Coney Island Blog - By Charles Denson

The Good:
Local schools are taking a new interest in Coney Island Creek and its relationship with the surrounding community. As part of the History Project’s education outreach program, we seek to partner with schools whose curriculum incorporates local history and environmental issues. This spring I gave two history and ecology presentations to local students and was surprised to find increasing concern about our endangered waterways.

In March, New York Aquarium Director Jon Dohlin and New York Seascape Program Officer Mai Murphy invited me to participate in a workshop presentation at the Aquarium’s Education Hall for a high school ecology group called the Wildlife Conservation Corps. Students taking part in the program, led by Aquarium artist-in-residence Christy Ghast, are filming, directing, and editing a new video that follows one piece of plastic trash from the time it’s collected from local marine waters backward to the place where it came out of the ground as petroleum. The piece of plastic was gathered from Coney Island Creek during a recent cleanup. My presentation covered the history of the creek, the dangers of “floatable” pollution on the creek and what can be done to prevent it in the future.

Charles Denson, top right, with the Wildlife Conservation Corps at the New York Aquarium. Photo by Eric Kowalsky

My second program took place in April at PS 90, just up the block from the Coney Island History Project. I was surprised to learn that PS 90 is now known as the Magnet School for Environmental Studies and Community Wellness. Students from kindergarten to fifth grade are studying advanced topics such as “balanced ecosystems, the effects superstorms, and properties of water.”

I was supposed to work with fourth grade students, but after a meeting with the teachers I was asked to give a talk to nearly the entire school in the auditorium. I was amazed at the intensity of interest in local history and the issues affecting Coney Island Creek. The students had no idea that a hotel in the shape of an elephant was once located across the street from the school’s site, and that the school is built on top of a tributary of the creek that still flows below the street. They also learned the origins of pollution and how ignorance led to the destruction of the 3,000-acre salt marsh that once surrounded the creek. I left them with the message that they are the ones who will be the future stewards of the Coney Island Creek estuary, and that what they are learning has great practical importance for the future of the community.

A big thank-you to Councilmember Mark Treyger for supporting our education programs!

The Bad:
Several days before the “It’s My Estuary Day” event was scheduled to take place at Kaiser Park, researchers at Kingsborough College revealed that Coney Island Creek’s fecal coliform levels were far above normal and in fact were registering 13 times above safe levels. The EPA’s allowable level is 200 parts per 100 millimeters, and the creek was registering an average of 2,600 parts per 100 millimeters. The samples were collected near Calvert Vaux Park at the mouth of the creek. Fecal coliform exposure can cause symptoms including nausea, stomachache, diarrhea, and fever, as well as serious illnesses. This is incredibly bad news for park visitors who swim, fish, and kayak in the waterway.  It shows how much work is needed to find the sources of pollution and to clean the creek in order for it to be safe for the surrounding communities.

The Ugly:
On May 3, the Brooklyn Daily reported that several community members they interviewed claim to have become sick from swimming at the mouth of Coney Island Creek and demanded that signs be posted warning against swimming. The real tragedy is that signs will do nothing to clean the creek and people will continue to swim at the beautiful beach at Coney Island Creek Park. What’s needed is a concerted effort to restore the creek to its natural state as a beneficial wetland environment. The most positive affect from posting signs and banning swimming is to raise community awareness about the waterway’s vulnerability and the city’s continuing use of the creek as an open sewer for the Southern Brooklyn watershed.

At a Community Board 13 meeting I attended in March, NYCEDC officials confirmed that “filtered water” from new sanitary sewer excavations in Coney Island would be pumped into the creek for the next two years. The new sewers will service nearly 5,000 units of new high-rise housing surrounding the amusement area as part of the city’s 2009 rezoning plan. Two years ago “filtered water” from a long-neglected storm sewer outlet being cleaned at West 33rd Street created a noxious black stream that surrounded swimmers and anglers at the mouth of the creek. No warning signs were posted during the work. At the CB 13 meeting, the EDC representatives said they’re planning to use old permits that allow them to circumvent the new, stricter water-quality regulations covered by new MS4 permits. It’s hard to believe that this new groundwater pumping into the creek will not negatively affect water quality.

When a Coney Island Creek storm sewer at West 33rd Street was recently cleaned after years of neglect, a black stream of pollutants was poured into the waterway. More "filtered water" will be pumped into the creek this summer as part of new sewer construction in Coney Island. Photos by Charles Denson

In other news, the creek’s future remains in doubt as the Army Corps of Engineers still hasn’t announced when or if the massive flood control barrier proposed for the creek will be built. The creek was recently bypassed for ferry service, dashing hopes for a faster way for residents and visitors to travel to and from Coney Island. Major decisions are now being made that affect the lives of the 60,000 people who live alongside the creek, and community members need to step up and be part of the process.

To end on a good note, it now appears that the fines levied against the Beach Haven complex for dumping 200,000 gallons a day of raw sewage into the creek will go to fund creek-related mitigation. This remediation precedent is an important step that hopefully will guide the creek to a cleaner future!

– Charles Denson

Upcoming Coney Island Creek events:
It's My Estuary Day at Kaiser Park has been rescheduled for June 3
City of Water Day at Kaiser Park, July 15

posted May 10th, 2017 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Coney Island Creek, PS 90, New York Aquarium,...

