Coney Island Blog - History

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

Visit the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive to listen online to audio interviews with Coney Island residents, business owners, and visitors - both past and present. Among the additions to our online archive in 2016 are the following interviews recorded in English, Spanish and Russian. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story, sign up here.

Artist Johanna Gargiulo Sherman shares vivid memories of growing up in Coney Island, where her family lived on Mermaid Avenue above the Carolina Restaurant. Her father Joe "Carolina" Gargiulo led a musical trio and was one of the partners in this popular Italian restaurant from 1947 through the 1980s. 

Ecuadorian-born Julio Sauce is a Gravesend resident who has been running in the Coney Island 5K, Brooklyn Half Marathon and New York Marathon since 1998 and is among the fastest local runners in his age category. The interview was recorded in Spanish and includes Spanish and English transcripts.

Shirley Aikens, president of the Carey Gardens Tenants Association and a member of Community Board 13, recounts moving to Carey Gardens with her one-year-old daughter in the 1970s, her first impressions of Coney Island, and how the community has changed over the years.

Antoinette Balzano, a granddaughter of Anthony "Totonno" Pero, the founder of Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitana, tells her family's story. Pizzas have been made in the same way at the Neptune Avenue restaurant since 1924.

Cultural Research Divers' founder Gene Ritter is a Coney Island native, environmental advocate, commercial diver and educator who grew up on West 16th Street. He shares his knowledge of oceans, estuaries, and Coney Island Creek.

Alfie Davis, who has lived in Coney Island for nearly 40 years and is the Tenant Association Leader of the Sea Rise I complex in Coney's West End, tells the story of three generations of her family.

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

Coney Island resident Derrick Batts opened Coney Island Hook and Bait Shop on West 24th Street off Mermaid Avenue in May. He recounts learning about life from fishing and gardening, both of which he was introduced to as a boy by older members of the community, and passing on that knowledge to young people.

Candi Rafael, whose family operates games on Coney Island's Bowery, grew up here and started helping out as an eight-year-old. Now 22, she demonstrates the spiel that she uses to call people in to play the games and describes what it's like to work in Coney Island. 

On her first day back in Coney Island since 1959, Kathy Duke O'Melia shares memories of joyful summers spent with her family at a bungalow colony located on West 31st Street near Coney Island Creek. 

Commendatore Aldo Mancusi, the founder of the Enrico Caruso Museum of America, recalls visiting Coney Island in the 1930s and '40s and growing up in Brooklyn in an Italian family.

Historian Eric K. Washington delves into the life of E.J. Perry, an African-American silhouette artist who worked in the early 20th century at Luna Park, where it was said "he is there with a nice spiel and and he cuts your picture with the scissors in a minute."

Coney Island resident Zinovy Pritsker emigrated from Leningrad to Southern Brooklyn in 1978. His jazz big band, founded 20 years ago, consists of 18 Russian musicians and singers plus a few Americans. The interview was recorded in Russian and includes Russian and English transcripts.

posted Dec 27th, 2016 in History and tagged with oral history, Oral History Archive, Interviews,...

"50th Anniversary of Fred Trump's Demolition of Steeplechase Pavilion" Opens May 28

On September 21, 1966, real estate developer Fred Trump threw a demolition party at Steeplechase Park’s Pavilion of Fun, exactly two years after Coney Island’s legendary amusement park had closed.  While the champagne flowed and bikinied models posed for photos, Trump invited guests to hurl bricks through the stained glass Funny Face, the symbol of Steeplechase.

Opening May 28, 2016, the Coney Island History Project’s new exhibit, "The 50th Anniversary of Fred Trump's Demolition of the Steeplechase Pavilion," examines in photos, ephemera, and oral history, the importance of the pavilion and the memories of local personalities who dealt with Trump before and after the tragic demolition of a Coney Island landmark. History Project director Charles Denson interviewed many of the players involved in the loss of Steeplechase and the exhibit reveals many little known facts about Fred Trump’s history in Coney Island . Here are the top ten:

1. The Albert family of Astroland Park made an offer to buy Steeplechase but Marie Tilyou turned them down. Irving Rosenthal of Palisades Park also tried unsuccessfully to buy Steeplechase. Tilyou didn’t want to sell to an amusement operator and chose instead to sell to Fred Trump, who planned to build high rise apartments.

Astroland seeks to buy Tilyou's - Coney Island History Project Collection

News article from Coney Island History Project Collection

2. Fred Trump’s 19 year old son Donald was present with his father and Steeplechase Park owner Marie Tilyou at the signing of the sales contract for the park.

