opening ceremony.

Brooklyn Swings Dancing on 95th Anniversary of Wonder Wheel

Dancers from Brooklyn Swings danced the Charleston in honor of the Wonder Wheel, which is celebrating its 95th anniversary this season, and the Bop, in tribute to the 1955 spook-A-Rama dark ride.

Aldo Mancusi of the Enrico Caruso Museum at History Day in Coney Island

We were honored to have Commendatore Aldo Mancusi, founder of the Enrico Caruso Museum, and his wife Lisa join us for History Day. Visitors who hand-cranked a tune on this Hofbauer street organ from the museum received a souvenir certificate commemorating the 95th anniversary of the Wonder Wheel.

History Day 2015

Enjoy live music, dancing and history at the 5th Annual History Day at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, Coney Island's oldest amusement park, and the Coney Island History Project. This year's festivities are a celebration of the 95th anniversary of the 1920 landmark Deno's Wonder Wheel and the 60th anniversary of the 1955 Spook-A-Rama, Coney's last classic dark ride. The free event will be held from 1-6pm on Saturday, August 8. The rain date is August 9.

Pick up a schedule and souvenir map of the historic attractions in Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park at locations throughout the park and at the Coney Island History Project. PLUS see our Stilt Walker for a 95th Anniversary Balloon!

History Day activities will be at the following locations:

Boardwalk Stage

History Day Opening Ceremony with the Vouderis family of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, historian Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project, and Special Guests 1pm

DJ George Marchelos playing retro music 1-6pm

Brooklyn Swings performing and showing us the steps to popular dances of the 1920s and 1950s. Dance the Charleston and the Bop in a public salute to the Wonder Wheel and Spook-A-Rama! 1:30-3:30pm

Magician Bob Yorburg, performing "Professor Phineas Feelgood's World of Magic" and presenting a band organ tribute to the Wonder Wheel with friends from the Carousel Organ Association of America 4-5pm

West 12th St in front of Coney Island History Project & Walkway to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park

Special exhibit of historic Spook-A-Rama figures and signs 1-6pm

Aldo Mancusi, founder of the Enrico Caruso Museum, will bring his hand-cranked band organ and battery-operated monkey to History Day. Mr Mancusi is a member of the Carousel Organ Association of America (COAA) and Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors Association (AMICA). Crank a tune and receive a certificate commemorating History Day! 1-6pm

Be part of living history! Tell your story! The History Project will record visitors who have Coney Island stories for its Oral History Archive. View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past at the History Project's exhibit center. Visitors are invited to take free souvenir photos with a 'Skully' from Spookhouse and Spook-A-Rama and an original Steeplechase horse from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase park its name. 1-7pm

Deno's Wonder Wheel Park

Walk inside the iconic 1960s Astroland Rocket, which was brought home to Coney Island last summer and has a new home in Wonder Wheel Park! 1-6pm

Plus: The first 100 people who ride the Wonder Wheel will receive a Limited Edition Commemorative Button as a gift. Dress in 1920s garb and get one Free Ride on the Wheel! The Wonder Wheel opens at 12pm

Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, 1025 Boardwalk at Denos D. Vourderis Place (West 12th St) www.wonderwheel.com

The Coney Island History Project, 3059 West 12th St off the Boardwalk www.coneyislandhistory.org