February 14th, 2014

There was much to be thankful for in Coney Island during 2013: The B&B Carousell returned, Steeplechase Plaza opened, the storm-damaged pier was rebuilt, and the Parachute Jump was given a new lighting scheme.

But the year also saw the demise of several historic structures. The Astrotower demolition received the most publicity as the tower was cut to pieces amid a cloud of mass hysteria. Nearly the entire amusement zone was closed down on the Fourth of July as the swaying tower met its demise. The demolition was unnecessary and left a huge hole in Coney’s skyline. The other structures we lost received little attention.

West Eighth Street bore the brunt of the demolition. Until the 1960s West Eighth was a center of an amusement manufacturing, and until recently you could still see remnants of its industrial past. Now those remnants are being slowly erased.


Eye Candy

First to disappear were the beautiful mosaic murals on the façade of the old Bonomo candy factory at the Neptune Avenue end of the street. The colorful triptych dated to the 1940s, and each stylized panel illustrated the story of candy manufacturing: raw materials, processing, and delicious finished products.

When scaffolding went up around the building, I asked the workers what was happening. They claimed they were “cleaning the front.” A week later, the enormous murals were gone. The murals were located next door to the old William F. Mangels amusement factory, which now houses the Department of Motor Vehicles. We had tried for years without success to document the history of the murals, but the building’s owners were not helpful, and the artist was never identified.

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The Bonomo Murals


The Castle

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The KeySpan Building

Farther up the block, on Coney Island Creek, the sprawling brick headquarters of the old Brooklyn Union Gas Company was unceremoniously reduced to rubble this past fall as the site was cleared for a public storage facility. The 85-year-old Tudor revival building was an architectural gem, and there was nothing else like it in Coney Island. We will miss the decorative Flemish brickwork, copper-lined gable dormers, multicolored slate roof, buttresses, huge bay windows, tall chimneys, and massive wood front doors. The building’s fixtures and decorative elements were scavenged and carted off to a Manhattan antique store.


Coney’s High Line

At the Surf Avenue end of West Eighth Street, the half-century-old steel arch pedestrian overpass known as the “Shark Bridge” was demolished after years of civic neglect. The bridge, spanning Surf Avenue, was built in 1956 to connect the West Eighth Street elevated station to the Aquarium and Boardwalk. Beach-goers, especially the elderly and families with children, used it to avoid the dangerous traffic on Surf Avenue. The bridge was controversial when Robert Moses erected it as an entrance to the Aquarium because some felt that its purpose was to bypass Coney’s attractions. There are no plans to replace the bridge, and visitors will now have to fight traffic to get to the beach.

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The Shark Bridge: Coney’s High Line No more easy access


The Carolina Building

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Last fall, the 19th-century building on Mermaid Avenue that once housed Carolina Restaurant was bulldozed, to be replaced an apartment house. The Carolina closed a decade ago, and the building recently housed a Chinese restaurant that never reopened after suffering damage from Hurricane Sandy.

The surrounding area was once the center of an Italian-American community that boasted numerous Italian restaurants. Gargiulo’s is the last one standing.

Coincidentally, an old billboard advertising the Carolina, located behind a gas station on Neptune Avenue and West 17th Street, was removed earlier in the year, also to make way for an apartment building.

February 12th, 2014

On the Beach, Coney Island. 1934

Coney Island residents and friends are cordially invited to celebrate Black History Month with us in Coney Island on February 17th. The Coney Island History Project and Urban Neighborhood Services are hosting a slideshow presentation by Charles Denson followed by a panel discussion with long-time community members. Titled “The History of Coney Island’s West End and the Presence and Contributions of African Americans in Coney Island from the 1600s to the Present,” the slideshow will feature never-before-seen images from Charles Denson’s archive and photos that he took in the 1970s.

U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Coney Island’s first African American Congressman, will be a special guest. The event is sponsored by City Councilman Mark Treyger, State Senator Diane Savino, State Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, Emblem Health and the Alliance for Coney Island.