John Bonsignore: Man of the Year, 2005. John and Louise are honored for their work and dedication to the Italian-American community. Photo by Charles Denson

Coney Island is known for bright lights and one of the brightest was John Bonsignore, who passed away on March 20 at the age of 92. John represented Coney’s “old breed”: a talented engineer and inventor who could build or fix anything. He was best known for rebuilding and operating the Bobsled ride after his father brought it to Coney Island from the 1939–40 World’s Fair.  John’s family also owned the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway, Coney Island’s biggest roller coaster, as well as Stauch’s Baths, the largest bathhouse on the Boardwalk. The Bonsignore family owned property and amusements from one end of the island to other.

In 2006, I wrote a book about the Bonsignore family called Wild Ride. The book was the culmination of a multi-year research project aided by the family’s records, and photo albums, as well as oral histories that I recorded at the time. Sometimes we worked in John’s oak paneled home office but mostly we talked during the lavish, multi-course family dinners prepared by his glamorous opera singer wife, Louise. I was always treated like family.

John and Louise on the Bobsled in the 1940s: The cover of Wild Ride!

At the Bonsignore home I heard incredible tales about the “Wizards of 8th Street,” the immigrant artisans of Coney Island’s amusement manufacturing district who created magic behind the scenes for nearly a century.  West 8th Street was once home to woodcarvers, banner painters, machinists, blacksmiths, electricians, sculptors, and visionaries. Thanks to John, the culture and history of that era will not be forgotten.

John and Louise raised their family in a three-story brick building ensconced below the last turn of their Thompson Coaster on West 8th Street, a structure that had once been the offices of LaMarcus A. Thompson, inventor of the roller coaster. John was a large man whose gruff voice was tempered by his intelligence, kindness, and ironic sense of humor. His life played out in two acts. Late in life he enjoyed a successful career in business, but early in life he was a member of the Coney Island elite, the small brotherhood of skilled craftsmen who possessed unusual talents and were mostly invisible, working behind the scenes with a single-minded dedication to the task at hand. They were not the showmen or impresarios who sought the public’s attention. Without these craftsmen, Coney Island’s amusements could not have existed.

Within this fraternity John stood out from the rest. ­John Bonsignore was a talented man who possesed that rarest of qualities: the total respect of his peers. In all my years in Coney Island, I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about John Bonsignore. John lived up to the translation of the Bonsignore name: “a good man.” He was truly a good man who left the world a better place. 

A veteran of World War Two, John Bonsignore was laid to rest at Greenwood Cemetery with full military honors. © Charles Denson

posted Apr 2nd, 2017 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

 

Why are failed mayoral candidates so attracted to Coney Island development? “Failed” may not be not be the best description, as two of the former candidates with ongoing projects in the neighborhood may run again. Christine Quinn, John “Cats” Catsimatidis, and Jerome Kretchmer all ran unsuccessful campaigns for New York City mayor and are also very involved in Coney Island development.

1973 Mayoral candidate Jerry Kretchmer ©  Hautelife

The first unsuccessful mayoral hopeful to land in Coney Island was Jerome “Jerry” Kretchmer, who ran for mayor in 1973. Forty years later, Kretchmer and daughter Andrea, of the Kretchmer Companies, were the lead developers of the 2013 Coney Island Commons project on Surf Avenue at West 29th Street. This affordable housing project was built on vacant city-owned land that was cleared of viable housing in the 1970s as part of the urban renewal program that leveled the West End section of Coney Island. Kretchmer’s colorfully clad Coney Island housing project is also the home of the new Coney Island YMCA. Back in 1969 Former assemblyman Kretchmer was appointed head of NYC Environmental Protection Agency by Mayor John Lindsay and used his position to propose the city’s pooper-scooper law, something that was controversial at the time, but a law that all New Yorkers should be grateful for.

Mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn at 2016 Coney Island community meeting to promote a homeless shelter on Neptune Avenue © Charles Denson

And then there is 2013’s mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, now the president and CEO of the nonprofit organization Women in Need (Win), who is seeking to build a homeless shelter on Neptune Avenue at West 20th Street. Quinn has chosen an industrial site on polluted Coney Island Creek to house homeless women and children. Her organization plans to demolish the former factory building of the Brooklyn Yarn and Dye Company, a facility that for decades poured toxic waste into adjacent Coney Island Creek, the neglected waterway that’s been listed in the past as having the highest coliform levels in the city as well as high levels of lead and arsenic.  In 2009, after the Coney Island rezoning plan was passed, City Council Speaker Quinn proclaimed, “Coney Island is one of the most recognizable icons in New York City. And that’s why we believe this plan will lead to the revitalization of this storied section of our city.” Quinn’s project, although well intentioned and not part of the rezoning, may not be the revitalization that the neighborhood had hoped for back in 2009, and a majority of local residents made their opposition clear in a December 2016 community meeting where the project was roundly criticized.

Mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis at city hall ©NY Daily News

Billionaire mayoral candidate and Gristedes owner John “Cats” Catsimatidis and his Red Apple Group recently began development on two Boardwalk sites he owns in Coney Island’s West End. Cat’s ambitiously outlandish high-rise project dubbed "Ocean Dreams" at West 35th Street at Surf Avenue would make any Miami Beach developer proud. The development promises to bring a supermarket, retail space, and swimming pools to the neighborhood. Catsimatidis explored a mayoral bid in 2009 and later spent millions of his own money on his unsuccessful 2013 campaign only to lose the Republican nomination to Joseph Lhota.

