Coney Island Blog - By Charles Denson

 

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

 

One of Coney Island's bungalow fires, 1974. Photo by Charles Denson

Coney Island underwent a dramatic and tragic transformation during the 1960s and 1970s, a destructive era that left the West End resembling a war zone. Anyone who lived in the neighborhood during that era has mixed memories of the best and worst that Coney had to offer. New York City went bankrupt, a misguided urban renewal program destroyed homes and businesses, and arson fires gutted block after block. At the same time, people still flocked to the beach, amusements struggled along as popular as ever, and somehow Coney Island survived. New oral history interviews by David Louie and Theresa Veldez provide a vivid portrait of what life was like during that time. David Louie's family owned the popular Wah Mee Restaurant on Mermaid Avenue, and Theresa Veldez grew up in the bungalows of Coney Island. Their stories prove that tragedy and loss cannot erase the memories of good times had.

Charles Denson at the silenced Wonder Wheel, 2020, "a season like no other."

For the first time in history, Coney Island has lost an entire season. As Labor Day weekend arrived and faded, amusements remained shuttered and people began wondering aloud if the neighborhood can recover. The pandemic is testing the will and finances of even the most dedicated businesses and residents. This year was expected to be the greatest of this century, with important anniversaries, exciting events, and new attractions. None of this happened. But Coney Island has been tested before. Pestilence, war, crime, and weather have challenged the island, and each time it has clawed its way back.

Coney had barely begun life as a resort in the early 1800s when its remote location made it a prime candidate for New York's quarantine station. Yellow fever and cholera epidemics had swept through New York, and the city sought to build a massive facility that would house immigrants with infectious diseases for 40 days. Coney was on the short list in the 1850s but it turned out that the location was not remote enough. Instead, the station opened on two smaller islands, Hoffman and Swinburne, built from landfill in the waters just west of Coney Island.

In the 1870s, long before amusement parks arrived, Coney Island became a refuge for poor children suffering from tuberculosis and other diseases. The Coney Island History Project's 2019 exhibit "Salvation by the Sea" documented and highlighted the work of the Children's Aid Societies and the other shorefront summer homes built along the beach. These charitable homes and hospitals, supported by New York's wealthiest residents, became the island's largest landowners and operated until construction of the Boardwalk forced them out. The societies saved thousands of young lives with the "Fresh Air Cure," and trained generations of immigrant mothers in proper hygiene and child rearing that prevented disease in New York's tenements. 

Malaria was the culprit at Coney Island in 1903, when disease-carrying mosquitos were found in foul standing water caused by the illegal filling and dumping along Coney Island Creek and the Brighton race track. The entire island was doused and sprayed with noxious oils, from one end to the other, in an attempt eradicate the problem. This created an ugly landscape and did little to solve the problem.

A polio epidemic hit New York hard in 1916, and parents with children were told to avoid amusement parks, swimming pools, and beaches. But the disease was already widespread, and many children suffered the horrifying effects of infantile paralysis before a vaccine was found. Coney Island remained open to the public throughout 1916, but few children were seen at the beach and amusements that year. 

The influenza epidemic of 1918 followed the polio epidemic, hitting its peak during the fall and winter of 1919, the off-season, when Coney Island's rides and amusements were already closed and crowds were absent. Coney Island escaped the worst effects of the deadly 1918 flu.

Rationing of oil, metal, and rubber during Word War II made ride maintenance difficult, but Coney Island operators were recyclers and experts at repurposing. Nothing was ever discarded, and the rides continued full blast during the war. The Island's bright lights were "blued out," dimmed, or covered with curtains that faced the ocean side.  Luna Park was lit with dim but colorful Japanese lanterns. Coney was considered important for the morale of soldiers on leave, or who were heading overseas and needed a last celebration. The "Underwood Hotel" below the boardwalk was livelier than ever during the war years, filled with romantic couples saying a last goodbye.

Social distancing in Coney Island has a more recent precedent. Street crime was out of control in the mid 1960s, and robbing the exposed ticket booths at rides became the rage for gangs of young thugs. Plexiglas shields and elaborate wire cages soon surrounded all booths and entrances to rides, keeping the public at a distance and protecting operators and patrons from harm. 

Super Storm Sandy arrived in late 2012 as the season ended. It dealt a devastating blow, but Coney Island's amusements had five months to make repairs before reopening in March 2013. This recovery led to a belief that all obstacles could be overcome.

But this year is unlike any other. Coney Island is being tested as never before. The Coney Island History Project and the Vourderis family of the Wonder Wheel had planned to make this centennial season unforgettable, and it turned out that it was, but for reasons that no one could ever have imagined.

Plans for the Centennial celebration of Deno's Wonder Wheel included special events like Broadway musical performers on the park's newly purchased property and our 9th annual Coney Island History Day on the Boardwalk; new and renovated rides, attractions, signage, and murals; and a splendidly refurbished Wonder Wheel. My new book, Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park, and an accompanying exhibit at the History Project would pay tribute to the history of Coney Island's greatest and oldest continuously operating attraction.

I spent the summer of 2019 researching the history of the Wonder Wheel on a tight publishing deadline so that it would come out in time for Memorial Day. The research was all primary source and I tracked down family members of the Wheel's original designers and operators whose stories had never been told. Many were planning to come to the Memorial Day celebration, including the 95-year-old daughter of Charles Hermann, the Wheel's creator. 

The reality of how this season would turn out began to sink in during early spring. "No opening for Palm Sunday? Maybe by Easter Sunday? Delayed until Memorial Day? Of course we'll open by July 4!" The season quietly disintegrated into despair and confusion. A Labor Day Weekend like no other in history came and went.

Due to the pandemic, the Coney Island History Project suspended walking tours, events at schools and senior centers, in-person oral history interviews and the exhibition center season. Starting in March, our staff transitioned to recording oral histories via phone and Skype and creating new virtual programming including podcasts and videos. Our online oral history archive was featured in the NY Times, Time Out NY and Curbed New York as a cure for loneliness, a way to lose yourself in fascinating stories from the past, and visit Coney from afar. 

Amusement parks don’t have the option of transitioning to virtual programming but Deno’s Wonder Wheel is an outdoor ride with 24 open-air cars spaced 15 feet apart. It was designed for social distancing and park owners made every effort to provide a safe space for visitors. Masks, Plexiglas, distancing markers, sanitizer stations were all in place, yet the Wheel and the park's other rides remained silent and still due to New York State executive order.  And now, as the season comes to a close, we can just hope for a better, safer, and much happier 2021. We will survive.

-- Charles Denson

 

 

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.)
www.gothamgazette.com/opinion/9205-we-want-a-ferry-for-coney-island-but-...

 

posted Apr 9th, 2020 in By Charles Denson and tagged with In Memoriam