Coney Island Blog - News

 

New Years Day Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge

The place to be on New Year’s Day is Coney Island and the best way to welcome 2023 is with a splash in the Atlantic. Join the Coney Island Polar Club for their 120th Annual New Year’s Day Plunge on January 1st from 11 AM until 2 PM. The party starts on the Boardwalk at 10 AM.

Polar Bear Club president Dennis Thomas talks about the New Year's Day Plunge over the decades in an oral history he recorded for the Coney Island History Project in 2019: "It's been going on as long as anybody knows and it used to be just kind of an informal gathering of the Polar Bear Club itself. Then more people from the public," says Dennis, who began swimming with the Bears in the 1970s. "When I first started, if there were a hundred people there, we'd say, wow, this was huge. It's a bucket list thing. People want to do it once in their life and New Year's Day is a great day to do that."

There is no fee to participate but all funds raised help support local non-profits offering environmental, educational, and cultural programming including the New York Aquarium, the Coney Island History Project, Coney Island USA, Coney Island YMCA, and more.

Visit polarbearclub.org to register in advance for the New Year's Day Plunge or make a donation.

Photo Credit: Jim McDonnell
 

posted Dec 22nd, 2022 in Events and tagged with Coney Island Polar Bear Club, New Year's Day, Coney Island,...

Coney Island History Project

Among the recent additions to the Coney Island History Project's oral history archive is an interview with Rachel Rosenberg Simon, whose grandparents owned and operated Rosenberg's Kosher Deli Restaurant on Mermaid Avenue from 1917 to 1975. 

“The store was everything!" says Simon, who grew up on West 29th Street in Coney Island around the corner from her family's business. Rosenberg’s was considered the finest deli on Mermaid Avenue as all the food in the restaurant including the mayonnaise was homemade. In her oral history, Simon describes the entire family including herself working at the restaurant, which was open fourteen hours a day, six days a week.

Simon recalls the downfall of Mermaid Avenue and Coney Island and the loss of the store due to urban renewal. In 1975, Rosenberg's went out of business when the tenants in the upstairs apartment set fire to the building. The interview was recorded by Charles Denson, who also grew up in Coney Island and remembers rescuing one of the Art Deco mirrors from Rosenberg's as the building was about to be torn down. "Those mirrors were gorgeous," says Simon. "The store was great. It was beautiful. We didn't take pictures. Who knew the store was ever gonna close, you know?"

John Philip Capello Photos By Bruce Handy

John Philip Capello is a painter and sculptor who grew up in Bensonhurst in the 1940s and '50s and moved from Brooklyn to Sag Harbor in 1989. Our newly published oral history with him is the culmination of the interviewer's twelve-year search for the mystery artist who carved faces into rocks on the shoreline at Brighton Beach.

"In 2010, I saw a photo of one of these carved faces on Twitter, but I didn't know where it was on the Coney Island peninsula," says Tricia Vita, who records oral histories for the Coney Island History Project. "So I asked my friend, photographer Bruce Handy, if he could find them. He spent the whole summer looking and at the end of the summer he actually found the rock faces in Brighton." When Vita shared the photos on her blog, some commenters remembered seeing the rocks being carved in the 1970s while others were sure the carvings were ancient. The artist remained unknown.

It wasn't until this year that Vita was able to learn the identity of the artist and record his oral history. In his interview, Capello describes carving the rocks in Brighton Beach around 1975 with his brother Luciano, who worked as a church restorer, and one or two friends. "We looked into the stones and saw what we wanted to see," he says. "A nose, an eye socket, a place to put a mouth or chin, you know, that's already there, but just take away the stone that didn't belong."

John Philip Capello Carving Photo by Bruce Handy

Capello says that he and his brother had studios in Brighton Beach and on Kings Highway in the 1970s, and once they started carving the rocks, it became an obsession. “We would call each other, ‘Hey, you're gonna go down to Brighton. Okay, I'll meet you there,’ so we packed lunches and a bottle of wine and sometimes beer.”

The stone carvings have remained out of the public eye for so long because they’re usually buried in the sand. The rock faces are visible only at low tide and after a storm.

In 2022, Jim McDonnell, another photographer friend of the interviewer, came across photos of Capello’s sculpture from a past show at Nabi Gallery. “He has a good eye and he could see it was from the same hand,” said Vita. “The gallery’s website mentioned that the artist grew up in Brooklyn. That was a big clue.” In the NY Times review of the artist’s 1999 show at Nabi, Phyllis Braff writes: “Very traditional in feeling, John Philip Capello's figurative marble sculpture combines an archaic appearance with evidence of the image being taken from the stone.”

