Coney Island Blog - History

Mermaid Ave Then and Now

You're invited to join us on Zoom for "Mermaid Avenue, Then and Now," a virtual tour with historian Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project, on February 23rd.

We'll look at how Coney Island's Mermaid Avenue shopping district, where most of the storefronts were in three-story brick buildings constructed in the 1920s, was transformed by a destructive urban renewal project launched in 1949. Today the "Avenue," as residents called it, is recovering but remains a shadow of its former self. Denson grew up a block from Mermaid Avenue and will show his photo documentation of the street as it changed during the 1960s and 1970s, and as it appears today. 

The Coney Island History Project also invites anyone with Mermaid Avenue stories to sign up to record an oral history about their experiences on Coney’s famous Avenue. Some of the oral histories in our archive about Mermaid Avenue’s mom and pop businesses founded by immigrants past and present are featured in Episode 4 of our Coney Island Stories podcast.

Charles Denson grew up in Coney Island and began documenting his neighborhood as a boy, a passion that continues to this day. He is the author of four books: Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park; Wild Ride: A Coney Island Roller Coaster Family; Coney Island and Astroland; and Coney Island: Lost and Found, named 2002 New York Book of the Year by the New York Society Library. 

Tuesday, February 23 at 7:00 PM. FREE.
Advance registration is required. You will be sent the Zoom link two days before the event.

Register Here

 

 

This program is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and New York City Councilman Mark Treyger.

posted Feb 11th, 2021 in Events and tagged with Mermaid Avenue, Then and Now, Virtual Tour,...

Richard Glazer Danay

As Native American Heritage Month comes to a close,  listen to our oral history interview with Richard Glazer Danay, an artist who grew up in Coney Island and whose artwork celebrates his Mohawk iron worker ancestry. His extended family lived on West 16th Street and split their time between the Kahnawake (Caughnawaga) Mohawk reservation in Quebec and New York, where his father, uncles and cousins, as well as himself as a young man, were employed as iron workers. He was the first member of his family to be born in Coney Island.  

Photo Credit: Bingo War Bonnet from "Modern Mohawk Headdresses" series, 1995. Peabody Essex Museum Collection.

Thunderbolt Roller Coaster

Twenty years ago today, Coney Island's original Thunderbolt roller coaster was demolished. "Giuliani Razed Roller Coaster, And the Law" wrote Dan Barry in the NY Times in 2003, when "a federal jury in Manhattan ruled that the city had no justification for tearing down the Thunderbolt, and in doing so had trespassed on Mr. Bullard's property. It also determined that one city official, who was integral in the decision to demolish, had acted with 'deliberate indifference.' '' Photos of the Thunderbolt demolition in the Coney Island History Project Collection may be viewed here.

The Thunderbolt roller coaster was built in 1925 and operated until 1982. Famous as the inspiration for "The House Under the Roller Coaster" in Woody Allen's film Annie Hall, the coaster steadily decayed after its closing. In 2000, with Keyspan Park under construction next door, the city condemned the coaster as structurally unsound. Despite protests from preservationists and coaster enthusiasts, on November 17th, 2000, the Thunderbolt was demolished. 

posted Nov 17th, 2020 in History and tagged with Thunderbolt, Roller Coaster, demolition,...

Stauch's Movie Theater Coney Island

Today's #ThrowbackThursday photo shows the original Stauch’s building on Coney Island's Bowery at Stillwell being demolished in 1940 to make way for the Bobsled. It was a movie theater called Stauch's Old Time Movies in its last days. Photo from the Coney Island History Project Collection.

posted Nov 5th, 2020 in History and tagged with Stauch's, movie theater, Bowery,...

Tornado Roller Coaster

The Tornado -- Whirlwind Scenic Ride --Coney Island, NY. Postcard from the Coney Island History Project Collection.

Listen online to the Coney Island History Project's new oral history with Michael Liff. He shares stories of growing up in Coney Island and working in the amusement area as a teen in the 1970's. Working at the Tornado was his favorite job. He got to know the coaster's every dip and turn, and did everything from greasing the tracks, loading riders, and pulling the breaks to collecting money for re-rides by saying "Fifty cents to do it again!" Liff says "my love was for the Tornado" when asked to compare it to Coney Island's other legendary wooden coasters built in the 1920s, the Thunderbolt and the Cyclone. He also worked at Astroland's Diving Bell, kiddie rides, and haunted attractions, as well as the Bowery's water race games, where he learned to call people in. "I'm glad I have these memories," he says of Coney Island, which besides being a fun place to work is where he met his wife of nearly 40 years. "It gave me the opportunity to have a beautiful family. So it's something very close to my heart."

posted Oct 30th, 2020 in History and tagged with Tornado, Roller Coaster, 1970s,...

Eight years ago today Hurricane Sandy devastated Sea Gate and Coney Island. This film was shot on October 29, 2012 by Charles Denson for the Coney Island History Project.

posted Oct 29th, 2020 in History and tagged with Sandy, Hurricane Sandy, Sea Gate,...

