Coney Island Blog - News

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

Among the new additions to the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive are the following interviews recorded by Kaara Baptiste, Keenan Chen, Charles Denson, Leila Goldstein, Julia Kanin, Ali Lemer, Shavon Meyers,  Mónica Cordero Sancho, and Tricia Vita. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story remotely 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.

Coney Island resident Stanislav Baev is the founder of American Alliance for Protection of Animals, a not-for-profit that promotes animal welfare. In addition to rescuing animals from the streets and finding foster and forever homes for them, AAPA manages two feral cat colonies in Southern Brooklyn. Recorded in Russian with Russian transcript and English translation.

Jeffrey Berman, 77, is a Coney Island native who has lived in Sea Gate since establishing his first artist's studio here when he was in his 30s. On teaching drawing from life at the Seaside Innovative Senior Center, he says: "For older artists, this is a good thing.  You have to develop a memory for what you're looking at, so a lot of things go into working from life. You get eye hand coordination. Your mind gets new pathways."

Greg Birbil recalls 'Pop's store' - the Paradise Luncheonette - a fixture on Surf Avenue across from Steeplechase Park from 1928 through the 1950s. He also shares stories of working at Steeplechase as a teen and the community of Greeks from Asia Minor in Coney Island in the 1940s-'50s.

Nancy Gabriel, 94, talks about visiting her great uncle, Peter Lazaris, who ran a food concession at Steeplechase Pool from the 1930s through the 1950s, and riding the Steeplechase horses and the Chanticleer carousel.

Lifelong Brighton Beach resident Amparo Garcia shares stories of Brighton then and now. While many of her Lincoln High School classmates have relocated to the Carolinas and Florida, Amparo has no plans to leave Brighton Beach. "I'm not ready. It's not for me," she says. "I have everything right here."

Roller coaster enthusiast John Hunt has been building scale models of coasters and amusement park attractions since he was a boy. Among his most popular models are Coney Island's world-famous landmarks -- the Cyclone Roller Coaster, Deno’s Wonder Wheel and the Parachute Jump.

Barbara Unterman Jones shares memories of being one of the first families to move into Coney Island's NYCHA Gravesend Houses when it was built in 1954. She recalls a sense of community with residents sitting on a bench in front of the building, seltzer delivery to her door, and having free run of the neighborhood, including the beach and boardwalk, as a child.

Sheldon Krimsky lived at 2995 West 29th Street until he graduated from college. "When I went back to my street, there is almost nothing that is the same," he says. "Everything was razed to the ground." His memories of growing up in the 1940s and '50s include playing stickball and street games and publishing a newspaper with his classmates at Mark Twain.

Robert Levrini shares memories of growing up on West 5th Street, where he was allowed to roam as far as Coney Island Creek and the amusement area. His grandfather’s shoe repair shop on Ocean Parkway left an indelible impression. He says that to this day when he shines a pair of shoes, he can feel his Grandfather Levrini's presence.

Michael Liff recalls growing up in Coney Island across the street from the amusement area where he worked as a teen in the 1970s. His favorite job was running the Tornado, where 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!"

Carole Scheer tells the story of her father, Anthony Cosmo Pomaro, who owned and operated Cosmo Topper's Beauty Parlor on Mermaid Avenue. Open from 1950-1973, the store was originally located near West 36th Street and later moved to a larger space between 32nd and 33rd. 

Coney Island resident Gabriel Valencia has worked at Gregory & Paul's Boardwalk eatery, now called Paul's Daughter, for 25 years. He recounts his first impressions of Brooklyn, the captivating ocean view from Paul's store, and how the menu items and Coney Island's amusement area have changed over the years. Recorded in Spanish with Spanish transcript and English translation.

Juanhua Zhao, Tai chi teacher at Coney Island Seaside Innovative Senior Center, shares her life story. Born in 1938 in Guangdong Province, China, she and her husband first came to the US in 1998. They settled in Coney Island to be near their son, who lives in Bensonhurst. Recorded in Cantonese with Chinese transcript and English translation.

posted Dec 26th, 2020 in News and tagged with oral history, Interviews, Coney Island History Project,...

Happy New Year


As the terrible days of 2020 fade into history, we look forward to a season of recovery in 2021 that enables us to be reunited with our Coney Island friends. We're grateful to all of our members, funders, and friends for your continued enthusiasm and support, and proud of all that we've accomplished this year and during the past 16 years. Special thanks go to Carol Albert for her ongoing support of our mission. Carol co-founded the Coney Island History Project with Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, the creator of Astroland Park. We also thank the Vourderis family, operators of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, for providing us a home, and for their interest in preserving Coney Island's history.

We can’t wait to celebrate the Wonder Wheel’s 100th anniversary in 2021 - its 101st year. The Coney Island History Project’s special exhibition on the 100th anniversary of the Wheel was also delayed, but will appear next season to document one of Coney Island's most remarkable survival stories. We also extend an invitation to anyone with a Coney Island story to contact us and sign up for an oral history interview. It's more important than ever to keep Coney Island's heritage alive!

