The Riegelmann Boardwalk Coney Island History Project

The Coney Island History Project will open the 2023 season of our exhibition center on Memorial Day Weekend with an exhibit about the one hundred-year-old Riegelmann Boardwalk curated by Charles Denson. 

One hundred years ago, on May 15, 1923, the Coney Island Boardwalk officially opened! It was named for Brooklyn Borough President Edward Riegelmann who said: "Poor people will no longer have to stand with their faces pressed against wire fences looking at the ocean."

The Riegelmann Boardwalk: Past, Present, and Future is a fascinating exhibit that tells the story of how the Coney Island Boardwalk came into being, how it was constructed, and how it changed Coney Island forever by opening the shoreline to the public. Historic photographs and maps will illustrate the innovative construction techniques that were used for the first time to create Coney Island’s new  “Main Street” in 1923. A century of memorable photographs will be on display!

“As the Boardwalk celebrates its hundredth birthday its future is hard to predict," says Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found. "Will it remain a boardwalk, or will it become the world’s longest, widest sidewalk?" The exhibit describes the challenges facing this century-old New York City landmark as the City debates whether the deteriorating Boardwalk should be resurfaced with concrete, plastic, or wood.

The Riegelmann Boardwalk: Past, Present, and Future will be on view from May 27 through September 4, on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, from 1:00 PM- 7:00 PM. Admission is free of charge. The Coney Island History Project exhibition center is located at 3059 West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, just a few steps off the Boardwalk. For additional information, e-mail events@coneyislandhistory.org

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

posted Apr 18th, 2023 in Events and tagged with Coney Island, Coney Island Boardwalk, Boardwalk,...

Denos Wonder Wheel History Banner Exhibit

The Coney Island History Project's free outdoor banner exhibits have returned to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park for the 2023 season. The banners will be on view from April 22nd through the end of October during park hours.

The Wonder Wheel and the Immigrant Dream tells the remarkable story of the Wonder Wheel and the family that operates Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. The colorful history banners are located on the Wheel's walkway adjacent to the History Project, as well as below Deno's Phoenix Roller Coaster.

An installation of history panels in front of the Astroland Moon Rocket is located in the lower park, across from the Bumper Cars and adjacent to the Wonder Wheel. Installed in 2022, this permanent exhibit honors Coney’s space-age attraction that debuted at the dawn of the space race in 1962 and the 60th anniversary of the opening of Astroland Park.

Admission to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park is free. The Wonder Wheel opens at 12:00 PM on weekends and holidays in the spring. Hours of operation are subject to change depending on weather conditions.

Astroland Rocket Installation
 

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive
Nearly 450 oral histories are available for listening in the Coney Island History Project’s multilingual online archive. Among the additions in March and April are the following interviews recorded for us by Mary Conlon, Daniel Gomez, Julia Kanin, and Tricia Vita.

Erum Hanif talks about her work as a Community Board #13 Member and CEO of Apna Brooklyn Community Center, a not-for-profit that serves immigrants in Southern Brooklyn. She pays tribute to her mother, who was a pioneer in expanding education for girls and women in Pakistan. "I strongly believe that whatever I am today capable of doing in my life, personal and professional, is because of her spirit," says Hanif.

Sofya Lobova was born in Kyiv in 1935 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1995. Lobova recalls her memories of World War II and her community activism in Coney Island, where she is a longtime resident of NYCHA's Haber Houses. This interview was conducted and recorded in Russian and includes transcripts in Russian and English.

Sam Person shares family memories of Nat Faber's Fascination arcade, which operated on Surf Avenue from 1926 through the 1970s. Person worked in Coney Island as a manager at his father-in-law's Faber’s Fascination in 1953 and 1954 when he was in college. Fascination is a group game often described as combining the luck of bingo with the skill of Skee-Ball.

Sonia Solano reflects on raising a family in Coney Island and working in local schools in the 1990s and 2000s. She also describes the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. "Coney Island means everything to me," says Solano. "I've been here thirty years."

Liz Unger shares memories of 1950's Coney Island and working in Lillian Candy Company, her family's candy factory on Mermaid Avenue. "I have a very, very soft spot in my heart for Coney Island, cause all my memories are there."

Stuart Waldman remembers summer jobs as a teen in Coney Island in the 1950s, including operating rides at Ward's Kiddie Park and working "The Dancing Dolls" game on Surf Avenue. At 19, he says he got his hack license and "aged out" of working in Coney Island.