Wonder Wheel Patent

Happy 100th Patent-Versary to Deno's Wonder Wheel! Filed in January, Charles Hermann's patent for his invention, which he said combined the thrills of a Ferris wheel with a gravity railway or roller coaster, was approved on September 28, 1920. An earlier design for what would one day become the Wonder Wheel was patented in 1915, writes Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project, in his new book Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park.  Published by Arcadia's Images of America series, the book contains hundreds of never-before-seen photographs, plans, and ephemera, including rare images from the Vourderis family archive and the Coney Island History Project archive, and interviews with the family of the original designer and builder of the Wonder Wheel. 

We look forward to seeing everyone in 2021 at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park on the Boardwalk in Coney Island for the long awaited celebration of the Wheel's 100th season.
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posted Sep 28th, 2020 in History and tagged with Wonder Wheel, Deno's Wonder Wheel, Coney Island,...

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

On August 16th, we'd ordinarily say Happy National Roller Coaster Day and propose celebrating with a ride on the Coney Island Cyclone.  Since New York's amusement park rides, including the Cyclone, have been closed this season by state executive order due to the pandemic, the word "happy" is hard to muster.  We're honoring the day with a selection of roller coaster-themed oral history interviews from the Coney Island History Project's Archive which you can listen to online. National Roller Coaster Day commemorates Edwin Prescott's August 16, 1898 patent for a vertical Loop the Loop. The looping coaster was built in 1901 on Surf Avenue in Coney Island where the 1927 Cyclone roller coaster is now.

Don Ferris, who passed away in 2018, was involved with everything that Coney Island had to offer. He was a carpenter, mechanic, and a showman who started his career with the Tilyou and McCullough families, operating roller coasters and road attractions. This recording describes how he started in the amusement business and how he wound up operating and living in an apartment inside the Tornado roller coaster.

Mindy Gress and her family moved to Coney Island when she was 3-1/2 and she has lived here ever since. She looks back on her job developing photos of Cyclone riders in the coaster's darkroom in the summer of 1977. "You had to wait for the ride to stop to develop it because the enlarger would shake and the photo would come out blurry." She also recalls riding the Cyclone for four hours straight with Richard Rodriguez, the roller coaster marathoner who was training for his record-breaking 104-hour Cyclone ride.

Harold J. Kramer shares memories of traveling from Chicago with his family to visit his great-aunt and great-uncle in Coney Island. Molly and George Moran owned and operated the Thunderbolt and lived in the house under the roller coaster, which was later immortalized in Woody Allen's 1977 film Annie Hall. Kramer recalls the cousins being given tokens to ride the coaster and play Skee Ball at Playland Arcade.

David Head is a retired NYC Transit worker and former chairman of the Black History Committee for TWU Local 100 who has championed the accomplishments of African-American inventor Granville T. Woods (1856-1910). Among Woods' many electrical patents was one for the world's first electric roller coaster, which was located in Coney Island a century ago. Head was instrumental in having a Coney Island street across from the Stillwell Avenue Subway Terminal renamed "Granville T. Woods Way."

Meg Feeley shares memories of a renegade ride on the Thunderbolt on a February night in the 1980s, a few years after the roller coaster had closed down. Meg is a writer who has written many poems inspired by her experiences in Coney Island.

Kyle Yapching had long awaited being tall enough to ride the Cyclone roller coaster. He visits his aunt and uncle every summer and finally in 2010 he was able to go on the historic roller coaster with his uncle.

Erik Knapp of the rock band Mystical Children arrives in the middle of the night to be the first person in line to ride the Cyclone on opening day. He shows off his fresh tattoo of the ride's top hill.

Avid roller coaster rider Bill Galvin recounts the time he wore a dress to participate in a women's marathon on the Cyclone roller coaster in 1997.

Visiting Coney Island from upstate New York in 2009, Robert Maxwell estimates that he has ridden the Cyclone at least 35-40 times since his first visit in the early 1990's. He describes why he likes riding in the front car best and how he worked with his tattoo artist to design his Cyclone tattoo. Riding the Cyclone is a fond memory Robert shares with his father who rode with him on his first visit to Coney Island.

If you or someone you know would like to share a story via phone, Skype or Zoom, sign up here. We record oral history interviews in English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and other languages with people who have lived or worked in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods or have a special connection to these places.

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

During these days of social distancing our online oral history archive was featured in the New York TimesTime 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 Island from afar. Among the new additions to the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive are the following audio interviews recorded by Kaara Baptiste, Charles Denson, Leila Goldstein, Julia Kanin, Ali Lemer and Tricia Vita. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story via phone, Skype or Zoom, sign up here. We record interviews in English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and other languages with people who have lived or worked in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods or have a special connection to these places.

Born and raised in Coney Island, artist Richard Glazer-Danay is of Kahnawake Mohawk and Jewish descent. His family first came to Coney Island with circuses and Wild West shows in the late 1800's and early 1900's and settled on West 16th Street. There were many hard hats around his house, and he became known for using these symbols of Mohawk iron workers as inspiration for his art works.