Early architectural model of Ocean Dreams at Red Apple presentation. © Charles Denson

The Catsimatidis site is appropriately ironic, as it is located across the street from O’Dwyer Gardens, a NYCHA housing project named for a failed New York City mayor. Former Brooklyn District Attorney William O’Dwyer ran for mayor in 1941 but lost to Fiorello LaGuardia. In 1945 O’Dwyer went on to become New York’s 100th mayor after LaGuardia decided not to run, and he later won a second term in 1949 only to resign his office eight months later in the midst of a massive scandal.

The scandal, which dated back to O’Dwyer’s years as Brooklyn district attorney, involved allegations connecting the mayor to the mafia and the mysterious death of mobster Abe Reles. Hit man Reles, also known as “Kid Twist,” was tossed from a sixth-floor window of Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel while under police protection before he could testify at trial against his fellow “Murder Incorporated” gangsters. O’Dwyer’s admitted friendship with mobster Frank Costello led to his 1950 resignation as mayor of New York City. Coincidentally, the Half Moon Hotel, which was demolished in 1994, was located on the Boardwalk, just two blocks from O’Dwyer Gardens.

Former Mayor William O'Dwyer testifies at U.S. Senate crime hearings in 1951

O’Dwyer had another Coney connection. Known as a passive mayor who liked to transfer power to unelected officials, he appointed Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to a newly created post called “New York City Coordinator of Construction.” Moses transformed the appointment into one of the most powerful positions in city government, one that gave him total and complete control over all city projects and funding. Moses would go on to implement ruinous slum clearance projects that destroyed entire neighborhoods, uprooted thousands of families, and left hundreds of blocks of vacant lots after development funding ran out. In 1949 Moses declared the residential West End of Coney Island an urban renewal site and used eminent domain to level the entire neighborhood, leaving a sea of high-rise housing projects surrounded by burning ruins. One of those high-rise projects would be named O’Dwyer Gardens.

O'Dwyer Gardens surrounded by ruins, 1970 Photo © Charles Denson

Coney Island spent decades making a shaky recovery from dubious urban planning. Now, after a 40-year hiatus, Coney is once again being flooded with high-rises. Construction has already begun at the vacant sites in the former amusement zone where Ravenhall and Washington baths were once located. It might seem counterintuitive to cram thousands of units of high-rise housing onto a vulnerable sandbar during a time of global warming and predictions of catastrophic sea level rise, but that seems to be Coney Island’s future.

The new Surf Avenue: Surf Vets Place (at center) is now under construction. High-rises (at left) will soon replace the MCU Park parking lot and surround the Parachute Jump. The Abe Stark Skating Rink on the Boardwalk will also be demolished for residential development.

Farther east, at Trump Village, billionaire developer Ruby Schron is demolishing the Trump Shopping Center to build a glitzy 40-story high-rise in its place. Schron must have tower envy, as his building is twice the size of the dismal buildings that developer Fred Trump erected in the early 1960s. Schron’s erection will be twice the size of Fred Trump’s! Future residents will have views of Trump Village rooftops and the Atlantic Ocean but will also have a sweeping view of the sprawling 10-acre multi-district Sanitation Department garbage truck facility being planned a block away on Coney Island Creek at Shell Road.

Trump Village shopping center is being demolished and replaced by a 40-story high-rise © Charles Denson

Long-neglected Coney Island Creek is also experiencing a bizarre series of developments. Cube Storage has already built two oversized public storage facilities on the banks of the creek, and a third big box is under construction at the Cropsey Avenue Bridge. Unfortunately, there is no master plan for future public access or maritime development along the Coney Island Creek estuary, and oversized big-box warehouses seem to be the waterway’s future.

CubeSmart public storage building on Coney Island Creek Photo © Charles Denson

Some of these changes bring back memories. My family moved from Coney Island Houses to O’Dwyer Gardens when it opened in 1969, and I witnessed the area’s transformation during the 1970s. The Catsimatidis site includes the YM-YWHA building on Surf Avenue that was our beloved community center during the 1960s. Cats now owns the abandoned building, and its future is in doubt. Next to the Y was one of the last bungalow colonies in Coney Island, and I documented the demolition of that old complex in 1970. The site has been vacant ever since. It would be wonderful if the new Catsimatidis project actually improved the neighborhood with new stores and affordable housing. Time will tell if this is just another luxury high-rise, cut off from a neighborhood filled with broken promises.

Many believe that high-rise developments will benefit Coney Island in some way, but the unfortunate truth is that climate change will dictate the future of this neighborhood. If current predictions are correct, Coney Island may become an “underwater world” by the year 2100.

Charles Denson

Summer campers at the Surf Avenue YM-YWHA in 1961

The view at dawn from O'Dwyer Gardens, 1970. The bungalows (at right) were demolished and the Y building (at left) is now owned by John Catsamitidis. © Charles Denson

 

 

posted Mar 13th, 2017 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

Last week it was confirmed that the organization WIN (Women In Need) is planning to open a 300-bed homeless shelter for women and children on the shoreline of polluted Coney Island Creek. The chosen site is a factory building in Coney Island that once housed the Brooklyn Yarn and Dye Company, a business that for several decades poured massive amounts of toxic aniline and hexavalent chromium dyes into the notoriously noxious waterway. What’s particularly disturbing is that during the yearlong planning process no official notification was given to local residents, elected officials, or Community Board 13. Details of the project are still not forthcoming.

