Terra Cotta Relics from the Childs Building

The Coney Island History Project's special exhibition for the 2017 season, opening on Memorial Day Weekend, is "Neptune Revisited: Terra Cotta Relics from the Childs Building, Last of Coney Island's Boardwalk Palaces." A selection of original polychrome pieces from the Childs Restaurant Building will be on display along with archival photographs, ephemera, and an illustrated timeline of the history of the building and its restoration.

Childs Restaurant Building on the Coney Island Boardwalk has a remarkable history that spans nearly a century. Completed in 1924, and originally the flagship location for the Childs Restaurant chain, the building has served as a candy factory, a book warehouse, and a roller rink. The fireproof building also acted as a firebreak during the disastrous fire of 1932, stopping the flames and saving the amusement area from destruction. Childs survived years of isolation at the westernmost fringe of Coney Island's amusement zone as everything else around it closed down and was demolished.

The landmark building's colorful, nautical-themed terra-cotta façade, marble columns, and multi-arched entranceway, have charmed and mystified Boardwalk visitors for nearly a century. One of the most striking images on the building is a medallion of King Neptune with gold crown and trident, rising from the sea, dripping with seaweed, and gazing out as if serving as guardian of the Boardwalk. The Childs Building, now connected to the adjacent Ford Amphitheater, recently underwent a magnificent, multi-million dollar restoration and has once again reopened as a restaurant. Last May, prior to the opening of the Amphitheater, Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson made a short film about the building's history and future, which may be viewed here.

The building's restoration included replication and replacement of the beautiful but seriously damaged terra-cotta decorations that covered the facade. Hundreds of replications were lovingly hand-painted and hand finished by the Boston Valley Terra-Cotta Company in Buffalo, New York. Visitors to the Coney Island History Project can now get an up-close view of many of the original polychrome terra-cotta pieces that were removed, including the King Neptune medallion and a medallion showing an image of the Boardwalk and building that was hidden away for decades on an interior wall of the restaurant.

Childs Building Medallion at Coney Island History Project

Original Terra cotta medallion showing an image of the Childs Building from an interior wall of the restaurant is on view in the Coney Island History Project exhibit. The medallion is 48 inches in diameter. Photo by Charles Denson

 The Coney Island History Project exhibition center is open free of charge on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day. We're located on West 12th Street at the 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. Visitors are invited to 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 dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to "the Island" was 5 cents!

posted May 18th, 2017 in Events and tagged with Childs Building, Childs Restaurant, Terra Cotta,...

The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops at the Coney Island History Project

When the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops left Coney Island in 2014 for a national tour of art museums as part of the NEH-funded Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art exhibit "Coney Island Visions of an American Dreamland," the identity of the artist who created this fabulous piece of folk art remained unknown. Until now. 

The Cyclops - or "Cy" as we affectionately call him - has returned home to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and beginning Memorial Day Weekend will be on display at the Coney Island History Project along with documentation of the artist who created the iconic sculpture and its mesmerizing moving eye nearly 60 years ago. 

Thanks to the reminiscences of a former neighbor, who recalled the artist building the figure in his yard, the Coney Island History Project has learned that he was Dan Casola (1902-1990), a Coney Islander known to us by reputation as a highly regarded painter of sideshow banners. Less well known is that he made mechanized props and painted signs for a number of Coney Island attractions including the 1950's dark ride Spook-A-Rama, created wax figures for Lillie Santangelo's World in Wax Musee, and painted the mural over the bar at Club Atlantis on the Boardwalk. Born in Italy, Dan Casola's family emigrated to New York when he was a child. He lived and worked in Coney Island until the late 1970s when he retired to Arizona. 

Interviews with Dan Casola's daughter Patricia Casola and son Wesley Casola recorded by Charles Denson for the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive provide details of their father's life as a freelance artist. Patricia Casola describes him as a tinkerer and a self-taught man who told her, "I learned by doing this," when she asked where he got his skill and inspiration. Says Wesley Casola, who recalls his father creating the Cyclops from plywood, chicken wire and sheets of celastic, "it'd be nice for him to get some credit for it."

