Coney Island Blog - By Charles Denson

 

"Watch Her Dance to the End of Love," Benny's storefront on West 12th Street. Photo by Charles Denson.

By Charles Denson

A phone call from Benny always began with a private joke: “Charlie, tell me what’s new in the World’s Playground.” A bit of irony. The amusement world that Benny had known all his life was fast disappearing. He was old-school and didn’t follow Coney Island politics or gossip. Our long conversations took place in the off-season, when things were quiet. During the summer Benny worked his games 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and had no time to talk. He stayed focused on his little world on West 12th Street. 

After years of trading stories, I asked if he wanted to record an oral history. He said, “When I’m gone you can tell my story.” We recorded over several years. No one else could better express the ups and downs, the joy and despair of working and living in Coney Island. He had many lives, a survivor in a sometimes cruel world. You can listen to Benny Harrison's oral history here: https://www.coneyislandhistory.org/oral-history-archive/benny-harrison

Benny was a quiet, well-read contrarian: shy, elusive, creative, brilliant, a sweetheart who was difficult to pin down and always absorbed in a heavy book about world history, architecture, or philosophy. He liked silly jokes and puns and spoke in riddles. He was a quiet genius always inventing, building, restoring, or repairing mechanical devices in his cramped, tiny shop behind the games. He enjoyed making people smile by providing unusual tableaus, signs, displays, prizes, toys and tricks, things like the dancing marionettes that no one else offered. Objects remembered from childhood.

In 2011 the Coney Island History Project moved to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and the following year Benny left Jones Walk when the Vourderis family gave him the space next door to ours. We became twin attractions on 12th Street! His stand was bright and colorful. Next to his Skin-the-Wire game were two of Benny’s idiosyncratic creations: the mechanical Dancing Girl (Miss Coney Island) and the adjacent animated Coney Island diorama portraying a happy miniature world.

The Dancing Girl danced to unusual tunes chosen by Benny: sometimes reggae but usually the Australian bush ballad “Waltzing Matilda” or the sentimental version of “Over the Rainbow,” by Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwoʻolei. Both attractions can still be played for a quarter, something unheard of in Coney Island. A small sign says that you can "fall in love" for 25 cents. He later added the cute mechanical kitten and puppy that dance and wiggle below Miss Coney Island’s feet. The Dancing Girl has thousands of friends who come to visit and dance with her each summer. 

The signs above Benny’s games are often a source of bewilderment: “Watch Her Dance to the End of Love” a reference to the Leonard Cohen song, “Dance Me to the End of Love.” “Coney Island Always” is the optimistic sign that hangs above a lively miniature animated Coney Island window display. And of course, “Don’t Postpone Joy.”

In his final years Benny still came to work while recovering from cancer, heart disease, and a series of strokes. Benny never took the simple path. He was still building, repairing, and restoring his own games while also helping solve mechanical problems for others. Some of his games were overly complicated puzzles. He’d sit back and watch customers try to figure them out. The games were fun, but not big moneymakers, and sometimes it seemed that he was building them just to amuse himself. 

Benny had a hard life. He grew up in Coney Island during the 1940s and 50s, and at the age of 12 began working in his father’s candy factory. His father died young. He was a gambler who lost the family business in a card game, plunging the family into poverty. Benny and his mother wound up living in a one-room apartment in Sea Gate while trying to pay off his father’s debts.

Benny continued in the candy business as a teenager with a stand at Feltmans Restaurant that he and his mother operated. When Feltmans closed, they became Astroland’s first tenant. During the park’s construction, Benny had two cotton candy machines on a plywood box, painted red and white, powered by an extension cord reaching from a nearby restaurant. Business was conducted over the fence.

Benny's hexagonal stand in Astroland, c. 1963. Photo © Coney Island History Project

In 1963 Benny hired an architect and commissioned a new stand, a hexagonal structure just inside the entrance to the park. Benny worked at the new store while studying engineering at Hunter College night school, where he had enrolled at age 17. The following year he was drafted into the Army.

Benny hated the Army and took an exam for Naval Aviation at Floyd Bennett Field and received high scores. The draft board sent him to the Navy Aviation Electrical School in Jacksonville, Florida, for training in building jet plane control systems. This is where he learned the skill for building animated figures and robotics. He learned to build games by working on military fighter jets. Benny remained in the Navy reserves for six years while working in Coney Island and expanding his numerous businesses. 

During the 1960s Benny began buying up Coney Island property. After Astroland expanded, he was forced to demolish his hexagonal stand, but opened two soft ice cream stores in the park. He purchased several distressed properties, including the old Shore Hotel on Henderson Walk at Surf Avenue. On the day that the sale closed on the hotel, the FBI stopped Benny from entering the building as they were arresting a fugitive from their 10 Most Wanted list who was living upstairs in the hotel. A week later the hotel manager had a stroke, and Benny found himself running a hotel. From there it went downhill.

Benny bought and later lost the Shore Hotel on Surf Avenue in the 1960s. It was demolished in 2011. Photo by Charles Denson.

Next, he bought a one-story structure next to the Popper Building (now a shooting gallery) and opened a colorful storefront selling candy apples, popcorn, frozen bananas, ices, and taffy. Benny developed new candy products such as a caramel coconut popcorn that became quite famous. He used antique machines with heavy brass molds to produce all kinds of sweets.