Dinner will be served after the presentation.

WHEN: Monday, February 17, 4-6PM

WHERE: PS 329, 2929 West 30th Street, Coney Island

Coney Island, West End 1974

“I am personally excited to work with Charles Denson to bring this very important event to the residents of Coney Island,” said Mathylde Frontus, founder of Urban Neighborhood Services, a community-based non-profit founded in 2004 that offers supportive programming on topics such as health and wellness, academic achievement, and other relevant subjects. “African Americans have a long and rich history of contributing to the vibrancy and well-being of this peninsula and I believe that Charlie’s slideshow combined with the first-hand accounts of long-time Coney Island residents will really elucidate this all the more.”

“The West End of Coney Island is a vibrant and resilient community that’s survived many challenges over the last few decades,” said Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. “I grew up there and documented the wave of urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s that transformed our community and changed the lives of its residents. This slide show will tell the story of the area going back to 1600s.”

Black History Month, Coney Island

Please share this event flyer with your friends and neighbors. All are welcome to celebrate Black History Month with us in Coney Island on February 17th.

Black History Month, Coney Island

January 6th, 2014

Coney Island History Project

2014 marks the 10th anniversary of the Coney Island History Project! Ten years ago our oral history project began with a portable recording booth located on the boardwalk. The colorful booth-on-wheels, dubbed the “Memory Booth,” had an air-conditioned recording studio illuminated by a skylight. Wooden “wings” opened from the booth to display our mission statement and historic photographs. We parked our booth in front of the Aquarium’s education center during the day and in front of Astroland at night. Our program proved to be so popular that we later expanded to a permanent location.

Memory Booth

Coney Island History Project Memory Booth, 2005

The History Project was founded by Carol Hill Albert and Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, creator of Astroland Park, and opened its exhibit center below the Cyclone in 2007. In 2011 we moved to our current home beside the Wonder Wheel at the invitation of the Vourderis family, owners of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park. During the last decade we’ve recorded the oral histories of many departed Coney luminaries whose stories would have been lost forever. The voices of Jack Ward, Jimmy McCullough, Matt Kennedy, and Joe Rollino and others can be found in our archive.

Charles Denson and Carol Hill Albert

Carol Hill Albert and Charles Denson in the Memory Booth, 2005

The Coney Island Hall of Fame pays tribute to pioneers and visionaries whose creativity and ingenuity helped shape and define Coney Island over the past century and was inaugurated on West 10th Street opposite the Cyclone roller coaster in 2005. Our exhibits have included “Land Grab: A History of Coney Island Development,” “Woody Guthrie’s Coney Island Years,” “The Astroland Archives Photography Exhibit,” “Coney Island Icons,” “Luna Park Revisited,” “The Dreamland Fire Centennial,” and “Coney Island Bathhouses: A Lost Culture.” In 2012, we presented the first solo show by local photographer Abe Feinstein, who has been documenting his neighborhood for more than 50 years.

2013 saw our recovery from Hurricane Sandy and the opening of two new exhibits: “The Curious Playland Arcade Art of Larry Millard” displayed several salvaged Millard murals as well as a full photo documentation of his work from the walls of the Playland building, which was demolished in February. We also celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Vourderis family’s operation of the Wonder Wheel with a photographic history of the famous landmark.

The Curious Playland Arcade Art of Larry Millard

“The Curious Playland Arcade Art of Larry Millard” Exhibit, 2013

In August, the 3rd Annual History Day presented by Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project was the inaugural event at the new Dreamland Plaza on West 12th Street. The free event included a Coney Island history trivia contest, an interactive magic show, and performances by organ grinders from the Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors Association (AMICA) and the Carousel Organ Association of America (COAA) as well as the opportunity for visitors to hand crank the organs.

