By Charles Denson

Charles Denson with the Neptune medallion on the day he donated it to the Brooklyn Museum in 1981.

On November 20 a groundbreaking exhibition called Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland opens at the Brooklyn Museum. The connection between this show and the Brooklyn Museum has unleashed a flood of memories about my life-changing experiences at the museum fifty years ago. 

In 1965, when I was in the sixth grade at P.S. 288 in Coney Island, I won an art contest for a drawing I did of the newly built Verrazano Bridge. The drawing was exhibited in a student art show at the Lever House gallery on Park Avenue in Manhattan. My class made a trip to see the show, and my prize was a scholarship to attend summer art school at the Brooklyn Museum.

Attending classes at the museum was one of the highlights of my childhood and I fell in love with the museum’s galleries and art school. My favorite part was the sculpture garden next to the parking lot behind the museum. At that time it was more of a junkyard than a garden. Rarely opened to the public, it was a cluttered storage area stacked with architectural artifacts rescued from demolition sites all over New York. I loved wandering among these beautiful rescued objects, and I couldn't believe that these treasures were all that remained from historic buildings that were being destroyed across the city.

The garden later became more formal and was transformed into an important part of the museum. I thought of the garden as the city's architectural “lost and found” department, where lost objects might be found and (I hoped) someday appreciated and returned to their rightful places in the fabric of the city.

During the late 1960s I began rescuing artifacts from demolition sites all over my Coney Island neighborhood. It was not like today when architectural fragments are scavenged and sold off to the highest bidder. Beautiful buildings and their decorative ornamentation were crushed into dust below the treads of bulldozers and loaded into dump trucks. I literally worked behind bulldozers gathering anything I could. The horror of urban renewal was in full swing, and I’d become a preservationist.

In 1973 a beautiful Boardwalk structure called the Washington Baths Annex was being demolished after a series of fires. The building, which we called the Pink Palace, was clad in shiny pink terra-cotta and decorated with nautical-themed medallions. After a great deal of effort, I rescued one of the structure’s shattered King Neptune medallions, took it home, and repaired it with plaster and pieces of metal coat hangers. Ten years later I donated the medallion to the Brooklyn Museum where it was put on display in a kiosk in the sculpture garden alongside other salvaged Coney Island artifacts. King Neptune had found a permanent home!

The King Neptune medallion in the ruins of Washington Baths, 1973. © Charles Denson

I began documenting Coney Island at the age of twelve with the eventual goal of writing a book. It took me nearly forty years of primary source research to complete Coney Island: Lost and Found, and it was finally published in 2002. It was well received and won the New York Book of the Year Award from the New York Society Library. As I described in the book, the title “Lost and Found” was based on my early experiences at the Brooklyn Museum and my love of its sculpture garden and artifacts.

In 2009 Robin Jaffee Frank, then at Yale, asked me to be one of the consultants for an extensive Coney Island exhibition she was proposing, and I joined an impressive team that she assembled to plan the show. We met many times, and I wound up writing the final chapter of the exhibition catalog. I was also thrilled to have my work included in the show, and to contribute photographs and ephemera to what I consider to be the best Coney Island exhibit ever assembled, a sensational show that has now come home to Brooklyn.

My early experiences at the Brooklyn Museum have come full circle, and some of what was lost during my childhood has been found. The King Neptune medallion will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum as part of Visions of an American Dreamland, partnered with some of the greatest Coney artwork ever exhibited. Many of the exquisite and rarely seen nineteenth century Coney Island paintings in the show are masterpieces that I’d studied but had never seen in person before: depictions of an undeveloped natural landscape bearing little resemblance to the modern cityscape of my old neighborhood.

Robin Jaffee Frank’s illuminating exhibition is comprised of 140 pieces: classical paintings, photographs, carousel horses, artifacts, films, posters, prints, and works by Paul Cadmus, George Tooker, Weegee, Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Reginald Marsh, Red Grooms, Joseph Stella, and many others who captured the essence and spirit of Coney Island. This show takes me back to my Coney Island roots and intensifies my deep appreciation for the Brooklyn Museum and what I learned there in my youth.

"Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008," Brooklyn Museum, November 20, 2015-March 13, 2016. The museum is open Wed - Sun, 11am - 6pm, on Thursdays til 10pm, and on the first Saturday of the month til 11pm.


Washington Baths Annex, at left, next to the Childs Building, 1969 © Charles Denson

 Charles Denson, 1973, rescuing Neptune medallion.

Charles Denson and curator Robin Jaffee Frank at the Wadsworth Atheneum, 2013.


"Boardwalk Renaissance," a new art show based on a chapter in Charles Denson's book, Coney Island Lost and Found, is opening at City Lore Gallery on November 5th. "When I wrote the chapter about the "Artists' Renaissance of the 1980s" I wanted to pay homage to the arts groups that kept Coney in the public eye during a low point in the 1980s," Charles Denson said. " I was especially drawn to what Philomena Marano and Richard Eagan were creating with the Coney Island Hysterical Society and their Spookhouse exhibit in the old Dragon's Cave on the Bowery. I felt that their creative efforts should be recognized as an important part of Coney 's history."

