Coney Island Blog - By Charles Denson

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

Happy Holidays from the Coney Island History Project

Happy Holidays and Warm Wishes for the New Year from the Coney Island History Project. We're thrilled to be celebrating our 16th anniversary and Deno's Wonder Wheel's centennial in 2020! 

As we look back on 2019, we're grateful to our members, funders, and friends for your continued enthusiasm and support, and proud of all that we've accomplished during the past 15 years. Special thanks to Carol Albert, who co-founded the Coney Island History Project with Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, creator of Astroland Park, for her ongoing support, and to the Vourderis family, operators of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, for providing us a home and for their interest in preserving Coney Island's heritage.

Highlights of our 2019 season include the special exhibition "Salvation by the Sea: Coney Island's 19th Century Fresh Air Cure and Immigrant Aid Societies," which was featured in the Brooklyn Eagle and on WNYC's All Of It. Visitors from the NYC metro area, across the country and around the world took part in themed history weekends at our free exhibition center and snapped souvenir selfies with the iconic Spook-A-Rama Cyclops and Coney Island's only original Steeplechase horse.

When immigrants sailed into New York Harbor at the turn of the last century, the first thing they saw wasn't the Statue of Liberty, it was the towers and bright lights of Coney Island. Our 8th Annual Coney Island History Day presented with Deno's Wonder Wheel Park celebrated Coney Island's immigrant heritage with performances of Russian classical ballet and Ukrainian folk dance, Afro Haitian drumming, Chinese traditional dance, songs in the Turkish and Rumeli tradition, and a Mariachi band.  You can watch a video recap of Coney Island History Day here.

In 2019, we recorded over 50 oral histories in English, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese and Spanish with people who have lived, worked or played in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods of Southern Brooklyn. More than 350 oral histories are available for listening in our online archive and at our exhibition center via our new SoundStik audio handset.

Our free Immigrant Heritage Walking Tour of Coney Island was conducted in English and Mandarin for Immigrant Heritage Week, organized by the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, and for Jane's Walk, organized by the Municipal Art Society. The Coney Island History Project exhibited at City of Water Day in Kaiser Park sponsored by the Coney Island Beautification Project and the Waterfront Alliance and did presentations about Coney Island Creek at Rachel Carson High School for Coastal Studies and the City Parks Foundation's Coastal Classroom.

Your donation or membership today will help support our 501(c)(3) nonprofit's free exhibition center, oral history archive, and community programming as we enter the new decade. We can't wait to see you again when the Coney Island History Project opens on April 5, 2020, for Coney Island's Opening Day! 

Charles Denson 
Executive Director 

 

Allan Yussim celebrating his birthday aboard Dennis Vourderis's fishing boat, 2019.

We were sad to learn that our friend Allan Yussim passed away last week at the age of 77. Allan was a really funny guy and an important member of the Deno's Wonder Wheel family where, for thirty-eight years, he was on call to help keep things running. He was a man of many talents: master electrician, carpenter, and the all around fix-it guy for the Coney Island community. In 2011, when we expanded the Coney Island History Project exhibit center, Allan was in charge of the project and did an incredible job. He also rebuilt the History Project after Hurricane Sandy and was always happy to consult on any problem we had.

Deno's Wonder Wheel Park co-owner Dennis Vourderis remembers him as his fishing buddy, and the two spent many days on the ocean catching stripers and porgies. "I am happy that I had the opportunity to be his friend and share with him the happiest days in his final years." Dennis said. "He demanded the best or nothing. His interest was only for the good of the park and for the long term. City electrical inspectors respected him and his work. I will truly miss him."

Services for Allan will be at Coney Island Memorial Chapel, W 20th Street & Mermaid Ave in Coney Island (2009 Mermaid Ave) on Friday Nov 15 from 4pm-8pm.

Allan building the Coney Island History Project exhibit center in 2011.

Mermaids still keep watch over Mermaid Avenue.

