Coney Island Blog - News

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

Share and preserve your memories by recording an oral history with the Coney Island History Project. We are recording audio interviews in English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and other languages with people who live or work - past or present - in Coney Island and adjacent Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods or have a special connection to the place. For inspiration, listen to some of the oral histories in our online archive. Interviews are recorded year-round in-person or via phone or Skype. You may schedule an appointment via our website.

posted Sep 4th, 2019 in News and tagged with Oral History Archive, oral history, Oral Histories,...

Coney Island History Project

Coney Island historian Charles Denson joined WNYC's All Of It on August 20 to talk about the Coney Island History Project's latest exhibit, Salvation by the Sea. You may listen to the segment here. The show was guest-hosted by Nancy Giles. 

Photo credit: The Sea Breeze Hospital on Surf Avenue at West 29th Street, circa 1890s. (Coney Island History Project )

 

Loop the Loop Edwin Prescott

Happy Roller Coaster Day from the USA to the UK! 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. Early this morning in the UK, Tricia Vita of the Coney Island History Project talked roller coasters and Coney Island with Paul Ross' Late Late Early Early Show on talkRADIO in London. Give a listen: 

 

 

City of Water Day

Wildlife Conservation Society volunteers visit with Charles Denson at the History Project's exhibit table; group photo of City of Water Day attendees; and Charles Denson frees a live horseshoe crab found tangled in monofilament fishing line.

On July 13, the Coney Island History Project exhibited at the 5th annual City of Water Day in Kaiser Park. Our table offered our "CreekWalk" walking tour brochures for Kaiser Park and Calvert Vaux Park, as well as the illustrated panels from the History Project's Coney Island Creek exhibit. Hundreds of community members spent a day on the shoreline of Coney Island Creek, learning about the history, future, and ecology of the once neglected waterway. The educational event was sponsored by the Coney Island Beautification Project and the Waterfront Alliance.
 

posted Jul 19th, 2019 in News and tagged with City of Water Day, Coney Island Creek, Kaiser Park,...

Coney Island History Project

Red, white and blue-clad visitors at the Coney Island History Project on July 4th. 

In the tradition of Coney Island's sidewalk photo studios of the past, visitors to the Coney Island History Project are invited to take free souvenir photos with Cy, the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, and Coney Island's only original Steeplechase horse. Browse through our Flickr album to see photos from the Coney Island History Project's 15th anniversary season and previous years.
 

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

Coney IslandHistory Project Oral History Archive

Among the additions to the Coney Island History Project's online Oral History Archive are the following audio interviews recorded by Charles Denson, Jiangxin Jin, Julia Khanina, Kaara Baptiste, Ruonan Zheng, and Samira Tazari. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story, sign up here.

Bensonhurst native Ralph Avella was 16 years old when he became the youngest member of the Coney Island Parachute Jump's operation crew in 1961 after graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School. This interview is probably the best description ever of how the Jump operated and what it was like to ride it.

Crystal Isley shares memories of growing up in Coney Island Houses in the 1980s and '90s. After a happy childhood growing up in a close-knit community, things started to change and ducking from gunshots became normal. "Either people saw Coney Island as the end-all, be-all, or they wanted more. I was one of the people who wanted more," recalls Crystal, who now lives on Ocean Parkway but says Coney Island will always be her home.

Yi Xin Tong is an artist from Mount Lushan, China, where he grew up learning calligraphy, poetry and fishing from his grandfather. At Coney Island Creek, which he describes as "the place that I can feel closest to home in New York," Yi Xin spends his time fishing for striped bass and flounder and creating videos. He recorded two interviews: one conducted in Mandarin and a second in English.

Khonya Epstein, 91, author and leader of the Holocaust Survivors Group at the Marks JCH of Bensonhurst, is a Ghetto Survivor and World War II Veteran. A native of Mogilev, Belarus, he tells the harrowing story of how he escaped the Nazi massacre of the Jewish ghetto and joined a partisan brigade at age 13. This interview was conducted and recorded in Russian and includes a Russian transcript and an English translation.

Connie Scacciaferro, 86, remembers going to Coney Island Beach as a child in the 1930's and a teen in the '40s. Among her childhood memories are her youngest sister getting lost and finding her eating ice cream at the police station; a cousin being saved from drowning by her father and uncle; and rides on the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway and the Cyclone.