3. Fred Trump not only bought Steeplechase Park, he had also owned the old Luna Park site and the Velodrome site. He lost both in 1955 due to his blacklisting by the federal government

Vacant Luna Park Site - Coney Island History Project Collection

Vacant Luna Park site. Coney Island History Project Collection

4. Fred Trump hired the builder of Coney Island Creek’s Yellow Submarine to demolish the Parachute Jump in 1966 but reneged when the $10,000 price was too high.

5. Fred Trump offered to demolish the Parachute Jump for free in 1991, even when it was a landmark and he no longer had a financial interest in it.

6. Fred Trump was largely responsible for relocating poor families from the site of Trump Village, which was built in 1964, to the dilapidated summer bungalow colonies of Coney’s West End, creating a poverty pocket that led to the decline of Coney Island. He also profited by collecting fees for the relocations.

Bungalow Colony - Coney Island History Project Collection

Bungalow colony in Coney's West End. Coney Island History Project Collection

7. Fred Trump was fined for illegal filling of Coney Island Creek in relation to a concrete mixing facility.

8. Fred Trump placed an unusual amusement in the Steeplechase Pavilion in the months before he demolished it, an animal husbandry exhibit that was a satellite attraction of Murray Zaret's Surf Avenue Animal Nursery.

Murray Zaret's Pet Festival and Animal Husbandry Exhibit - Coney Island History Project Collection

Promotional poster for Murray Zaret's Pet Festival. Coney Island History Project Collection

9. Fred Trump, who was known as a shrewd businessman, finally met his match in Coney Island when he was outsmarted by a long-time Coney Island operator and then tried to hire him.

10. In 2009, the City’s Economic Development Corporation fulfilled Fred Trump’s dream by rezoning the western half of the Steeplechase site, which is now the MCU parking lot, for high rise apartments.

Demolished Steeplechase Pavilion Coney Island History Project exhibit. Photo by James Onorato

Demolished Steeplechase Pavilion. Photo by James Onorato. Coney Island History Project Collection

"The 50th Anniversary of Fred Trump's Demolition of the Steeplechase Pavilion" is on view at the Coney Island History Project's exhibition center from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. New hours are 1:00 PM till 7:00 PM. Admission is free of charge. We're located at 3059 West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, just a few steps off the Boardwalk.

View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past. Among the treasures on display is Coney Island's oldest surviving artifact, the 1823 Toll House sign, which dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to “the Island” was 5 cents! You're invited to take a free souvenir photo with Coney Island's only original Steeplechase horse from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name.

The Coney Island History Project was founded in 2004 by Carol Hill Albert and Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, creator of Astroland Park. Executive director Charles Denson is a Coney Island native, a noted historian, and the author of the award-winning book Coney Island: Lost and Found.


On Thursday, May 26, Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson will give a slide talk called "Immigrants Who Made Coney Island Famous" at the Coney Island Library, 1901 Mermaid Avenue at West 19th Street. The talk begins at 6:30pm and is free to the public.

"My talk tells the story of several immigrant families who started small in Coney Island and then went on to become enormously successful due to hard work and perseverance," says Mr. Denson. "Immigrants like Nathan Handwerker of Nathan's Famous and Denos Vourderis of the Wonder Wheel started with nothing, built successful businesses, and helped to shape Coney Island. Immigrant artisans Marcus Illions and William Mangels brought craftsmanship and artistic experience from their native countries and built factories in Coney Island that produced great works of folk art in the form of carousels and other amusements. Recent immigrants continue to play an important role in the community." 

posted May 11th, 2016 in Events and tagged with Coney Island, history, immigrants,...

To The White House or Bust

Bernie Sanders will pay an historic visit to the Boardwalk on Sunday afternoon. After a rally at 2pm -check-in starts at 11-- he'll participate in the New York electoral tradition of eating a hot dog at Nathan's Famous.  Coney Island is a favorite campaign stop for local politicians, but we can't recall a rally by a presidential candidate. Back in 1911, however, Luna Park staged a race between an elephant and a donkey, from Coney to Washington. "1912--TO THE WHITE HOUSE OR BUST!" There's no record of whether the GOP's elephant or the Dem's donkey won the race, but Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson beat Republican William Taft and Progressive Teddy Roosevelt in the 1912 election.

Among the recent additions to the Coney Island History Project's online Oral History Archive are the following interviews. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story, either in person or on the phone, sign up here

What better place than Coney Island for a man who floated down the Amazon River in a rubber suit and was the first to swim the English Channel. Craig Boyton Dudley talks about his great-grandfather, Paul Boyton, who built Sea Lion Park, Coney Island's first enclosed amusement park, in 1895. Boyton's Shoot the Chutes was incorporated into Luna Park and operated until 1944. 