Woody Guthrie's 1950 song "Mermaid's Avenue" suggests that there's never been a mermaid on Mermaid Avenue, or at least that he's never seen one:

But there’s never been a mermaid here
On Mermaid Avenue
No, I’ve never seen a mermaid here
On Mermaid Avenue
I’ve seen hags and wags and witches;
And I’ve seen a shark or two
My five years that I’ve lived along
Old Mermaid’s Avenue

But Woody was mistaken. Just a few blocks from his home on Mermaid Avenue six stone mermaids could be found peering down from the roof of a one-story brick retail building, keeping watch over their namesake avenue. I remember the mermaids well from my childhood. At that time Mermaid Avenue was still a major shopping district with a lot of interesting architecture, but most of the buildings would be lost to urban renewal in the 1970s. 

The History Project recently received a request asking if the mermaids were still there:

"I remember a building on Mermaid Avenue on the southwest corner, and it was a one story commercial building.  The facade was a series of mermaid busts that ran along the building just below the roofline. What was interesting about these mermaids was that they were bare breasted, and they were all pinching their right nipples. My question is, would you know if there was any significance to the mermaids' pose, and is it possible that there are any photos of the building available."

Yes, the mermaids are still there! A little weathered and partially covered by signs and wiring, they still watch over the street that Guthrie once called home. All but one has lost her tail and, as far as the unusual pose, perhaps they are just a little bit shy and are trying to cover up. Here are some recent photos of the sculptures. We won't reveal the location as it's more fun to discover them on your own.

– Charles Denson

A beautiful mermaid above a beauty shop on Mermaid Avenue.

The only Mermaid Avenue mermaid that still has her tail.

A mermaid strikes a pose on Mermaid Avenue.

 

 

posted May 3rd, 2019 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Mermaid Avenue

The Grashorn Building in the 1880s

The historic Grashorn Building, Coney Island's oldest structure, has been given a death sentence by real estate speculator Joe Sitt of Thor Equities, and demolition of the vacant structure has begun.  The NYC Department of Buildings approved an application for demolition of the entire structure on January 23, 2019. The Grashorn is just the latest in a series of amusement landmarks destroyed by the self-proclaimed "savior" of Coney Island who bought up large chunks of the amusement area more than a decade ago.

Thor made no effort to renovate the building and left it to rot since purchasing it for nearly $2 million a decade ago. Save Coney Island, a preservation group opposing the city's rezoning plan, had proposed a renovation project in 2010, but Thor wasn't interested. Other than the squatters who periodically broke into the building, the only "tenant" was a TV crew who briefly used the ground floor to re-create the Susquehanna Hat Store for the HBO series "Bored to Death." During the filming of "Men in Black 3," the film's production crew used part of the building's gutted interior as its headquarters.

Despite making a $90 million profit flipping Coney Island property during the city's 2009 rezoning of the amusement zone, Thor Equities has recently run into financial problems. Sitt lost ownership of some of his Manhattan properties and has reportedly defaulted on bank loans. In 2018 he put his combined 21 Coney Island properties up for sale, abandoning his scheme to build a shopping mall and hotel complex in the amusement zone.

The Grashorn Building, with its mansard roof, cast-iron cresting, and fish-scale shingles, was built by hardware store owner Henry Grashorn in the early 1880s and is the last surviving structure from that era. It is believed that the contractor was John Y. McKane, the carpenter who became political boss of Gravesend and Coney Island only to wind up in Sing-Sing prison, convicted of corruption.

For more than 60 years, Henry Grashorn's hardware store met the unusual needs of amusement operators by carrying everything needed to operate or repair the rides of Coney Island. The two floors above the store served as a hotel. The building had several owners after Grashorn retired. The last owner before Sitt was the late Wally Roberts, who operated an arcade on the ground floor. Although the building's facade was heavily altered over the years, it still retained its original shape and was easily identifiable. The hotel rooms on the upper floors were perfectly preserved. The Grashorn now joins Thor's other victims, including the Henderson Theater and Coney Island Bank Building, which Sitt ordered demolished in 2010 despite local efforts to preserve them.

The vacant Grashorn Building after Thor Equities bought the property.

The Grashorn Building was the last surviving structure from the earliest days of Coney Island.

The two upper floors in the Grashorn Building were once a hotel.

Architectural rendering released by Save Coney Island in 2010. What could have been. . .   

The Grashorn Building in 1969 still had Henry Grashorn's brass signage.

Susquehanna Hat Store in the Grashorn Building, a set for the HBO series, "Bored to Death" in 2011. Photo © Charles Denson.

 

posted Mar 4th, 2019 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Development, demolition, Grashorn Building,...