The Brooklyn Yarn and Dye factory closed down years ago and the building was last occupied by a community health center that was destroyed in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. Past usage of this structure has been commercial use only and the idea that the site is now safe for a year-round residential facility that houses vulnerable women and children is debatable. Sandy’s floodwaters radically changed the landscape surrounding this site. If new construction is being proposed, has the site been tested for toxicity? We have no idea because the project has been planned in secret.

This location on Coney Island Creek at West 21st Street, directly adjacent to the homeless shelter, has also been proposed by the City as the site of a massive flood control barrier that is now under study by the Army Corps of Engineers. That means that the shelter might be surrounded by a construction zone that, hopefully, will include mitigation of toxic waste from the bed of Coney Island Creek. This section of the creek was also the site of a waste transfer station in the early 1900s, a marine fueling station that closed in the 1970s, and other polluting industrial facilities. Construction at this site might disturb potentially toxic materials buried nearby and have an adverse affect on nearby structures along the creek’s shoreline, including the proposed shelter and its young inhabitants.

The WIN shelter project is reminiscent of the little league baseball field that opened during the 1990s on the toxic Brooklyn Union Gas Works site on Coney Island Creek at Shell Road. It was soon discovered that the ball field was contaminated with every carcinogenic substance imaginable and the recreational facility was closed down and fenced off.

In 2006 an EPA-mandated cleanup of the gas works site cost Keyspan Energy $114 million. Has WIN done due diligence in finding out if their site is safe? We have no idea as the entire project is shrouded in secrecy. It is not the WIN organization’s job to “educate the community,” as the organization’s spokesperson told the Brooklyn Daily on October 19th. It is the community’s job to provide input and information that will prevent injury to the families that occupy the shelter. Subterfuge helps no one.

Accusations of  “nimbyism” are common when pointing out that a homeless shelter site is inadequate. That doesn’t apply in this case. WIN president Christine Quinn is shutting out the local community and planning a residential facility on a waterway that has a legacy of illegal sewage discharges and industrial contamination. Aniline and hexavalent chromium are known carcinogens. For years these dyes colored the creek as they were discharged into the waterway by the Brooklyn Yarn Dye Company. Coney Island Creek needs to be clean and safe before any residential developments can proceed along its shoreline. An Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) should be completed as soon as possible.

On Tuesday, November 1 at 6 pm, Community Board 13's Environmental Committee will hold a public meeting to discuss pollution issues affecting Coney Island Creek. Representatives from DEP and DEC are expected to attend. The meeting will be held at Liberation High School, 2865 West 19th Street, Coney Island.

Toxic coal tar ("black mayonnaise") being removed from a small section of Coney Island Creek in 2006.

 

To anyone who spends time on Coney Island Creek, the revelation that 16 buildings at the Beach Haven complex were illegally pouring 200,000 gallons of raw sewage into the creek on a daily basis came as a shock. We were assured in the past that the Avenue V Pumping Station, recently renovated at a cost of $210 million, would prevent this sort of pollution. The storm sewer outlet at Shell Road, designated CI-641, has been a notorious source of pollution for decades. What’s particularly disturbing is that this latest incident was not reported to the community when discovered. The many people who were using the creek for food and recreation during the summer never received a warning.

The storm sewer at the headwaters of Coney Island Creek at Shell Road was found to be spewing 1.4 million gallons of raw sewage into the waterway every week. The source was an illegal sewer hook-up at the Beach Haven housing complex.

It’s ironic that Beach Haven, built by Fred Trump 60 years ago, was the source of this latest fiasco. The Trump Organization, led by Fred and son Donald, had its headquarters at Beach Haven, and Fred Trump was fined in the past for filling and polluting the creek. We pointed out these facts in our recent exhibit about Fred Trump’s scandalous 1966 demolition of Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park. The Trumps no longer own the buildings.

The Trump Organization offices at Beach Haven, 2006. The Trump's have since sold and the housing complex is now reportedly owned by controversial developer Rubin Schron.

In the 1960s Fred Trump was fined for dumping in the creek and damaging sewers and drains.

Unfortunately, this recent discovery is not unusual. Many other illegal sewage hook-ups to the creek’s storm sewers have been discovered in the past, most recently at the OH-021 CSO outfall at West 15th street.  Another notorious outlet is the mysterious one at the end of the mudflat at Shore Road in Calvert Vaux Park. It’s a direct drainage outfall, and its source is still unknown.

On September 15th I was taking a water-quality sample at the site in Calvert Vaux Park and was nearly overcome by toxic fumes. I had to dispose of the “mud shoes” that I’d worn into the creek, as it was impossible to remove the black oily substance that permeated them. Environmental activist Ida Sanoff had also noticed the stench the day before when she and her husband were driving along Shore Parkway. She reported it to Steven Zahn at DEC on September 14, noting that this was a “dry weather” incident and not related to runoff or overflow. This wasn’t the first time Sanoff had reported this problem. We’re still awaiting an answer as to the source of these noxious incidents on the creek.

Water sample from Coney Island Creek for the Citizens Water Quality Testing Program of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Brooklyn College, September, 2016. Partnership for Parks, Coney Island Beautification Project, and the Coney Island History Project have been sampling.