John Philip Capello is a self-taught sculptor and painter who was mentored by his brother Luciano. “He was the only teacher I had,” Capello says in his oral history. “I never took any formal classes.” In this 2017 video recorded at the Parrish Art Museum, Capello gives a slide talk about his work.  The artist has exhibited at many galleries, including Summa Gallery in New York City and Romany Kramoris Gallery in Sag Harbor. He is a member of the National Society of Mural Painters, Artist Alliance of East Hampton, and Southampton Artists Association. His paintings and sculpture are represented in over 100 private collections.

“One of the things I enjoyed about being a stone carver,” says Capello, “is I'm a painter, but the paintings will perish. The stone will last, so they leave a legacy.”

John Philip Capello

posted Dec 18th, 2022 in News and tagged with John Philip Capello, artist, sculptor,...

Coney Island History Project

Happy Holidays from the Coney Island History Project! As 2022 comes to a close, we're grateful to our supporters.

Highlights from this year include:

•  Opening our season with a special exhibition of photography by Barbara Rosenberg (1938-2016), who documented Coney Island for 50 years and left her work to the Coney Island History Project

•  Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the opening of Astroland with a permanent exhibit of history panels in front of  the Astroland Rocket and belatedly celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1920 Wonder Wheel with an outdoor exhibition of history banners at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park 

•  Producing Season Two of our Coney Island Stories podcast, "Growing Up in Coney Island" through the decades, from the 1930s to the 21st century, and Zoom events featuring oral history narrators from the podcast

•  Recording new oral histories for our multilingual online archive, which now has over 435 interviews with people who have lived or worked in Coney Island and nearby neighborhoods of Southern Brooklyn or have a special connection to these places

•  Presenting performances by dancers and musicians from the Greek Folklore Society and Jokes with Josue: A Haitian Puppet Show by Emmanuel Elpenord in the plaza below the Phoenix roller coaster in Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park

•  Connecting with the community at It’s My Estuary Day on Coney Island Creek in Kaiser Park and at 10th Anniversary of Superstorm Sandy screenings of Charles Denson’s film, The Storm, at Coney Island Brewery and the Maritime Film Festival at City Lore

Your donation or membership today will help support our 501(c)(3) nonprofit's free exhibits, oral history archive, and community programming as we enter our 19th year.

We’re counting the days until we meet again in Coney Island for the 2023 season! 

Charles Denson
Executive Director
 

As we near the end of 2022, the Coney Island History Project pays tribute to four Brooklynites that we lost this year who recorded their stories for our oral history archive: Charles Berkman, Sheldon Krimsky, Joe Lazzaro, and Aldo Mancusi. Their stories captivated, inspired and informed us and they will never be forgotten.

Charles Berkman

Charles Berkman (1928-2022)

“I was named for an uncle in Poland and Jews couldn't be lawyers then. Jews couldn't go to college in Poland. The one who I was named for practiced with other lawyers and helped other lawyers who practiced law. I heard about him all my life, like a lawyer, although he wasn't a licensed lawyer. I was going nights to Brooklyn College. So there was a girl and this girl was from the neighborhood. So I would drive her home. We became very friendly. And at one point she says, you know, Charlie, two of your classmates are going to law school. Instead of just graduating Brooklyn College why don't you think about that? And I thought it was a good idea. I thought about it a little bit all my life because I was named for this uncle who was practicing law without a license in Poland.” – Charles Berkman

Charles Berkman grew up in Coney Island during the Great Depression, the youngest of nine children of an orphan immigrant from Poland, who he describes as “the hardest worker I’ve ever known.” In his oral history, Berkman remembers helping his father peddle fruit on Mermaid Avenue from the age of 6.  As a teenager, he had summer jobs in the amusement area making waffles and setting up the milk bottles in a ball game. He graduated from Brooklyn College – at the time tuition-free -- and then from Brooklyn Law School. Taking a page from his father, who was always self-employed, Berkman hung out his shingle on Mermaid Avenue and represented his neighbors in Coney Island before going on to establish his own law firm in downtown Brooklyn. After 55 years practicing law, he gave the family firm, The Berkman Law Office, to his daughter Marna, who continues it today. 

