Today, June 7th, 2020, was to have been the Coney Island History Project and Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park's 9th Annual History Day celebration on the Boardwalk with performances by musicians and dancers paying tribute to Coney Island's immigrant heritage. Instead, we are living through history, with a worldwide pandemic, racial justice movement, and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Future historians will think about society as pre- and post-2020. In the meantime, please enjoy this video compilation of our 2019 History Day, with performances by Irina Roizin's Brighton Ballet Theater School of Russian Ballet, Haitian drummer Gaston "Bonga" Jean-Baptiste, Mariachi Real De Mexico de Ramon Ponce, Jenny Luna's songs in the Turkish and Rumeli traditions, and Julia Liu's New York Music and Dance Organization, with DJ Dan Kingman, Deno Vourderis, and Charles Denson.
Happy 100th Birthday, Deno's Wonder Wheel from the Coney Island History Project! Join Charles Denson in this video sing-a-long of a 1920's song celebrating the joys of the Wonder Wheel to the tune of The Sidewalks of NY. He discovered the song while researching Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park and the lyrics are in the soon-to-be published book. We had planned to invite everyone to sing it at the now to be rescheduled Memorial Day Weekend Celebration.
Happy Mother's Day from the Coney Island History Project! Enjoy this photo collage of some of the mothers and grandmothers who visited our exhibition center in past seasons with their kids and grandkids.
During these days of social distancing, you're invited to share and preserve your Coney Island memories by recording an oral history via phone or Skype.
Our audio interviews are conducted in English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and other languages with people who live or work - past or present - in Coney Island and adjacent Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods or have a special connection to the place.
Sign up for an appointment or listen to some of the more than 370 interviews in our online archive.
Ruthie and Shorty, Astroland Park, 2006
Ruth Magwood, our friend who passed away last week, loved lighthouses. Her house across the street from Coney Island Creek Park was filled with lighthouse photos and books and statues. She loved Coney Island, having lived and worked there for 47 years. Ruthie worked the front office at Astroland Park until it closed in 2008. Her partner, Walter "Shorty" Arsenault, who passed away in 2011, was the long-time manager of Astroland's kiddie park. Her son Indio was a Coney Island sideshow performer before moving to Austria. Ruthie was a regular at Ruby's and Peggy O’Neal’s, a great storyteller with an ironic sense of humor. Her other sons and family members lived near her home in Coney Island's West End. During her years at Astroland, Ruthie photographed the park's events and created numerous photo albums that are now part of the Coney Island History Project Archive.
Ruthie always lived near the water and had roots in Gerritsen Beach. She lived all over Coney Island before buying a nice home by the park many years ago. Her health suffered terribly after Hurricane Sandy's storm surge destroyed her house. She rebuilt her home right after the storm but had to move out and rebuild a second time due to new zoning restrictions. The pitfalls of rebuilding and the abject failures of the Build It Back program caused her to lose her life savings.
The constant stress of dealing with endless beauracracy, red tape, and questionable contractors caused heart problems and her health failed. Yet Ruthie carried on as an advocate for the community. Last summer, when it was rumored that the city was planning to move a ferry dock to Kaiser Park rather than West 33rd Street, she spoke out at a protest at the Kaiser Park fishing pier. Poor health didn't stop her from protecting the park as Ruthie cared deeply about her Coney Island community. We will miss her. She was one of a kind. (Her son Adam will announce a memorial service to be held sometime in the future.)
— Charles Denson
(Since the demonstration last August, it's been found that the Kaiser Park location requires dredging that will release toxic materials into Coney Island Creek. See link.)
Today we thank business owners and their employees who are staying open so that we can stay at home and stay safe. Among the Coney Island History Project's online archive of oral history interviews are a pharmacist, a restaurant chef, and a hardware store owner who are providing essential services to the Coney Island community during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Along with prescriptions, pharmacist Ho Cheung Li dispenses news and advice in English, Cantonese & Mandarin at J & R Pharmacy at 2302 Mermaid Avenue. "Serving the customer is the main point of being a pharmacist," said Li in his oral history, which we recorded in 2015.
One-hundred-year-old Wilensky Hardware at 2126 Mermaid Avenue is an anchor of the community and remains open Monday through Saturday. Listen to our newly recorded oral history with Steven Feinstein, the owner of Coney Island's oldest family-owned business. Wilensky's opened in 1920 as a paint store before branching out into specialty hardware. Pick up some paint and other supplies to work on home improvement projects during the stay at home order.
