You're invited to preview the Coney Island History Project's exhibition center season on Coney's Opening Day. View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past and preview selections from upcoming exhibits. Among the new additions for Opening Day is "Skully," a Giant Skull which came from the Coney Island Hysterical Society's Spookhouse, formerly the Dragon's Cave dark ride, and later found a home at Spook-A-Rama, thanks to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's Vourderis family. Like the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, which was previously on display at the History Project, the Skull's eye sockets light up, and will soon move again with a little electrical work.

Coney Island History Project Exhibit Center

Dark ride veteran 'Skully' poses for his first souvenir photo at our exhibit center with Steve Vourderis, Denos Vourderis and Charles Denson. Take a selfie with him on Opening Day!

Located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, the Coney Island History Project will be open on Palm Sunday, March 29th, and again on Easter Sunday, April 5th, from 1:00PM till 6:00PM. Our regular exhibition season is from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. New hours will be from 1:00PM till 7:00PM. Admission is free of charge.

Our first special exhibit of the season, opening on Memorial Day Weekend, will be "Coney Island Stereoviews: Seeing Double at the Seashore, 1860-1920." Stereoview photography of Coney Island began in the 1860s, providing the earliest documentation of the resort. This exhibit features original stereoview photo cards, antique stereo viewers, and enlargements of some of the oldest photographic images of Coney Island.

Coney Island Stereoviews at Coney Island History Project

Join our unique walking tours based on History Project director Charles Denson's award-winning book Coney Island: Lost and Found, the interviews from CIHP's Oral History Archive, and other primary sources. Tours and group visits to the exhibit center are given year-round. Visit our online reservation site to see the walking tour schedule and purchase advance tickets online or book a group tour.

Palm Sunday is the official season opener for Coney Island's rides and attractions. The Opening Day celebration starts at 10:30AM on the Boardwalk with the annual tradition of the Blessing of the Rides at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park by Pastor Debbie Santiago of Coney Island's Salt and Sea Mission. Built in 1920 by the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company, Deno's Wonder Wheel is celebrating its 95th season with a free ride on Opening Day for the first 95 riders. At the 1927 Cyclone, where the first 100 people on line ride for free, the annual Egg Cream Christening of the roller coaster's front car is at 12 noon. The Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone are official New York City Landmarks.

At the Coney Island History Project, visitors are invited to take a FREE souvenir photo with "Skully" or our original Steeplechase horse from the ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name. Hope to see you at this year's festivities!

Trailer Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland

Official Trailer: Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008

On Saturday, February 28th, Charles Denson will present a slide talk on the Coney Island History Project's mission and origins as part of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's Coney Island Symposium: An Intersection of Art and Identity. The exhibit Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008, which opened on January 31st at the Wadsworth, features more than 140 paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, posters, architectural artifacts, carousel animals, ephemera and film clips. The symposium begins with a keynote address by Exhibition Curator and Chief Curator Robin Jaffee Frank, followed by a series of panel discussions and special presentations.

Charles Denson has been a consultant and a member of the exhibit's project team for the past six years and has contributed numerous ephemera and prints from his personal archive, as well as writing a chapter for the exhibit's catalog. He also recorded descriptions of artwork for the show's audio tour. Selections from the Coney Island History Project's vast archive of oral history recordings were used in the "Step Right Up!" interactive listening station that accompanies the show.

"Robin Jaffee Frank first contacted me in 2009, during the show's earliest planning stage," Denson said. "At our first group meeting at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2010, Robin revealed her ambitious plan for a show that explored Coney Island in a way that had never been attempted before. Her Coney Island theme included artifacts, prints, film, sheet music, and the best examples of modern art as well as the classical paintings that depict the earliest years of Coney Island, a subject that I had always found fascinating. I am extremely honored to be a part of this exhibition."

Charles Denson and Robin Jaffee Frank

Charles Denson and Robin Jaffee Frank, 2012

Among the artifacts in the Wadsworth exhibit is the 1955 Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, which was a popular attraction at the Coney Island History Project's exhibit center for the past two years. According to a review of the Wadsworth show in the Hartford Courant, "The five-foot-tall wall-mounted sculpture, loaned to the exhibit by the family who runs Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, is installed at the entrance to the exhibit galleries, flanked by two creepy paintings by Arnold Mesches, in which Cy presides over sinister-looking amusement parks."