 

Sheldon Krimsky

Sheldon Krimsky (1941-2022)

“The other thing that comes to mind was street class. It's very unusual, but some older kid, mostly a guy, I think, would get a group of kids and say, Hey, you kids want to learn something. We're going to run classes on the street. So we would all gather and this guy would teach us something on the street, would go over things. Mathematics. Social Studies. History. A few things like that. For some reason or other after we played stickball, we would go to these street classes and there were people who just wanted to teach. That was part of their, I don't know, their DNA or something. So this was something that I remember very clearly.” – Sheldon Krimsky

Sheldon Krimsky and his family lived at 2995 West 29th Street in Coney Island from the time he was four until he graduated from college. In his oral history, he shares memories of playing street games, publishing a newspaper with his classmates at Mark Twain Junior High, and working as a cashier at the corner pharmacy at age 13. A guidance counselor told him about the test for Stuyvesant High School and he spent the next four years commuting from Coney Island to Manhattan. In later years, when he returned to look for his boyhood home, it was gone. Urban renewal had resulted in the demolition of thirty square blocks in the West End. Sheldon Krimsky was Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University for 47 years. “He delved into numerous scientific fields — stem-cell research, genetic modification of food and DNA privacy among them — and sought to pinpoint the dangers,” according to his obituary in the NY Times

 

Joe Lazzaro

Joe Lazzaro (1927-2022)

“I came here with my dad when the Municipal Baths was on the beach where the Aquarium is, the front end of the Aquarium. I was a kid then. My dad would take my clothes. He’d go into the Municipal Baths. Pay 10 cents with a basket. Give them my clothes. And then I would dress and undress on the beach cause I was a youngster. That's my early days that I remember. I always swam out to the barrels. They had the barrels. So that's where I learned how to swim, take the ropes out to the barrels. And they claim that since they did away with the barrels, they have less drownings because at the time I didn't know how to swim, but I used to go out to the barrels. All the way out. And then the older boys would step on the ropes. And a few times I took some nice drinks of Coney Island water because I didn't know how to swim.” – Joe Lazzaro

Joe Lazzaro was a member of the Iceberg Athletic Club, a group of Coney Island cold-water-bathing enthusiasts, from 1971 until the club disbanded in 2007. He continued to spend time at the beach every day, often accompanied by his grandchildren. In recent years, he could frequently be found sitting in front of the Childs Restaurant building on the Boardwalk.  In his oral history, Lazzaro remembers the history of the club, its members, and the positive effects of cold-water swimming. He also recalls riding the Parachute Jump in two different locations - first as a child at the World's Fair in 1939, and then as an adult in Coney Island.

 

Aldo Mancusi

Aldo Mancusi (1929-2022)

“When we wound up in Coney Island, of course my mother made food enough for all of us. You know, we were very well taken care of as far as food is concerned but whenever we passed Nathan's, there was a tug on my father's coat. And I would say to him, "Papa…. Frankfurter!" I spoke in Italian, my first language. And so I said, I want a frankfurter. And he would give me a slap in the back of the head. And he'd say in Italian: “Walk. Walk and keep quiet.” But I didn't know why he refused me a hot dog. They were only a nickel. But you see later on, he said to me, my dear son, in my little purse--- the one that snapped shut, the old leather purses that men used to carry--he had just enough in there to get us there and get us home. We had no extra for coffee or a bottle of soda or a Nathan's hot dog. But I got even with him because now every time I pass by I stop and get at least two.” – Aldo Mancusi

Commendatore Aldo Mancusi, the founder of the Enrico Caruso Museum of America, brought his Hofbauer street organ from the museum to our Coney Island History Day celebrations in 2015 and 2016. In his oral history, Mancusi shares stories of growing up in an Italian immigrant family in Brooklyn, family outings to Coney Island as a boy, the effect that the Depression had on his father's job making designer shoes for I. Miller, and the expense of taking a date to Coney as a teen. His interest in Enrico Caruso began with his father's record collection and grew as a result of his friendship with Michael Sisca, who bequeathed his Caruso collection to Mancusi with the idea that he start a museum. Located in the Homecrest section of Southern Brooklyn, the museum was founded in 1987.  

posted Dec 14th, 2022 in News and tagged with In Memoriam, Charles Berkman, Sheldon Krimsky,...

Coney Island Stories Podcast Episode 8

"Growing Up in the 2000s," the new episode of Coney Island Stories, has dropped. Listen and subscribe via your podcast app or the podcast page on our website.