In 2021, you can also explore Coney Island history through new episodes of our Coney Island Stories podcast; oral histories, videos and virtual exhibitions on the History Project website; and free Zoom activities and outdoor events. Your donation or membership today will help support our 501(c)(3) nonprofit's community programming. Through December 31, 2020, the CARES Act lets donors deduct up to $300 in qualified charitable contribution whether or not you itemize your 2020 return.

We’re counting the days until we meet again in Coney Island for the 2021 season!

Charles Denson
Executive Director

posted Dec 24th, 2020 in News and tagged with Coney Island, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year,...

Michael Goldstein

We're sad to learn that our friend Michael Goldstein, known as "Looch," passed away on December 16 at the age of 78 in North Carolina after heart surgery. A longtime game operator on Coney Island's Bowery, he started out in 1954 as a 12-year-old, earning 75 cents an hour, and by his fourth year was a partner in the game. "It was a different era, a different culture," he says in this oral history recorded in 2017 by Charles Denson for the Coney Island History Project. 

Looch grew up at 2907 Mermaid Avenue in an apartment above Rosenberg's Deli and recalls all the stores and attractions in the neighborhood. His voice and memories are featured in Mermaid Avenue in the 1950's, a film by Charles Denson.

posted Dec 17th, 2020 in News and tagged with In Memoriam, oral history, Michael Goldstein,...

Small Business Saturday Coney Island

On Small Business Saturday take a moment and listen to the Coney Island History Project's oral histories of small business owners on Mermaid Avenue and #ShopSmall. Pictured here are Ho Cheung Li of J & R Pharmacy, Sabino Eugenio and Magda Perez of Mermaid Prime Meats, Steven Feinstein of the 100-year-old Wilensky Hardware, and Derrick Batts of Coney Island Hook & Bait Shop on West 24th St off Mermaid.  J & R Pharmacy and Wilensky Hardware are also featured in Episode 4 of our new podcast, which tells the stories of Mermaid Avenue’s mom and pop businesses founded by immigrants, past and present.

posted Nov 28th, 2020 in News and tagged with Small Business Saturday, Shop Small, Shop Local,...

Happy Thanksgiving Coney Island History Project

Happy Thanksgiving  from All of Us at the Coney Island History Project!

posted Nov 25th, 2020 in News and tagged with Thanksgiving, Happy Thanksgiving, postcard,...

Alfie Davis

We were deeply saddened to hear that long time Coney Island resident and advocate Alfie Davis had passed away. She was a stylish, determined woman who cared deeply about her community and the environment, especially Coney Island Creek. Her passing is a heavy loss for Coney Island. We're honored to have recorded the story of three generations of her family for the Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive. You can listen to her oral history interview here.

posted Nov 2nd, 2020 in News and tagged with In Memoriam, oral history, Alfie Davis

Coney Island History Project Podcast

Happy International Podcast Day! Listen to the Coney Island History Project's new oral history podcast. The first episodes feature immigrant stories from our archive, including oral histories of restaurants and food stand owners and operators, artists and sign painters, and Mermaid Avenue's mom and pop businesses, past and present.

posted Sep 30th, 2020 in News and tagged with podcast, oral history, immigrants,...

Frank Gurrera

We were sad to learn of the passing of Frank Gurrera,  95, who worked at the MTA's Coney Island Overhaul Shop for 50 years and was TWU Local 100's oldest active member. The Coney Island History Project sends our sincere condolences to his co-workers and friends.

Last year Katya Kumkova recorded his oral history for our archive. "Sometimes they come up with the big parts, sometimes the small parts. Make this, fix that," Gurrera says in the oral history.  "It's all part of the job. Keeps your mind going, keeps your hands active, keeps your body going. Let's see, I have to fix that." Excerpts from his oral history were included in this moving tribute by ABC7NY's Josh Einiger.  You can listen to the full interview here.

posted Sep 18th, 2020 in News and tagged with Frank Gurrera, oral history, MTA,...

Charles Denson at the silenced Wonder Wheel, 2020, "a season like no other."

For the first time in history, Coney Island has lost an entire season. As Labor Day weekend arrived and faded, amusements remained shuttered and people began wondering aloud if the neighborhood can recover. The pandemic is testing the will and finances of even the most dedicated businesses and residents. This year was expected to be the greatest of this century, with important anniversaries, exciting events, and new attractions. None of this happened. But Coney Island has been tested before. Pestilence, war, crime, and weather have challenged the island, and each time it has clawed its way back.