Karen Wilcox recalls living in Luna Park Houses and going to Coney Island bathhouses with her grandmother in the 1960s. In 1962, Wilcox and her family were among the original tenants of Luna Park Houses, the apartment complex built on the site of the original Luna Park.

Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story remotely via phone or Zoom, sign up here. We record interviews in English, Russian, Chinese, and other languages with people who have lived or worked in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods or have a special connection to these places.

posted Apr 17th, 2023 in News and tagged with oral history, Archive, Coney Island History Project,...

April 23: Immigrant Heritage Walking Tour of Coney Island

Join us on Sunday, April 23rd, to learn about the contributions of immigrants to the history and development of Coney Island on our Immigrant Heritage Walking Tour. The Coney Island History Project is offering this special walking tour free of charge as part of Immigrant Heritage Week 2023.

Among the stops on the tour 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.

Coordinated by the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, Immigrant Heritage Week (IHW) is an annual citywide program of events celebrating the history, traditions and contributions of New York City's diverse immigrant communities. IHW 2023 is scheduled for April 17-23 in recognition of April 17, 1907, the date when more immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island than any other date in history.

The April 23rd tour starts at 1:00 PM. Advance registration is required. Please reserve free tickets in advance on our Eventbrite page. Ticket reservations are limited to 2 per person as capacity is limited. Meet at the Coney Island History Project, 3059 West 12th St (at 12th Street entrance to Wonder Wheel), Brooklyn NY 11224.

The tour takes 1 hour and 30 minutes. 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 Ari Kagan.

posted Apr 12th, 2023 in Events and tagged with Coney Island, Immigrant Heritage Week, Walking Tour,...

Topsy chained and roped for execution at Luna Park, 1903. A large banner proclaiming Luna Park as the "Heart of Coney Island" hangs in the background at upper right.

Luna Park began its convoluted history in 1903 with what is probably the most brutal and horrific event in Coney Island’s history. It was 120 years ago that Luna’s owners sought to publicize the park’s  grand opening by publicly murdering Topsy the elephant, a sad and abused creature who at the time was being used by the park to haul construction materials down Surf Avenue.

Topsy endured a tortured history that began when she was captured in Southeast Asia when only a year old and smuggled into the U.S. and forced to perform in circuses. Sadly, she eventually wound up in the hands of Luna Park’s founders. 

Like many performing animals, she’d suffered a lifetime of abuse from the public and from a series of cruel trainers. She’d recently gained notoriety for killing a drunk who’d fed her a lit cigar. The press dubbed her a "killer," but she was actually a gentle creature who was only reacting to incidents of mistreatment.

Luna’s owners soon considered Topsy a problem and no longer found her useful to them. They came up with a sadistic publicity stunt to get rid of her while at the same time advertising the May 1903 opening of the new Luna Park. They decided that charging admission to the gory public execution of an elephant would get them the attention the park needed.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the original plan was to strangle Topsy by hanging, but the ASPCA objected, describing that method as “unnecessarily cruel.” Luna’s executioners decided to use electrocution instead. The killing of a tortured animal would be Luna Park’s first attraction.

On a cold January morning, the unsuspecting elephant was led into the park, which was still under construction, and bound with chains and ropes below the framework of the park’s grand tower. Topsy was then fitted with copper shoes, wired up to electric cables, and fed 460 grams of cyanide-laced carrots to prepare her for her fate.

A crowd of photographers and onlookers invited by Luna Park’s owners was soon surrounded by hundreds of spectators who climbed fences or paid to stand on rooftops to get a glimpse of the horrifying spectacle. A film crew sent by Thomas Edison recorded the execution.

At 2:45 a switch was thrown and 6,000 volts of electricity coursed through Topsy's body, toppling her over and killing her. Her Luna Park nightmare had finally ended.

Luna Park opened a few months later to huge fanfare. Ironically promoting itself as the “Electric Eden,” the park had a million light bulbs strung over a small city of fantasy architecture composed of towers, minarets, spires, castles, domes, and globes. What began as a fascination with electricity soon wore off though, and the park lost its luster. By 1911, the park’s owners, Thompson and Dundy, were consumed by personal and financial problems. Alcoholism, fraud, and gambling debts forced Luna Park into bankruptcy that same year. 

New owners expanded the park and brought in some new rides. Luna never really recovered and floundered during the Great Depression. The park then burned down in a series of dramatic fires during the 1940s. Luna Park faded into history, the name used for a housing project built on the site. 

A few years ago a new amusement park in Coney Island resurrected the Luna name. This seemed fine until 2023 when the new park's owners began a publicity campaign implying that they have been in business for 120 years and suggesting that they are the original Luna Park. The media picked it up and ran with it. "Luna Park Celebrates Its 120th year in Coney Island," was a headline trumpeted by Fox News and other media. 