The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops at the Coney Island History Project

Thousands of visitors have taken souvenir photos, videos and selfies with the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops at the Coney Island History Project. The Cyclops eye moves back and forth and glows red at night. Photo: Coney Island History Project

The artist had a penchant for maintaining multiple studios, including two in the family's home on Stillwell Avenue and a secret studio behind Spook-A-Rama, where they brought him dinner. Boxes full of glass eyeballs for the taking and free rides were some of the perks of being Danny's kids. The artist's appropriation of household items such as his wife's black brassiere and his children's wind-up toys for his spooky creations was legend. The interviews are available for online listening on the Coney Island History Project's website.

The circa 1955 Spook-A-Rama, located in Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, is Coney Island's oldest operating dark ride. In September 2011, the Cyclops, a Coney Island legend that had originally sat atop the roof of Spook-A-Rama but had not been seen for decades, came out of retirement to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Coney Island History Project. After being stabilized it became the centerpiece of our induction ceremony and a popular attraction at the History Project exhibition center from 2012 through 2014. 

As part of the traveling exhibit "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland," the Cyclops traveled for the past two years in the company of artwork by some of America's most distinguished artists to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, San Diego Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum and San Antonio Museum of Art. 

The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops at Brooklyn Museum

The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops on view in "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland" at the Brooklyn Museum in 2016 with Charles Denson's photo of Cyclops atop Spook-A-Rama as a backdrop and Arnold Mesches' painting "Anomie 2001: Coney" featuring the Cyclops. Photo: Brooklyn Museum 

"The sculpture is unique, one-of-a-kind, a throwback to the hand-made craftsmanship and creativity that made Coney the center of the amusement universe," said Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. 

The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops will be on view at the Coney Island History Project exhibition center located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, just a few steps off the Boardwalk. The History Project is open Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day from 1-7pm. Admission is free of charge. 

posted May 15th, 2017 in History and tagged with Spook-A-Rama, Cyclops, Artist Unknown,...

The Good:
Local schools are taking a new interest in Coney Island Creek and its relationship with the surrounding community. As part of the History Project’s education outreach program, we seek to partner with schools whose curriculum incorporates local history and environmental issues. This spring I gave two history and ecology presentations to local students and was surprised to find increasing concern about our endangered waterways.

In March, New York Aquarium Director Jon Dohlin and New York Seascape Program Officer Mai Murphy invited me to participate in a workshop presentation at the Aquarium’s Education Hall for a high school ecology group called the Wildlife Conservation Corps. Students taking part in the program, led by Aquarium artist-in-residence Christy Ghast, are filming, directing, and editing a new video that follows one piece of plastic trash from the time it’s collected from local marine waters backward to the place where it came out of the ground as petroleum. The piece of plastic was gathered from Coney Island Creek during a recent cleanup. My presentation covered the history of the creek, the dangers of “floatable” pollution on the creek and what can be done to prevent it in the future.

Charles Denson, top right, with the Wildlife Conservation Corps at the New York Aquarium. Photo by Eric Kowalsky

My second program took place in April at PS 90, just up the block from the Coney Island History Project. I was surprised to learn that PS 90 is now known as the Magnet School for Environmental Studies and Community Wellness. Students from kindergarten to fifth grade are studying advanced topics such as “balanced ecosystems, the effects superstorms, and properties of water.”

I was supposed to work with fourth grade students, but after a meeting with the teachers I was asked to give a talk to nearly the entire school in the auditorium. I was amazed at the intensity of interest in local history and the issues affecting Coney Island Creek. The students had no idea that a hotel in the shape of an elephant was once located across the street from the school’s site, and that the school is built on top of a tributary of the creek that still flows below the street. They also learned the origins of pollution and how ignorance led to the destruction of the 3,000-acre salt marsh that once surrounded the creek. I left them with the message that they are the ones who will be the future stewards of the Coney Island Creek estuary, and that what they are learning has great practical importance for the future of the community.

A big thank-you to Councilmember Mark Treyger for supporting our education programs!

The Bad:
Several days before the “It’s My Estuary Day” event was scheduled to take place at Kaiser Park, researchers at Kingsborough College revealed that Coney Island Creek’s fecal coliform levels were far above normal and in fact were registering 13 times above safe levels. The EPA’s allowable level is 200 parts per 100 millimeters, and the creek was registering an average of 2,600 parts per 100 millimeters. The samples were collected near Calvert Vaux Park at the mouth of the creek. Fecal coliform exposure can cause symptoms including nausea, stomachache, diarrhea, and fever, as well as serious illnesses. This is incredibly bad news for park visitors who swim, fish, and kayak in the waterway.  It shows how much work is needed to find the sources of pollution and to clean the creek in order for it to be safe for the surrounding communities.