Coney had barely begun life as a resort in the early 1800s when its remote location made it a prime candidate for New York's quarantine station. Yellow fever and cholera epidemics had swept through New York, and the city sought to build a massive facility that would house immigrants with infectious diseases for 40 days. Coney was on the short list in the 1850s but it turned out that the location was not remote enough. Instead, the station opened on two smaller islands, Hoffman and Swinburne, built from landfill in the waters just west of Coney Island.

In the 1870s, long before amusement parks arrived, Coney Island became a refuge for poor children suffering from tuberculosis and other diseases. The Coney Island History Project's 2019 exhibit "Salvation by the Sea" documented and highlighted the work of the Children's Aid Societies and the other shorefront summer homes built along the beach. These charitable homes and hospitals, supported by New York's wealthiest residents, became the island's largest landowners and operated until construction of the Boardwalk forced them out. The societies saved thousands of young lives with the "Fresh Air Cure," and trained generations of immigrant mothers in proper hygiene and child rearing that prevented disease in New York's tenements. 

Malaria was the culprit at Coney Island in 1903, when disease-carrying mosquitos were found in foul standing water caused by the illegal filling and dumping along Coney Island Creek and the Brighton race track. The entire island was doused and sprayed with noxious oils, from one end to the other, in an attempt eradicate the problem. This created an ugly landscape and did little to solve the problem.

A polio epidemic hit New York hard in 1916, and parents with children were told to avoid amusement parks, swimming pools, and beaches. But the disease was already widespread, and many children suffered the horrifying effects of infantile paralysis before a vaccine was found. Coney Island remained open to the public throughout 1916, but few children were seen at the beach and amusements that year. 

The influenza epidemic of 1918 followed the polio epidemic, hitting its peak during the fall and winter of 1919, the off-season, when Coney Island's rides and amusements were already closed and crowds were absent. Coney Island escaped the worst effects of the deadly 1918 flu.

Rationing of oil, metal, and rubber during Word War II made ride maintenance difficult, but Coney Island operators were recyclers and experts at repurposing. Nothing was ever discarded, and the rides continued full blast during the war. The Island's bright lights were "blued out," dimmed, or covered with curtains that faced the ocean side.  Luna Park was lit with dim but colorful Japanese lanterns. Coney was considered important for the morale of soldiers on leave, or who were heading overseas and needed a last celebration. The "Underwood Hotel" below the boardwalk was livelier than ever during the war years, filled with romantic couples saying a last goodbye.

Social distancing in Coney Island has a more recent precedent. Street crime was out of control in the mid 1960s, and robbing the exposed ticket booths at rides became the rage for gangs of young thugs. Plexiglas shields and elaborate wire cages soon surrounded all booths and entrances to rides, keeping the public at a distance and protecting operators and patrons from harm. 

Super Storm Sandy arrived in late 2012 as the season ended. It dealt a devastating blow, but Coney Island's amusements had five months to make repairs before reopening in March 2013. This recovery led to a belief that all obstacles could be overcome.

But this year is unlike any other. Coney Island is being tested as never before. The Coney Island History Project and the Vourderis family of the Wonder Wheel had planned to make this centennial season unforgettable, and it turned out that it was, but for reasons that no one could ever have imagined.

Plans for the Centennial celebration of Deno's Wonder Wheel included special events like Broadway musical performers on the park's newly purchased property and our 9th annual Coney Island History Day on the Boardwalk; new and renovated rides, attractions, signage, and murals; and a splendidly refurbished Wonder Wheel. My new book, Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park, and an accompanying exhibit at the History Project would pay tribute to the history of Coney Island's greatest and oldest continuously operating attraction.

I spent the summer of 2019 researching the history of the Wonder Wheel on a tight publishing deadline so that it would come out in time for Memorial Day. The research was all primary source and I tracked down family members of the Wheel's original designers and operators whose stories had never been told. Many were planning to come to the Memorial Day celebration, including the 95-year-old daughter of Charles Hermann, the Wheel's creator. 

The reality of how this season would turn out began to sink in during early spring. "No opening for Palm Sunday? Maybe by Easter Sunday? Delayed until Memorial Day? Of course we'll open by July 4!" The season quietly disintegrated into despair and confusion. A Labor Day Weekend like no other in history came and went.

Due to the pandemic, the Coney Island History Project suspended walking tours, events at schools and senior centers, in-person oral history interviews and the exhibition center season. Starting in March, our staff transitioned to recording oral histories via phone and Skype and creating new virtual programming including podcasts and videos. Our online oral history archive was featured in the NY Times, Time 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 from afar. 

Amusement parks don’t have the option of transitioning to virtual programming but Deno’s Wonder Wheel is an outdoor ride with 24 open-air cars spaced 15 feet apart. It was designed for social distancing and park owners made every effort to provide a safe space for visitors. Masks, Plexiglas, distancing markers, sanitizer stations were all in place, yet the Wheel and the park's other rides remained silent and still due to New York State executive order.  And now, as the season comes to a close, we can just hope for a better, safer, and much happier 2021. We will survive.

-- Charles Denson



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.