When you appropriate history, you are claiming ownership of that history. It becomes your tarnished past. The new Luna Park has now embraced a tarnished, cruel legacy that brought shame to Coney Island. Appropriating the name means appropriating the shame. There's a terrible tradition of animal abuse attached to the Luna Park name that goes beyond Topsy. Performing elephants, horses, and camels were also mistreated during the park's early years. It's nothing to be proud of. Perhaps it's time for Luna Park to create a Topsy memorial and acknowledge a barbaric event that took place 120 years ago in Luna Park's name. Topsy should not be forgotten.

Topsy's body after execution at Luna Park 120 years ago.

Coney Island History Project International Womens Day

On International Womens Day we celebrate the women whose diverse voices are part of the Coney Island History Project's multilingual Oral History Archive. Share and preserve your Coney Island memories by recording an interview via phone or Zoom. We are recording interviews, both in English and other languages, 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. Sign up here.

Coney Island History Show and Tell

You're invited to join us for “Coney Island History Show & Tell,” an interactive reminiscence event presented by the Coney Island History Project via Zoom on Thursday, March 16. Do you have historical or personal objects or stories related to Coney Island that you would like to share? Sign up to “show and tell” your story by emailing events@coneyislandhistory.org

This month's theme is Vanished Attractions. Among the attractions we’ll revisit are Steeplechase Park and Astroland, fun houses and dark rides, Fascination parlors, bungalow colonies, and the mechanical Laughing Lady. What made these vanished attractions so beloved, and why did they vanish? Can they be found outside of Coney Island? We’ll explore these and other questions.

Tickets for "Coney Island History Show & Tell" are free of charge. Advance registration is required and capacity is limited. Registrants will be sent the Zoom link two days before the event.

👉 Register via Eventbrite for Thursday, March 16 at 7:00PM - 8:00PM.

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 Ari Kagan.

Granville T Woods

Coney Island has always had a reputation as a place where people could make their dreams come true, where people outside the mainstream could prove themselves. For Granville T. Woods (1856-1910), it became the place where he demonstrated two of his famous inventions: an electric railway and an electric roller coaster called the Figure Eight. In celebration of Black History Month, listen to David Head tell the story of Black inventor Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) in our oral history archive. Head, the former chairman of TWU Local 100's Black History Committee, wrote a book about Woods and championed a Coney Island street naming in 2008. Granville T. Woods Way is at the corner of Stillwell and Mermaid Avenues. In the same year, the Coney Island History Project inducted Woods into the Coney Island Hall of Fame.

 

posted Feb 23rd, 2023 in News and tagged with Granville T. Woods, inventor, Black History Month,...

Oral History Coney Island History Project

More than 440 oral histories are available for listening in the Coney Island History Project’s online archive. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story remotely via phone or Zoom, sign up here. We record interviews in English, Russian, Chinese, and other languages with people who have lived or worked in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods or have a special connection to these places. Among the additions to our archive in January and February are the following interviews recorded for us by Daniel Gomez, Sage Howard, Xiao Yu Li, Lauren Vespoli, and Tricia Vita.

As a teenager in the 2000s, Alicia Angello lived in Marlboro Houses in Gravesend, which was walking distance to Coney Island. She shares memories of coming here with her friends every Friday night and sometimes every day in the summer. The Polar Express, the Eldorado Bumper Cars, and the Breakdance ride at Astroland were their favorite hangouts to listen to the music and to ride.

"The" Jerry Farley is a record producer and audio engineer who has produced shows in Coney Island at Peggy O'Neill's and now at Coney Island Brewery, where he stages a monthly punk/metal night and other live events. Farley shares memories of Don Fury's Cyclone Studios on Surf Avenue and The Temple, a live music venue for all ages in the basement of a Bensonhurst synagogue.

From the late 1940s to the mid-60s, Jerry Omanoff lived in Coney Island, where his first job was shining shoes on the Boardwalk at age ten. Omanoff shares memories of living in a bungalow, all the blocks being like little towns, and going to the movies at the Surf Theater.

Carol Polcovar is a writer and playwright who grew up on West 30th Street in Coney Island in the 1940s and ‘50s.  "The personalities and the environment of Coney Island was really like no other place," says Polcovar, who reads "Fireworks Night," an excerpt from her memoir in progress.