Charles Guariglia, 77, recalls that from age 9 until he went to college, he accompanied his dad on his bread route in the summer. They delivered Stuhmer's kosher bread to the Jewish delicatessens and shops along Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. "As I look back, it was probably the one experience that helped form me as an adult," he says. "Hard work, honesty, tell the truth at all times."

Lois McLohon posed for a Daily News photographer as a bathing beauty against the backdrop of Coney Island beach and its famous skyline in 1954. When the picture appeared as a "cheesecake photo" in the paper's centerfold, she and her friends thought it was fun. It wasn't till recent years, thanks to it being posted on the web, that the photo became iconic. "I think it captures the spirit of the times," says Lois.

Melody Andorfer recalls entering and winning Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest in 1972, the contest’s first year. She beat all competitors, men and women. Her prize was a paper crown. Melody recently contacted the Coney Island History Project with an unusual request: she wanted help getting her victory belt, the massive, jeweled prize that's now given to winners of the Nathan's contest.

Jim Lucarelli describes "the opportunity and the privilege" of working at Coney Island's Steeplechase Park in 1963 and 1964, the last two summers before the park closed, as a teenage ride operator at the Sports Car. He vividly recalls fighting the Ravenhall Fire from the top of a wooden coaster.

Artist Alisa Minyukova emigrated from St Petersburg to New York City with her mother and grandmother in 1981. She recalls childhood memories of St. Petersburg and Coney Island, and the common visceral memory of the Soviet Union in Brighton Beach. 

Richard Termini's earliest memories are of playing under the El on New Utrecht Avenue in Bensonhurst, where his family operated Termini's Bakery, and going to Coney Island’s Ravenhall Baths as a child. In 1962, he rode the Astroland Rocket, an experience that inspired a lifelong interest in designing and building high power rockets.

Born and raised in Coney Island, Marie Navarro says her family came here from Puerto Rico in 1957 and settled in Gravesend Houses in 1970. "Everybody knows each other," says Marie, "When you walk on Mermaid Avenue you run into family and friends and by the time you reach the station, it's 40 minutes, because you stop here, you stop there.”

Pamela Pettyjohn is a longtime Coney Island resident and president of the non-profit environmental advocacy organization the Coney Island Beautification Project. She talks about her involvement with community activities such as gardening and green spaces for public use.

Tapestry artist Leonid Alaverdov, 87, is a resident of O’Dwyer Gardens in Coney Island whose work is inspired by his native Baku, Azerbaijan, and New York City, where he immigrated in 1993. Recorded in Russian with Russian and English transcription.

Philly Tribune columnist Alonzo Kittrels shares memories of bus trips from the 1940s through 1961 to Coney Island with the Good Will Family Club founded by his grandmother. Since the trip to Coney was not limited to family members as many as five buses were required and there was a great deal of preparation and anticipation the night before.

Monica Ghee is a Coney Island native who has operated games at various locations in the amusement district on and off for the past 52 years. She recalls some of the games she has worked in the past, including the dime pitch, glass pitch, goldfish bowl, and her signature game - the high striker.

Actor Emmanuel Elpenord shares memories of growing up in Sea Rise apartments in Coney Island's West End in the 1990s and his unique souvenir of the Wonder Wheel.  He recalls auditioning for Luna Park's Nights of Horror Halloween event in 2012, in which he was cast as the Devil. "I still treasure the experience as like my little badge of carnydom in having worked at Coney Island," says Emmanuel. "I'm one of the freaks too."

Sea Lion Park Coney Island History Project Collection

Paul Boyton's Sea Lion Park in 1895. © Coney Island History Project Collection.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago today, on July 4, 1895, Paul Boyton opened Coney Island's and North America's first enclosed amusement park, Sea Lion Park, paving the way for Coney's other great parks, Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland. Erected on what would later become the original Luna Park, Boyton's park was a small collection of rides featuring the Shoot-the-Chutes water ride and the Flip-Flap looping coaster. Live sea lions entertained visitors. Visit our Oral History Archive to listen to an interview with Craig Boyton Dudley, great-grandson of Paul Boyton.

Sadly, the 125th anniversary year of Coney Island amusement parks and the 100th anniversary of the Wonder Wheel is the first time ever that Coney Island's world famous parks have been closed for the 4th of July holiday. Coney's historic parks, Steeplechase and Luna Park, remained open during World Wars I and II, as well as the 1918 flu pandemic. This year, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and Luna Park, which traditionally open for the season on Palm Sunday, are temporarily closed due to statewide regulations in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

We're looking forward to the August 3rd publication of Charles Denson's book Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park honoring the Wheel's 100th anniversary. Containing hundreds of never-before-seen photographs, plans, and ephemera, including rare images from the Vourderis family archive and the Coney Island History Project archive, and interviews with the family of the original designer and builder of the Wonder Wheel, the book is part of Arcadia's Images of America series.