Benny's candy store on Surf Avenue in the late 1960s. Photo © Coney Island History Project.

Benny operated successful businesses at both locations only to lose the buildings and businesses due to a failed marriage and brutal divorce. Later, the owners of these properties would make millions by selling them during the Coney Island rezoning.

Benny started over with a variety of games. He teamed up with game builder Charlie Walker and opened a small machine shop. He also ran a printing business and traveled to flea markets and fairs selling lithographs and toys. He built penny pitches, fishing games, shooting galleries, boxing puppets, carnival wheels (one of which wound up in the movie Goodfellas), and every kind of game imaginable, all with a twist, a Benny signature of sorts that made them unique. 

Coney Island became violent in the 1970s, and it was risky to operate open games. Ride booths were attacked, and buildings were vandalized, burned, and burglarized. The Homicides street gang broke into Benny’s Boardwalk store and stole most of his equipment. He also lost several dozen antique mutoscope arcade machines that were in storage, machines that now sell for thousands of dollars each. 

Benny in his shop repairing an antique arcade machine from the 1920s. Photo by Charles Denson.

Eventually Benny wound up on Jones Walk, in a stand that Jack Ward owned. His neighbors were his sister and brother-in-law, Dinah and Wally Roberts. Wally owned the historic Grashorn Building on the Walk and gave Benny a space upstairs to use as a shop. Jones Walk was alive and thriving with all kinds of games until the rezoning of Coney Island in 2009, when all the properties changed hands. Jones Walk would never be the same, and the future became bleak for the small independent businesses that once operated there. 

Benny would have gone out of business if it weren’t for the kindness of the Vourderis family, owners of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park. He reopened his games and a small shop in the space below the kiddie park. The store was soon filled with prizes including marionettes, jewel boxes, and a million toys. Everyone who played the games got a prize, win or lose. Benny was able to enjoy another decade of intrigue in the heart of the World’s Playground. 

Benny Harrison died on March 11, 2024. He was cared for and looked after by his friends who worked with him and loved him and put up with his nonsense. With his passing went a way of life that is slowly coming to an end. Benji, you will be missed.

You can listen to Benny Harrison's oral history here:  https://www.coneyislandhistory.org/oral-history-archive/benny-harrison

Benny contemplates the crowd at his stand during the Mermaid Parade. "They don't play the games," he lamented, "they only drink!"  Photo by Charles Denson

posted Mar 15th, 2024 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Benny Harrison, Benjamin Harrison, Coney Island,...

The Coney Island History Project will celebrate Coney Island’s 200th birthday on October 28th by displaying and honoring Coney Island’s oldest surviving artifact: the 200-year-old Coney Island Toll House sign that dates to 1823. Please join us! Our exhibition center at 3059 West 12th Street next to the entrance to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park will be open on Saturday, October 28, from 1 PM – 5 PM. The rain date is Sunday, October 29. Admission is free of charge.

Coney Island first opened to the public in the summer of 1823 when a bridge and toll house were constructed at Coney Island Creek and Shell Road. Only one object from Coney Island’s humble origins has survived for two centuries. That relic is the original Coney Island Toll House sign on display at the Coney Island History Project. And for that we thank Carol Albert, co-founder of the Coney Island History Project, who rescued the sign and had it restored. 

In his film shared above and the following essay, History Project director Charles Denson tells the story of “Coney Island’s Oldest Artifact: How the Coney Island Toll House Sign Survived for 200 Years.”

October 28: Join Us to Celebrate Coney Island’s 200th Birthday!

Coney Island first opened to the public in the summer of 1823. A one-paragraph article buried in the August 18, 1823, New York American breezily announced the opening: “The Road and Bridge leading to this delightful island are now complete. It is open the ocean, with the finest and most regular beach we ever saw . . .” From these humble beginnings Coney Island would soon become the most famous resort in the world. 

Until 1823 there was no public access to the island. Coney Island began as “common land” shared by 39 property owners in the village of Gravesend. The island was a pristine environment known for mountainous sand dunes, a vibrant salt marsh, the sparkling beach, juniper forests, and cool ocean breezes. Coney Island Creek was a popular spot for fishing and hunting waterfowl, but before the Shell Road bridge was built, the island could only be accessed by rowboat. The Island’s only resident was Abram Van Sicklen, whose small farm was located on the creek.

In March of 1823 Gravesend formed the Coney Island Road and Bridge Company in order to provide better access to the island. Shell Road was extended one mile through a vast salt marsh to the new bridge. A wooden toll house and gate were constructed on the banks of Coney Island Creek. Gravesend resident James Cropsey was appointed to operate the Road and Bridge Company. In the first days after the road opened, toll-taker Daniel Morell counted 300 horse-drawn vehicles crossing the bridge.

A simple sign at the toll gate listed the fees to enter the island. These ranged from 5 cents for a “horse and rider” to 50 cents for a “coach drawn by horses.” The sign also listed the “Rate of Toll” for a “Coach, Carriage, Pleasure Wagon, or Sulkey.” In 1829 a wood-frame hotel opened near the toll house. Others hotels and roadhouses soon sprang up around it. By the 1830s, Coney Island had become a popular destination.

