Coney Island Blog - By Charles Denson

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

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,...

Astroland's Astrotower  Photos by Charles Denson

What's in a name? It depends. I've been asked my opinion about naming new Coney Island attractions after old ones, specifically the name "Astrotower," which is being co-opted by Luna Park to use on their newest ride. The other names in question are Luna Park, Thunderbolt, Steeplechase, and Feltmans. In theory it shouldn't matter, and if it were anywhere else but Coney Island, few people would care. These names, however, carry a lot of weight because of the dramatic way in which they met their demise.

The original Luna Park and original Feltmans were failed businesses when they ended their long runs. And there were reasons for their failures. They had outlived their glory days and, like other older attractions, failed to change with the times. Luna Park is a generic name that was used all over the world. Coney's original 1903 Luna was actually named "Thompson & Dundy's Luna Park." The founders were proud of their creation. I could never figure out why Zamperla didn't add their own name to the new park — it was as if they were embarrassed by it. Using a new name or adding a twist to the name would have been a step forward instead of a confusing step backward. The media and the public are often confused as to whether the old and new parks are the same.

In 2010 Zamperla USA President Valerio Ferrari told the New York Daily News that he decided on the Luna Park name after "devouring" my book, Coney Island Lost and Found. I didn't think reviving the name was the best idea, but in the end it didn't really matter, as Coney Island seemed to be moving forward. At the time, the Coney Island History Project put together an extensive, celebratory exhibit about Luna Park history and I wrote an op-ed piece in the Daily News about how beautiful and exciting it was to see the spectacular lighting on Luna's new entrance. I was no fan of Luna's corporate mindset but I was curious to see where it would go and we welcomed them.

Valerio was friendly and gave me free rein to document the park's construction, but that soon came to an end. When Luna Park tried to evict two historic businesses on the Boardwalk, I was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and frankly expressed my displeasure. Valerio was pissed off and told me that I was "too loud." I had to remind him that I didn't work for Luna Park, and that to me it was personal, not business. These Boardwalk people were my friends and their livelihoods would be ruined. I realized that the city's plan for a single operator was in the works and that this was the beginning of a process to wipe the slate clean. I had little to do with Luna Park after that. Following a public outcry, the two businesses were allowed to stay and were given new leases.

As far as using the Feltmans name, the only thing I can say is that if you're actually making the greatest hot dog in the world, a new and delicious product, then why not put your own family name on it? Be proud of your accomplishment and write a new chapter! Publicity and competition with Nathans can only take one so far. 

There is an inherent problem with naming new attractions after old if you are not truly reviving the original but just copying the name. Renaming is a reductionist ploy that doesn't honor or pay tribute to something historic. Steeplechase, Thunderbolt, and Astrotower were all destroyed in horrible ways that are still traumatic to anyone who knew the real thing.

Fred Trump's sadistic demolition of the Steeplechase Pavilion, which included partygoers hurling bricks through the stained glass windows of the pavilion, is still a horrifying memory to those who loved the place.  It's kind of creepy to see the name tacked onto a ride that has no relation to the original. It makes no sense.

The Thunderbolt Roller Coaster was ordered demolished by Mayor Giuliani, who repeatedly lied about his involvement until forced to admit under oath in court that he personally and illegally gave the orders. It was a real abuse of power, and the demolition still brings up bad memories of the stubborn battle between owner Horace Bullard and the authoritarian mayor. I wrote the last-minute landmark application for the structure and remember the Landmarks Preservation Commission's refusal to even look at it. Whether you loved or hated the old ruin, it should not have been illegally demolished. The reproduced signage on the new coaster is a constant reminder of abuse of power in Coney Island.

The new "Thunderbolt" coaster uses the name and signage, but where's the old hotel below it? The old Thunderbolt was special: historic and eccentric, expressing the quirkiness of the real Coney Island. The new tubular coaster is a great attraction and people love it, but what does it have to do with the original? Nothing! Why not come up with a new name? Putting an old picture of the real T-Bolt in the ticket box is a nice touch, but it has no context and context is everything when it comes to history.