These unfortunate incidents and many others highlight the problems with the city’s proposal to install a flood control dam on Coney Island Creek before a cleanup of the waterway takes place. The EDC’s dam project is still in the planning stage, and was recently added to the Army Corps Jamaica Bay Reformulation Study for flood control. It’s obvious that the gates of this flood barrier will clog up with floatables and silt and block the normal flushing action of the tides. This dam could create a toxic cesspool that might back up into the surrounding neighborhoods during a heavy rainstorm. The pollution problems concerning the creek need to be addressed and corrected as part of any flood control construction plan. Time is running out.

The city's proposed flood control dam on Coney Island Creek. 

The shoreline of the creek is now undergoing rapid change by developers, none of it maritime related. A demolition permit has been issued for what may be Coney Island ‘s oldest structure.  The Shell Road House, one of the last private homes located on the banks of the creek and believed to date back to the 1870s or earlier, will soon fall to an oversized development. The historic Great Eastern Company’s coal silos on Neptune Avenue were recently demolished for yet another Cube storage warehouse. And now Christine Quinn is planning a homeless shelter on the toxic site formerly occupied by Brooklyn Yarn and Dye Company, the factory that poured toxic aniline and chromium dye waste into the creek for several decades. There seems to be no master plan or guidance for the future of Coney Island Creek.

Shell Road House

The soon-to-be-demolished Shell Road House on Coney Island Creek, 1940s. The house was moved slightly and turned sideways in 1928 when Shell Road was widened and realigned.

The house at 2916 Shell Road circa 1920, before the street was paved and widened. The Van Sicklen farm house and Coney Island Toll House were next door. Both were demolished at the time the street realignment was done. The old Coney Island Plank Road terminated at this location. A stub of the old road was later renamed Triton Avenue.

The only good news is the city’s $32 million wetland restoration plan that is out for an RFP. This project restores marshland and provides improved public access along the shores of Calvert Vaux Park and Kaiser Park at the mouth of the creek. “Passive flood control” rather than mechanical solutions is what we now need to focus on.

posted Oct 6th, 2016 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Coney Island Creek, sewage, pollution,...

There was something that separated Fred C. Trump from the average greedy developer. It’s wasn’t the endless scandals that followed his every Coney Island project, and it wasn’t the misappropriation and theft of public funds that seemed to be his business model. Trump’s policy of discrimination in rentals and his political cronyism were just business as usual.

Two incidents stand out that as defining Trump’s personality. The first is well known and occurred when Trump was denied a zoning change to build his “Miami Beach- style” high-rises on the Steeplechase Park site. The frustrated developer threw a party and invited guests to vandalize the building by tossing objects through the stained glass façade of the Pavilion, knocking out the teeth of the enormous Steeplechase funny face, the smiling symbol that had brought joy to millions. This sad event was a vindictive and shameful act by a grown man behaving like a juvenile delinquent. It wasn’t business, — it was personal. The desecration of an icon and the breaking of glass as public spectacle revealed a twisted personality that was unusual for even the most hard-bitten developers.

The Steeplechase Face: Vandalized by Fred Trump, September 1966

In 1992 he was at it again. The city was about to begin a complete restoration of the defunct Parachute Jump, which had fallen into disrepair. Trump stepped in, uninvited, and offered to demolish the landmark for free. The man had no financial interest in the tower and nothing to gain by having it torn down. It was just another publicity stunt by a mean-spirited man. Trump reveled in gleeful malice.

Few people realize the influence that Fred Trump had over the transformation of Coney Island’s West End from a middle-class neighborhood to a burning slum during the late 1960s. His demolition of the Steeplechase Pavilion is now legendary, but his other scandalous Coney Island projects have largely gone unnoticed until now. Our new exhibit, which we planned long before the Trump name came up in national politics, illustrates the long-term effect that he had on Coney Island. Those of us who lived in Coney Island during the 1950s to 1970s were adversely impacted by the collaboration of Fred Trump and Robert Moses, the duo who ran roughshod over poor neighborhoods with a “slum clearance” program that was a gift to rich developers and a nightmare for the poor.

Every single Coney Island project that Fred Trump was involved in, from the 1940s throughout the 1960s, was touched by scandal, misappropriation of public funds, and political cronyism. The Beach Haven, Shore Haven, and Trump Village projects all led to allegations of impropriety and discrimination. There were federal hearings and investigations into Trump’s business practices, allegations of defrauding veterans in rental agreements, and charges of racism. Trump’s display of greed and avarice was unusual for a major developer. Unlike Robert Moses, who was known as the master builder, Trump was more of a master manipulator. Federal laws had to be changed to prevent the kind of nefarious schemes that Trump excelled in.

In 1948 Trump formed an organization of builders that partnered with Moses to gain massive building sites that were to be taken by eminent domain. The Trump Village site was one of those, as was the old Luna Park site. Trump lost the Luna site after he was blacklisted by the federal government because of his Federal Housing Authority scandal, a scheme where he overestimated his building costs and pocketed millions of dollars in public funds meant for veterans housing.

Nine hundred poor families were cleared from the Trump Village site and moved to the old bungalow colonies in Coney’s West End. The housing was substandard, and many people, mostly children, died in the fires caused by inadequate space heaters in buildings that were never meant for year-round use. The racial balance of what had been a diverse community was upended, and slumlords gained control of what had been a working-class neighborhood. Trump and his friends profited handsomely from this relocation scheme.