The entrance to Coney Island was picturesque, with a canopy of weeping willows shading the toll house, and verdant Coney Island Creek beside it. John Lefferts operated the bridge and tollhouse from the 1830s until 1876, when Andrew Culver bought the property for his railroad. Tolls were no longer collected and the toll house was transformed into a private residence. Culver’s Prospect Park & Coney Island Railroad was later consolidated into the New York City transit system. The F-train now follows its former route.

Toll House

The toll house fell on hard times. The wooden toll sign, a curiosity from earlier times, remained attached to the toll house. The neglected creek-side structure was forgotten as it fell into disrepair. In 1929 the century-old historic building was finally demolished when Shell Road was widened and realigned. The toll sign was the only thing that was saved.

The sign’s remarkable history and provenance after the toll house was razed can be accurately traced. In 1928 the sign was removed from the toll house by ride manufacturer William Mangels Jr. and displayed in his father’s amusement museum, located one block away on West 8th Street. 

The museum soon closed for lack of interest, and most of its artifacts were sold off. The sign remained at the factory. In 1964, six years after William Mangels Sr. died, his son sold the sign to folk-art collector Frederick Fried, who was also buying up hundreds of artifacts from Steeplechase Park following the park’s closure. Fried stored his vast Coney Island collection in a barn in Vermont but kept the sign displayed on the wall of his apartment on Riverside Drive. This turned out to be fortunate for the sign. In the early 1980s, the Vermont barn burned to the ground, and Fried’s entire collection of historic Coney Island artifacts went up in flames. Fred Fried died shortly afterward. 

Fried’s estate sold the toll house sign to Nick Zervos, who kept it in his private collection. It was not seen again for decades. In 2003 I was contacted by Brooklyn antique dealer Charlie Shapiro who was a fan of my Coney Island book. He told me he had an important artifact he was selling, and asked if I was interested. He said that Nick Zervos had passed away, and his family was selling the Coney Island Toll House sign. The historic sign had finally resurfaced! I told him that I was VERY interested.

I agreed to meet Shapiro at his apartment. After small talk, we entered his kitchen and he pulled the sign out from a narrow space between his kitchen sink and the refrigerator. It was not in good shape. I asked the price and realized that it was beyond my finances but the sign had to be saved. I hated the thought of this historic object being sold into another private collection, never to be seen again. 

Soon after finding the sign, I met with Carol Albert, owner of Astroland. We were in the early days of forming the Coney Island History Project. I told Carol about the historic sign that was stuck in a dank space next to a kitchen sink and was about to be sold off. What was truly amazing is that the sign was accompanied by detailed documentation showing its removal from the toll house in 1928. Carol asked me briefly about Shapiro. I thought that was the end of the story.

Later in the week Carol told me she had something to show me. I entered her office, and there was the sign, leaning against the wall. Carol had rescued it and said that the Albert Family was donating it to the History Project. 

The fragile sign was in a deteriorated state and needed professional restoration before returning to Coney Island. The wood was severely rotted, crumbling, and insect damaged. The sign was in such poor condition that it could not be safely handled or displayed. Carol arranged for a professional restoration, which included new backing, thermoplastic resin injected into the damaged wood, and highlighting the faded lettering with a reversible transparent wash. Ultraviolet light and infrared photography revealed no hidden lettering.

Following the restoration the Toll House Sign was put on display at the History Project, just a few blocks from where it first greeted travelers 200 years ago. The sign’s importance is symbolic. It represents the endurance, continuity, and resiliency of Coney Island. It is the only object that was there at the beginning, the only link to the origins of the World’s Playground. 

Toll Sign Repair

 

posted Oct 23rd, 2023 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Coney Island, two hundred years, 1823,...

A photograph of the Switchback Railway in Atlantic City that is often falsely attributed to Coney Island. 
Coney Island's first roller coaster was L.A. Thompson's Switchback Railway. The Coaster was a wooden 600-foot-long gently undulating ride that was not exactly a thrill ride although it was pictured as such in engravings of the time. Photos of the ride are extremely rare. One of the photos commonly used to illustrate stories about Coney's first coaster was actually taken in Atlantic City, not Coney Island. The real Coney Island Switchback railway in all its humble glory can be seen in this 1880s view on YouTube:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DZlfGyBzZ4
This is the first article in a series that analyzes common myths about Coney Island.

— Charles Denson

 

 

 

posted Aug 19th, 2023 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

U.S. Volunteer Life Saving Corps lifeguards at their headquarters on the beach at West Fifth Street, Coney Island, c.1919.

The current lifeguard shortage in New York City brings to mind the history of lifeguards at Coney Island and the essential role that they play in public safety.

When ocean bathing gained popularity at the end of the 19th century, waves of New Yorkers began heading for Coney Island to seek relief from sweltering tenements. Few of them knew how to swim. The beach at that time was private property and there were no city lifeguards to protect swimmers.

Safety was provided by bathhouse owners who hired private lifeguards that for the most part were untrained and ineffective. There were no standards. Bathhouses hired men who worked cheap and “looked the part.” Former boxers, longshoremen, and weightlifters fit the bill. These unqualified guardians used primitive methods for resuscitation, such as “barrel-rolling,” (rolling a drowning victim over a barrel on its side to remove water from the lungs), a technique that caused more harm than good. Many private guards were drinkers and poor swimmers.