The Ugly:
On May 3, the Brooklyn Daily reported that several community members they interviewed claim to have become sick from swimming at the mouth of Coney Island Creek and demanded that signs be posted warning against swimming. The real tragedy is that signs will do nothing to clean the creek and people will continue to swim at the beautiful beach at Coney Island Creek Park. What’s needed is a concerted effort to restore the creek to its natural state as a beneficial wetland environment. The most positive affect from posting signs and banning swimming is to raise community awareness about the waterway’s vulnerability and the city’s continuing use of the creek as an open sewer for the Southern Brooklyn watershed.

At a Community Board 13 meeting I attended in March, NYCEDC officials confirmed that “filtered water” from new sanitary sewer excavations in Coney Island would be pumped into the creek for the next two years. The new sewers will service nearly 5,000 units of new high-rise housing surrounding the amusement area as part of the city’s 2009 rezoning plan. Two years ago “filtered water” from a long-neglected storm sewer outlet being cleaned at West 33rd Street created a noxious black stream that surrounded swimmers and anglers at the mouth of the creek. No warning signs were posted during the work. At the CB 13 meeting, the EDC representatives said they’re planning to use old permits that allow them to circumvent the new, stricter water-quality regulations covered by new MS4 permits. It’s hard to believe that this new groundwater pumping into the creek will not negatively affect water quality.

When a Coney Island Creek storm sewer at West 33rd Street was recently cleaned after years of neglect, a black stream of pollutants was poured into the waterway. More "filtered water" will be pumped into the creek this summer as part of new sewer construction in Coney Island. Photos by Charles Denson

In other news, the creek’s future remains in doubt as the Army Corps of Engineers still hasn’t announced when or if the massive flood control barrier proposed for the creek will be built. The creek was recently bypassed for ferry service, dashing hopes for a faster way for residents and visitors to travel to and from Coney Island. Major decisions are now being made that affect the lives of the 60,000 people who live alongside the creek, and community members need to step up and be part of the process.

To end on a good note, it now appears that the fines levied against the Beach Haven complex for dumping 200,000 gallons a day of raw sewage into the creek will go to fund creek-related mitigation. This remediation precedent is an important step that hopefully will guide the creek to a cleaner future!

– Charles Denson

Upcoming Coney Island Creek events:
It's My Estuary Day at Kaiser Park has been rescheduled for June 3
City of Water Day at Kaiser Park, July 15

posted May 10th, 2017 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Coney Island Creek, PS 90, New York Aquarium,...


You're invited to the 3rd annual It's My Estuary Day on Saturday, May 6  June 3,  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. The rain date is Sunday, June 4.

CreekWalk photo copyright Charles Denson

Stop by the Coney Island History Project's table to learn about our programs and pick up a free copy of the Coney Island CreekWalk at Calvert Vaux booklet and a brochure about the CreekWalk at Kaiser Park produced by the History Project for Partnerships for Parks. We'll have bilingual interviewers in attendance to record your stories about the neighborhood and the Creek for our Oral History Archive. Visitors may also take a self-guided walking tour by following the markers created by Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project for CreekWalk at Kaiser Park.

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.

posted Apr 26th, 2017 in News and tagged with It's My Estuary Day, Estuary Day, Kaiser Park,...

Coney Island History Project Celebrates Immigrant Heritage Week

April 17-23 is Immigrant Heritage Week in honor of April 17, 1907, when more immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island than any other day in history. Listen to immigrant stories and share yours with the Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive. We record interviews in English and other languages with immigrants who live or work in Southern Brooklyn.  Sign up here to make an appointment to record your story in person or over the phone.

posted Apr 21st, 2017 in News and tagged with Immigrant Heritage Week, immigrant, Immigrant narratives,...

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

Among the additions to the Coney Island History Project's online Oral History Archive in 2017 are the following interviews recorded by Amanda Deutch, Charles Denson, Kaara Baptiste, Leslee Dean, Mark Markov, and Samira Tazari. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story, sign up here.

Steve Larkin has vivid anecdotes about working for Bob Myers, "The Chairman of the Boardwalk," at a Coney Island beach chair and umbrella rental company in the 1970s. Getting working papers when he turned 14 and working his way up from "schlepping chairs" to being a cashier was a rite of passage. 

Charles Robert Feltman, great-grandson of Feltmans Restaurant founder and hot dog inventor Charles Feltman, tells the family history, describes what Coney Island was like in the 1940s, and reveals why the family is no longer in the hot dog business.

