Coney Island Blog - By Charles Denson

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

 

Lobbying for casinos in the 1970s. Photograph by John Rea

CASINOS FOR CONEY

Joe Sitt's Casino Island? Casinos are once again being considered for Coney Island. We thought this scheme died in the 1970s. Developer Thor Equities and the firm's lobbyist, Patricia Lynch, are making the rounds, speaking with local NYCHA leaders, Community Board 13, and others, lobbying to build a Casino on Thor property. Thor owns a good chunk of land (rezoned in 2009 for hotels and high rises) on the Bowery and on Stillwell Avenue. The meetings have taken place in secret with little publicity. Luckily, this plan is a long shot, and one has to remember that Atlantic City casino developers broke all the promises made in the '70s to the local community. Jobs and community benefits are always the hook, but are rarely delivered. Coney Island does not have the infrastructure to support a casino. Good luck with this one. 

THAT SINKING FEELING: THE CONEY ISLAND FERRY

For anyone who still thinks the ferry in Kaiser Park is a good idea, please be aware that on April 6, 2022, the NYC Economic Development Corporation and its contractors were fined $70,000 by the State of New York for violating numerous environmental laws during construction of the Coney Island Creek ferry landing. Some of the fines were for illegal dredging and dumping in Coney Island Creek and Gravesend Bay, and for not reporting an oil slick. The EDC managed to violate nearly every aspect of its permits. This does not bode well for the future operation of the ferry, which is situated in a precarious location that negatively impacts the environment, impedes recreation for the community, and endangers educational programs at Kaiser Park.

Improper dredging for the Coney Island ferry violated New York State enviromental laws.

EARTH DAY AT CONEY

It's nice to see that the little food stand, Boardwalk Bistro, is open again on the Boardwalk below the Ocean Drive high rises at West 35th Street. Food stands have been lacking at the West End beach since Larry and Vinny's Pizzeria closed in 1996. I enjoyed a nice hot potato knish with mustard there last week. It's not Shatzkins, but we welcome a food concession at this popular beach location. Anyone remember Sam's Knishes on the Boardwalk at 32nd?

Leaving the boardwalk I noticed that the Miami Beach-style glass towers built by John Catsimatidis are apparently an environmental nightmare. The Ocean Drive buildings were given a giant "F" Energy Efficiency Rating, something rarely seen in New York. The large "F," posted at the building's entrance, means that: "the owner of such building has not complied, and the owner has had an opportunity to be heard with respect to such non-compliance." Happy Earth Day!

"Ocean Dreams" gets a big "F."

posted Apr 24th, 2022 in By Charles Denson and tagged with


Dennis Corines, Paul Georgoulakos, Gerry Menditto, and Charles Denson, 2010.

Gerry Menditto, "Mr. Cyclone," never rode on the coaster that he operated for nearly 35 years. "I don't like drops," he said.  He diagnosed problems by sound, listening to the vibrations made by motors, belts, lift chains, bearings, and wooden supports, and he and his crew repaired or replaced anything that didn't sound right. Gerry became operations manager of the Cyclone roller coaster in 1975 after Astroland Park acquired the lease and he worked there until the park closed in 2008. The coaster was in poor shape when he took over and he began a complete restoration of the ride. His Cyclone crew was made up of Coney Island folks, more than a few being Gerry's childhood friends, people he could trust to keep the landmark ride operating safely. His calm, soft-spoken manner was at odds with the commotion and deafening screams encountered during 14-hour shifts on the Cyclone's platform. He earned the love and respect of those who worked for him.

The Coney Island History Project Exhibit Center and recording studio were located underneath the Cyclone for a number of years, and the sounds of the coaster can be heard in the background of many oral histories. Our office window looked out onto the main hill and loading platform where we could see Gerry at his wooden booth keeping an eye on the crowds lined up in the maze, waiting their turn to board the cars. We had a ringside seat at one of the best shows in Coney Island. 

Gerry retired soon after Astroland closed, but could not stand to be away from Coney Island. A few years ago he took a job managing the Gargiulo's parking lot, which gave him an opportunity to be back among his old friends and colleagues. It was always a joy to stop and a visit with him before work on summer mornings. He was back where it all began.

After a short hospital stay, Gerry Menditto passed away from COVID complications on January 5th 2022. His family is planning a memorial later this spring.

- Charles Denson


Gerry and the Cyclone crew in 1998.


Gerry and Astroland owner Carol Albert at Gargiulo's Restaurant, 2008.

 


Gerry keeping an eye on things at the Cyclone.

 


Gerry and the Cyclone crew, 2007.

 


At work in the Cyclone shop.

 


Gerry greeting admirers at the Cyclone on opening day.


Gerry working the tracks on the Cyclone, circa 1976.

posted Jan 8th, 2022 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

Happy Holidays


Happy New Year from the Coney Island History Project! Stay safe and well this holiday season. Many thanks for your support in 2021, whether you became a member or contributor, shared your story for our archives, visited our exhibition center or outdoor exhibits, attended a Zoom event, listened to our podcast or oral histories, or engaged with us on social media. We’re all in this together!