The Coney Island exhibit is on view in Hartford through May 31, 2015 before traveling to the San Diego Museum of Art, July 11, 2015 - October 13, 2015; Brooklyn Museum, November 20, 2015 - March 13, 2016; and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, May 11, 2016 - September 11, 2016.

Cyclops Wadsworth Athenuem

Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's Stacy Vourderis visiting the park's Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, which is part of the Coney Island exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT

posted Feb 23rd, 2015 in Events and tagged with art, Charles Denson, Coney Island,...

After closing his Mermaid Avenue market in 2009, Jimmy Prince, now 82, remains active and was profiled in New York Magazine’s “My Day.” In the summer, he volunteers at the Coney Island History Project exhibit center, where his longtime customers are delighted to see him again.

“Prince of Mermaid Avenue,” a film about Jimmy Prince by History Project Executive Director Charles Denson, is now available for viewing on his Coneyologist channel on YouTube. The film won Best Documentary at the 2009 Coney Island Film Festival. This 60-minute feature is based on more than 60 hours of raw footage shot over a three-year period.

Jimmy Prince was the last link to what Mermaid Avenue meant to Coney Island in the “good old days.” The Avenue was once a bustling street of family-run mom-and-pop stores. Each block had bakeries, luncheonettes, five-and-dimes, clothing and shoe stores, furniture stores, delis, and butchers. It was a tight-knit community.

The city’s urban renewal plan of the 1960s called for the demolition of the entire West End, including Mermaid Avenue, and few businesses survived the development onslaught. Jimmy Prince transformed his Major Meat Market into the soul of an earlier era, a cordial oasis of tradition and hope, a throwback to what Coney Island was and what many dreamed it could be again one day. Prince worked at Major’s for sixty years, seven days a week, twelve hours a day, and formed a unique relationship with a community that hungered for respect.

When he finally faced retirement,the decsion to close the store dragged on for over a year. He dreaded making a formal announcement about the store’s closing, but his friends could sense it was coming. His loyal customers expressed their love for him and their fear for a future without him. This film documents Jimmy’s decision to retire and the painful process of leaving the Coney Island community that he loved and supported for so many years.

Jimmy Prince Coney Island History Project

Jimmy Prince poses for photo with visitors from Spain on a recent Coney Island History Project Walking Tour. The Prince of Mermaid Avenue, who had just come from a walk to and from Sea Gate and a bite to eat at Tom's, stopped to regale the group with Coney Island stories

Coney Island Boardwalk

Boardwalk scene circa 1925. © Coney Island History Project Archives

Last December Councilmembers Mark Treyger and Chaim M. Deutsch sent a petition to the Landmarks Preservation Commission asking that the Coney Island Boardwalk be declared a scenic landmark. On December 17 the council members received a condescending and dismissive rejection letter from LPC Director of Research Mary Beth Betts. The letter outlined the reasons for refusal to grant Scenic Landmark status.

The commission’s response to Councilmember Treyger is troubling on many levels, the first being that the contents of the letter were lifted from a 2012 letter written by then LPC Chairman and Bloomberg appointee Robert Tierney. In addition to the “form letter” being an inappropriate response to the two elected officials, all of the reasons stated for the refusal do not apply to the Boardwalk.

Ms. Betts gave the following reasons for denying scenic landmark status: “The boardwalk was substantially altered by Robert Moses in 1939-41 from its original location and configuration. [And was] at this time straightened and extended east. The planks of the Boardwalk have been replaced numerous times over the years. . .”

To understand how ludicrous this reasoning is, one has to look at Ocean Parkway, a local Scenic Landmark granted landmark status in 1975. Ocean Parkway was originally a dirt road lighted by gas lamps. By the time it became a Scenic Landmark, the parkway had been resurfaced with asphalt, had its bridle path removed, and had been significantly altered when its northern end was cut off and put below grade as the entrance to the Prospect Expressway. Despite these alterations, Ocean Parkway still became a landmark. Therefore, a surfacing change and alterations should not affect the landmark status of the Boardwalk.

