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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 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."
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.”
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!
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 (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 (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 (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 (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.