History Day, Coney Island History Project

Prof. Phineas Feelgood’s World of Magic at History Day, Dreamland Plaza, August 2013

History Project director Charles Denson’s Sandy documentary “The Storm” premiered at the Coney Island Film Festival in September and was screened at the Brooklyn Art Council’s Scene: Brooklyn Film Series commemorating the 1st anniversary of Sandy. In October, the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) presented the Herman Melville Literary Award to Charles Denson for his contributions to marine education through the Coney Island History Project, his books and his preservation efforts for Coney Island Creek.

CreekWalk Coney Island Creek

A series of informational plaques designed and created by Charles Denson were installed on the creek side of Kaiser Park, 2012

The 2014 season promises to be our most exciting yet. In late December our proposal for the return of the Astroland Rocket was approved by the City and we’re now planning an extensive exhibit about the rocket and space-themed Coney attractions of the past. Ownership of the historic Rocket will be transferred to the History Project and the Vourderis family will provide a permanent home for it in Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park.

Astroland Rocket

Coney Island: The “Star Flyer” Rocket debuted in Astroland in 1962

From the balloons, blimps and biplanes of the early days of aviation to the Astroland-sponsored airshows by the Thunderbirds, Golden Knights and Blue Angels, flight demonstrations have drawn crowds to Coney Island.The Rocket exhibit will cover the history of flight-themed attractions in Coney Island, encompassing science, amusements, photos and films. Ever since Thompson and Dundy brought “A Trip to the Moon” to Steeplechase Park in 1902, space travel and aeronautics have been a fantasy theme in Coney’s amusement parks. When the Star Flyer Rocket debuted in 1962 as the first ride in Coney’s new space-age theme park, it was called the “Cape Canaveral Satellite Jet” (TIME), “The Spaceship Auditorium” (Billboard) and the “Cannonball Adderly Rocket” in anticipation of Adderly dedicating the rocket for Astroland’s official opening on July 1, 1962. The rocket was rechristened the “Astroland Moon Rocket” in 1963.

PS 16 field trip

PS 16 Students Visit the Wonder Wheel on Field Trip to Coney Island History Project, May 2013

This year we hope to continue our school programs, bringing Coney Island history to local schools and giving educational tours. Last year we were invited to work with sixty students at PS 226 and an after-school program at PS 16. We produced a film based on their artwork and poetry. Our unique walking tours continue to be offered year-round, attracting current and former New York residents as well as visitors from across the country and around the world.

We are now revamping our web site and online oral history archive. While the new site is under construction, some pages will be intermittently unavailable. Please be patient during the redesign, once it is complete you will see many new features, including the Director’s Blog.

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Visitors pose for souvenir photo with the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops at Coney Island History Project, August 2013

December 23rd, 2013

Happy Holidays from the Coney Island History Project

November 22nd, 2013

The Coney Island History Project has answered the City’s RFP and submitted a proposal to bring the Astroland Rocket back to Coney Island. If our proposal is accepted we will assume ownership of the Rocket and plan to move it to a location near our exhibit center in Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park provided by the park’s owners, Steve and Dennis Vourderis. History Project co-founder and Astroland owner Carol Albert has offered to pay the cost of moving the Rocket back to Coney Island.

If the rocket comes back to the location we have chosen, the restoration of the ride would be overseen by Steve Vourderis and it would become an educational exhibit designed by History Project director Charles Denson. Stacy and Steve Vourderis, who spearheaded the park’s annual History Day, hope to make the Rocket the centerpiece of next year’s celebration.

When Astroland was closing, the Albert family had long planned to preserve the Astroland Rocket by donating it to the Coney Island History Project, the not-for-profit organization they founded in 2004. CIHP director Charles Denson is the author of Coney Island and Astroland, which uses primary sources to tell the history of the park, and the curator of the CIHP exhibit “The Astroland Archives Photography Exhibit: Back to the Future.” Mr. Denson would have liked to keep the Rocket as an exhibit, but at the time the History Project’s exhibition center was under the Cyclone roller coaster and did not have parking space for a rocket.

