Coney Island History Project Immigrant Heritage Tour

On Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, learn about the contributions of immigrants to the history and development of "The Playground of the World" on our Immigrant Heritage Tour of Coney Island (康尼岛移民文化遗产之旅) conducted in English (12:00 PM) and (Mandarin 3:00 PM). The Coney Island History Project is offering this special walking tour as part of Immigrant Heritage Week 2019.  Tickets are free of charge for the 1-1/2 hour, wheelchair accessible tour but must be reserved online as each tour is limited to 40 participants. Advance ticketing is available via our online reservation page on Eventbrite. If you have a question, please email events@coneyislandhistory.org.

Among the stops on the walking tour and the stories of struggle, success and achievement are Nathan's Famous, founded in 1916 by Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker; Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, where the landmark 1920 Wonder Wheel was purchased by Greek immigrant Denos D. Vourderis as a wedding ring for his wife; and the B&B Carousell, created in 1919 by German and Russian immigrants and now Coney's last hand-carved wooden carousel.

Coordinated by the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), Immigrant Heritage Week is an annual citywide program of events celebrating the history, traditions and contributions of New York City's diverse immigrant communities.  IHW 2019 is scheduled for April 15-21 in recognition of April 17, 1907, the date when more immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island than any other date in history. 

"Coney Island has traditionally been a place where immigrants who wanted to start a business could start small and work their way up," says Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project. "A person of small means with no experience or capital could lease a stall on the Bowery and open a game concession with nothing more than a few baseballs and milk bottles. Coney was also the place where immigrant families could escape steaming tenements, get fresh air, bathe in the ocean and assimilate with people of all nationalities. It's where they finally found true freedom and became Americans."

The walking tour will also highlight businesses operated by immigrants from Hong Kong, Jamaica, Mexico, Russia and Ukraine who have recorded their stories for the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive. The Immigrant Heritage Tour will be led by Tricia Vita and Sylvia Ching Man Wong, who facilitate and record oral histories for the Coney Island History Project. 

Please note that the Coney Island History Project exhibit center will be open special hours on April 21, Easter Sunday, from 1:00PM-6:00PM. Admission is free of charge. Visitors are invited to take free souvenir photos with an original Steeplechase horse, from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name, and the iconic Cyclops head from Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's Spook-A-Rama, Coney Island's oldest dark ride. Among the treasures on display at the Coney Island History Project’s exhibit center this season is Coney Island’s oldest surviving artifact from the dawn of the “World’s Playground.” The 1823 Toll House sign dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to “the Island” was 5 cents! Today, the nearly two century old sign is often described as Coney Island's "first admission ticket."

The Coney Island History Project, founded in 2004, is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that aims to increase awareness of Coney Island's legendary and colorful past and to encourage appreciation of the Coney Island neighborhood of today. Our mission is to record, archive and share oral history interviews; provide access to historical artifacts and documentary material through educational exhibits, events and a website; and honor community leaders and amusement pioneers through our Coney Island Hall of Fame.

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

posted Feb 4th, 2019 in Events and tagged with Immigrant Heritage Week, immigrants, Coney Island,...

George C Tilyou Coney Island History Project

"If Paris is France, then Coney Island, between June and September, is the world." --George C Tilyou.

George C.  Tilyou, founder of Steeplechase Park and creator of Coney Island's Funny Face logo was born on this day, February 3rd, in 1862.

Tilyou was a master showman and amateur psychologist who understood how people wanted to be entertained. He realized that his customers were happy to play the fool to entertain others.

He  came with his parents to Coney Island in 1865 at the tender age of three. His father, Peter, opened a small wooden bathhouse and restaurant on the beach, and young George was soon selling bottles of souvenir sand to visitors. The family nearly lost everything when they challenged Coney's political boss, John McKane, in the 1880s. After McKane went to prison, the Tilyous' fortunes improved, and soon George owned a theater, a Ferris wheel, and other rides scattered along the beach.

Tilyou became Coney's biggest booster and a philanthropist who supported local orphanages, the Catholic church, children's hospitals, and other charities.

In 1897 Tilyou moved his rides into an enclosed park at West Sixteenth Street and Surf Avenue. Horse racing was the park's theme. The Steeplechase ride enabled ordinary people to experience the thrill of racing by riding mechanical horses along a steel track.