That brings us to the Astrotower. You don't have to be an old-timer to recall what happened to that landmark. The wounds are still fresh, and the city's condemnation and demolition of the tower was a Fourth of July fiasco that will go down in infamy. There is no need to detail the bizarre events that led up to the dramatic emergency dissection of the beloved Astroland icon, but it should be obvious that using its name for another attraction is kind of tone deaf and antagonizes those who feel that it's inappropriate. The general public may not care because, after all, they come to Coney for fun, not to dwell on the past or politics. Many think it's not a big deal. I told Luna that using the Astrotower name was not a good idea and that I was not the only one who felt that way. Carol Hill Albert, whose late husband built the original tower, was not too happy about it either. There are other creative ways to pay homage to attractions from the past.

Sometimes it's better to leave something alone. You can dig up a corpse but it's impossible to bring it back to life. It's called grave robbing and just makes a mess. There's a good reason that you don't see many new cruise ships named "Titanic."

Childs Restaurant, B&B Carousell, Cyclone, and Parachute Jump all represent real history as well as the future, and Zamperla controls three of these landmarks. Isn't that enough? Luna Park has given the public a slick and exciting ride showroom with a beautiful gate. The old Luna was about exotic fantasy architecture and "weird whimsy." The new one is more about business and efficiency.

A couple of months ago I was approached by the new management of Luna Park after Valerio Ferrari left the company, and invited to sit down with them to discuss history. We had a long, cordial meeting. I also spoke with their branding consultant and gave my unbiased opinion about Coney Island's future. It seems as if they're open to new ideas. I'm not big on corporate environment and feel much more comfortable and at home at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, with it's family dynamic and historic atmosphere — to me that's the authentic Coney Island that I grew up with.

Context is an important component to history, and learning about the past does not have to be academic. The Coney Island History Project's stated mission is not about nostalgia, which is longing for a past that never was. We're interested in what endures and why, and how it will work in the future. I hope that the Boardwalk leases will be renewed. I hope that the old businesses that have endured will survive and work together to preserve Coney's heritage while moving into the future. That would be truly historic.

Charles Denson

UPDATE:

I was encouraged by the dialogue generated by my story about nostalgia. I'd like to add a simple example of a successful way to honor Coney Island History. That would be Coney Island USA's Mermaid Parade! This beloved annual rite harkens back to the old Coney Island Mardi Gras, a tradition that defined Coney Island for half a century before coming to an end in 1954.

When CIUSA revived the idea of a parade, a new name and theme were chosen and they created a magical event with roots in a long-gone Coney Island ritual. There was no recycling of a name from the past. The media recognizes the origins of the Mermaid Parade when reporting about it and this eliminates confusion or controversy. That's what's meant by context. Respect the past, but create something new and build on it. Use creativity and you will succeed.

So many old-timers who still remember the Mardi Gras have come to the History Project to share their vivid memories and to express their joy at seeing the spirit of the old event continue as the Mermaid Parade. This is amazing considering that the last Coney Mardi Gras parade last took place more than 60 years ago! 

posted May 2nd, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with history, Nostalgia, Coney Island,...

Smoke Signal

Charles Denson's essay "The Curious Coney Island Artwork of Casola and Millard," excerpted below, appears in the new issue of Smoke Signal, with lettering by David Leutert, published by Desert Island Comics. The Coney Island themed-magazine is available free in their store, at 540 Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn, or via mail order. The Coney Island History Project will be distributing free copies at our exhibit center this summer. 

A century ago, dozens of artisans, banner painters, wood-carvers, and sign painters competed for business in Coney Island. Unfortunately, few of their creations have survived except in private collections and museums.

The works of two of Coney Island's mysterious and eccentric artists are now on display at the Coney Island History Project. Dan Casola and Larry Millard are not names known to the general public, but their beautifully bizarre artwork has delighted and frightened Coney Island visitors for decades.