The United States Volunteer Life Saving Corps soon came to the rescue. Founded in 1872, the service established rescue stations all along New York City’s rivers and shorelines. Coney Island’s Volunteer Service life saving station was headquartered in a sturdily built wood-frame boathouse located on the beach at West Fifth  Street. 

At first the volunteers were met with hostility by the bathhouse lifeguards who saw them as competition and a threat to their jobs. They were finally accepted as swelling beach crowds made it obvious that private guards could no longer monitor the safety of hundreds of thousands of swimmers.

Many of the volunteers were WW I Navy veterans: competent, battle tested, and trained to rescue panicky drowning victims, shipwreck survivors, and even horses. They were also champion long-distance swimmers who participated in local contests. Thousands of Coney Island rescues were carefully documented by hand in logs, with the names, dates, and locations of all incidents. 

Ruth Hroncich’s grandfather, Ernest Gross, was a volunteer with the Service from 1919 to 1921, before the Coney Island beach became public. Ruth recently donated her grandparent’s photos to the Coney Island History Project. Ernest Gross lived on Neptune Avenue and met his wife, Ruth Atkinson in 1920 at Weber’s Baths in the West End. They were married in 1925. These family photos document the last days of the Volunteers before the Boardwalk was built and City lifeguards took over safety operations. 
– Charles Denson

Ernest and Ruth Gross, the couple third from left, at Weber's Baths, 1920.

Navy veteran Ernest Gross is third from left in this picture.  The lifeguards would take the surf boat out every day and practice launching through the waves. 

Volunteer lifeguard surf boat in action at Coney Island.

Volunteer lifeguards on the Coney Island Beach, 1920. Ernest Gross is second from right. (Dog at center was not a lifeguard.) The Municipal Bathhouse can be seen behind them. Lifeguards at the Coney Island boathouse.
A page from the 1909 Volunteer log details rescues at locations ranging from Dreamland to West 32nd Street.

 

 

 

 

posted Jul 23rd, 2023 in By Charles Denson and tagged with lifeguards, New York City, history,...


Ralph Perfetto

Ralph Perfetto was a towering figure in Coney Island. Community-minded, kind, funny, and caring, Ralph was instrumental in saving the Italian residential section of the neighborhood from urban renewal destruction in the 1960s. His confrontations with Borough President Abe Stark, and Planning Commissioner Donald Elliot, led to the City’s reversal of their plan to demolish every block west of Stillwell Avenue. Ralph also was the driving force behind two neighborhood improvement groups including Associated Tenants and Landlords, which later became Astella Development Corporation, a non-profit community-based organization that provided affordable housing and commercial revitalization of the Coney Island neighborhood.

Ralph remained active in politics and became a private investigator, always sharply dressed, resembling a private eye in a Dashiell Hammett novel. “Ralphie from 16th Street,” as he jokingly called himself, was an important part of my book, Coney Island: Lost and Found, and he was also an instrumental voice in my forthcoming documentary about Coney Island Creek. In the oral history that I recorded for the Coney Island History Project in 2007, Ralph begins by telling the story of his birth in Coney Island twenty-two years to the day after his mother in the same house. Coney Island will never be the same without him. He will be missed. -- Charles Denson

Services will be held at Scarpaci Funeral Home, 1401 86th Street, Brooklyn, on Sunday, July 16, from 2-7 PM. Mass at St. Andrew the Apostle Church, 6713 Ridge Blvd, Brooklyn, on Monday, July 17, at 10:45 AM.


Ralph with his granddaughter, Lynda Perfetto, Little Miss Mermaid winner, 1985 Mermaid Parade.


Ralph reminiscing about his childhood on Coney Island creek.
Photo by Charles Denson

posted Jul 13th, 2023 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Ralph Perfetto, Coney Island, In Memoriam,...

Topsy chained and roped for execution at Luna Park, 1903. A large banner proclaiming Luna Park as the "Heart of Coney Island" hangs in the background at upper right.

Luna Park began its convoluted history in 1903 with what is probably the most brutal and horrific event in Coney Island’s history. It was 120 years ago that Luna’s owners sought to publicize the park’s  grand opening by publicly murdering Topsy the elephant, a sad and abused creature who at the time was being used by the park to haul construction materials down Surf Avenue.

Topsy endured a tortured history that began when she was captured in Southeast Asia when only a year old and smuggled into the U.S. and forced to perform in circuses. Sadly, she eventually wound up in the hands of Luna Park’s founders. 

Like many performing animals, she’d suffered a lifetime of abuse from the public and from a series of cruel trainers. She’d recently gained notoriety for killing a drunk who’d fed her a lit cigar. The press dubbed her a "killer," but she was actually a gentle creature who was only reacting to incidents of mistreatment.

Luna’s owners soon considered Topsy a problem and no longer found her useful to them. They came up with a sadistic publicity stunt to get rid of her while at the same time advertising the May 1903 opening of the new Luna Park. They decided that charging admission to the gory public execution of an elephant would get them the attention the park needed.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the original plan was to strangle Topsy by hanging, but the ASPCA objected, describing that method as “unnecessarily cruel.” Luna’s executioners decided to use electrocution instead. The killing of a tortured animal would be Luna Park’s first attraction.

