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 Stories Podcast

Happy International Podcast Day! “Schools of Their Own,” the new episode of Coney Island Stories, our podcast produced from oral histories in the Coney Island History Project's archive, has dropped. Listen and subscribe via Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Episode 11 shares the stories of four dedicated and innovative teachers who founded schools of their own in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods in Southern Brooklyn.

April Leong in the award-winning founder and principal of Liberation Diploma Plus High School, a small alternative high school in Coney Island. Dr. Tim Law established a program of free Chinese language classes for children at I.S. 96 Seth Low School in Bensonhurst. Irina Roizin realized her childhood dream of founding a ballet school, Brighton Ballet Theater School of Russian Ballet, on the campus of Kingsborough Community College in Manhattan Beach.  Misha Mokretsov is head coach and owner of Coney Island's New York Fencing Academy, located just down the block from the History Project. 

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.

This episode was produced by Charles Denson, Ali Lemer and Tricia Vita. Music by Blue Dot Sessions. Chinese translation by Keenan Yutai Chen. Voice overs by River Kanoff and Ali Lemer. The oral histories were conducted by Mark Markov, Samira Tazari, and Yolanda Zhang between 2015 and 2019. You can listen online to the full interviews featured in this podcast in the History Project's oral history archive


posted Sep 30th, 2021 in News and tagged with Coney Island Stories, podcast, schools,...

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,...

Steeplechase Park

Today in history, Steeplechase Park (1897-1964) closed forever.  Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson described the closing ceremony in the chapter titled "The Death of Steeplechase Park" of his book Coney Island: Lost and Found:

"Steeplechase Park closed at the end of the season on September 20, 1964. Marie Tilyou, Bill Nicholson, and Jimmy Onorato were together  at the traditional closing as the park's bells were slowly tolled once for every year of operation. The sound system played 'There's No Business Like Show Business' and then 'Auld Lang Syne.' Thousands of lights were switched off slowly, row after row, on each toll of the bell. As it turned out, the park went dark for the last time. Bill Nicholson left the closing ceremony with Tilyou and her friends and walked to the Clam Bar for drinks."

Marie Tilyou was the daughter of Steeplechase Park founder George C. Tilyou. Bill Nicholson was the executive secretary of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce and  Jimmy Onorato was the park's manager, and for a time, its president. 

Photo courtesy of Dan Pisark. 

posted Sep 20th, 2021 in History and tagged with photo of the day, Steeplechase Park, Coney Island,...

Visitors from Chile

A group of very enthusiastic visitors from Chile visited the Coney Island History Project exhibition center on Labor Day. We typically ask people "where are you visiting from," and this year almost everyone said "here" or named a Brooklyn neighborhood or New York City borough. We love our fellow New Yorkers, but unlike past seasons, we met very few tourists from out-of-state and only a handful from other countries due to travel restrictions. It was exciting to welcome a group all the way from Chile on the last day of our 2021 season.

Visit us in Coney Island in 2022!

Photo Credit: Coney Island History Project

Coney Island History Project

We're excited to share the news that the Alliance for Coney Island’s 2021 mural project is completed and our stretch of West 12th Street has been brightened and beautified. The Coney Island History Project's gates are among the 15 locations of the NYC Department of Small Business Services' funded project. 

Artist Danielle Mastrion’s amazing mural for the History Project features the legendary Elephant Hotel, which was on West 12th Street from 1885-1896, and the Wonder Wheel’s Thrills sign. Next door, artist Erin Mathewson emblazoned the gates of the Miss Coney Island, Skin the Wire and Feed the Clown attractions with murals of games and rides, including Deno’s Carousel and Phoenix Roller Coaster.

Visit allianceforconeyisland.org/murals to see all of the project's murals from 2020 and 2021 in Coney Island’s amusement district and on Mermaid Avenue. 

Photo Credit: Norman Blake

Murals West 12th Street Coney Island

posted Aug 26th, 2021 in News and tagged with mural, Murals, art,...

“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,...

Coney Island History Project West 12th Street

Visit the Coney Island History Project and our next door neighbors Deno's Wonder Wheel, the Phoenix roller coaster, Miss Coney Island and Skin the Wire. Our free exhibition center is open weekends and holidays thru Labor Day, 1-7PM. Plus we have a free outdoor exhibition of banners celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Wonder Wheel on view thru October inside Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park.

Photo Credit: Jim McDonnell

posted Aug 14th, 2021 and tagged with

Under the Boardwalk

#ThrowbackThursday: Umbrellas for rent and soda for sale under the Boardwalk at West 23rd Street and the Boardwalk. 1950s photo from the Coney Island History Project Collection.

Listen to the Beach Days episode of our Coney Island Stories podcast!