Coney Island Blog - Events

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

Dredge in Creek

In November, Charles Denson will be presenting a short video about his 50-year documentation of Coney Island Creek at the Annual Conference of the NY-NJ Harbor and Estuary Program. He will also be a member of a panel discussion about “Vulnerable Waterways” that includes the New York Aquarium, Coney Island Beautification Project, SWIM Coalition, Coney Island History Project, and Billion Oyster Project. 

The New York - New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program (HEP) "brings the benefits of the Clean Water Act to the people who live, work, and recreate on our shared waterways. Created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the request of the governors of New York and New Jersey, HEP is an ongoing effort to develop and implement a consensus driven plan to protect, conserve and restore the estuary."

The conference schedule will be announced shortly at hudsonriver.org/estuary-program.

Photo Credit: Charles Denson. Swimmers next to the poisonous dredging for the ill-conceived ferry dock at Coney Island Creek. 

posted Oct 11th, 2021 in Events and tagged with Coney Island Creek, Conference, Waterways,...

Coney Island History Project Louisiana Old State Capitol

We're thrilled that selections from the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive have been touring America since 2017 with NEH on the Road's Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland exhibit! The exhibition is now at Louisiana's Old State Capitol Museum in Baton Rouge thru October 20. The next stops are Hoyt Art Center in Pennsylvania and Manitowoc Public Library in Wisconsin before the tour concludes in March 2022 after having traveled to 18 communities in 14 states.

Among the Coney Island History Project interviews featured in the exhibit are Beth Allen, who was an incubator baby in Dr. Martin Couney's sideshow in Luna Park; Joseph Albanese, who recalls a time when police didn't allow bathing suits on the boardwalk even though bathing suits were very modest; and Ron Rossi and Ronald Ruiz, who talk about their experiences riding the Parachute Jump, the Cyclone and Steeplechase Horse Race at Steeplechase Park. Clips from these interviews and several others are running on a loop at one of the listening stations in the exhibition.

The NEH-funded exhibit, which first opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and traveled to the Brooklyn Museum and San Diego Museum of Art, was adapted from its original format to make it available to smaller venues in communities large and small across the country. The traveling exhibition from NEH on the Road explores America's playground as a place and as an idea, examining its persistent presence in the American imagination.

NEH on the Road is a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities designed to create wider national access to the ideas, themes, and stories explored in major grant-funded NEH exhibitions. The program is funded by the NEH and run by Mid-America Arts Alliance, a non-profit regional arts organization located in Kansas City. 

posted Sep 26th, 2021 in Events and tagged with NEH On The Road, NEH, Coney Island,...

“Sign Painters and Artists,” the new episode of Coney Island Stories, has dropped! Listen and subscribe via Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Episode 10 shares the stories of Coney Island sign painters as well as artists and designers who’ve been inspired by Coney’s celebrated signage, all taken from the History Project’s Oral History Archive.

The Coney Island style of hand-painted signs was perfected more than a century ago by Wildman and Sons, a shop in the heart of the amusement manufacturing district just off Surf Avenue. Amusement signs were meant to stand out and be instantly readable from a distance on the chaotic streets of Coney Island. Some lettering was illustrative and comical, flowing along slanted or arching baselines that created motion. The wording could be expressionistic, but still adhered to the rule of being readable. And then there are the pictorial signs, the traditional Coney classics, like iconic images of hot buttered corn or mustard-covered hot dogs, signs that don't need text or explanation.

The oral histories in the podcast are with Coney Island sign painter Sam Moses; advertising professional and former sign painter John Rea; artist and School of Visual Arts instructor Stephen Gaffney; and watercolor artist Frederick Brosen. The interviews were conducted by Charles Denson, Samira Tazari, and Tricia Vita between 2010 and 2019. This episode was produced by Charles Denson, Ali Lemer and Tricia Vita. 

Listen to previous episodes about Coney Island's legendary roller coasters, beach, bathhouses, and restaurants and other businesses on Mermaid Avenue and in the amusement area via your fave podcast app or the podcast page on the Coney Island History Project's website.