On a cold January morning, the unsuspecting elephant was led into the park, which was still under construction, and bound with chains and ropes below the framework of the park’s grand tower. Topsy was then fitted with copper shoes, wired up to electric cables, and fed 460 grams of cyanide-laced carrots to prepare her for her fate.

A crowd of photographers and onlookers invited by Luna Park’s owners was soon surrounded by hundreds of spectators who climbed fences or paid to stand on rooftops to get a glimpse of the horrifying spectacle. A film crew sent by Thomas Edison recorded the execution.

At 2:45 a switch was thrown and 6,000 volts of electricity coursed through Topsy's body, toppling her over and killing her. Her Luna Park nightmare had finally ended.

Luna Park opened a few months later to huge fanfare. Ironically promoting itself as the “Electric Eden,” the park had a million light bulbs strung over a small city of fantasy architecture composed of towers, minarets, spires, castles, domes, and globes. What began as a fascination with electricity soon wore off though, and the park lost its luster. By 1911, the park’s owners, Thompson and Dundy, were consumed by personal and financial problems. Alcoholism, fraud, and gambling debts forced Luna Park into bankruptcy that same year. 

New owners expanded the park and brought in some new rides. Luna never really recovered and floundered during the Great Depression. The park then burned down in a series of dramatic fires during the 1940s. Luna Park faded into history, the name used for a housing project built on the site. 

A few years ago a new amusement park in Coney Island resurrected the Luna name. This seemed fine until 2023 when the new park's owners began a publicity campaign implying that they have been in business for 120 years and suggesting that they are the original Luna Park. The media picked it up and ran with it. "Luna Park Celebrates Its 120th year in Coney Island," was a headline trumpeted by Fox News and other media. 

When you appropriate history, you are claiming ownership of that history. It becomes your tarnished past. The new Luna Park has now embraced a tarnished, cruel legacy that brought shame to Coney Island. Appropriating the name means appropriating the shame. There's a terrible tradition of animal abuse attached to the Luna Park name that goes beyond Topsy. Performing elephants, horses, and camels were also mistreated during the park's early years. It's nothing to be proud of. Perhaps it's time for Luna Park to create a Topsy memorial and acknowledge a barbaric event that took place 120 years ago in Luna Park's name. Topsy should not be forgotten.

Topsy's body after execution at Luna Park 120 years ago.

 


Above: Raised concrete surge barrier on the Boardwalk. Army Corps disclaimers stress that renderings are "initial concepts use for illustrative purposes only and are subject to change." The final plan may be influenced by public comments from community members.

Last September the Army Corps of Engineers released a draft of the New York Harbor Coastal Resiliency Plan (USACE HATS), a complex $52 billion flood control project designed to battle sea level rise and flooding. This plan will have extreme consequences for the shorelines of Coney Island, including the beach, Boardwalk, and Coney Island Creek.

The Army Corps has tentatively chosen "plan 3B" from the NY-NJ Harbor Tributaries study released last September. This proposal recommends flood control "hardscape" such as sea walls, flood walls, and levees to protect Coney Island as well as a massive mechanical tide gate storm surge barrier that would close off Coney Island Creek to prevent flooding.

There are two main projects for Coney Island. On the south side of the island, the Boardwalk would be raised five feet by adding what appears to be a wide concrete walkway. This would act as a barrier to prevent flooding from storm surge. The renderings shown at a January 25th meeting were very sketchy. The concrete barrier would block ocean views for Boardwalk businesses as well as taking up about a third of the Boardwalk.  

On the north side, on Coney Island Creek, the plan calls for a mechanical tide gate in Coney Island Creek stretching from Neptune Avenue to Calvert Vaux Park. The tide gate would tie into "sea walls" and into "flood walls" extending along Kaiser Park and Coney Island Creek Park before curving around Sea Gate to connect with the raised concrete Boardwalk at West 37th Street. Detailed renderings of these walls have not been provided.

When this project is completed, Coney Island will undergo an enormous transformation that will impact the neighborhood and local environment for generations to come. Unlike mega-projects of the past, where the public had little input, this time the community might have a voice. The powers that be appear to be listening. A March 31, 2023 deadline to submit public comments about the plan is fast approaching. The Army Corps has promised that all comments will be addressed and added to the public record in June.

Obvious problems with these proposals need to be addressed. The proposed flood walls and sea walls that will run along the parks adjacent to Coney Island Creek will degrade the parks. The barriers should be constructed as living shorelines with raised landscaped levees topped by walkways and bike paths and a restored wetland in the creek. In other words: public amenities. The walls should not be concrete or steel barriers that destroy quality of life in the community. A previous resiliency plan by the City showed beautiful renderings of a raised shoreline project along the creek. The community should advocate for this. The new barriers are to be constructed on public parkland so no private land would need to be appropriated.

The tide gate on the creek is another concern. Tide gates need constant maintenance and can fail in a catastrophic way if not maintained. The City is notorious for not maintaining infrastructure. "Backdoor" flooding caused by overflowing  storm sewers on Coney Island Creek can be severe if the gates are closed. The storm sewers drain thousands of acres of upland in Southern Brooklyn during rain events. Passive methods would seem to be more dependable. Another suggestion would be installation of pumps that can drain the creek while the flood gates are closed.  

Public input is extremely important. Manhattan seems to be getting more amenities and green space in its part of the plan because of community involvement. In the few weeks we'll be adding more information about what sort of issues need to be commented on.