Astroland Rocket

The Rocket was the first ride at Astroland and it defined the park’s space age theme when it opened in 1962. As one of the first of the “imaginary” space voyage simulators constructed during the Space Race, The attraction showed simulator films of “rocket rides” while the chassis “rocked” its viewers to outer space. The Ride, which has 26 seats, lasted about three minutes, the length of the film. Originally built as the “Star Flyer,” the Astroland Rocket later sat atop the boardwalk restaurant Gregory and Paul’s.

November 20th, 2013

Coney Island Lois Wilson

In 1928, when John F. Kennedy was a young boy living with his family in the Bronx (the Riverdale section, not the South Bronx), his father, Joe, was forming RKO studios and producing a movie called “Coney Island. ” The flick starred silent picture queen Lois Wilson and was directed by Ralph Ince.

Presented by Jopseh P. Kennedy

The motion picture industry had recently moved from Brooklyn (Vitagraph Studios in Midwood) to Hollywood and most of the Coney scenes were shot in Los Angeles. Promotion for the film described it as the story of ” a young woman swept up in the romantic magic of America’s favorite fun destination. . . “

Joseph P. Kennedy sold his movie studios in the early 1930s, went into the liquor business, and then into politics as President Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain. The rest is history.

Coney Island, silent film

November 6th, 2013

Mark Treyger

The Coney Island History Project congratulates History teacher Mark Treyger on his election as Coney Island’s new councilman. Councilman-elect Treyger begins his term sporting an impressive public service record. His campaign focused on education, the environment, tenants’ rights, and youth employment, all issues vitally important to Coney Island. But perhaps his most important attribute is an understanding of history. Mr. Treyger is a fan of the book Coney Island: Lost and Found and he will now have a hand in shaping Coney’s place in history and the future of New York.

November 5th, 2013

Coney Island History Project: Then and Now

Can you identify these still existing 19th-century Coney Island buildings?

One of the new features on our soon-to-be-released revamped website will identify historic Coney Island buildings, tell their histories, and show the structure’s evolution by using before and after photos.

October 31st, 2013

Spook-A-Rama Cyclops Coney Island

Happy Halloween from Mr. Cyclops and the Coney Island History Project! During the off-season, Coney Island History Project Walking Tours include a private visit to our exhibit center. This Spook-A-Rama veteran used to be on the roof of the iconic 1950s dark ride, which was restored after Sandy and is still in operation. “We didn’t just want to be back,” said Dennis Vourderis, who owns and operates Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park with his brother, Steve, in an article in the Wall St Journal. “We wanted to be better. We wanted to stay special.” The Cyclops is on loan from the Vourderis family of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park.

October 31st, 2013

Merryl Kafak and Charles Denson

The New York State Marine Education Association presented the Herman Melville Literary Award to Charles Denson at their annual conference. “NYSMEA is pleased to recognize Charles Denson’s contributions to marine education through the Coney Island History Project,” said Dr. Meghan Marrero, President of NYSMEA. “His books, audio walking tours, and other works are important and timely. The NYSMEA Herman Melville Literary Award is a well-deserved honor.”

The award is presented to a member or non-member who has made a major contribution to the world of maritime literature and/or art. Mr. Denson has documented the Coney Island Creek for over 40 years and is working on a book and film about the waterway. In the photo above, he is at the award ceremony with Dr. Merryl Kafka, NYSMEA board member and co-founder of the Rachel Carson HS of Coastal Studies in Coney Island.

“Coney Island as a resort began not on the ocean but on the banks of the Creek nearly two hundred years ago,” says Denson. “The first hotel, restaurant and amusement park opened on the banks of Coney Island creek, and the history goes back nearly 400 years. The creek has great potential.” Last year, Charles Denson and the Coney Island History Project received a grant from the Partnership for Parks to create CreekWalk, a self-guided walking tour brochure and a series of informational plaques installed on the creek side of Kaiser Park.

Coney Island Creek Self-Guided Tour

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