Grace Lo has been a homeowner and community activist in Coney Island's West End since 1989. "At that time we were immigrants who took a chance to live in what people said was not a good neighborhood," Lo explains. "We wanted to make the community better."

Harold J. Kramer and Linda Kramer Evans share their family history and childhood memories of visiting their Great-Aunt Molly and Great-Uncle George. The couple owned and operated Coney Island's Thunderbolt and lived in the house under the roller coaster which was later immortalized in Woody Allen's 1977 film Annie Hall. 

Brooklyn resident Ronald Wimberly is a storyteller, cartoonist and designer whose graphic novel Prince of Cats is partly set in Coney Island. His retelling of Romeo and Juliet mixes comics, hip-hop and Shakespearian poetry, which he describes as "a take on '80s New York as if it were five years after The Warriors." 

Gravesend native Donna Bianco became a police officer at age 22 and was assigned to Coney Island in the 1980s and '90s, when the neighborhood was crime-ridden and scarred with abandoned buildings. Bianco, whose mother enjoyed Coney Island in its heyday, says she learned to love her beat and its sense of history. 

Barry Yanowitz grew up in Trump Village in Coney Island where he could see the Cyclone and hear the screams of riders from his window. In the early 2000's, an interest in history drew him to photography as a way to document the changes he saw in Coney Island and the rest of New York City. He talks about being a street photographer and his favorite photographs of Coney Island.

Dionne Brown grew up in Surfside Houses, has lived in Coney Island all her life, and works here as Assemblymember Pamela Harris's Deputy Chief of Staff. Writing as D.L. Jordan, she is the author of Living Life Like It's Golden, which describes the epiphany she reached when she turned 40. The book's subtitle is "The Latter Years of My Life Shall Be the BEST Years of My Life!"

Eliot Wofse, who grew up in Luna Park Houses, shares memories of the amusement area as his boyhood playground. He reflects on his philosophy of running amusement games, which he did for a living from the 1960s through the early '80s and again in the late 2000s, and the unsustainable cost of private proprietors like himself doing business in the new, corporatized Coney Island.

Susan Hochtman Creatura recalls living in Coney Island Houses when it was new and her Jewish immigrant grandparents, who lived nearby. Her parents marveled that this New York City housing complex for working class people was located right on the beach. "They talked about how Coney Island was a paradise," she says. "They had so much fun here, they didn't feel poor." 

Yoga and meditation teacher Chia-Ti Chiu has been teaching Yoga on the Beach in Coney Island since 2014.The idea for the donation-based classes on the beach off West 19th Street originated with Coney Island's Lola Star. "Having our view be the ocean, I often refer to it," says Chia-Ti. "How can you live a life as expansive as the horizon?" 

Al Burgo, who grew up in Gravesend Houses in Coney Island's West End in the 1960s, tells stories of street games and streetwise hijinks. Burgo's first job as a boy was shining shoes on the Boardwalk, an experience that he made into the 2013 film Shoe Shine Chicken. As a teen he had a thriving business selling knishes on the beach.

posted Apr 10th, 2017 in History and tagged with oral history, Oral History Archive, Coney Island,...

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

Ron Rossi, whose interview is part of the NEH on the Road's traveling Coney Island exhibit, being interviewed by Natalie Milbrodt for the Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive in 2010

We're proud to announce that selections from the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive will be part of the NEH on the Road exhibit "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland" touring the U.S. from April 2017 through March 2022.

The NEH-funded exhibit, which first opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and traveled to the Brooklyn Museum and San Diego Museum of Art, was adapted from its original format to make it available to smaller venues in communities large and small across the country. This new traveling exhibition from NEH on the Road will explore America's playground as a place and as an idea, examining its persistent presence in the American imagination.

Among the Coney Island History Project interviews featured in the exhibit are Beth Allen, who was an incubator baby in Dr. Martin Couney's sideshow in Luna Park; Joseph Albanese, who recalls a time when police didn't allow bathing suits on the boardwalk even though bathing suits were very modest; and Ron Rossi and Ronald Ruiz, who talk about their experiences riding the Parachute Jump, the Cyclone and Steeplechase Horse Race at Steeplechase Park. Clips from these interviews and several others will be running on a loop at one of the listening stations in the exhibition.