Season Two’s theme is “Growing Up in Coney Island” through the decades, from the 1930s to the 21st century. In Episode Eight, the final episode of this season, we’re sharing the stories of narrators who grew up in Coney Island or came here from nearby neighborhoods, in the first decade of the 2000s.

The new millennium began with the opening of a thirty million dollar ballpark for a Mets farm team on the site of Steeplechase Park. A contest was held to name the new team and the Brooklyn Cyclones was the winning name. Whenever the Cyclones won a home game, Astroland’s Cyclone roller coaster enjoyed a surge of business.

Soon after Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, he set his sights on Coney Island. He envisioned world-class attractions and hotels surrounded by high-rise residential development on vacant amusement land. The objective was to make Coney Island into a year-round recreational oceanfront destination by rezoning it. The ensuing zoning battle kept Coney in the headlines for the next six years, as speculators bought and sold land, and preservationists and stakeholders offered alternative visions for the future of the “People’s Playground.”

The oral histories in Episode Seven are with Ahmed Hussain, Abby Jordan, Bonnie Kong, Candi Rafael, and Eric Sanchez. The interviews were conducted by Kaara Baptiste, Allison Corbett, Amanda Deutch, Samira Tazari, and Lauren Vespoli between 2015 and 2022. This episode was produced by Charles Denson, Ali Lemer and Tricia Vita. Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

This program is sponsored in part by an Action Grant from Humanities New York with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

posted Oct 7th, 2022 in Events and tagged with Coney Island, Coney Island Stories, oral history,...

NY Coastal Resiliency Plan Coney Island
The New York Harbor Coastal Resiliency Plan by the Army Corps of Engineers went live on their website on September 26, and it's a shocker. The proposed $52 billion plan for New York and parts of New Jersey will have extreme consequences for Coney Island and the surrounding shorefront communities and gives no guarantees that any of the projects will work. 

At first glance the plan seems to favor mechanical flood control rather than proven natural means such as raised living shorelines and restored marshes. There are no details provided about the mechanical "storm surge gate" on Coney Island Creek, the "elevated promenade" on the Coney Island beach, and the "extra large floodwall" at Coney Island Creek Park and Sea Gate. It appears from the report that the Boardwalk would have to be raised five feet above its current height. 

If many of the measures proposed in this plan are implemented, they could result in an environmental nightmare for local waterways, provide only marginal protection, and exacerbate flooding.
Will Coney Island be surrounded by towering floodwalls, massive levees, and mechanical floodgates? (The plan is searchable for Coney Island and maps appear on pages 139 and 202.) Make your comments known before the January 6, 2023 deadline. The plan will be finalized in two years, and construction begins in 2030. The only thing for sure is that Coney Island will never be the same. -- Charles Denson

The report can be viewed and downloaded at:
nynjharbor.tribstudy@usace.army.mil Maps: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New York District">https://www.nan.usace.army.mil/Portals/37/NYNJHATS%20Draft%20Integrated%20Feasibility%20Report%20Tier%201%20EIS.pdf

Comments can be submitted to: 
Mr. Bryce W. Wisemiller
Project Manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
nynjharbor.tribstudy@usace.army.mil 

Maps: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New York District 

NY Coastal Resiliency Plan Coney Island
 

Coney Island Stories Podcast

"Growing Up in the 1990s," the new episode of Coney Island Stories, has dropped. Listen and subscribe via your podcast app or the podcast page on our website.

Season Two’s theme is “Growing Up in Coney Island” through the decades, from the 1930s to the 21st century. In Episode Seven, narrators who grew up here in the 1990s share stories of loss and change. They remember living in Gravesend Houses and Sea Rise apartments as well as on West 5th, West 8th and West 19th Streets. The Boardwalk, the Beach, Astroland, the Cyclone Roller Coaster and the Wonder Wheel were their playgrounds.

The decade began with the Cyclone winning a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. The same year, a fire gutted the wooden house under Coney’s other surviving roller coaster from the 1920s, the still standing but nonoperational Thunderbolt. The house was known to film lovers as Woody Allen’s boyhood home in the movie Annie Hall, but it was originally built as the Kensington Hotel in the late 1800s. It was the last remaining structure from Coney’s original waterfront, since the shoreline at that time was much farther inland than it is now. The 1925 coaster was caught between an owner who neglected it, and City officials who considered it an eyesore. Some viewed the Thunderbolt as a symbol of Coney’s decline, but to many, it served as a monument to survival.