During the pandemic we initiated new programs and presentations including Mermaid Avenue, Then and Now and Coney History Show and Tell via Zoom (soon to be released in video form). New recording technology developed during the last two years enabled us to improve the quality of virtual recording after we temporarily suspended in-person interviews at our exhibit center. I was once again able to teach environmental history at the City Parks Foundation’s Coastal Classroom on Coney Island Creek at Kaiser Park. The last class was held in July, shortly before construction of the ferry dock began. Our down time has been productive as we plan and curate next season’s exciting indoor and outdoor exhibits.

We're especially grateful to the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York City Council, Council Member Mark Treyger, and Humanities New York for funding our programs during this second challenging year of the pandemic.

Special thanks to Carol Albert for her ongoing support of our mission. Carol co-founded the Coney Island History Project with Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, the creator of Astroland Park. We also thank the Vourderis family, operators of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, for providing us a home, and for their interest in preserving Coney Island's history.

Your donation or membership today will help support our 501(c)(3) nonprofit's free exhibits, oral history archive, and community programming as we enter our 18th year. Through December 31, 2021, donors may deduct up to $300 in charitable contributions whether or not you itemize your 2021 tax return.
We’re counting the days until we meet again in Coney Island for the 2022 season! 

Charles Denson 
Executive Director

Oscar Bluemner Coney Island

Last June, Wendy Ikemoto, Curator of American Art at the New-York Historical Society, asked me to write a short descriptive label for a painting in a new exhibition at the Society. When I saw the image she sent me, I was shocked. The painting was beautiful, but also one of the saddest images I’d ever seen. The timing of the request was amazingly serendipitous. In 1904 the painter Oscar Bluemner captured the natural world of Coney Island Creek shortly before it was destroyed by development of the "World’s Playground." Exhibiting this painting could not be more timely, as history is now repeating itself.

Right now, Coney Island Creek’s most vulnerable, recovering shoreline, a tiny cove located at Kaiser Park, is being callously destroyed and degraded by a dubious ferry project. It’s as if the painting appeared as a cry for help, shouting from the past, asking us to save a last remnant of Coney Island’s natural world.

The city’s ferry dock, currently under construction, will end a half century of environmental improvements at Kaiser Park. Future operation of the ferry at this site will eliminate public access, degrade water quality, destroy natural habitat, and end educational and recreational use of the shoreline. City officials have pushed this project through by using a flawed and false narrative. It did not have to be this way.

Bluemner’s painting provides us with a warning. It depicts the "nursery of the sea,” thousands of acres of vibrant salt marsh environment shortly before it was filled and lost forever. The caption I wrote cannot adequately describe the sense of loss I felt when I first saw the painting:

This sublime view of Coney Island Creek’s lost marshland is poignant. Shortly after this scene was painted, the gaudy “magnificent artifice” rising in the background would overwhelm and replace the natural world. The true essence of Coney Island has been captured here beautifully but sadly. I still spend time on Coney Island Creek searching for hidden remnants of this scene that can be resurrected and appreciated. -- Charles Denson

Scenes of New York City: The Elie and Sarah Hirschfeld Collection. New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, October 22, 2021 - February 27, 2022.

Photo Credit: New-York Historical Society

Wonder Wheel Banner Exhibit

Thanks to the Vourderis family, the Wonder Wheel, constructed in 1920, has continuously operated longer than any other amusement in Coney Island. The Wheel is much more than an amusement ride. It's a work of art and the ultimate survivor in an ephemeral world, a link to Coney's remarkable past. And its origins can be traced to the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

Two years ago the Coney Island History Project and the Vourderis family were planning major events for the Wonder Wheel's 100th anniversary, a milestone that no other Coney Island attraction had ever achieved. In late 2018, I began research for a book and an exhibit that would celebrate this momentous occasion, and found a publisher who could fast-track the book's release in time for the centennial.

At the time, very little was known about the origins of the Wheel, the man who designed it, and how it came to be. I began by tracking down the family of Charles Hermann, the idealistic steelworker and inventor of the Wheel whose quest for a perpetual motion machine led to his partnership with businessman Herman Garms. The two immigrant dreamers traveled to Coney Island and proposed their odd project to pioneer landowner William Ward. The unlikely partnership the three formed would finance and build the Wonder Wheel.

I was able to find and interview far-flung members of the Garms family as well as Charles Hermann's 95-year-old daughter, who provided a firsthand account of her father's work. All of the families provided archival material and stories for the book and planned to travel from all over the country to attend the 2020 celebration.

And then COVID hit and the planning came to a screeching halt. My book, Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park, came out in August, but Coney Island’s amusements were closed by state executive order and all celebrations were postponed. Uncertainties continued into 2021 and we were left hanging, wondering if the Wonder Wheel story could be told.