Samantha Robles, a tattoo artist who is known as "Cake," shares childhood memories of growing up in Coney Island's West End and describes her artistic influences. Three generations of Robles' extended family have lived in Coney's "Coconuts Building" since it was built. Both sides of her family moved to Coney Island from Puerto Rico and continue to live here today.

Ansen Tang is Executive Director of the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn (UCAOB) with branches located in Bensonhurt, Dyker Heights, and Sheepshead Bay. His family emigrated from Hong Kong when he was eleven. Tang shares stories of growing up in Bensonhurst, UCAOB's Lion Dance Team and the organization's efforts during the pandemic.

 


Above: Raised concrete surge barrier on the Boardwalk. Army Corps disclaimers stress that renderings are "initial concepts use for illustrative purposes only and are subject to change." The final plan may be influenced by public comments from community members.

Last September the Army Corps of Engineers released a draft of the New York Harbor Coastal Resiliency Plan (USACE HATS), a complex $52 billion flood control project designed to battle sea level rise and flooding. This plan will have extreme consequences for the shorelines of Coney Island, including the beach, Boardwalk, and Coney Island Creek.

The Army Corps has tentatively chosen "plan 3B" from the NY-NJ Harbor Tributaries study released last September. This proposal recommends flood control "hardscape" such as sea walls, flood walls, and levees to protect Coney Island as well as a massive mechanical tide gate storm surge barrier that would close off Coney Island Creek to prevent flooding.

There are two main projects for Coney Island. On the south side of the island, the Boardwalk would be raised five feet by adding what appears to be a wide concrete walkway. This would act as a barrier to prevent flooding from storm surge. The renderings shown at a January 25th meeting were very sketchy. The concrete barrier would block ocean views for Boardwalk businesses as well as taking up about a third of the Boardwalk.  

On the north side, on Coney Island Creek, the plan calls for a mechanical tide gate in Coney Island Creek stretching from Neptune Avenue to Calvert Vaux Park. The tide gate would tie into "sea walls" and into "flood walls" extending along Kaiser Park and Coney Island Creek Park before curving around Sea Gate to connect with the raised concrete Boardwalk at West 37th Street. Detailed renderings of these walls have not been provided.

When this project is completed, Coney Island will undergo an enormous transformation that will impact the neighborhood and local environment for generations to come. Unlike mega-projects of the past, where the public had little input, this time the community might have a voice. The powers that be appear to be listening. A March 31, 2023 deadline to submit public comments about the plan is fast approaching. The Army Corps has promised that all comments will be addressed and added to the public record in June.

Obvious problems with these proposals need to be addressed. The proposed flood walls and sea walls that will run along the parks adjacent to Coney Island Creek will degrade the parks. The barriers should be constructed as living shorelines with raised landscaped levees topped by walkways and bike paths and a restored wetland in the creek. In other words: public amenities. The walls should not be concrete or steel barriers that destroy quality of life in the community. A previous resiliency plan by the City showed beautiful renderings of a raised shoreline project along the creek. The community should advocate for this. The new barriers are to be constructed on public parkland so no private land would need to be appropriated.

The tide gate on the creek is another concern. Tide gates need constant maintenance and can fail in a catastrophic way if not maintained. The City is notorious for not maintaining infrastructure. "Backdoor" flooding caused by overflowing  storm sewers on Coney Island Creek can be severe if the gates are closed. The storm sewers drain thousands of acres of upland in Southern Brooklyn during rain events. Passive methods would seem to be more dependable. Another suggestion would be installation of pumps that can drain the creek while the flood gates are closed.  

Public input is extremely important. Manhattan seems to be getting more amenities and green space in its part of the plan because of community involvement. In the few weeks we'll be adding more information about what sort of issues need to be commented on.

 The Army Corps does not decide what to build. It submits the plan to Congress and then the funding is appropriated to complete the project. Input to federal elected officials might go a long way to getting the proper design.  

Low point: Coney Island Creek at Neptune Avenue and West 21st Street. Erosion caused by Superstorm Sandy has not been repaired in 10 years. During a king tide the water level in the Creek is higher than the street. Photo by Charles Denson

Public comments are important for the community. The Army Corps HATS plan can be accessed at
https://www.nan.usace.army.mil/Portals/37/NYNJHATS%20Draft%20Integrated%...

The plan is searchable and Coney Island map appears on page 202.

The public is invited to submit comments by mail to:

NYNJHAT Study Team, Planning Division
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
26 Federal Plaza, 17th Floor
New York, NY 10279-0090 

or by e-mail to: NYNJHarbor.TribStudy@usace.army.mil

Please include the project title and the commenter's contact information with submitted comments. Comments are always welcome and will be considered in the study as it continues.