DAN CASOLA

Dan Casola's sideshow banners command astronomical prices from collectors if you can find one. Less known are Casola's sculptural works and painted signs. Casola created the iconic Spook-A-Rama Cyclops from Denos Wonder Wheel Park, a work of art that recently toured the country as part of a traveling Coney Island art exhibit that ended at the Brooklyn Museum. For three decades the horned monster, with its rotating glowing eye, stood guard over Coney Island's Bowery.

Italian immigrant Dan Casola was a self-taught artist with a twisted sense of humor. His stylized billboards, signage, wax figures, fire-breathing dragons, and animated mechanical figures were fixtures across Coney Island. He worked out of storefront studios on Surf Avenue and later from his home on Stillwell Avenue. His largest canvas was the Spook-A-Rama dark ride. During the 1950s, at the height of the monster movie craze, he covered the ride's block-long facade with dozens of humorous hand-painted signs and animated figures including the iconic Cyclops.

Casola had an eye for the ladies and ran several burlesque "Girlie Shows" on the Bowery during the 1940s. His daughter, Patricia, recalls his artwork being heavy on the "boobs and butts." She also remembers growing up in a house full of "glass eyeballs, plaster heads, and boxes of hair" that he used for his animated creations. Her mother's lingerie would disappear and later turn up on spook house figures. "He had this very interesting side to him," she says. Indeed.

LARRY MILLARD

The mural-covered interior of the Playland Arcade on Surf Avenue delighted patrons for many decades, yet few knew the story behind the whimsical artwork covering every inch of the establishment. Playland closed in 1983, and the building stood empty until it was demolished in 2013. Fifteen years ago the Coney Island History Project began an ambitious project to document and preserve the rapidly deteriorating cartoon murals and to tell the story of the artist who created them. It became an uphill battle against vandals, thieves, and Hurricane Sandy, but finally the story can be told.

In the winter of 1957 a mysterious artist named Larry Millard showed up at the Playland Arcade looking for work. The 45-year-old Millard claimed to have been a cartoonist for the New York Daily News and offered his services as a sign painter. Playland owner Alex Elowitz hired him to paint several Skeeball signs. His lettering was stylish and perfect, and he soon expanded his work to include cartoon characters and humorous narratives. Millard worked tirelessly through the summer of 1958, painting larger and more colorful murals on every inch of wall space.

Millard was a heavy drinker who followed a daily routine. He arrived early in the morning unshaven and smelling of alcohol, suffering from the shakes. After he purchased a bottle of Thunderbird wine at the liquor store next to Mama Kirsch's restaurant, his hands would become steady enough to draw.

Stanley Fox, whose brother Alex owned the arcade, described Millard as “artsy looking,” with dark hair and a mustache, always wearing a fedora and usually accompanied by his girlfriend, an African-American woman named Eunice. Millard would arrive daily with sketches to be approved by Elowitz. “My brother paid him by the day, maybe $25. Larry lived somewhere in Coney Island, although no one was sure where.”

Millard’s later work consisted of complex cartoons illustrated with puns and jokes: busty, leggy women with hapless boyfriends. Many of his murals were in the cartoon style of Lil’ Abner creator Al Capp. The public loved his work, and he continued painting Playland until every wall was filled. After finishing up at Playland, he began painting outdoor signs around Coney Island and more murals at Stauch’s Baths and the B&B Carousel.

Millard disappeared from Coney Island in 1960 and was never seen again. He left his mark on Coney Island, works that served as petroglyphs: deceivingly simple yet undecipherable and opaque. Beneath the inherent humor in his pieces, it’s possible that most of his sketches were actually self-portraits telling his life story: the tale of a tortured soul, a gambler who had bad luck with women. --Charles Denson

posted Apr 9th, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Dan Casola, Larry Millard, Coney Island,...

If you have fond memories of the batting cages on Stillwell Avenue, the International Speedway Go-Karts, the Jumbo Jet Roller Coaster, the Dragon's Cave on the Bowery, or the 1970s revived Steeplechase Park located on the site of the original, then you've had a taste of Norman Kaufman's Coney Island vision. He was known for his amusements, but his epic battle with Fred Trump was legendary.