Photo credits: Top right, Watercolor painting by Frederick Brosen, “Surf Avenue,” 2007.  Bottom right, Photo of Sam Moses painting at Deno's Wonder Wheel by Charles Denson, 2017. Bottom left, Photo of Paul’s Daughter by Stephen Gaffney, 2016.

posted Aug 25th, 2021 in Events and tagged with Coney Island, Coney Island Stories, podcast,...

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,...

City of Water Day Kaiser Park


Join us on Saturday, July 10, at Coney Island Creek in Kaiser Park to celebrate City of Water Day! The Coney Island Beautification Project is hosting the event from 9AM - 2PM. Stop by the Coney Island History Project's table and say hello. This year's City of Water Day joins the Waterfront Alliance in highlighting a regionwide message of climate change, resiliency, sustainability, sea level rise and green jobs.

On Sunday, July 11, help beautify and preserve the environment by volunteering for the Coney Island Clean-up sponsored by Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus and the Coney Island Advisory Committee, Assembly District 46. The location of the clean-up is Coney Island Creek. For more info visit the event’s Eventbrite page.
 

posted Jul 1st, 2021 in Events and tagged with City of Water Day, Kaiser Park, Coney Island,...

Coney Island Stories Podcast

"Love and Marriage," the new episode of Coney Island Stories, has dropped! Listen and subscribe via Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Episode 9 shares stories of couples who met, got engaged or married in Coney Island, all taken from the History Project’s Oral History Archive. Visitors to our exhibition center often tell us that they or their parents or grandparents met or had their first date in Coney Island. Over the years, we’ve witnessed marriage proposals on Deno’s Wonder Wheel and weddings and wedding party rides on the Cyclone roller coaster.  

Many a Coney Island courtship of the 20th century began on the beach and continued with a stroll on the boardwalk and ride on the Steeplechase horses. Steeplechase Park founder George C. Tilyou famously observed of his mechanical horse race ride that “the young men like it because it gives them a chance to hug the girls; the girls like it, because it gives them a chance to get hugged.” 

The oral histories in the podcast are with Ellen Abrams, Michael Liff, Max and Stef, Tara Altebrando, Gina Femia, and The Reverend Cliff Herring. The interviews were conducted by Charles Denson, Katya Kumkova, Ali Lemer and Tricia Vita between 2014 and 2021. This episode was produced by Charles Denson, Ali Lemer and Tricia Vita. 

Listen to previous episodes about Coney Island's legendary roller coasters, beach, bathhouses, and restaurants and other businesses on Mermaid Avenue and in the amusement area via your fave podcast app or the podcast page on the Coney Island History Project's website.

Photo credits: Top right, Engagement photo of Gina and Freddy by Jody Christopherson. Courtesy of Gina Femia. Bottom left and right, Coney Island History Project Collection. 

posted Jun 30th, 2021 in Events and tagged with podcast, oral history, history,...

PS 90 Coney Island History Project

For July 4th Weekend, the Coney Island History Project exhibition center will be open Saturday through Monday, July 3, 4 and 5, from 1-7PM. Visitors can watch movies about Coney Island history and take souvenir photos with the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, our original Steeplechase Horse, and other wonders. Admission is free of charge. The exhibition center is located on West 12th Street next to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and the new Phoenix roller coaster.

This season, the Coney Island History Project is also presenting a series of outdoor exhibits. The first is a collaboration with PS 90, The Magnet School for Environmental Studies and Community Wellness, which is located up the block from the History Project on West 12th Street, half a block from Coney Island Creek.

"The student artists were asked to illustrate the natural world vs. the built world surrounding Coney Island Creek,” said Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project. “We decided to use the traditional Coney Island banner medium to display the incredible artwork that the students produced for this project. The banners will be used to initiate a dialogue about the ecology of Coney Island. We’ve enjoyed a years-long partnership with PS 90, and enjoy lending support to our neighbor’s program of environmental studies and community wellness. These young students are the environmental stewards of the future."