Economic development specialist Georganna Deas is a Coney Island resident and advocate who has lived in the Gravesend Houses on Kaiser Park for 40 years. Among the issues she talks about was getting rid of the smokestacks along Coney Island Creek, challenging the Transit Authority to make Coney Island a one-fare zone, and organizing against the privatization of Coney Island Hospital.

Louise Milano shares memories of her mother, Carolina, who operated Carolina Restaurant on Mermaid Avenue for 60 years, and of growing up in a restaurant family. Carrie prepared traditional home style cooking such as breaded baked clams, fried zucchini flowers, and stuffed artichokes with garlic that remains memorable to generations of Coney Island residents.

Taty Alicea and her son Ralph Alicea share fond memories of Coney Island's famous Laughing Lady, a popular mechanical attraction that was part of the Magic Carpet Fun House and is greatly missed. 

Federico Ausbury and Maira Vergara are a husband-and-wife music duo whose band is called A Flying Dodo Society. Last summer, they busked on the Q train and in Coney Island on the boardwalk and the pier. They talk about their journey from Argentina, where Maira is from and they first met, and Puerto Rico, where Federico grew up, to Brooklyn and Coney Island. Ausbury sings one of his new songs, "Coney Island (Shake Your Shoes)," accompanying himself on kalimba.

Marina Rubin, the author of Stealing Cherries (2013), reads excerpts from her book of flash fiction, and talks about storytelling, poetry and the Russian Jewish immigrant experience. Born in the small town of Vinnitsa, Ukraine, she immigrated to the U.S. with her family, who sought political asylum and settled first in Bensonhurst and then in Coney Island. 

David Head is a retired NYC Transit worker and former chairman of the Black History Committee for TWU Local 100. He talks about the accomplishments of Granville T. Woods (1856-1910), an African-American inventor whom he has championed. 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 Stillwell Terminal renamed Granville T. Woods Way and wrote a book about Woods' career.

Gabriel Valencia lives in Coney Island and has worked at Gregory & Paul's eatery, now called Paul's Daughter, for 20 years. He came to New York from Mexico to join his brother and learned English little by little, by talking with the customers at the counter. Paul Georgoulakos and his family are good people who treat him "like family," says Valencia. He tends the bar at the popular restaurant, which was founded at this location in 1962 and is the oldest on the Boardwalk. 

Basil Jones is the chef at Footprints Cafe in Coney Island, which specializes in Caribbean cuisine, and is the originator of their famed Rasta Pasta. Born in Jamaica, Jones learned to cook as a boy helping out in his grandmother's kitchen. He talks about his culinary career, from his first job at a hotel restaurant to creating unique dishes for Jamaica's 25th anniversary. A scholarship to culinary school brought Jones to the U.S, where he settled in Brooklyn and developed the original menu for Footprints.

Misha Mokretsov, head coach and owner of the New York Fencing Academy in Coney Island, has trained nationally top-ranked fencers in every age group. He says that fencing is an intellectual as well as a physical sport, making it a popular choice of parents and one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. Among his fencing academy's first students were the children of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants who had fenced in their youth. When weather permits, the students do physical conditioning on Coney Island's beach.

posted Mar 28th, 2016 in History and tagged with oral history, Paul Boyton, Carolina Restaurant,...

Coney Island Pumping Station Interior

One of the first photos inside‪ the Art Deco ‎Coney Island‬ ‪P‎umping Station‬ since it was sealed up decades ago was taken today by Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. An official site visit was arranged by NYCEDC to get an idea of the building's condition. 

"The pump house has a shimmering reflecting pool, aqua tiles, and brilliant yellow floor," said Charles Denson. "It's doubtful that the lower level can ever be used again when the building is repurposed as it lies below sea level. I can imagine its future as a ferry terminal, ecology center, community center, or museum. It certainly should be landmarked and included in the City's resiliency plans for Coney Island Creek."

For historical background on the 1938 municipal structure by famed architect Irwin Chanin, check out the History Project's blog post from last October.



B&B Carousell Copyright Charles Denson

Jimmy McCullough, former owner of the B&B Carousell, poses with his wife and daughters in front of the historic ride before its sale to the City in 2005. Photo ©  Charles Denson.

Last week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced the good news that Coney Island's B&B Carousell was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places. In January, Gillibrand wrote to the National Park Service explaining that although the current location at Steeplechase Plaza is new, the site was formerly Steeplechase Park and is historically symbolic and appropriate.
History owes a debt of gratitude to Bishoff and Brienstein, the carousel's namesakes, who brought the ride back from New Jersey in 1932, and Jimmy McCullough who bought it from his cousin Willy Bishoff in 1973, and his partner Mike Saltzstein, who kept the carousel spinning year-round on Surf Avenue until his death in 2001.