Read more about Tilyou on his page in the Coney Island History Project's Coney Island Hall of Fame.

posted Feb 3rd, 2019 in History and tagged with George C. Tilyou, Steeplechase Park, Funny Face,...

Ocean Parkway Coney Island History Project Collection

Photo: Ocean Parkway, 1920s. Coney Island History Project Collection.

Today, January 28, in 1975, Brooklyn's Ocean Parkway, the first road of its kind in the U.S., was designated a NYC Scenic Landmark by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux , who coined the word 'parkway,' Ocean Parkway goes from Prospect Park to Coney Island and established a new concept in road building. "It evolved from an idea expressed by Olmsted and Vaux in their 1866 preliminary report to the Park Commissioners of Brooklyn on their plans for Prospect Park. Under the section titled 'Suburban Connections,' they suggested that the shaded 'pleasure' drive on the western side of Prospect Park be extended from the park to the ocean. The road should be 'of a picturesque character...neither very straight nor very level, and should be bordered by a small belt of trees and shrubbery'" (from the LPC's designation report).

posted Jan 28th, 2019 in History and tagged with Today in History, OTDH, Coney Island,...

GONE FOREVER: Beautiful nautical-themed details of the old theater were lost to neglect and vandalism.

Three months ago I was contacted by Eduard Yadgarov of Pye Properties, new owners of the old Shore Theater building, regarding the company's plans for the structure and a possible collaboration with the Coney Island History Project. During our meeting at the sleek new company offices on West 8th Street, I was shown plans for the renovations and new attractions that include a hotel and rooftop restaurant.

We discussed historic preservation of the ornate interior details that I documented a decade ago. I was then told the bad news: Almost all of the beautiful plaster decorations, the mermaids and ships that had once embellished the mezzanine and other areas, had been destroyed by vandalism and water leaks during the time that the building had been occupied by squatters prior to Pye's purchase of the building. Horace Bullard's heirs had let the building rot, and the roof had been leaking for years.

On October 5 Yadgarov and his father gave me a tour of the theater's interior. After donning hard hats, we used flashlights to work our way through the ruins of the once elegant theater. The damage was extensive. In the years following Horace Bullard's death, the vacant building had been stripped of its window frames and almost anything else of value. Water damage had destabilized the theater's decorative interior and exterior brick walls to a point that seemed beyond repair. Only a few historic items remained, and Yadgarov assured me that those relics will be preserved and included in the new construction.

In 2010 I testified in favor of landmarking the building and also gave a presentation at the Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing that showed the building's interior, hoping that it could be saved. I had always imagined that the theater could somehow be preserved much as the old Harvey Theater at BAM had been renovated and restored while leaving most of the original details.  But after the tour, which was extremely hazardous as plaster was still collapsing around us, I realized that this was a hopeless situation. The ceiling of the mezzanine with its mermaids and ships and ocean motifs was gone, leaving only piles of damp debris. No trace of the artwork remains.

The only surviving remnants are the beautiful marble columns, ornate railings, and the mosaic water fountain, which Pye Properties has promised to retain, restore and place in the new hotel's lobby. The theater's ceiling and enormous dome, which I had once seen re-wired and lit up by former caretaker Andy Badalementi 10 years ago, has suffered serious water damage. I doubt that it can be salvaged. This was a sad tour, but afterwards I complimented Yadgarov on the company's ambitious efforts to renovate and repurpose the landmark structure. Not many developers would take on such a seemingly impossible and expensive task. Although a restored theater would have been a great project, it no longer seems feasible. It will be wonderful to have the landmarked building open to the public once again, filled with new amenities and attractions for Coney Island.

– Charles Denson

SAVED: The mosaic fountain on the theater's mezzanine will be preserved and restored.

SAVED: The ornate railings on the balcony steps will be salvaged and repurposed.

2006: The theater's marble columns have survived and will be restored and placed in the hotel's lobby but the plaster ceiling artwork is gone forever.

The lobby ceiling, decorated with nautical creatures and sporting unusual lighting fixtures, is intact and will be restored by Pye Properties.

posted Jan 22nd, 2019 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Shore Theater, Coney Island, Landmark,...

Coney Island History Project

Happy New Year to our members, funders, and friends and many thanks for your continued interest and support! Looking back on highlights of 2018 at the Coney Island History Project as we welcome 2019, our 15th anniversary season, our year-round activities include walking tours, oral history interviews, and cultural enrichment programs at schools and senior centers in the community. We can't wait to see everyone again when the History Project's free exhibit center re-opens April 14, 2019, for Coney Island's Opening Day. 