Early this year we realized that an indoor exhibit would be prohibitive and decided to redesign the exhibit as a condensed outdoor display using traditional banners. Finally there's an exhibit that tells the remarkable story of the Wonder Wheel and the family that operates Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. The colorful history banners are located on the Wheel's walkway adjacent to the History Project, as well as below Deno's new Phoenix Roller Coaster on West 12th Street. It's a riveting story about families, immigrant initiative, love, and hard work. -- Charles Denson

Celebrating 101 years! See 'The Wonder Wheel and the Immigrant Dream,' the Coney Island History Project's free outdoor exhibition of banners on view from July through the end of October 2021 at Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. Admission to the park is free. Visit Deno's website for park hours.

Photo Credit: Coney Island History Project

Coney Island History Project Deno's Wonder Wheel Centennial

posted Jul 15th, 2021 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Wonder Wheel, Deno's Wonder Wheel, 100 years,...

What's in a name? 

Two beloved Coney Island icons have magically reappeared, albeit in name only. The eponymous labels recently showed up in signage on two new high-rise residential developments in the heart of Coney Island: Raven Hall  and the Carolina. Although it's nice to have these iconic names immortalized it's just a reminder of how ephemeral Coney Island really is. Will anyone remember that Ravenhall Baths and Carolina Restaurant once operated at these locations? Sadly, there will not be a swimming pool or Italian food to be found at these sites.

The original Ravenhall was one of the oldest attractions in Coney Island. Richard Ravenhall opened a small hotel in the 1860s that later expanded into a sprawling bathhouse resort that covered an entire block at West 19th street between the ocean and Surf Avenue. Ravenhall Baths had Coney Island's largest saltwater pool and dozens of other attractions. After a century of operation the Ravenhall complex was destroyed in a spectacular fire in 1963. The Abe Stark Ice Rink and parking lot replaced it in 1969.

Carolina Restaurant on Mermaid Avenue at Stillwell was a popular neighborhood destination for more than 60 years. The restaurant closed 20 years ago and the wood frame building that housed the business was recently demolished to make way for new residential development.

Both of the high-rises that now bear the names of these icons have no relation to the historic Coney Island businesses that once stood nearby. The "Carolina" is a six-story luxury apartment building on Mermaid avenue and West 15th Street that includes the lot where Carolina Restaurant once stood.

The "Raven Hall" high-rise tower, is located on the former site of Washington Baths, not at the site of the Ravenhall resort . The developers must have decided that the name" Washington Baths" didn't sound classy enough. 

Will anyone rent apartments in these buildings for nostalgia's sake, or will the origins of the names be lost to the sands of time? You can listen to oral history interviews that tell the stories of Ravenhall and Carolina in the History Project's archive:

https://www.coneyislandhistory.org/oral-history-archive/natalie-johnson

https://www.coneyislandhistory.org/oral-history-archive/louise-milano

– Charles Denson

posted Jun 16th, 2021 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

 

Jimmy Prince, Coney Island Photo ©  by Charles Denson 2009

Jimmy Prince was the kindest man in the world and the brightest light in Coney Island, a man who personified compassion, love and respect. There was no one else like him. He was born in 1932, the same year that Major Market opened on Mermaid Avenue and he began working at the market in June 1949 at the age of 18. Eventually he owned the store, and kept it open seven days a week, twelve hours a day until 2009. Jimmy became "Mr. Major," and his store became the heart of Coney Island, a refuge during hard times, where people came to find warmth and solace and nourishment. He was always positive and believed that Coney Island would survive.

Major Market became an anchor for Coney Island and an oasis for the community. Many generations grew up visiting “Mr. Major,” and would later bring their children to meet him and continue the tradition through the decades. Jimmy provided the same quality prime meat and produce found in New York’s finest restaurants. He wanted his Coney Island customers to have the best, even if it meant sacrificing and operating at a loss in the later years. He gave respect and received love in return.

In 2007, Jimmy confided that he was contemplating retirement and we began a two-year project to document his last days on Mermaid Avenue. The project became the 2009 featrure documentary, "The Prince of Mermaid Avenue."  After closing the store that he’d operated for 60 years, Jimmy volunteered on weekends at the Coney Island History Project. Our Exhibit Center provided a transition for him as he could spend time with old friends and customers who stopped by to see him. His smile and delightful personality enchanted visitors to Coney Island who met him for the first time at the History Project."Mr. Major's" delightful, upbeat personality always made you feel at home. His passions included collecting baseball cards and postage stamps, and a visit to his home always included a trip to his basement “museum of baseball” where he showed photos of the Brooklyn Dodgers he'd taken at Ebbets Field. He always hoped that the Postal Service would issue a Coney Island stamp and we began lobbying for it. 

 Jimmy's bright light has not gone out, it will shine brightly forever in the hearts of all who knew him. He was a wonderful friend.

– Charles Denson

Jimmy Prince, Coney Island Photo © by Charles Denson 2009

Jimmy Prince and Charles Denson at Major Market, 2003

posted May 25th, 2021 in By Charles Denson and tagged with