 The Army Corps does not decide what to build. It submits the plan to Congress and then the funding is appropriated to complete the project. Input to federal elected officials might go a long way to getting the proper design.  

Low point: Coney Island Creek at Neptune Avenue and West 21st Street. Erosion caused by Superstorm Sandy has not been repaired in 10 years. During a king tide the water level in the Creek is higher than the street. Photo by Charles Denson

Public comments are important for the community. The Army Corps HATS plan can be accessed at
https://www.nan.usace.army.mil/Portals/37/NYNJHATS%20Draft%20Integrated%...

The plan is searchable and Coney Island map appears on page 202.

The public is invited to submit comments by mail to:

NYNJHAT Study Team, Planning Division
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
26 Federal Plaza, 17th Floor
New York, NY 10279-0090 

or by e-mail to: NYNJHarbor.TribStudy@usace.army.mil

Please include the project title and the commenter's contact information with submitted comments. Comments are always welcome and will be considered in the study as it continues.

The following selection is from my book, Coney Island Lost and Found, published in 2002. As with most of the book, I used primary source research. During the 1990s I interviewed all the key people involved in the failed 1970s plan to bring casino gambling to Coney Island. This excerpt is taken from chapter 18, The 1970s: A Decade of Revolution. Above is Horace Bullard's model for his proposed development that included a casino. The story is copyrighted. 

Casino Gambling in Coney Island, By Charles Denson

In 1976, casino gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, and for the next four years, casino fever gripped Coney Island. It seemed that we would be next. I remember the first rumors and then seeing a big billboard that the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce had placed at the Cropsey Avenue Bridge over Coney Island Creek. The sign read, “Welcome To Coney Island, The Perfect Resort for Casino Gambling.” It was painted on canvas with little starbursts and crude lettering. Yellow bumper stickers also began appearing. They read, “CASINOS FOR CONEY.” I became worried. Coney Island had enough problems, and I felt that if gambling came in, the amusement area would be wiped out, and the neighborhood wouldn’t benefit at all. Gambling would just bring more traffic and crime.

Coney Island and Atlantic City have a rivalry that dates back to the 1870s, when each competed for the title of preeminent East Coast resort. A hundred years after the competition began, both resorts had been surpassed by modern destinations like Miami Beach and Las Vegas. When the first Atlantic City casinos opened in 1978, speculators started snatching up Atlantic City beachfront property. In August 1979, the New York State Legislature formed the Casino Gambling Study Panel to investigate the feasibility of casino gambling. The panel issued a positive report that proposed a maximum of forty casinos in five locations: Coney Island, Buffalo, the Catskills, Long Beach, and Rockaway. Annual gross revenues from the casinos were projected at $3 billion. Lobbying efforts were launched to place the required amendment to the state constitution on the ballot in 1979 or 1980.

Coney Island property owners were delirious when Mayor Ed Koch predicted that Coney Island would pull in $120 million in annual revenues from table games and slot machines. Local businesses put their differences aside and banded together to fight for a common cause. The Casinos for Coney Committee was formed, and speculators began eyeing real estate in the area. For a brief period during 1979, the asking price for property on the Boardwalk rose from $3 to $100 per square foot. Ironically, the only person to profit from the proposed gambling was real estate speculator Oscar Porcelli, who bought the Washington Baths property from owner Fred Warmers and sold it to Horace Bullard for a substantial profit. 

The Casinos for Coney Committee wasn’t aware that powerful forces were against them from the start. Donald Trump, son of developer Fred Trump, had casino interests in Atlantic City and wanted to protect them. Fred Trump did everything within his power to lobby the New York State Legislature into killing the referendum before it reached the voters. By the 1980s, any chance of gambling in New York State was dead. But for a few years, Coney could once again dream of competing with Atlantic City as the top East Coast resort. 

Judging from what happened in Atlantic City, gambling would not have helped the local neighborhood but would have enriched some of the property owners. The old amusement area would have disappeared, and what kind of development would have replaced it is difficult to imagine. I interviewed most of the main players behind the Casinos for Coney coalition and asked them what it was like during the years of casino fever. 

Charlie Tesoro, owner of Walter E. Burgess Inc., is the island’s biggest realtor, and his office became the first stop for the speculators who swarmed Coney Island. “It was crazy,” Tesoro said. “Limousines would pull up with guys coming up to the office from Las Vegas, in silk suits, saying, ‘Sell to us now, get us some property, we wanna get in!’ It was like a crazy house, like the gold rush. Steve Wynn pulled up in a limo and sent guys up to my office wearing flashy silk suits and solid-gold cuff links. Every other day you’d see limousines driving up and down Surf Avenue. It was wonderful. They’d sit at my desk and say, ‘Waddaya got? We want options on everything you got. Everything!’

“They wanted options because if gambling didn’t go though, they’re out. But if gambling went through, they’d pay triple the asking price for the property. They’re not so much gamblers when it comes to their money. They want you to be a gambler. I hadda laugh at ’em. People were even buying houses! A custodian came in from Manhattan and put every penny he had on three houses in Coney Island just because his cousin was a lobbyist and heard that gambling was gonna pass. Little guys were forming consortiums. They didn’t just want to buy in the amusement zone. They wanted the residential areas, Mermaid Avenue, West Fifteenth Street.” 