Jewel Hough lives in Brighton Beach and has been working at Coney Island's Deno's Wonder Wheel Park for the past 18 years. She describes her favorite rides ("The Tilt-A-Whirl, I love it!") and the process of making cotton candy and candy apples at Deno’s Sweet Shoppe.

Ahmed Hussain, 24, has spent every summer since he was eight in Coney Island helping out in his family's stores in the amusement area. What he enjoyed most about growing up in Coney was his friendship with the operators of Faber's Fascination Arcade and Shoot Out the Star, whom he describes as his mentors.

Alito Hernandez shares memories of learning to breakdance as a young boy in the 1980's and the history of Fresh Kids crew in Coney Island. “They would break till dawn when I met them. I was a baby. I was inspired by them," recalls Alito, who says the Polar Express was the crew's stomping grounds and they practiced at Our Lady of Solace schoolyard.

Olga Lozar is a Sea Gate resident and Coney Island Polar Bear Club member. She talks about the pleasures of winter swimming and first learning to swim in the alpine lakes of the Caucusus Mountains. This interview was conducted and recorded in Russian and includes a Russian transcript and an English translation.

Song Xin is an artist who used traditional Chinese paper cutting techniques to create Tree of Life, a public art work in the Bay Parkway subway station in Bensonhurst. “The place is a new immigrant hub. I am one of them," says the artist, who moved to New York from Beijing in 2000. This interview was conducted and recorded in Mandarin and includes a Chinese transcript and an English translation.

The Coney Island History Project has over 330 oral histories archived online.  Most are in English, with long-time or former residents, workers or visitors.  In recent years we began recording interviews with immigrants and foreign-born New Yorkers both in English and other languages including Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and Turkish who live or work in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods in Southern Brooklyn.

posted May 2nd, 2019 in News and tagged with

Estuary Day

You're invited to the 5th annual It's My Estuary Day on Saturday, May 4, from 8:00AM-3:00PM, a day of service, learning and celebration along Coney Island Creek in Kaiser Park! The free event will include underwater robotics, oyster monitoring, diving demonstrations, water chemistry techniques, seining, microscope viewing of plankton, displays by environmental organizations, host talks, coastal clean up, lunch and networking.

Featuring over 40 partner organizations, this annual community event is organized by the Cultural Research Divers, BMSEA (Brooklyn Marine STEM Education Alliance), and NYSMEA (NY State Marine Education Association), and hosted by Making Waves, a coalition of stewards caring for Coney Island Creek and Kaiser Park, of which the Coney Island History Project is a member.

Stop by the Coney Island History Project's table to learn about our free programs, including our exhibit center, which opens Memorial Day Weekend. Pick up a copy of the Coney Island CreekWalk at Calvert Vaux Park booklet produced by the History Project for Partnerships for Parks. Visitors may also take a self-guided walking tour by following the markers created by the Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project for CreekWalk at Kaiser Park.

Estuary Day

posted Apr 30th, 2019 in News and tagged with Coney Island Creek, Estuary, It's My Estuary Day,...

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,...

Congratulations to NYC Council Member Mark Treyger, Borough President Eric Adams, and NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson for funding the repair and restoration of the deteriorating Ocean Parkway bicycle path, the oldest bike path in the country. According to Streetsblog, the Parks Department will begin fixing the bike path on Ocean Parkway this spring, thanks to a $1-million allocation from Treyger, and $500,000 each from the Borough President and the City Council.

Images from the Coney Island History Project archive show that from the 1890s to 1920s Coney Island was the most popular destination for an army of cyclists who traveled five miles down the Ocean Parkway Cycle Path to Coney Island from Prospect Park. A rustic wood pavilion located at the intersection of Surf Avenue and Ocean Parkway served as an end-of-ride meeting place, and nearby bicycle storage facilities provided parking for riders heading to the beach. Many cyclists had photos taken with their bicycles as a souvenir of their journey to Coney Island. Our print and tintype collection contains countless images documenting these early days of bicycling at the shore.

Women's bicycle club poses for a souvenir photo at Coney Island, 1897.

Cyclists line up at the beachfront pavilion at Ocean Parkway and Surf Avenue, 1890s

Joe's Bicycle Checking and Storage stand on Surf Avenue at West 5th Street.

A cyclist relaxes at Brighton Beach after a ride down Ocean Parkway.

Posing with their rides at Coney Island, 1916.

Sheet music, 1896

 

 

 

 

posted Feb 15th, 2019 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Ocean Parkway, bike path, bicycling,...