Steve Zeitlin, Executive Director of City Lore and an early participant in Coney Island USA events in the 1980s, met with Marano, Eagan and Denson last summer and they planned an exhibit that would illuminate the artistic and preservationist activities of the artists who found a home in Coney Island during a tumultuous decade. "Some of the artwork displayed in my book can be seen in this exhibit," Denson said, "As Coney Island becomes more corporate it's important to remember what was accomplished in the past by committed and talented individuals working on a small scale. They made a huge difference."

"Boardwalk Renaissance: How the Arts Saved Coney Island," City Lore Gallery, 56 East 1st Street, NYC 10003. Opening November 5, 7-9pm. Exhibit extended through May 8, 2016.  Gallery open Wed - Fri. 2pm - 6pm and Sat - Sun. 12pm - 6pm.  Free admission.

Photo Copyright Hazel Hankin
Coney Island Hysterical Society's Richard Eagan and Philomena Marano with the World of Wax Musee's Lillie Santangelo in 1982. Photo ©  Hazel Hankin.

On the eve of the third anniversary of Hurricane Sandy: "10/29: Sandy and Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrows, No. 3," a film by Charles Denson shot in Sea Gate during and after the storm. Some of this footage appeared in his Sandy documentary, "The Storm." 

The Coney Island History Project's director rode out out Sandy in Sea Gate, where his apartment and car were destroyed by the storm surge. "I thought, 'nobody's filming this. I've got to record this,'" Denson said in an interview in the Brooklyn Paper in 2013/. "I realized, it's very different when you actually experience something and put your life on the line to record something," Denson said. 

posted Oct 28th, 2015 in Video Posts and tagged with anniversary, Sandy, 3 years,...

A New Look and A New Project

Eleven years ago Astroland owner Carol Albert and author Charles Denson founded the Coney Island History Project as an oral history program whose mission was to record Coney Island in living memory. Little did we know that we would be capturing the last days of an important era in Coney history.

Since our founding, Coney Island has undergone a dramatic revival and been transformed. During the last tumultuous decade we were able to record important oral histories, including those of the last members of Coney's pioneer families as well as an extensive cast of characters who contributed to Coney's illustrious past. Some of the subjects, such as Matt Kennedy and Joe Rollino, were centenarians who vividly recalled and shared a hundred years of memories. Many other subjects passed away during the last decade but not before sharing their fascinating stories with us. 

With the launch of our new website we strengthen our mission of recording and archiving oral histories. The improved format and mobile-friendly web design provide a quicker and easier way to navigate and access our extensive library of archival materials and important information regarding Coney Island and our public programs. The expanded architecture allows us to add to the archive hundreds of interviews and unseen photographs, maps, and ephemera. New technology enables us to clean and restore older recordings, including two decades of recordings made by Charles Denson for his book Coney Island: Lost and Found. We can now begin sharing our vast archive of materials.

Also highlighted is our latest project: Immigrant Narratives of Southern Brooklyn. This project is an oral history initiative that records interviews with immigrants in both English and other languages in the Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Coney Island, Gravesend, and Bensonhurst. You can listen to the first oral histories from the series with New Yorkers who emigrated from Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, Pakistan, Cyprus, Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Poland and Mexico. The first interviews were conducted in English, Russian, Cantonese and Turkish. This program is part of the Cultural Immigrant Initiative 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 Oct 11th, 2015 in News and tagged with Coney Island History Project, website, oral history,...

On October 14, Charles Denson will give a talk and video/slide presentation about Coney Island Creek and the three NYC Parks that encompass its western end. The talk, sponsored by Partnerships for Parks and the Catalyst Program for Community Building, will be held at the Parks Department headquarters at the Arsenal in Central Park. Denson has documented Coney Island Creek for more than 40 years and is completing a book and documentary about this historic and endangered estuary.

The Coney Island History Project has partnered with Partnerships for Parks to create a self-guided walking tour brochure and markers for the Coney Island CreekWalk at Kaiser Park, installed in 2012. Charles Denson has also led walking tours and workshops for students at the City Parks Foundation's Coastal Classroom. Our newest Catalyst-funded project is signage for Calvert Vaux Park and an educational booklet. 

The Oct 14th program "Catalyst Dialogue: Parks as Space for Community Change" will highlight how community members have transformed park spaces into outdoor classrooms, active waterfronts and community spaces. In addition to the Coney Island History Project, presenting groups include GreenShores NYC, Bronx River Alliance, and City Life is Moving Bodies. The event is from 6:30-8:30 pm and is free of charge. The Arsenal Building is located at 830 Fifth Avenue.