The Coney Island History Project was founded in 2004 by Carol Hill Albert and Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, creator of Astroland Park. Our mission is to record, archive and share oral history interviews; provide access to historical artifacts and documentary material through educational exhibits, events and a website; and honor community leaders and amusement pioneers through our Coney Island Hall of Fame. Emphasizing community involvement, the History Project teaches young people about local history and develops programs in conjunction with local schools, museums, senior centers, and other organizations. 

We are grateful to the Albert family for their ongoing support, and to the Vourderis family, operators of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, for providing us a space and for their interest in preserving Coney Island's heritage. The Coney Island Project is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, New York City Councilman Mark Treyger, and our members and contributors. Printed materials made possible with funds from the Destination: Brooklyn Program, funded by the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams and NYC & Company Foundation, administered by Brooklyn Arts Council.

posted Jan 1st, 2019 in News and tagged with Happy New Year, New Year, Coney Island History Project,...

Coney Island Then and Now Reminiscence Box

In 2018, the Coney Island History Project designed and debuted “The Art of Reminiscing,” a reminiscence and art program for senior centers. It combines the telling of personal stories, sharing local history, and writing and collaging to make a communal “Reminiscence Box” as a culminating activity. Over the past several weeks, our reminiscence facilitator Tricia Vita and teaching artist Nancy Prusinowski enjoyed working with a group at JASA Luna Park Senior Center. We’re excited to share photos of the progress of the “Coney Island, Then…and Now Reminiscence Box,” which was completed on December 24th!  Many thanks to Council Member Mark Treyger, for supporting our community enrichment programming. Thank you to Adrienne Slomin,  Director of JASA Luna Park Senior Center, located down the block from the History Project, for inviting us to workshop the program.

In a series of sequential sessions, participants had the opportunity to arrange personal photos, historical images, text and objects to create a Reminiscence Box which portrays the story of their community "now and then" in a three dimensional and visual art form. The Luna Park-themed Reminiscence Box took its inspiration from “Coney Island, Then….and Now,” a poem written by Luna Park resident and senior center member Carole Karpel. Built on the former site of the original Luna Park (1903-1944), one of Coney Island’s famous amusement parks, Luna Park housing complex was named after the park and affords a panoramic view of the current amusement rides and attractions as well as the beach and the ocean. The top section of the box features the first part of the poem, the “then,” flanked by windows looking out on vintage scenes of Luna Park’s illuminated gate, spires and attractions.

The windows represent the time-traveling view of the JASA Luna Park seniors who created the box and their interest in the history of the site. Three of them are original tenants, having moved in with their families when the housing complex first opened in 1961. Their group photo is on the windowsill along with a vase of flowers and shells. The lower section of the box showcases the “now” part of the poem. It features the buildings of Luna Park Houses, the Wonder Wheel, and the beach, with the group gathered under a beach umbrella, plus the view of the Parachute Jump from an apartment window.  The outside of the box is decorated with vintage images of old favorites--Nathan’s, Faber’s Fascination, a carousel horse and other emblems of Coney Island affixed like antique luggage labels. The Reminiscence Box was donated to the JASA Luna Park Senior Center, where it will remain on display as a tangible record of the project.

The idea of creating Reminiscence Boxes as a reminiscence and art project was inspired by the European Reminiscence Network’s Making Memories Matter, a project which involved teams of reminiscence workers and artists working with individual elders in seven countries to create “Life Portraits” or “Memory Boxes” around their life experiences 60 years after the end of World War 2. 

posted Dec 26th, 2018 in News and tagged with Reminiscing, Reminiscence, Coney Island,...

Coney Island History Project

May your days be merry and bright... 

Happy holidays from the Coney Island History Project, celebrating our 15th anniversary in 2019!

posted Dec 24th, 2018 in News and tagged with Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year,...

Gene Ritter

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

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

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

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

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

—  Charles Denson

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

Gene Ritter

Gene Ritter

Gene Ritter

 

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

The Surf Avenue Gate in the 1890s.

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

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

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

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

—  Charles Denson

The Gate circa 1900.  © Charles Denson Archive

The  altered Gate, 2002 Photo by Charles Denson

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

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

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

 

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

Mathylde Frontus

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

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