There are too many instances of Trumps perfidy to list in this account, but his pilfering is documented in great detail in our exhibit based on newspaper accounts and oral history interviews with people who knew Trump, confronted Trump, or were affected by him.

 

One of the strangest accounts in the exhibit is drawn from an oral history in my 2002 book, Coney Island: Lost and Found. It tells the story of how Trump met his match while dealing with an old-time Coney Islander who outsmarted him at every turn after he had leased the Steeplechase site. Trump knew what to do: he didn’t get mad at him; instead he tried to hire him.

In my many years of recording Coney Island oral histories, it’s surprising how many times Fred Trump’s name comes up, nearly always in a negative light. In 1999 I was recording an interview with Jerry Bianco, the former Brooklyn Navy Yard welder who built the Yellow Submarine on Coney Island Creek, when the Trump name popped up in an unexpected way. We were discussing the Parachute Jump, and Bianco stopped me and said, “ I had the contract on that.” I was surprised and asked him if he had been hired to restore it. “No,” he replied, “to tear it down.” He then revealed for the first time that in 1966 he had been approached by Fred Trump to demolish the venerated structure.

This revelation was a shock. I’d documented Bianco’s construction of the sub in 1969 and 1970 and knew that he had the skills to take down a big tower. I never realized how close we came to losing Coney’s greatest surviving landmark. This was one of the few times that Trump would not get his way, and I asked why the tower was still standing. Bianco told me that his bid of $10,000 was too high, and Trump had backed out of the deal. Bianco then described in detail how he would have done the job. Today, no thanks to Trump, the Parachute Jump is still standing. It’s been 50 years since Trump’s demolition of the Steeplechase Pavilion, and it’s taken the Coney Island community a half century to recover.

CONEY ISLAND, 1964: Fred Trump used his political connections to steal the Trump Village site from the United Housing Foundation (UHF). Trump Village, foreground, was completed in 1964. The former residents of the site were relocated to the bungalows of Coney Island's West End. Behind Trump Village is the Luna Park housing complex. Trump lost the Luna site after he was blacklisted by the federal government. The entire West End of Coney Island (top left) was later razed for NYCHA housing projects. 

After selling the Steeplechase property to the city for a $1.4 million profit, Trump lost his political connections and his ability to acquire the large building sites that enabled him to gain windfall profits at public expense. Gwendolyn Blair, author of “The Trumps: Three Generations Who Built An Empire,” described Trump’s state of mind after losing the Steeplechase battle: “He was exhausted. It was time for someone else to take over – someone with the energy he had once had. His second son, Donald, would not solve the problems at Coney Island. Neither would he devote himself to finding a less problematic building site elsewhere in Brooklyn. . . . “He would go where only the sky was the limit. He would go to Manhattan.” The Trump organization sold its last Coney Island property during the rezoning of the neighborhood in 2009.

Special Exhibit: "50th Anniversary of Fred Trump's Demolition of Steeplechase Pavilion" open 1:00 - 7:00 PM. weekends and holidays through Labor Day, at the Coney Island History Project, 3059 West 12th Street at the entrance to the Wonder Wheel. Free Admission.

posted Jul 5th, 2016 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Steeplechase Park, Coney Island, Fred Trump,...

 

The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops has proven to be the most popular piece in the Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland show at the Brooklyn Museum. Endless photographs and comments about "Cy" have been posted online by art-lovers and Coney-lovers who've visited the show. When we loaned the Cyclops we hoped that people would realize that it was part of an operating amusement at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. It's the only object in the Coney Island show that is actually from a currently operating amusement, although the signage at the show fails to mention that fact. Spook-A-Rama was completely rebuilt and restored after being seriously damaged by Hurricane Sandy and opens for the season on March 20.

The Cyclops is an extremely fragile work of art that had to be carefully and skillfully packed for the four-city tour of the Coney Island show. The best art packers did an excellent job. It took nearly an entire day for the Artex craftsmen to build the massive crate for its road trip. After the Brooklyn Museum show closes on March 13th, the Cyclops travels to San Antonio, Texas where the tour ends in September. We look forward to our Cyclops centerpiece returning to the Coney Island History Project and Wonder Wheel Park in 2017!

The Cyclops in front of Charles Denson's 1970s Spook-A-Rama photograph at the Brooklyn Museum.

posted Feb 18th, 2016 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

The grand finale of Coney's 2015 season also kicks off the 2016 season with a New Year's extravaganza that includes an illuminated Parachute ball drop, fireworks, a morning swim, a ride on the Winter Wonder Wheel, and much, much more! Coney Island is no longer just a summer attraction; it's the best place to be for New Year's celebrations!

This was a banner year for the Coney Island History Project. We continue our mission by recording interviews with visitors to the Wonder Wheel on New Year's Day. The recordings will be posted in the oral history archive of our newly redesigned web site. Visitors who took our walking tours also enjoyed the History Project's main exhibit, "Coney Island Stereoviews: Seeing Double at the Seashore." This exhibit of historical vintage photo technology was extremely popular, opening at a time when virtual reality is becoming an everyday reality.

