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.
 

Enjoy this video recap of our 8th Annual Coney Island History Day at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project. This year’s event, on June 9th, celebrated Coney Island’s immigrant heritage with performances of classical ballet and Ukrainian folk dance by the Russian Ballet Theater School of Russian Ballet; Afro Haitian drumming by Gaston “Bonga” Jean-Baptiste; songs in the Turkish and Rumeli tradition by Jenny Luna; traditional Chinese dance by New York Music and Dance Organization; and mariachi music by Mariachi Real de Mexico de Ramon Ponce. 

Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project spoke of the historic role that Coney Island has played in welcoming immigrants: “When immigrants sailed into New York Harbor at the turn of the last century, the first thing they saw wasn’t the Statue of Liberty; it was the towers and bright lights of Coney Island,” Denson said.

“Twenty million immigrants came through New York between 1880 and 1920. Immigrants fleeing persecution and seeking freedom didn’t find it right away. Instead they found life in stifling tenements, and backbreaking labor. Most worked long hours, six days a week. Coney Island became their escape. At Coney Island they found fresh air and affordable recreation. Coney Island became the pressure valve for New York City.”

The Coney Island History Project's programs are supported in part by public funds from the NYC Dept of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the NYC City Council, New York City Councilman Mark Treyger, and our members and contributors. 

posted Jul 1st, 2019 in Video Posts and tagged with

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

Seaside Home

The Coney Island History Project's special exhibition for the 2019 season, opening on Memorial Day Weekend, Saturday, May 25th, is "Salvation by the Sea: Coney Island's 19th Century Fresh Air Cure and Immigrant Aid Societies."

During the late 1800s and early 1900s Coney Island served as a place of salvation for European immigrants fleeing poverty and persecution. Charitable Summer Seaside Homes for the poor, supported by the city's wealthy, provided impoverished immigrant mothers and children with a respite from steaming, disease-filled tenements.  
 
At the same time, Coney's expanding amusement business provided business opportunities for immigrants of small means. This exhibit explores a little-known era of Coney Island's history by examining the role that the beachfront played in saving lives and providing a livelihood for the waves of immigrants that fled their homelands to seek freedom and new lives in America. Our exhibit tells the story through photos, articles, maps, and oral history.  

Salvation by the Sea at the Coney Island History Project

2019 marks the 15th anniversary of the Coney Island History Project! Since the History Project's inception in 2004 with a portable recording booth on the Boardwalk and the inaugural season of our exhibition center in 2007, we have proudly offered "Free Admission for One and All!" at our exhibits and special events. Our exhibition center is open free of charge on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day. We're located at 3059 West 12th Street, adjacent to the 12th Street 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.  Share and preserve your Coney Island memories by recording an interview for our Oral History Archive. Take free souvenir photos with the iconic Spook-A-Rama Cyclops and Coney Island's only original Steeplechase horse, from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name. Among the rare treasures on display is Coney Island's oldest surviving artifact from the dawn of the "World's Playground." The 1823 Toll House sign in our collection dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to "the Island" was 5 cents!

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

Jane's Walk NYC Coney Island

Missed our annual Immigrant Heritage Tour of Coney Island for Immigrant Heritage Week? The Coney Island History Project is pleased to offer this special walking tour free of charge on May 5th at 1PM as part of Jane's Walk NYC 2019! Organized by the Municipal Art Society of New York, the festival includes over 200 free guided walks and takes place the first weekend in May every year to coincide with urban activist Jane Jacobs' birthday.

Among the stops on the Immigrant Heritage Tour of Coney Island and the stories of struggle, success and achievement are Nathan's Famous, founded in 1916 by Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker; Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, where the landmark 1920 Wonder Wheel was purchased by Greek immigrant Denos D. Vourderis as a wedding ring for his wife Lula; and the B&B Carousell, created in 1919 by German and Russian immigrants and now Coney's last hand-carved wooden carousel. The tour will also highlight businesses operated by immigrants who have recorded their stories for the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive.

Tickets must be reserved in advance via the History Project's eventbrite page and reservations are limited to 2 per person as capacity is limited.  The tour starts in front of the Coney Island History Project, 3059 West 12th St (adjacent to the 12th Street entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park), Brooklyn NY 11224. The tour ends at the B&B Carousell, 1615 Riegelmann Boardwalk, Brooklyn, NY 11224

The walking tour takes 1 hour and 15 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes, depending on the size of the group. Walking tours are held rain or shine. We reserve the right to cancel tours in the event of potentially dangerous weather.

This program is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and New York City Councilman Mark Treyger.

posted Apr 30th, 2019 in Events and tagged with Jane's Walk, Jane's Walk NYC, Jane Jacobs,...

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,...

History Day Deno's Wonder Wheel Park Coney Island History Project

Save the Date! Sunday, June 9th, 2019, from 2pm - 6pm

Eighth Annual History Day at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project

Celebrating Coney Island's Immigrant Heritage!

Hosted by Deno John Vourderis, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and 
Charles Denson, Coney Island History Project 
 
Enjoy Free Live Music, Entertainment and History, including performances by musicians and dancers representing the traditional culture of countries from which people have emigrated to Coney Island:

3:00 PM: Brighton Ballet Theater School of Russian Ballet - Local students from school founded by Irina Roizin perform classical ballet and Ukrainian folk dance

3:45PM: Gaston "Bonga" Jean-Baptiste - Master Haitian drummer

4:15PM: Jenny Luna: Songs in the Turkish and Rumeli traditions

4:30PM: New York Music and Dance Organization - Bensonhurst-based Chinese dance troupe founded by Julia Liu

5:30PM:  Mariachi Real de Mexico de Ramon Ponce - New York's premier mariachi

Plus DJ Dan Kingman, special guest artists and table top displays

The Opening Ceremony at 2pm will be followed by Free Live Entertainment from 3-6pm on the Boardwalk Stage in front of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park

History Day

"I love Coney Island," said Deno John Vourderis, a third generation member of the family that owns and operates the world famous Deno's Wonder Wheel. "We are what we have always been, a place where all people come to play. And my favorite part about working here is seeing people who half a world away are at war but in Coney Island stand next to each other in line, their children smiling at each other in mutual excitement before stepping into a ride together."