Businessman Horace Bullard owned the Shore Theater building, considered a prime location for a casino. Bullard tried to sell his vision of a Coney Island gambling mecca to other landowners. His plan involved combining a new amusement park with the casinos. “At the time we started,” Bullard told me, “we knew that gambling had to be controlled. What we didn’t want was an Atlantic City. I was trying to convince people that they shouldn’t allow gambling to come to Coney Island unless it’s done right. I felt that you should have one casino and one hotel, and the revenue from them would pay to rebuild the entire amusement area. I came up with a plan for Coney Island and began lobbying the whole community. I formed what’s called an LDC—Local Development Company—and called a meeting. I wanted the board members that sat around the table at this meeting to be representative of Coney Island: the housing interests, Gargiulo’s restaurant, the Aquarium, Our Lady of Solace Church, the landowners, Astroland, Sea Gate. On the table would be a map of Coney Island with gambling being the primary issue. We could all fight for our different interests and come up with a solution, and by voting for what the board would pass, we’d have a direction that Coney Island could go with.”

Bullard held his meeting in a Manhattan hotel and unveiled an ambitious plan. It involved pooling together all of the property in Coney Island’s amusement zone, approximately eight square blocks, and building a large gambling/amusement complex. The entire facility would be above a massive parking garage at ground level. The property owners would sell their land to a newly formed corporation that would build the complex, and the landowners would be assigned an interest in the complex based on the percentage of land they had sold to the corporation. Bullard made an impressive presentation, but the landowners rejected it because they couldn’t agree on the percentages or the placement of the casino. They chose to go it alone and take their chances on obtaining options from the casino builders.

Jerry Albert, the owner of Astroland Park, told me that he felt Bullard was scheming to be the only one chosen to build a casino. “I don’t think that anyone was sure Bullard’s idea would have worked,” Albert told me. “When gambling was a hot item, everyone was talking continuously. But the feelings among the amusement ride operators weren’t friendly. They were competitive as to where gambling would go. If gambling was approved for Coney Island, it was going to be on only one or two sites, and everybody else would be out of luck. They’d have to do something else. The closer it came to having gambling in Coney Island, the more jealous people got. Bullard suggested that Astroland put in amusements, and they’d build us a parking lot underneath the amusement park. But Astroland already had the amusements. Horace had an architect and was putting out renderings and drawings, and he held meetings to explain his concept of how things should be laid out. But it was always with the idea that Horace would be the one to get the gambling.

“Every day, there were rumors that options were being sold on land in Coney Island. We were in negotiations with one of the largest casino owners. The Golden Nugget was negotiating for an option on the Astroland property. I did not get the option for one reason. It was Labor Day weekend. The biggest casino owner in the United States was flying up in a Lear jet to sign the option agreement for $12 million. My lawyer said, ‘It’s Labor Day weekend, Jerry. Why must we go through with this meeting? Everyone is busy on Labor Day weekend. If you wait until after the weekend, I can get you $17 million.’ And I said, ‘The hell with it. I’m satisfied with $12 million.’ I got into an argument with him, so we put off the signing till the following weekend. Guess what happened? Governor Hugh Carey held a news conference on television and said, ‘As long as I’m governor of New York, there will never be gambling, because gambling is basically bad for the state.’ After he made that speech, that was the end of gambling.”

The merchants of Mermaid Avenue were big supporters of the casino plans. Coney Island businessman Lou Powsner had just given a speech at a governor’s hearing at the World Trade Center in 1978 when he received a call from a representative of the gaming industry who wanted to discuss Powsner’s analysis of casinos in Coney Island. “I asked him where he was from,” Powsner said, “and he said he could not divulge that information. We later found out he was from Caesar’s World. I told him that downstate, Coney Island with its tremendous Boardwalk was ripe for development. I also pointed out that we had an abundant labor market nearby crying for jobs, a sea of unemployment.

“We formed a local group and convened five times. Our slogan was ‘Casinos Mean Jobs,’ and they did. I was up to Albany five times. I went with Charlie Tesoro and with Hy Singer, who had hoped to turn Stauch’s into a casino. The Russo family, owners of Gargiulo’s restaurant, was also in the coalition. I met Bullard a couple of years later, when he held a meeting in a high-rise castle in Manhattan and we went over his plans, which featured an amusement park. It was a tremendous proposal.”

The gambling resolution had a good chance of passing, but just before the state legislature was getting ready to vote, New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams held a press conference and said that he wouldn’t want to see happen to New York what had happened to New Jersey, with crime and prostitution. The vote never made it to the floor.

“Abrams was a stooge for a developer who didn’t want gambling,” Powsner said. “At that time, Donald Trump was a virtual unknown. On one of the trips that we made to Albany, Jerry Albert had a magazine called Gaming. In a sidebar, it said Donald Trump, the son of a New York developer, had under-water land in Atlantic City and was hoping to get the funds to build a major casino hotel. He got the funds and put up Harrah’s Trump Plaza. We went down to defeat because Donald Trump had devised our defeat. 

His last move was to get together with one of the Tisch brothers and Sam Schubert, the theater owner who said that the casinos would destroy New York’s theater district. And State Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink wouldn’t let the bill come to the floor. It was Trump who killed it. It was all political, and it destroyed New York’s opportunity to be the gambling capital.”