The oral histories in Episode Seven are with Tiana Camacho, Emmanuel Elpenord, Theresa Giovinni, Allen James, and Marina Rubin. The interviews were conducted by Amanda Deutch, Katya Kumkova, Ali Lemer, Samira Tazari, and Tricia Vita between 2014 and 2020. This episode was produced by Charles Denson, Ali Lemer and Tricia Vita. Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

This program is sponsored in part by an Action Grant from Humanities New York with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

posted Sep 9th, 2022 in News and tagged with Coney Island, Coney Island History Project, podcast,...

We're hiring a Community Engagement Coordinator!

The Coney Island History Project (CIHP) is seeking a part-time community engagement coordinator to do outreach and tabling events to support our community based programs. The CIHP’s multilingual online oral history archive features over 400 audio interviews with people who grew up, live, or work in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods in Southern Brooklyn, or have a special connection to these places.

The coordinator will recruit and qualify potential narrators interested in recording oral histories and participating in group reminiscence events, both remotely and in person. The coordinator will receive orientation and professional development training to be able to represent the CIHP knowledgeably and effectively. While learning about oral history and our oral history archive, the coordinator will also receive paid training to learn how to conduct, record, edit, and archive oral history interviews. 

The ideal candidate is a New York City resident with an interest in Coney Island and its history and culture. Preference will be given to residents of Coney Island and the NYCHA housing projects in the community, or those who have a familiarity with Coney Island and NYCHA housing from living or working there in the past. College students as well as retirees are encouraged to apply.

The job is anticipated to start in October and will be a hybrid position working remotely from home and in-person in the community. This is a grant funded position of 10-12 hours per week @ $20 per hour for a total of 250 hours over 20-25 weeks. After successfully completing the term of the grant, the community engagement coordinator will have the opportunity to join our roster of freelance oral history interviewers @$25.00 per hour.

-Excellent communication and interpersonal skills and ability to establish positive relationships with community residents

-Ability to work independently as well as collaboratively with oral history interviewers, and executive and administrative directors

-Recruit and schedule community residents to record oral history interviews through online and phone outreach and at in-person community events

-Keep a record of potential oral history narrators and re-contact those who expressed interest in recording an interview

-Host table and network at local events to renew and strengthen existing relationships in the community and establish new relationships

-Increase visibility and word-of-mouth and participation for CIHP and our programming in the community

-Flexibility to work evenings or weekends as needed to attend community events

-Professional or volunteer experience in community outreach

-Interest in learning how to conduct, record, edit and archive oral history interviews 

Details at a Glance

TIME COMMITMENT: Part Time Schedule

JOB TYPE: Temporary. This is a grant funded hybrid position of 10-12 hours per week @ $20 per hour for a total of 250 hours over 20-25 weeks.

START DATE: October 12, 2022

APPLICATION DEADLINE: October 6, 2022

EDUCATION: High School Diploma Required

Level of Language Proficiency: Proficient in English. Fluency in another language a plus.

Location: Work must be performed in or near Brooklyn, NY

Please apply via our ad on Idealist where you can upload your resume, cover letter, and writing sample (three-paragraphs).

posted Aug 30th, 2022 in News and tagged with job alert, job, part-time job,...

MANY NYSCA Capacity Building Grant

We’re pleased to announce the Coney Island History Project has been awarded a grant for capacity building from the Museum Association of New York (MANY) in partnership with the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA). Capacity building grants up to and including $5,000 were awarded to 102 grantees in New York State.

The Coney Island History Project is using the funding to hire a part-time community engagement coordinator to do outreach to support our community based programming. The coordinator will recruit and qualify potential narrators interested in recording oral histories and participating in group reminiscence events, both remotely and in person. See our ad on Idealist.com for more details and to apply for the job.

"We are thrilled and grateful for this opportunity to expand our outreach into the Coney Island community," said History Project Executive Director Charles Denson, "especially after two difficult years caused by the pandemic."

“The arts and culture sector is facing a multi-year recovery process after two years of unimaginable challenges,” said Mara Manus, Executive Director, NYSCA. “We are grateful to MANY for their stewardship of this opportunity that will ensure New York State museums continue to grow and thrive. We send our congratulations to all grantees on their awards.”

“We thank NYSCA for this partnership and this opportunity to rapidly distribute much-needed funding to New York’s museums,” said Erika Sanger, Executive Director, MANY.

Partnership Grants for Capacity Building are made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.