Norman Kaufman, who passed away last November, was born in Coney Island and remained a force there for eighty years. His family operated the famous Mayflower photo studio and souvenir stand on Surf Avenue during the 1930s. "I began working in a darkroom at the age of eleven," Norman said, "developing photos for twenty cents an hour before automatic picture machines were invented." The photo studio's main prop was an old wooden rowboat named the "Mayflower" that enabled generations of immigrants to have their picture taken arriving in America as "Pilgrims."

During the 1940s, the Kaufman family operated the infamous World War II "atrocity show" in the Lido Hotel on Surf Avenue in partnership with Messmore and Damon, who manufactured the show's animated figures. When the attraction closed in the 1960s, Norman reclaimed many of the show's figures and used them in the family's bizarre spook house, the Dragon's Cave.

Norman and his brother, Sporty, had transformed their "Fun in the Dark" dark ride into a Bowery landmark whose entrance was topped with an animated smoke-belching dragon that swiveled above the crowds waiting in line. Norman had a hand in many Coney Island businesses. He managed the Log Flume ride in Astroland Park and later opened a slot-car raceway in a Surf Avenue storefront.

The fire-breathing Dragon at the Dragon's Cave. © Charles Denson, 1971

Norman Kaufman's frustrating battle with developer Fred Trump during his attempt to resurrect Steeplechase Park was a major chapter in my book, Coney Island Lost and Found and is worth repeating. In 1967, just after Trump's bulldozers finished leveling the historic park, Norman leased half of the vacant site for $20,000 a year to build a parking lot. Trump didn't realize, however, that Norman was a dreamer with ambitious plans. Norman began adding rides and concessions to his parking lot until he had pieced together an odd little amusement park that he named "Steeplechase."

"I was a little stupid or naive," he told me in 1999, "I thought that I could build up the new Steeplechase into a powerhouse that the city couldn't take away. I was thinking that I could stop whatever plans the city had for the Steeplechase site. Rather than have them come up with something, I figured I could build this amusement park into something that the city would be proud of and leave intact."

From the New York Post, June 26,1975

Norman and his partner, Irving Vichinsky, had trouble with landlord Fred Trump right from the start. The Steeplechase site was below grade and had to be leveled for parking. Trump's lease required Norman to spread ash on the parking lot surface, and Norman found a way to get the ash for free. Dewey High School was under construction on a site near the Coney Island transit yards that had once been used as a dumping ground for ash from steam locomotives. The builders needed a place to dispose of the excavated material, and Norman provided one for free: Steeplechase Park.

"Trump thought that we made a fortune by letting them dump the ash on his property," Norman told me. "He counted the trucks coming in and thought we were putting something over on him. But I never made a dime from it." Trump accused Norman of taking advantage of him, threatened to terminate the Steeplechase lease, and placed a sign over the park's entrance that read: "closed by order of the landlord."

Trump then came to the site with a pail and a shovel and began taking samples of the ash. "He put it in his car," Norman recalled, "and said to me, 'I'm gonna have this tested, Kaufman. You don't have ash here.' It was a pressure play. At times Trump would park his Cadillac in front of my entrance, so I said, 'You're blocking me off, Trump.' He'd say, 'I know what's going on here, Kaufman. You got no lease. You have to get out now. He was shoveling and yelling, 'You got no lease.' Whether you were big or small, that's the way he did business. It was always at your own level."

The harassment escalated when Norman began to install rides in the parking lot. "Trump didn't like the idea that I was bringing in rides rather than parking. He was getting a percentage and thought we'd make more money with parking than by taking up space with amusement equipment." Norman came in one morning to find his big parking sign knocked down, so he put it back up. The next day, he discovered a mound of debris blocking the entrance so he called a builder friend to clear it away. A few days later, a heavy chain appeared across the entrance, but Norman had it cut down. "Trump came back," Norman told me, "and said, 'Hey Kaufman, you got my chain. Give me back my chain.' He wanted us out."