Photo: CreekWalk Markers installed at Coney Island Creek in Kaiser Park in July 2012 were designed and created by Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project with a grant from the Catalyst Program. Photo © Coney Island History Project.

Coney Island’s history has been shaped by fire. Nearly every block of the amusement zone burned to the ground or was destroyed by fire during the first century of development. Many of the fires spread into massive conflagrations due to low water pressure in the community’s fire hydrants, a defect that allowed fires to spread unchecked. After the disastrous 1932 fire that destroyed four square blocks of amusements and residential buildings, the city finally built a new pumping station to serve the needs of the fire department.

The beautiful new pumping station designed by famed architect Irwin Chanin opened in 1938 on Coney Island Creek. The Art Deco structure was unusual for Coney Island and much different than most municipal structures which were commonly utilitarian and devoid of ornamentation. Chanin commissioned a pair of winged horse sculptures for the entrance to the elliptical limestone and granite Moderne structure, creating a magnificent monument amidst Coney’s ephemeral landscape. 

Decades later the building was decommissioned and sealed up, leaving it vulnerable to vandalism. The sculptures were saved and relocated to the Brooklyn Museum, where they are stabled next to the rear entrance. Nowadays, the Pumping Station survives in a state of arrested decay, surrounded by a community garden. The rear of the property bordering Coney Island Creek, is used as a popular fishing spot.

Numerous proposals have surfaced recently to repurpose the building for community usage including as a Coney Island ferry terminal, ecology center, or museum. The structure was proposed for a landmark designation in 1980 and languished since then until it was included in a “mass de-calendering” proposed last year by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Now its future is in doubt.

Coney Island Pumping Station

On October 8 there will be a public hearing to decide the future landmark status of this important building. Coney Island has lost many historic structures during the last few years so it is imperative that this important community asset be saved for future generations. – Charles Denson

Please sign the Art Deco Society of New York's petition:

For more information about the public hearing or to submit written comments to save the Pumping Station, visit the Landmarks Preservation Commission site at:



Eddie Mark

Congratulations to Eddie Mark, the new District Manager of Community Board 13, from all of us at the Coney Island History Project!

Photo taken at the Coney Island History Project on August 15, 2015, the 25th Anniversary of the Sand Sculpting Contest. Eddie is sporting one of the vintage tees from his collection.

posted Sep 19th, 2015 in News and tagged with Eddie Mark, Community Board 13, District Manager,...

When Frank Newlands contacted me last year we began an animated conversation that led to a long time mystery being solved. As a child I was impressed by the dazzling lights of Steeplechase Park, the whirling rides and great steel-and-glass pavilion were a sight to behold. The fourteen-acre park was covered with glittering necklaces of bright bare bulbs. The glowing interior steel latticework of the pavilion was particularly impressive, each beam and girder lined with bright diamonds. But I always wondered: how do they change all those bulbs? And who keeps them all lit? Frank was able to provide the answer, as it was his job to climb everything from the parachute jump, to the dizzying heights of the pavilion, to the top of the Steeplechase tower, and change the old-fashioned light bulbs. And he operated without a net! Frank Newlands' interview tells the inside story of what it was like to work at the magnificent Steeplechase Park in its last days.  – Charles Denson


posted Sep 16th, 2015 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

The Coney Island History Project is seeking freelance bilingual interviewers to be part of a team conducting audio interviews for our oral history program. We are recording interviews with immigrants and foreign-born New Yorkers in both English and other languages in the Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Coney Island, Gravesend, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst.

Interviewers must be fully bilingual in English and at least one other language and have professional training and experience in oral history or radio reporting. We are also looking for interviewers with an interest/expertise in Caribbean, Latin American, Italian American, and African American culture and studies. Please see our updated ad at for details and share it with your bilingual friends and colleagues.

Our first set of oral history interviews for the new project includes New Yorkers who emigrated from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Japan, Pakistan, Cyprus, Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Poland and Mexico. Interviews were conducted in English, Russian, Cantonese and Turkish.

Photo: Samira Tazari interviewing Cornel Chan for the Coney Island History Project’s Oral History Program.  ©  Coney Island History Project

posted Sep 11th, 2015 in News and tagged with Coney Island History Project, oral history, bilingual,...

Coney Island History Project

We were excited to see write-ups about the Coney Island History Project in Sing Tao, the world's largest Chinese newspaper! The articles are about the Coney history slide talk we gave on September 2nd at the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn in Gravesend. Archivist Jen Garland presented the talk, which was interpreted into Cantonese for us by Rodney Lau, former senior translator at the United Nations. Thank you to Paul Chan, Senior Center Director, for inviting us, and to Terri Jeu, Program Manager, for facilitating our visit.

The program is part of our outreach efforts in Southern Brooklyn where we are recording oral history interviews  with immigrants and foreign-born New Yorkers in English as well as languages such as Chinese, Russian and Turkish. 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.

Sing Tao Daily