In August we teamed up with Deno's Wonder Wheel Park for our 5th Annual History Day. The event celebrated two historic milestones: the 95th anniversary of the landmark Wonder Wheel and the 60th anniversary of the classic Spook-A-Rama dark ride. Included in the day's events were free music, dancing, and historical exhibits.

Coney Island continues its transition with exciting new attractions rising along the Boardwalk. The Aquarium's $127 million expansion, "Ocean Wonders," will finally connect the Aquarium to the ocean with an overlook and restaurant cantilevered above the Boardwalk. A mile to the east, the long-awaited restoration of the Childs Restaurant Building has begun. The landmark structure has been gutted to the bones, soon to be combined into an adjacent 5,000-seat amphitheater, slated to open by summer, 2016.

City Council members Mark Treyger and Chaim Deutsch teamed up with Charles Denson to advocate for landmarking the Boardwalk

The fight to landmark the Boardwalk continues. Last May I accompanied Council members Mark Treyger and Chaim Deutsch to a private meeting with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to advocate for the landmarking of the Boardwalk. I gave an illustrated historical presentation to LPC staff showing that the beloved structure is indeed eligible for landmark designation. We are still awaiting the LPC's decision.

Last spring, "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland," opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. This extensive show, which traveled to San Diego before coming to the Brooklyn Museum, spawned four other Coney Island shows in Brooklyn, providing a variety of off-season excitement for Coney lovers. The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, lent by the Vourderis family, and formerly the centerpiece of the Coney Island History Project, has proved to be a highlight of the show. I was honored to serve as a consultant and contributor to this extensive exhibition and its hardcover catalog.

Coney Island Creek may have received a temporary reprieve after the city's proposed flood control dam was moved (on paper) from the mouth of the creek to a site farther east on 21st Street. Many issues still need to be resolved before the feasibility study concerning this dubious creek project is released in early 2016. On a positive note, Estuary Day at Kaiser Park was a great success, and the creek's art deco pumping station received a hearing for landmark status and hopefully will be restored and repurposed sometime in the future.

Coney Island Creek: Still endangered. © Charles Denson

This summer we mourned the loss of Cindy Jacobs Allman, daughter of Ruby's Bar founder Ruby Jacobs, who passed away suddenly last May. Cindy was an educator with sand in her shoes, a personable mother who somehow found the time to work long hours at the family's Boardwalk business all summer long. She will be missed. Another loss was Cha Cha Ciarcia, proprietor of the Club Atlantis Bar on the Boardwalk who passed away this fall. His Atlantis partner, J.T., died several years ago. The Atlantis closed in 2011 after a 75-year run under many owners. The space is now occupied by Tom's Restaurant. 

On an unfortunate note, the Shore Theater, subject of endless revival rumors, was taken over by homeless vandals who've been ransacking the landmark building for months, camping inside and out, and turning the corner of Stillwell Avenue into a garbage dump. Maybe 2016 will be the year that something positive finally happens. We can only hope.

This was a year of transition and intrigue: The specter of eminent domain once again reared its ugly head as the city sought ownership of rezoned Coney properties. Developer Thor Equities grabbed more land in the heart of the amusement zone, new chain restaurants opened along Surf and Stillwell Avenues, a trendy art and food attraction opened on Thor's vacant Stillwell Avenue properties, and streets are being torn up to provide new utilities for the NYCEDC's massive residential project on what was formerly amusement-zoned Surf Avenue lots. And the late Lou Powsner, a long time Coney advocate, was honored with a street named for him. Change is in the air and all we need in 2016 is a warm and sunny summer.

The Coney Island History Project invites you to support our continuing mission of education and advocacy for a better Coney Island. Please become a member, take one of our walking tours, add your voice to our oral history project, browse our web site, or come visit our exhibit center below the Wonder Wheel in the heart of Coney Island.

 

 

 

posted Dec 23rd, 2015 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

Frank Sinatra and Sam Horwitz

In 2004 retired City Councilman Samuel Horwitz called me and asked me to meet with him to discuss a book project he had in mind. Sam had retired to Florida after representing Coney Island for two decades but was staying in a house in Sea Gate that he and his wife, Estelle, had rented for the summer. We met in a sunny backyard overlooking Gravesend Bay and the Verrazano Bridge. He had brought along massive scrapbooks covering his extensive career in politics and show business and laid them out on a picnic table. Sam wanted me to help him write his life story.

Sam was a political warrior who’d represented Coney Island during its roughest years, a time when the area was a battleground. His political life was interesting, but it was his show biz career that interested me the most, and I think that that was true for Sam as well: he was a true impresario.

After a career as a promoter, Sam moved to Coney Island and operated three major theaters before serving as Coney’s councilman from 1973 to 1993. All of these beautiful theaters are gone but fondly remembered. The Mermaid Theater on Mermaid Avenue was where we kids spent Saturday matinees watching horror films and stuffing ourselves with candy. The RKO Tilyou on Surf Avenue was where I took my first date. The Tuxedo Theater was where I saw the first run of West Side Story shortly before the theater was demolished by Fred Trump and replaced with a parking lot.

As I looked over his show biz clippings, I was impressed. After all, who would you rather spend time with: Frank Sinatra or Peter Vallone? We kept putting off the book project and didn’t meet again until 2008 at Sam’s 90th birthday party, a huge, well-attended affair at the Manhattan Club. We joked about the long-delayed project and planned to meet again some time in the future. Three months later Sam passed away.