Boardwalk Concretewalk

Wood and concrete sections of Coney Island-Brighton Beach Boardwalk. Photo © Charles Denson

The LPC’s statement that “the Boardwalk was substantially altered” and moved from its original location is also untrue. Only a five-block section of the 2.7-mile structure was moved, and the new section was built to the original specifications.

Perhaps the most shocking reason for denying landmark status was the staff’s incredulous statement that the Boardwalk has no historical or cultural significance. “In the opinion of the staff,” they pompously declare, “the most important period of significance in the history of Coney Island as a seaside resort pre-dates the construction of the boardwalk.”

While the staff’s inaccurate reasoning about “alterations and surfaces” can be attributed to sloppy research, their statement that the 1920s were not a “significant” period in Coney Island’s history shows an astounding display of ignorance. For some unknown reason, the staff has decided to downplay Coney Island’s important post-World War I history. And this despite the fact that nearly all of Coney’s designated landmarks are from that period.

During the 1920s, following the closure of the race tracks and elite hotels, Coney Island became the “People’s Playground.” The shorefront was expanded and reclaimed by the city and opened to the public, and the Boardwalk was opened and became the island’s Main Street, celebrated in legend and song. New theaters and hotels were constructed, public transit brought millions to the shore, and the Boardwalk, free to all, was the centerpiece. It was the symbol of Coney Island’s resurrection. Even from an engineering viewpoint, the Boardwalk has great importance. The structure was built in the ocean surf and the beach built around it, the first time hydraulic pumping had been used to create an artificial beach.

The following are the Landmark Commission’s stated criteria for a scenic landmark:

To become a scenic landmark, an outdoor site must be: At least 30 years old and have "a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the City, state, or nation" Any landscape feature or aggregate of landscape features

The Boardwalk meets every one of these requirements. It’s certainly one of the most scenic locations in New York City. The historic battle to reclaim the shorefront it stands on, the engineering breakthroughs enabled its construction, and the important role it plays in the lives of both visitors and residents are indisputable. In denying scenic landmark status to the Boardwalk, the landmarks commission seems to be failing in both mission and competence.

Granting landmark status can be a very political and controversial subject. We are all aware of that. But sending public officials a hackneyed, ill-informed retread opinion is insulting and discourteous. Commissioner Srinivasan and her research staff should be ashamed.

Concrete Boardwalk

Concrete section of boardwalk in Brighton Beach. Photo © Charles Denson

Coney Island’s Boardwalk is under attack on many fronts. The recent decision to create a concrete Boardwalk will turn out to be a tremendous failure. Individual wooden boards can be replaced, but the massive concrete panels being installed cannot be removed and will have to be patched as the surface cracks from weathering over the next few decades. This pockmarked concrete surface will create hazards much greater than the ones now experienced by Boardwalk strollers and will be harder to repair. Alternatives to concrete must be explored before it is too late. Coney Island’s iconic wooden Boardwalk must be protected, restored, and preserved for future generations.

Charles Denson

There will be a rally on Sunday, January 18 to preserve and protect our historic Boardwalk. The rally will be in Brighton Beach on the Boardwalk at Coney Island Ave.(B or Q subway to Brighton Beach stop and then one block walk to the Boardwalk).
posted Jan 14th, 2015 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Boardwalk, Brighton Beach, Chaim Deutsch,...
Terminla Hotel Sign Coney Island

Coney Island History Project volunteer Daniel Ioannou carrying the Terminal Hotel sign which was rescued just before the building's demolition. January 4, 2015. Photo © Charles Denson

Many people have expressed their dismay over the tragic loss of the historic Terminal Hotel, a beautiful building located on one of Coney Island's busiest intersections. We're happy to report the Coney Island History Project was able to salvage the Terminal Hotel's sign thanks to a coordinated effort by CIHP volunteers Daniel Ioannou and Keith Suber, and CIHP director Charles Denson. After remaining in close contact with the building's owner and the demolition contractor, we were able to retrieve the sign shortly after the fire department completed their investigation.