Charlie Tesoro told me that he agrees with the theory that the Trumps sabotaged the casino resolution. “We had everybody convinced that gambling was coming. We went to all the congressmen and senators, and they were all for it. Then Fred Trump comes in and says to them, ‘You want the Mafia? You want prostitution?’ We had no idea he was already in Atlantic City. And little junior there, Donald Trump, was heavily against gambling in New York. His old man didn’t like the way it was gonna be handled. 

We did not have enough money, and the big money was against us. We had a slush fund of $50,000 to support it, and Atlantic City had $500,000 to fight it. We had busloads of supporters, we had signatures on petitions, and the trade groups on Mermaid Avenue were for it. Gambling was the only thing that would have developed the area. It would’ve brought in hotels and millions of dollars in investment money. I couldn’t believe that New York State said it couldn’t be controlled. Meade Esposito, Democratic leader of Brooklyn, told the legislature, ‘Don’t vote for it.’ They were dupes of Trump and Atlantic City. Nobody knew that at the time. You didn’t know your enemies.” 

In the end, gambling proved to be a bad idea. By the time it reached the legislature, New York law enforcement could see the damage in Atlantic City and the inability to keep out organized crime. When a Coney Island landlord on West Fifteenth Street assaulted a tenant and tried to evict him, the incident was played up as an example of “gambling fever.” Everyone was saying that the landlord wanted to evict the tenants so that he could sell the building to speculators. 

Even before the casino resolution came up for a vote, corrupt politicians were asking for bribes. Charlie Tesoro recalls several incidents. “There were a bunch of congressmen and a couple of wise guys who all wanted 6 percent. ‘You want the gambling?’ they’d say. ‘Sign these contracts saying that such-and-such law firm will handle the case.’ You wouldn’t believe the corruption! These guys would come in and say, ‘If you don’t sign this, it’ll never even pass the first session.’ Nobody wanted to pay, but we didn’t get gambling anyway.”

Jerry Albert has no regrets and feels that Coney was better off without casinos. In 1999, I asked him if he thought the casino idea would ever be revived. “Gambling will never come back,” he told me. “Every once in a while, it rears its ugly head, but definitely it will never happen, because Atlantic City is too powerful, and Coney Island, as far as I’m concerned, has become better every year, and I’ve been in Coney Island for forty years. 

“The end of the 1960s was the low point. The trouble is that a lot of people who are in business in Coney Island have never invested any money and have let their property deteriorate. They were living with thoughts of gambling coming to Coney Island, and it was like gold fever. All the competitors basically had a shortsighted view of the situation. They were convinced that gambling was going to happen.” 

Horace Bullard seems to agree with Albert. “I don’t believe that Trump stopped gambling,” Bullard said. “I believe greed stopped Coney Island from getting gambling. Landowners’ greed.”

posted Dec 1st, 2022 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

NY Coastal Resiliency Plan Coney Island
The New York Harbor Coastal Resiliency Plan by the Army Corps of Engineers went live on their website on September 26, and it's a shocker. The proposed $52 billion plan for New York and parts of New Jersey will have extreme consequences for Coney Island and the surrounding shorefront communities and gives no guarantees that any of the projects will work. 

At first glance the plan seems to favor mechanical flood control rather than proven natural means such as raised living shorelines and restored marshes. There are no details provided about the mechanical "storm surge gate" on Coney Island Creek, the "elevated promenade" on the Coney Island beach, and the "extra large floodwall" at Coney Island Creek Park and Sea Gate. It appears from the report that the Boardwalk would have to be raised five feet above its current height. 

If many of the measures proposed in this plan are implemented, they could result in an environmental nightmare for local waterways, provide only marginal protection, and exacerbate flooding.
Will Coney Island be surrounded by towering floodwalls, massive levees, and mechanical floodgates? (The plan is searchable for Coney Island and maps appear on pages 139 and 202.) Make your comments known before the January 6, 2023 deadline. The plan will be finalized in two years, and construction begins in 2030. The only thing for sure is that Coney Island will never be the same. -- Charles Denson

The report can be viewed and downloaded at:
nynjharbor.tribstudy@usace.army.mil Maps: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New York District">https://www.nan.usace.army.mil/Portals/37/NYNJHATS%20Draft%20Integrated%20Feasibility%20Report%20Tier%201%20EIS.pdf

Comments can be submitted to: 
Mr. Bryce W. Wisemiller
Project Manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
nynjharbor.tribstudy@usace.army.mil 

Maps: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New York District 

NY Coastal Resiliency Plan Coney Island
 

Salman Rushdie at the Coney Island History Project

Salman Rushdie with his son and Suketu's sons at the Coney Island History Project, 2009

We are saddened by the horrific attack on author Salman Rushdie and wish him a speedy recovery. Rushdie is a big fan of Coney Island. When he visited in 2009 with CIHP board member Suketu Mehta, he spent the morning at the History Project before riding the Cyclone, strolling the Boardwalk, and having a beer at Ruby's Bar. It was a memorable visit. The attack on Rushdie is an attack on freedom of expression for all writers. We hope to see more of his insightful books, essays, and opinions in the future.

 

posted Aug 16th, 2022 in By Charles Denson and tagged with