In this 2009 interview for the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive, Charles Denson talks with Jimmy McCullough, who passed away in 2013. Jimmy McCullough learned the carousel business from his father, James McCullough, who began his career working on the Steeplechase and Stubbman carousels. Working in Coney Island was a family business going back generations for Jimmy who was a descendent of both the Tilyou and the Stubbman families. 

Jimmy and his family owned and operated numerous small amusement parks and carousels in Coney Island, including the historic carousels that are now in Prospect Park and Flushing Meadows Park, as well as Coney's B&B. Built in 1919 at the Coney Island factory of William Mangels, the B&B Carousell was the last remaining ride on the north side of Surf Avenue and the last of Coney Island's historic carousels when it was acquired by New York City in 2005. The resplendently restored carousel was installed in a new pavilion next to the Parachute Jump in Steeplechase Plaza in 2013. 

posted Mar 14th, 2016 in History and tagged with B&B Carousell, Jimmy McCullough, Mike Saltzstein,...

Coney Island History Project Oral History Program

Visit the Coney Island History Project's redesigned Oral History Archive to listen online to audio interviews with Coney island residents, business owners, and visitors - both past and present - as well as our new Immigrant Narratives of Southern Brooklyn series. Among the recent additions to our online archive are the following interviews. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story, message us via this page to schedule an interview.

Eldorado ticket taker Mary Hood came to Coney Island as a child and worked on the Bowery well into her 90s. During the 1930s to 1950s, she worked all the sideshows in Coney Island and would also substitute for Madam Tirza at the Wine Baths when Tirza was missing in action. Charles Denson recorded several interviews a few years before she died in 2013. She was one of a kind.

Steve Arniotes and his family operated the Lido Restaurant and Bar on the Coney Island Boardwalk from 1927 until 1960. Steve and his brother were lawyers and both became judges. Arniotes describes his family roots and what it was like to operate a popular attraction at the "World's Playground."

Hector George Wallace tells the story of his immigration from Jamaica to England to Coney Island, where he has been an itinerant sign painter for the past four decades. Wallace's painting style is ubiquitous, and can be seen on the facades of Ruby's, Paul's Daughter, and Pete's Clam Bar. Although Wallace has formal art training, his signs are Coney Island primitive and have become collectibles. His style of art work is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by plastic corporate signage. 

For the Coney Island History Project's first-ever "on-ride" oral history, interviewer Samira Tazari mixed recordings of her ride on the Bowery's popular 5D Cinema and an interview with the indie attraction's owner Terry Zheng. Known as "Tommy" to his fellow Coney Island business owners, he was born Cai Feng Zheng in China, and started his business in Coney Island while still in his 20s.

A native of Kiev, Mermaid Spa founder Boris Kotlyar talks about bringing the Russian banya tradition to Coney Island. In the mid-1990s, together with Ukrainian-American friends who felt the lack of an authentic Russian bathhouse in Southern Brooklyn, he set about researching how to build a banya as close as possible to that which they remembered. The interview was recorded in Russian, and includes Russian and English transcripts.

Eva Zucker recounts memories of growing up in a Yiddish literary household in 1940s and 1950s Coney Island and Sea Gate. Her father was the Yiddish poet A. Lutzky, who made a living writing Saturday poems for the newspaper Der Tog and organizing concerts by cantors and poets. He loved to write on trolley cars and buses going from Sea Gate to Manhattan, accompanied at times by his daughter. A. Lutzky was the pseudonym of Aaron Zucker (1894-1957).

Among the more than 800,000 refugees who fled Vietnam in the years after the fall of Hanoi and safely arrived in another country are the Luong family, who were resettled in New York City and have been homeowners in Coney Island for more than 25 years. Now in his 70s and retired, Mr. Luong looks back on the hazardous journey, his first years as an immigrant, and the "sheer good luck" that brought him his first job. The interview was recorded in Cantonese, and includes Chinese and English transcripts.

One Saturday in May when we arrived to open up the Coney Island History Project exhibit center, a group of people holding signs that spelled out WILL YOU MARRY ME??????? caught our eye. A couple was getting engaged on the Wonder Wheel! After Max from Brooklyn proposed to Stef from Montreal and she said yes, they shared their story with Charles Denson in our recording studio beneath the Wonder Wheel. 

Levent Demirgil is the owner of Coney Island Gourmet in Stillwell Terminal which was shuttered for nearly three years since being devastated by Hurricane Sandy. The interview was recorded when renovations were underway and the store recently reopened as a restaurant called Magic Gyro. He talks about the history of Coney Island, and, because "it became lively once more," his hopefulness for its future. The interview was recorded in Turkish, and includes Turkish and English transcripts.