The Terminal Hotel site has now been cleared and the sign exists as the last remnant of the historic structure that was gutted in a spectacular multi-alarm fire on December 18th. It joins the Coney Island History Project's collection of signage from Astroland, the Playland Arcade, Steeplechase and other vanished places in Coney Island.

The one-hundred-and-ten-year-old Terminal Hotel on the corner of Mermaid and Stillwell Avenues operated as a hotel until the 1970s. The upper floors were abandoned and boarded up after it closed. A series of restaurants occupied the first floor over the years, and the new Food Center and Turkish Restaurant that recently opened on the ground floor after Hurricane Sandy were part of a much needed revival of the area and will be missed.

Terminal Hotel Coney Island

Demolished Terminal Hotel building on Mermaid and Stillwell Avenues, Coney Island. January 6, 2015. Photo © Charles Denson

posted Jan 6th, 2015 in News and tagged with Coney Island History Project, demolition, fire,...

Happy Holidays from the Coney Island History Project!

It's going to be an historic New Year's Eve in Coney Island as the 8,000 LED lights of the landmark Parachute Jump ring in the New Year, followed by the first fireworks show of 2015. This free, family-friendly event marks the beginning of a new tradition and is sponsored by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, NYC Council Member Mark Treyger, and the Alliance for Coney Island.

The Coney Island History Project exhibition center will open for the season on Coney's Opening Day, which is Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015. In the meantime, we continue to offer weekend walking tours that include a private visit to the History Project's exhibit center. During the winter, the 1-1/2 tours are offered Saturdays and Sundays at 1pm by advance reservation only. Visit our online reservation site to purchase tickets for the year-round walking tours or email for info on booking a group or school visit.

During this busy holiday season, please take a moment to sign Council Members Mark Treyger and Chaim Deutsch's public petition calling on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the historic Riegelmann Boardwalk as an official Scenic Landmark. Currently, there are a total of nine Scenic Landmarks in New York City, including Prospect Park, Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn.

"For nearly a century, Coney Island's wooden boardwalk has provided the public with a rustic observation platform, a cool, soft, raised promenade that captures ocean breezes and affords a respite from New York City's hard concrete jungle. Much like the unfortunate destruction of Penn Station before it could be landmarked, the 'concrete solution' to the Boardwalk's maintenance problems is shortsighted and ill advised. This historic structure must be protected and preserved," said Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found.

posted Dec 24th, 2014 in Events and tagged with Boardwalk, Coney Island, Happy Holidays,...
Terminal Hotel 1974 Photo Copyright Charles Denson

Photo by Charles Denson, 1974

The one-hundred-and-ten-year-old Terminal Hotel on the corner of Mermaid and Stillwell Avenues that burned on December 18 operated as a hotel until the 1970s. The upper floors were abandoned and boarded up after it closed. A series of restaurants occupied the first floor over the years, and the new Food Center and Turkish Restaurant that recently opened on the ground floor after Hurricane Sandy were part of a much needed revival of the area and will be missed. The fire has dealt a serious blow to one of Coney's busiest corners.

Photo by mrwdib via Instagram

Photo by mrwdib via Instagram

posted Dec 19th, 2014 in News and tagged with 1904, Coney Island, fire,...

Forgotten links to Coney Island's distant past can still be found if you know where to look. Some are in plain view and others are hidden and forgotten. Here are two that can still be seen and another that recently disappeared.

Railroad Avenue

Railroad AvenueRailroad Avenue

Who remembers Railroad Avenue? When I was growing up in Coney Island, the old right-of-way known as Railroad Avenue was still in existence, running from West 15th Street to West 37th Street between Surf Avenue and Mermaid Avenue. We always used the road as a shortcut. In the 1880s the Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad ran steam trains along this route to the ferry pier at Norton's Point (Sea Gate). The trains were later replaced by a trolley line that ran there until November 1948. The route was de-mapped during urban renewal and has disappeared without a trace except for several old railroad property markers. The marker seen here sits behind a fence on the west side of West 37th Street between Surf and Mermaid Avenues.