"For more than a century, Coney Island served as the true historic 'melting pot' for New York City's immigrant population," said Charles Denson, author of Coney Island: Lost and Found and director of the Coney Island History Project. "It remains a place of great diversity, where people of small means enjoy an affordable day of free recreation on the beach and Boardwalk. Coney Island continues to be a destination for immigrants, the place to assimilate with people of all nationalities. It's where they finally find true freedom and become Americans."

About Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park
Built in 1920, the NYC landmark Deno's Wonder Wheel turned 99 on Memorial Day and will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2020. Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park founder Denos D. Vourderis, the 8th of 22 children, immigrated to the United States at age 14 to pursue the American Dream. He was born in Greece in 1920, the same year as the Wonder Wheel that he would buy in 1983 as a wedding ring for his wife Lula, restore to its original state, and build his amusement park around. The park now features 21 rides as well as arcades, games, Famiglia Pizzeria and an old fashioned Sweet Shoppe, and proudly hosts the Coney Island History Project. It is owned and operated by Dennis and Steve Vourderis and their sons, the second and third generations of the Vourderis family. West 12th Street, between Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk, was co-named Denos D. Vourderis Place in 2001.

About the Coney Island History Project
Founded in 2004 by Carol Hill Albert and Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, creator of Astroland Park, the Coney Island History Project is a not-for-profit organization that aims to increase awareness of Coney Island's legendary past and to encourage appreciation of the Coney Island neighborhood of today. Admission is free of charge to our exhibition center located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. Hours are 1-7 PM on weekends and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day. This season's special exhibit is "Salvation by the Sea: Coney Island's 19th Century Fresh Air Cure and Immigrant Aid Societies," curated by executive director Charles Denson. Our multilingual offerings include a brochure in 10 languages, English and Chinese language walking tours, and oral history interviews recorded in several languages.
 
Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project
3059 West 12th Street, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY 11224
D, F, N or Q train to Stillwell Terminal
Phone: 347-702-8553 (Coney Island History Project)
Phone: 718-372-2592 (Deno's Wonder Wheel Park)
http://www.coneyislandhistory.org
http://www.denoswonderwheel.com
events[AT]Coneyislandhistory[DOT]org

DCLA logo

The Coney Island History Project's programs are supported in part by public funds from the NYC Dept of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the NYC City Council, New York City Councilman Mark Treyger, and our members and contributors. 

 

posted Apr 23rd, 2019 in Events and tagged with Coney Island, History Day, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park,...

Coney Island History Project

Photo: Jim McDonnell

You're invited to visit the Coney Island History Project's exhibition center on Coney's traditional Opening Day, Palm Sunday, April 14, and on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. We'll be open special hours from 1:00PM-6:00PM. Admission is free of charge. 
 
View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past as well as our special exhibit Coney Island Creek and the Natural World. Photographs by the winners of last fall's Astroland Remembered Photo Contest will be on display. Take a free souvenir photo with the iconic Cyclops head from Deno's Spook-A-Rama dark ride and an original Steeplechase horse from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name. Among the treasures on display is Coney Island's oldest surviving artifact: The 1823 wooden Toll House Sign dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to go over Coney Island Creek to "the island" was 5 cents! 

2019 marks the 15th anniversary of the Coney Island History Project and our ninth season at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. Since our inception in 2004 with a portable booth on the Boardwalk for recording oral history interviews, we have proudly offered "Free Admission for One and All!" at our exhibits and special events.

Opening Day festivities start at 10:30AM on the Boardwalk with the Annual Blessing of the Rides at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. The late Pastor Debbe Santiago of Coney Island's Salt and Sea Mission originated the event with Denos D. Vourderis, who invited children from the Mission to enjoy free rides, a tradition that continues today.

Deacon Toyin Fakumoju of the Mission will lead the Blessing and the NYC Fire Department Ceremonial Unit will present the colors and sing the National Anthem. A ribbon cutting ceremony hosted by the Vourderis family will be followed by free rides on the Wonder Wheel for the first 99 guests in celebration of the Wheel's 99th year. 

Join us at 2:00PM on Coney Island's Opening Day for a special Walking Tour of the newly landmarked Boardwalk led by historian and History Project director Charles Denson. Tickets for this 1- 1/2 hour, wheelchair accessible tour are $25 and help support the free programming of the Coney Island History Project, a 501c3 not-for-profit organization. The April 14 tour is limited to approximately 25 people. Advance tickets may be purchased here via eventbrite.

Join us on Easter Sunday, April 21st,  to learn about the contributions of immigrants to the history and development of "The Playground of the World" on our Immigrant Heritage Tour of Coney Island conducted in English (at 12:00PM) and Mandarin (at 3:00PM). The Coney Island History Project is offering this special walking tour free of charge as part of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs celebration of Immigrant Heritage Week 2019. Due to limited capacity, tickets must be reserved in advance here via our eventbrite page.

Located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel, just a few steps off the Boardwalk, the Coney Island History Project is open free of charge on weekends and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day from 1:00-7:00PM. The Coney Island History Project is open year round for private group visits and our weekend walking tours as well as by appointment to record interviews with people who have memories of Coney Island for our Oral History Archive.

posted Mar 29th, 2019 in Events and tagged with Coney Island, Opening Day, Palm Sunday,...

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,...