Upcoming venues include the Brazos Valley Museum, Brazos, TX (April 6-May 25, 2017); Ypsilanti Public Library, Ypsilanti, MI (June 16-August 11, 2017) and the Sioux City Public Museum, Sioux City, IA (November 10, 2017-January 7, 2018). Pending destinations include Hagerstown, MD; Green Bay, WI; Reading, PA; Temple, TX; Park City, UT; Hastings, NE; Buford, GA; West Branch, IA; Baton Rouge, LA; Greenville, SC; and Shawnee, KS.

NEH on the Road is a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities designed to create wider national access to the ideas, themes, and stories explored in major grant-funded NEH exhibitions. The program is funded by the NEH and run by Mid-America Arts Alliance, a non-profit regional arts organization located in Kansas City. If you would like to bring the Coney Island exhibit to a venue near you, check the NEH on the Road website for details.


John Bonsignore: Man of the Year, 2005. John and Louise are honored for their work and dedication to the Italian-American community. Photo by Charles Denson

Coney Island is known for bright lights and one of the brightest was John Bonsignore, who passed away on March 20 at the age of 92. John represented Coney’s “old breed”: a talented engineer and inventor who could build or fix anything. He was best known for rebuilding and operating the Bobsled ride after his father brought it to Coney Island from the 1939–40 World’s Fair.  John’s family also owned the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway, Coney Island’s biggest roller coaster, as well as Stauch’s Baths, the largest bathhouse on the Boardwalk. The Bonsignore family owned property and amusements from one end of the island to other.

In 2006, I wrote a book about the Bonsignore family called Wild Ride. The book was the culmination of a multi-year research project aided by the family’s records, and photo albums, as well as oral histories that I recorded at the time. Sometimes we worked in John’s oak paneled home office but mostly we talked during the lavish, multi-course family dinners prepared by his glamorous opera singer wife, Louise. I was always treated like family.

John and Louise on the Bobsled in the 1940s: The cover of Wild Ride!

At the Bonsignore home I heard incredible tales about the “Wizards of 8th Street,” the immigrant artisans of Coney Island’s amusement manufacturing district who created magic behind the scenes for nearly a century.  West 8th Street was once home to woodcarvers, banner painters, machinists, blacksmiths, electricians, sculptors, and visionaries. Thanks to John, the culture and history of that era will not be forgotten.

John and Louise raised their family in a three-story brick building ensconced below the last turn of their Thompson Coaster on West 8th Street, a structure that had once been the offices of LaMarcus A. Thompson, inventor of the roller coaster. John was a large man whose gruff voice was tempered by his intelligence, kindness, and ironic sense of humor. His life played out in two acts. Late in life he enjoyed a successful career in business, but early in life he was a member of the Coney Island elite, the small brotherhood of skilled craftsmen who possessed unusual talents and were mostly invisible, working behind the scenes with a single-minded dedication to the task at hand. They were not the showmen or impresarios who sought the public’s attention. Without these craftsmen, Coney Island’s amusements could not have existed.

Within this fraternity John stood out from the rest. ­John Bonsignore was a talented man who possesed that rarest of qualities: the total respect of his peers. In all my years in Coney Island, I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about John Bonsignore. John lived up to the translation of the Bonsignore name: “a good man.” He was truly a good man who left the world a better place. 

A veteran of World War Two, John Bonsignore was laid to rest at Greenwood Cemetery with full military honors. © Charles Denson

posted Apr 2nd, 2017 in By Charles Denson and tagged with


Why are failed mayoral candidates so attracted to Coney Island development? “Failed” may not be not be the best description, as two of the former candidates with ongoing projects in the neighborhood may run again. Christine Quinn, John “Cats” Catsimatidis, and Jerome Kretchmer all ran unsuccessful campaigns for New York City mayor and are also very involved in Coney Island development.

1973 Mayoral candidate Jerry Kretchmer ©  Hautelife

The first unsuccessful mayoral hopeful to land in Coney Island was Jerome “Jerry” Kretchmer, who ran for mayor in 1973. Forty years later, Kretchmer and daughter Andrea, of the Kretchmer Companies, were the lead developers of the 2013 Coney Island Commons project on Surf Avenue at West 29th Street. This affordable housing project was built on vacant city-owned land that was cleared of viable housing in the 1970s as part of the urban renewal program that leveled the West End section of Coney Island. Kretchmer’s colorfully clad Coney Island housing project is also the home of the new Coney Island YMCA. Back in 1969 Former assemblyman Kretchmer was appointed head of NYC Environmental Protection Agency by Mayor John Lindsay and used his position to propose the city’s pooper-scooper law, something that was controversial at the time, but a law that all New Yorkers should be grateful for.

Mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn at 2016 Coney Island community meeting to promote a homeless shelter on Neptune Avenue © Charles Denson

And then there is 2013’s mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, now the president and CEO of the nonprofit organization Women in Need (Win), who is seeking to build a homeless shelter on Neptune Avenue at West 20th Street. Quinn has chosen an industrial site on polluted Coney Island Creek to house homeless women and children. Her organization plans to demolish the former factory building of the Brooklyn Yarn and Dye Company, a facility that for decades poured toxic waste into adjacent Coney Island Creek, the neglected waterway that’s been listed in the past as having the highest coliform levels in the city as well as high levels of lead and arsenic.  In 2009, after the Coney Island rezoning plan was passed, City Council Speaker Quinn proclaimed, “Coney Island is one of the most recognizable icons in New York City. And that’s why we believe this plan will lead to the revitalization of this storied section of our city.” Quinn’s project, although well intentioned and not part of the rezoning, may not be the revitalization that the neighborhood had hoped for back in 2009, and a majority of local residents made their opposition clear in a December 2016 community meeting where the project was roundly criticized.

Mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis at city hall ©NY Daily News

Billionaire mayoral candidate and Gristedes owner John “Cats” Catsimatidis and his Red Apple Group recently began development on two Boardwalk sites he owns in Coney Island’s West End. Cat’s ambitiously outlandish high-rise project dubbed "Ocean Dreams" at West 35th Street at Surf Avenue would make any Miami Beach developer proud. The development promises to bring a supermarket, retail space, and swimming pools to the neighborhood. Catsimatidis explored a mayoral bid in 2009 and later spent millions of his own money on his unsuccessful 2013 campaign only to lose the Republican nomination to Joseph Lhota.

Early architectural model of Ocean Dreams at Red Apple presentation. © Charles Denson

The Catsimatidis site is appropriately ironic, as it is located across the street from O’Dwyer Gardens, a NYCHA housing project named for a failed New York City mayor. Former Brooklyn District Attorney William O’Dwyer ran for mayor in 1941 but lost to Fiorello LaGuardia. In 1945 O’Dwyer went on to become New York’s 100th mayor after LaGuardia decided not to run, and he later won a second term in 1949 only to resign his office eight months later in the midst of a massive scandal.

The scandal, which dated back to O’Dwyer’s years as Brooklyn district attorney, involved allegations connecting the mayor to the mafia and the mysterious death of mobster Abe Reles. Hit man Reles, also known as “Kid Twist,” was tossed from a sixth-floor window of Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel while under police protection before he could testify at trial against his fellow “Murder Incorporated” gangsters. O’Dwyer’s admitted friendship with mobster Frank Costello led to his 1950 resignation as mayor of New York City. Coincidentally, the Half Moon Hotel, which was demolished in 1994, was located on the Boardwalk, just two blocks from O’Dwyer Gardens.

Former Mayor William O'Dwyer testifies at U.S. Senate crime hearings in 1951

O’Dwyer had another Coney connection. Known as a passive mayor who liked to transfer power to unelected officials, he appointed Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to a newly created post called “New York City Coordinator of Construction.” Moses transformed the appointment into one of the most powerful positions in city government, one that gave him total and complete control over all city projects and funding. Moses would go on to implement ruinous slum clearance projects that destroyed entire neighborhoods, uprooted thousands of families, and left hundreds of blocks of vacant lots after development funding ran out. In 1949 Moses declared the residential West End of Coney Island an urban renewal site and used eminent domain to level the entire neighborhood, leaving a sea of high-rise housing projects surrounded by burning ruins. One of those high-rise projects would be named O’Dwyer Gardens.

O'Dwyer Gardens surrounded by ruins, 1970 Photo © Charles Denson

Coney Island spent decades making a shaky recovery from dubious urban planning. Now, after a 40-year hiatus, Coney is once again being flooded with high-rises. Construction has already begun at the vacant sites in the former amusement zone where Ravenhall and Washington baths were once located. It might seem counterintuitive to cram thousands of units of high-rise housing onto a vulnerable sandbar during a time of global warming and predictions of catastrophic sea level rise, but that seems to be Coney Island’s future.