Norman took out a restraining order against Trump and also went to the Sixtieth Precinct to file an enforcement complaint against the developer. Trump couldn't understand why Norman wasn't intimidated by him and seemed to enjoy the confrontations. "He couldn't figure out how I operated," Norman said. "He thought I was connected, but I wasn't connected to anybody. Trump wanted to put the pressure on us to get an increase in rent. He was a tough guy but we figured out a way to get to him. He had a tremendous memory and would remember everything that ever took place from the time you started with him. He'd rattle it right through and he would just keep going and never stop talking. You never had a chance to get a word in. What Irving and I did was distract him and then I could tell him my thoughts. As one of us distracted him, the other would jab away with our point. It worked."

By drawing people down the Bowery past Sixteenth Street, just as the original Steeplechase Park had done, the park kept the west end of Coney's amusement area alive. Many people dismissed Norman's park because they compared it with the original Steeplechase Park. The unfair comparisons bothered Norman: "We had fourteen kiddie rides and twenty-six majors and spectaculars. A major is a standard ride. A spectacular is something that's unusual. There were quite a number of spectaculars, like the Jumbo Jet, the Italian Skooter rides, and a German swing ride. We were the first ones to have this new equipment, and it was better than average. These were newer rides that Coney Island didn't have for many, many years."

The midway at Kaufman's Steeplechase, circa 1970. © Charles Denson

By 1968, the park was attracting large crowds. Trump was happy because he was getting a percentage, so he extended Kaufman's lease. Then, much to Norman's surprise, Trump offered him a job. "He liked that I got ahead and won," Norman said. "Trump don't like anybody winning but him. But I knew he was just being cute with his offer."

After failing to obtain a zoning change to build high-rise housing, Trump sold the Steeplechase site to the city in 1969 for $4 million, clearing a $1.5 million profit. The city was legally required to continue Norman's lease for $20,000 a year, the same deal he had with Trump

In 1972 Norman learned that the Steeplechase horse race, the namesake ride that the Tilyous had sold to Pirate's World Park in Dana, Florida, was up for sale. Norman bought the ride and sent twelve workers to Florida to number the tracks, horses, and various other pieces, and then trucked them back to Coney Island for a future reassembly on the original site. He stored the ride in shipping containers while he made plans to rebuild it. The horses made the papers in 1975 when they were stolen but later found in Pennsylvania and returned. The ride was never reassembled, but one of the original Steeplechase horses is now on display at the Coney Island History Project, courtesy of Norman Kaufman.

The pressure to evict Norman's amusement park intensified in 1974 when the city tried to raise his yearly rent from $20,000 to $158,446. It was during this dark period that Fred Trump began calling to offer his support. "He called me up and said, 'Listen, Kaufman, it's good to be in the papers. Don't worry about it. It's good that they know ya.'"

Norman finally realized that his plans were hopeless and closed his Steeplechase Park in 1981, when the city paid him $750,000 to leave the site. In 1983, Steeplechase was developed into public open space. A year later, the site became a city park, the first "special events" park in the city's history. The Brooklyn Cyclones ball park (now MCU Park) was later built on the site. In 2009, the city rezoned the entire MCU Park parking lot and most of the surrounding area for high-rise housing, fulfilling Fred Trump's dream of reducing Coney Island's amusement zone.

Norman's next amusement project, operated with his son, Kenny, was located on Stillwell Avenue and the Bowery after Stauch's Baths, the Bobsled, and the Tornado Roller Coaster were demolished. The Jumbo Jet Coaster, batting cages, and Go-Karts became some of Coney Island's most popular attractions in an age when the amusement area was shrinking. His last attraction was a Mini Golf Course that he constructed in 2002 a few years before the city began rezoning the area, forcing the eventual closure of all his attractions.

Norman Kaufman will be sorely missed. He was a big fan of the Coney Island History Project and lent us many artifacts for our exhibit center. As Coney Island loses its identity and slides into a corporate entity, it's important to remember independent impresarios like Norman Kaufman, "the Buddha of the Midway," a generous man with imagination who was not afraid to do battle with the powers that be.

– Charles Denson

Norman Kaufman and his son Kenny in front of their Jumbo Jet Roller Coaster, 1999. Photo © Charles Denson

posted Jan 6th, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

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.