Among the Coney Island restaurants which remain open for take out and delivery are Footprints Cafe at 1521 Surf Avenue, which specializes in Caribbean cuisine. Listen to our 2015 interview with Chef Basil Jones, the originator of their famed Rasta Pasta. For their temporary hours, visit Footprints website.
Throwback Thursday photo of the Rocky Road to Dublin, circa 1909, from the Coney Island History Project Collection. This scenic railway coaster ride, with its dramatic crenelated towers, was located on the current site of Brightwater Towers on Surf Avenue Between West 5th and West 8th Streets, across from the Aquarium. To the left is the arched entrance the Ben Hur Race double-track coaster. To the right is Zellers Drug Store, which competed with Chambers Drug Store across the street. Both were famous for their soda fountains. The street scene shows three forms of transportation: horses, bicycles, and the early automobile.
Hyman Cleon supervised the construction of the Coney Island Boardwalk in 1922. Many thanks to his family for recently donating Cleon's personal photographs to the Coney Island History Project. This video highlights a selection of images from the collection. Subscribe to our Coneyologist channel and visit our Oral History Atchive and Collection pages for new online content created by the Coney Island History Project during these days of social distancing.
We're thrilled to announce the upcoming publication of Charles Denson's book Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park on August 3 (postponed from May 18). This year the landmark Wonder Wheel celebrates its 100th birthday, and to mark the occasion the Coney Island History Project director and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found has written a new book to coincide with this historic event. While researching the fascinating history of the Wonder Wheel he was surprised to discover so much that was lost to history about the Wheel and its origins. "It was a joy to write," Denson said, "the Vourderis family, owners of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, truly represent the essence of Coney Island and are incredible to work with."
Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park is all primary source research, gleaned from numerous interviews with surviving members of all of the families involved in the design, construction, and operation of this venerable ride, from original concept in 1914, construction in 1920, and salvation by the Vourderis family who purchased and restored the ride in 1983.
The theme of the book is immigrant initiative. Charles Hermann, the Wonder Wheel's designer was Romanian; original owner Herman Garms was German; and Denos Vourderis, who bought the ride in 1983, was Greek. The construction crew was made up of Italian, Irish, and Russian immigrants, who were given stock in the Wheel and made part owners. The book tells the story of a former eel fisherman and cheese maker teaming up with a machinist/building superintendent to finance and build a fantastic ride based on Leonardo da Vinci's 15th century sketch of a perpetual motion machine. The Wonder Wheel is now Coney Island's oldest continuously operating ride; a survivor of urban renewal, hurricanes, and fires; and an official New York City landmark. It has a perfect safety record.
Published by Arcadia's Images of America series, Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park contains hundreds of never-before-seen photographs, plans, and ephemera, including rare images from the Vourderis family archive and the Coney Island History Project archive, and interviews with the family of the original designer and builder of the Wonder Wheel. The Coney Island History Project exhibition center had scheduled an accompanying Wonder Wheel exhibit curated by Charles Denson to open Memorial Day Weekend. The exhibition center remains closed due to state executive order and our opening date has yet to be determined.
This blog post was updated on May 19, 2020 with information about the rescheduled book publication and postponement of the exhibition.
Due to the COVID-19 emergency, the Coney Island History Project has postponed walking tours, group visits to our exhibition center, events at schools and senior centers, and in-person oral history interviews from March 14, 2020 until further notice.
In order to maintain social distancing while continuing to engage with our community, our staff is recording oral histories from home via Skype and phone. Our audio interviews are conducted in English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and other languages with people who live or work - past or present - in Coney Island and adjacent Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods or have a special connection to the place. Sign up for an appointment or listen to some of the more than 350 interviews in our online archive here.
"In the past, phone interviews were done primarily with people who live outside of the New York metro area," said Charles Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project. Over our nonprofit organization's 16 year history, in-person oral history interviews have been conducted at our exhibition center and recording studio in Coney Island or at the interviewee's home or office in New York. "We started doing interviews via Skype in October and have recorded the stories of people who grew up in Coney Island and Bensonhurst and now live all over the world. We're pleased to be able to offer residents of the five boroughs and metro area the opportunity to share their stories with us via Skype chat or phone call."
Now more than ever we encourage you to browse the Coney Island History Project's website, which in addition to our Oral History Archive includes new additions to our Collection, and Coney News and Hall of Fame. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to learn about Coney Island's legendary and colorful past and the Coney Island community of today.
We look forward to welcoming visitors to the Coney Island History Project exhibition center again soon. In the meantime, please stay safe and take care.