Railroad Avenue Charles DensonHenry Hudson Head

Hudson's Head

The majestic Half Moon Hotel, built in 1927, was once the crowning glory of Coney's new Boardwalk. The building was covered with decorative art including a mosaic tile dome, enormous urns, and terra-cotta busts of explorer Henry Hudson, whose ship, the Half Moon, lent its name to this grand hotel. When the building was demolished in 1994, the facade's decorative items were carted off and sold to antique shops. All except one! Henry Hudson's stern portrait has been installed in a private park on the site of the hotel and can still be seen through a fence on West 29th Street near the Boardwalk.


Milestone Mystery

When the last section of Calvert and Vaux's Ocean Parkway opened from Prospect Park to Coney Island in 1880, the boulevard had a series of granite milestones marking the mileage from the park. Until a few years ago this 5-mile marker was located at the corner of Neptune Avenue but disappeared during the construction of a bus shelter. The historic 150-year-old 5M stone is missing in action and no one seems to know where it is, including the Parks Department, which usually keeps track of these things. Does anyone know its fate?

posted Dec 5th, 2014 in By Charles Denson and tagged with 5-mile marker, Charles Denson, Coney Island,...

"Coney Island Creek: An Uncertain Future," a film by Charles Denson, was recently screened at Coney Island Library and is now up on Denson's Coneyologist channel on YouTube. Featuring interviews with stakeholders including local residents, ecologists, anglers, birders, divers, park volunteers, teachers, and the Brooklyn Parks Commissioner. The 18 minute video is part of a longer documentary film project currently underway.

"I grew up near Coney Island Creek and began photographing it in the 60's when the waterway was at its lowest point, polluted and neglected, but I always knew there was something special about the creek and that it would survive," Denson says in the film's introduction. Today, the future of Coney Island Creek is uncertain. Will it be an asset or a liability? The city is currently funding a feasibility study to decide whether to dam up the creek by building a tidal barrier with culverts, a move that would most likely turn the waterway into a toxic cesspool and do little to prevent flooding. Will Coney Island Creek become a restored wetland that prevents flooding or will it become a hazard to the community? Informed community input is vital.

posted Nov 25th, 2014 in Film and tagged with Charles Denson, Coney Island Creek, creek,...
Nature's Fury

Charles Denson and David Harvey, Senior VP of Exhibitions, American Museum of Natural History, at the November 10 exhibition preview and reception of "Nature's Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters"

I was extremely honored to participate in the Nature's Fury exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. During the last two years I've been approached by numerous media outlets that wanted to license my footage of Hurricane Sandy and have turned them all down. I feel that this dynamic and informative exhibit is the right venue and was honored to be asked to contribute my documentation of the storm. This exhibition is a wake-up call for anyone living in New York City's flood zones, especially Coney Island.

Nature's Fury

A close up of Coney Island Creek on the interactive map at "Nature's Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters" at the American Museum of Natural History. The creek is the subject of Charles Denson’s forthcoming documentary about the historic waterway. Photo © Charles Denson

NATURE’S FURY: THE SCIENCE OF NATURAL DISASTERS, November 15, 2014 - August 9, 2015 From earthquakes and volcanoes to hurricanes and tornadoes, nature’s forces shape our dynamic planet and often endanger people around the world. Nature’s Fury will uncover the causes of these natural disasters, explore the risks associated with each, and examine how people cope and adapt in their aftermath. Interactive displays and animations will help visitors understand how natural phenomena work. By monitoring earthquakes around the world in real time, manipulating a model earthquake fault, generating a virtual volcano, standing within the center of a roaring tornado, and watching the power of Hurricane Sandy via an interactive map of New York City, visitors will learn how scientists are helping to make better predictions, plan responses, and prepare for future events. Nature's Fury

Interactive map of New York showing flooding during Hurricane Sandy. "Nature's Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters" at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo © Charles Denson