A selection of banners will be displayed on July 10 at City of Water Day in Kaiser Park (see news item below) before being installed at PS 90, Maimonides Park, and other locations. The art pictured on the seven colorful 14 foot by 3 foot banners was created by PS 90 students under the guidance of Ms. Luz Morales.

“The Magnet School for Environmental Studies and Community Wellness is committed to learning about climate change and the role our community can play to combat it,” said Greta Hawkins, the school’s principal. “Expressing our appreciation of the natural wonders of our oceans through art is part and parcel of our studies at the school. We have a partnership with Mr. Denson and are grateful to the important work of the Coney Island History Project. The banner is representative of our longstanding collaboration with CIHP, and it is our students' way of connecting the natural environment with their Coney Island community. Aren't they amazing?" 

In April, PS 90 was one of 27 schools across the country designated a Green Ribbon School by the US Department of Education. The school was honored for their innovative efforts to reduce environmental impact and utility costs, improve health and wellness, and ensure effective sustainability education.

Coney Island History Project Photo by Norman Blake

Coney Island History Project banner being raised while muralist Danielle Mastrion paints our gates in preparation for this weekend's reopening. Photo By Norman Blake.

We’re thrilled to announce the Coney Island History Project is reopening Memorial Day Weekend for the 2021 season after 18 months of virtual programming. In accordance with NY State and City Covid-19 health and safety guidelines, the part of our exhibition center with an open-air front has been reconfigured for socially distanced viewing. Visitors will be able to view movies about Coney Island history, and see and take souvenir photos with Cy, the mesmerizing Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, our original Steeplechase Horse, and other wonders.

In addition, starting in June, we’re presenting a series of outdoor exhibits at Deno’s Wonder Wheel, P.S. 90, and other locations in Coney Island. All exhibitions are offered free of charge. Located on West 12th Street adjacent to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and the new, under-construction Phoenix roller coaster, our exhibition center is open Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day, on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, from 1:00PM -7:00PM.

Visitors may purchase books, souvenirs, T-shirts and memberships at the History Project's exhibition center. They can also schedule appointments to record an oral history interview for our archive via phone, Zoom or Skype. For the safety of guests and staff, in-person oral history interviews and weekend walking tours remain postponed until further notice. We thank everyone for their understanding and continued support of the Coney Island History Project during these challenging times.

 

Coney Island Stories Coney Island History Project

On Memorial Day Weekend, lifeguards will once again be perched in their towers and New York City will celebrate the reopening of Coney Island's beach for swimming. Our new podcast episode "Beach Days" has dropped! Listen and subscribe to Coney Island Stories on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Episode 8 shares stories of days at the beach from the 1920s through the 1990s taken from the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive.

The stories include childhood memories of family outings, a hidden playground under the boardwalk, a lava hot spot on the sand, the knish man, teenage memories of daring swimsuits, summer jobs renting beach chairs and umbrellas, and working as a lifeguard. Memories span the 1920s, when beach goers were fined as much $5 each - the equivalent of $75 today - for walking on the boardwalk in bathing suits, to the 1990s, when “under the boardwalk” was filled in with sand and a way of life changed forever.

The oral histories in the podcast are with Joseph Albanese, Connie Scacciaferro, Richard Termini, Ron Vernon, Steve Larkin, and Crystal Isley. The interviews were conducted from 2009 to 2019 by Charles Denson, Amanda Deutch, Samira Tazari, and Tricia Vita. This episode was produced by Charles Denson, Ali Lemer and Tricia Vita.

Listen to previous episodes about Coney Island's legendary roller coasters and bathhouses, Mermaid Avenue, and family-owned restaurants and other businesses via your fave podcast app or the podcast page on the Coney Island History Project's website.

Photo credits: Top right, bottom left: Courtesy of Connie Scacciaferro. Bottom right: Coney Island History Project Collection.

posted May 24th, 2021 in Events and tagged with podcast, oral history, history,...