The new Surf Avenue: Surf Vets Place (at center) is now under construction. High-rises (at left) will soon replace the MCU Park parking lot and surround the Parachute Jump. The Abe Stark Skating Rink on the Boardwalk will also be demolished for residential development.

Farther east, at Trump Village, billionaire developer Ruby Schron is demolishing the Trump Shopping Center to build a glitzy 40-story high-rise in its place. Schron must have tower envy, as his building is twice the size of the dismal buildings that developer Fred Trump erected in the early 1960s. Schron’s erection will be twice the size of Fred Trump’s! Future residents will have views of Trump Village rooftops and the Atlantic Ocean but will also have a sweeping view of the sprawling 10-acre multi-district Sanitation Department garbage truck facility being planned a block away on Coney Island Creek at Shell Road.

Trump Village shopping center is being demolished and replaced by a 40-story high-rise © Charles Denson

Long-neglected Coney Island Creek is also experiencing a bizarre series of developments. Cube Storage has already built two oversized public storage facilities on the banks of the creek, and a third big box is under construction at the Cropsey Avenue Bridge. Unfortunately, there is no master plan for future public access or maritime development along the Coney Island Creek estuary, and oversized big-box warehouses seem to be the waterway’s future.

CubeSmart public storage building on Coney Island Creek Photo © Charles Denson

Some of these changes bring back memories. My family moved from Coney Island Houses to O’Dwyer Gardens when it opened in 1969, and I witnessed the area’s transformation during the 1970s. The Catsimatidis site includes the YM-YWHA building on Surf Avenue that was our beloved community center during the 1960s. Cats now owns the abandoned building, and its future is in doubt. Next to the Y was one of the last bungalow colonies in Coney Island, and I documented the demolition of that old complex in 1970. The site has been vacant ever since. It would be wonderful if the new Catsimatidis project actually improved the neighborhood with new stores and affordable housing. Time will tell if this is just another luxury high-rise, cut off from a neighborhood filled with broken promises.

Many believe that high-rise developments will benefit Coney Island in some way, but the unfortunate truth is that climate change will dictate the future of this neighborhood. If current predictions are correct, Coney Island may become an “underwater world” by the year 2100.

Charles Denson

Summer campers at the Surf Avenue YM-YWHA in 1961

The view at dawn from O'Dwyer Gardens, 1970. The bungalows (at right) were demolished and the Y building (at left) is now owned by John Catsamitidis. © Charles Denson



posted Mar 13th, 2017 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

Coney Island History Project

You're invited to visit the Coney Island History Project's exhibition center on Coney's traditional Opening Day, Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017. View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past and take a free souvenir photo with 'Skully' or our original Steeplechase horse at our exhibition center. We'll be open 1pm-6pm. Admission is free of charge.

2017 marks the 13th anniversary of the Coney Island History Project! Since the History Project's inception in 2004 with a portable recording booth on the Boardwalk, followed by the opening of the Coney Island Hall of Fame in 2005 and the inaugural season of our exhibition center under the Cyclone in 2007 and moving to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park in 2011, we have proudly offered "Free Admission for One and All!" at our exhibits and special events. 

The Opening Day festivities start at 11:00AM on the Boardwalk with the 32nd Annual Blessing of the Rides at Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. The late Pastor Debbe Santiago of Coney Island's Salt and Sea Mission originated the event with Denos D. Vourderis in 1985, who invited 300 children from the Mission to enjoy free rides and Easter baskets, a tradition that continues today. 

A ribbon cutting ceremony hosted by park owners Dennis and Steve Vourderis will be followed by free rides on the Wonder Wheel for the first 97 guests in celebration of the Wheel's 97th anniversary. At Luna Park, the first 100 on line at the Cyclone roller coaster will ride the roller coaster for free and egg cream samples will be given out.  Coney Island's 1920 Wonder Wheel and the 1927 Cyclone are official New York City landmarks.

At the Coney Island History Project, visitors may take free souvenir photos with the only original Steeplechase horse from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase Park (1897-1964) its name that remains in Coney Island and "Skully," a figure from Coney's classic Spookhouse and Spook-A-Rama dark rides. Among the treasures on display at the Coney Island History Project's exhibit center is Coney's oldest surviving artifact. The 1823 wooden Toll House Sign dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to "the Island" was 5 cents!

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. We will also be open on Easter Sunday, April 16, from 1:00-6:00PM. 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.

Coney Island History Project