I recently found a photograph of Sam and Frank Sinatra that was taken early in Sam’s career. In the 1980s there were rumors that Sinatra was opening a casino or buying property in Coney Island, wishful thinking for the most part. I like to imagine that the rumors were true: I imagine Frank Sinatra performing at the RKO Tilyou at a show hosted by Sam Horwitz, impresario, the man behind the silver screens.

– Charles Denson

Retired Councilman Sam Horwitz and Charles Denson, 2004

The Horwitz family's holiday message at Coney Island's Tuxedo Theater, 1962

Coney Island's Tilyou Theater as political billboard, election day, 1969

 

Promoter Sam Horwitz at work.

 

The Tilyou Theater during demoliton, 1973

 

 

posted Dec 12th, 2015 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

By Charles Denson

Charles Denson with the Neptune medallion on the day he donated it to the Brooklyn Museum in 1981.

On November 20 a groundbreaking exhibition called Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland opens at the Brooklyn Museum. The connection between this show and the Brooklyn Museum has unleashed a flood of memories about my life-changing experiences at the museum fifty years ago. 

In 1965, when I was in the sixth grade at P.S. 288 in Coney Island, I won an art contest for a drawing I did of the newly built Verrazano Bridge. The drawing was exhibited in a student art show at the Lever House gallery on Park Avenue in Manhattan. My class made a trip to see the show, and my prize was a scholarship to attend summer art school at the Brooklyn Museum.

Attending classes at the museum was one of the highlights of my childhood and I fell in love with the museum’s galleries and art school. My favorite part was the sculpture garden next to the parking lot behind the museum. At that time it was more of a junkyard than a garden. Rarely opened to the public, it was a cluttered storage area stacked with architectural artifacts rescued from demolition sites all over New York. I loved wandering among these beautiful rescued objects, and I couldn't believe that these treasures were all that remained from historic buildings that were being destroyed across the city.

The garden later became more formal and was transformed into an important part of the museum. I thought of the garden as the city's architectural “lost and found” department, where lost objects might be found and (I hoped) someday appreciated and returned to their rightful places in the fabric of the city.

During the late 1960s I began rescuing artifacts from demolition sites all over my Coney Island neighborhood. It was not like today when architectural fragments are scavenged and sold off to the highest bidder. Beautiful buildings and their decorative ornamentation were crushed into dust below the treads of bulldozers and loaded into dump trucks. I literally worked behind bulldozers gathering anything I could. The horror of urban renewal was in full swing, and I’d become a preservationist.

In 1973 a beautiful Boardwalk structure called the Washington Baths Annex was being demolished after a series of fires. The building, which we called the Pink Palace, was clad in shiny pink terra-cotta and decorated with nautical-themed medallions. After a great deal of effort, I rescued one of the structure’s shattered King Neptune medallions, took it home, and repaired it with plaster and pieces of metal coat hangers. Ten years later I donated the medallion to the Brooklyn Museum where it was put on display in a kiosk in the sculpture garden alongside other salvaged Coney Island artifacts. King Neptune had found a permanent home!

The King Neptune medallion in the ruins of Washington Baths, 1973. © Charles Denson

I began documenting Coney Island at the age of twelve with the eventual goal of writing a book. It took me nearly forty years of primary source research to complete Coney Island: Lost and Found, and it was finally published in 2002. It was well received and won the New York Book of the Year Award from the New York Society Library. As I described in the book, the title “Lost and Found” was based on my early experiences at the Brooklyn Museum and my love of its sculpture garden and artifacts.

In 2009 Robin Jaffee Frank, then at Yale, asked me to be one of the consultants for an extensive Coney Island exhibition she was proposing, and I joined an impressive team that she assembled to plan the show. We met many times, and I wound up writing the final chapter of the exhibition catalog. I was also thrilled to have my work included in the show, and to contribute photographs and ephemera to what I consider to be the best Coney Island exhibit ever assembled, a sensational show that has now come home to Brooklyn.

My early experiences at the Brooklyn Museum have come full circle, and some of what was lost during my childhood has been found. The King Neptune medallion will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum as part of Visions of an American Dreamland, partnered with some of the greatest Coney artwork ever exhibited. Many of the exquisite and rarely seen nineteenth century Coney Island paintings in the show are masterpieces that I’d studied but had never seen in person before: depictions of an undeveloped natural landscape bearing little resemblance to the modern cityscape of my old neighborhood.

Robin Jaffee Frank’s illuminating exhibition is comprised of 140 pieces: classical paintings, photographs, carousel horses, artifacts, films, posters, prints, and works by Paul Cadmus, George Tooker, Weegee, Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Reginald Marsh, Red Grooms, Joseph Stella, and many others who captured the essence and spirit of Coney Island. This show takes me back to my Coney Island roots and intensifies my deep appreciation for the Brooklyn Museum and what I learned there in my youth.

"Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008," Brooklyn Museum, November 20, 2015-March 13, 2016. The museum is open Wed - Sun, 11am - 6pm, on Thursdays til 10pm, and on the first Saturday of the month til 11pm.

 

Washington Baths Annex, at left, next to the Childs Building, 1969 © Charles Denson

 Charles Denson, 1973, rescuing Neptune medallion.

Charles Denson and curator Robin Jaffee Frank at the Wadsworth Atheneum, 2013.