Places that Matter

Coney Island History Project

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Coney Island History Project, November 2012, Molly Garfinkel
Coney Island History Project, November 2012, Molly Garfinkel
Coney Island History Project, November 2012
Coney Island History Project, November 2012, Molly Garfinkel
Coney Island History Project, November 2012, Molly Garfinkel
Looking onto the Steeplechase infrastructure, November 2012, Molly Garfinkel
Coney Island History Project office showing water line and hurricane damage, November 2012, Molly Garfinkel
Exhibition center and oral history archive showcasing Coney Island past and present
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Founded in 2004, the Coney Island History Project has been collecting, preserving and sharing stories from people who have lived, worked, laughed and cried at Coney Island. As the History Project's co-founder and Executive Director, Charlie Denson, says, "It’s not just about the amusement area, it’s about the neighborhood and the community, and how the people see it, and why they love it, and hate it. You know, it’s always a visceral response to Coney Island. You can’t get people who are neutral."

In 1952, when Denson was eight years old, his family moved from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the Coney Island Houses, the first high-rise housing complex built in the neighborhood. Denson immediately took a keen interest in his new surroundings, and he vividly recalls his first experience in his new home. “We came in at night, and the projects weren’t really finished. There was a lot of debris burning, and there was just this darkness – you looked out the window and you just saw black. And in the morning, it was a beautiful sunny morning in the winter, I realized that we were right on the ocean.”

In 1964, when word began to spread that Steeplechase Park was in danger of being closed or demolished, twelve year-old Denson took it upon himself to write to the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce on behalf of the beloved amusement park. For their part, the Chamber directors were so impressed with Denson that they invited him to speak to a television crew about the impending changes to Steeplechase. Denson was probably the right man for the job, as he had adopted Coney Island through and through. He says, “the strange thing with the amusements is that growing up there, you kind of, well you don’t take it for granted, but, the when you first visit other neighborhoods and you realize that they don’t have a Boardwalk and they don’t have the ocean, and they don’t have amusements, it’s a real revelation! You realize how unique the neighborhood is...When the Tilyous were going to sell, the Chamber wanted to get a child’s perspective, but I gave them more of an historical perspective. I said that Steeplechase should be saved! Don’t tear it down.” He was soon leading walking tours for the Chamber of Commerce, and he also began to photograph his community.

For Denson, the people who lived and worked in Coney Island were just as interesting as the fanfare of the Boardwalk. He was even intrigued by the men who worked for the Chamber. “They were an odd bunch, and the place looked like an old detective agency, so I became friendly with them.” He took to documenting other local characters. He reminisces, “from the time I had my first camera, from about 1964 or 1965 on, I documented Coney Island. And not just the amusement area, but the neighborhood. I saw it as a whole, as one community, one neighborhood. So I was documenting the stores on Mermaid Avenue, the infrastructure, you know, different events. From the earliest age I’ve been doing that.”

Denson began exploring Coney Island’s past even before he was busy recording the living neighborhood. Years before he ever got his hands on a camera, Denson would spend days pouring over books and maps at the local library. “I was always researching Coney Island’s history,” he says. “And I was always interested in sharing it.” Denson’s passion for sharing Coney Island's past, present and future carried into adulthood. After publishing several books about historical Coney Island, in 2004 he and former Astroland owner Carol Albert co-founded the History Project to document living memories of the neighborhood. They got their start at a time when they could interview many of the 100-or-more year-old Coney Island residents who have since passed away. Denson spoke with and recorded the last person who remembered being in Dreamland before it was destroyed by fire in 1911. "That was Matt Kennedy, whose family was in Coney Island since the 1870s. And Joe Rollino, the 104 year-old boxer who had Coney Island memories, I was able to do recording of them before they died. You know, it created an interesting archive."

The History Project started as a portable recording booth that was set up on the Boardwalk, and in 2007 the organization created an exhibition center under the Cyclone rollercoaster. Last year, the History Project moved to a commercial space under the entrance to Deno’s Wonder Wheel, where they inaugurated a permanent museum featuring exhibits, artifacts, ephemera and films. Over the winter they expanded the space and built a custom recording booth for oral history interviews.

The museum mounts two or three exhibits each summer, and during the off-season Charlie and other members of the small staff collect oral histories and provide local history programs to schools. Denson is often invited to lecture on the area's cultural history, and he has already produced two documentary films, one about the neighborhood's last butcher shop, and one about reformed Coney Island gang members. But Denson also studies Coney Island’s environment, and he is currently working on a documentary film about Coney Island Creek, which, he says, “is really where Coney Island began. All the original settlement and development at Coney Island began along Coney Island Creek because people didn’t generally build along the shore line since it was always battered by storms and was constantly changing.”

Denson has been studying and documenting the Coney Island Creek for four years. "I've been doing a lot of work with the Creek, and there’s been a lot of broader attention to the New York waterfront," he says. "Coney Island Creek is an important estuary. So I’ve been doing a lot of lectures about its history and ecology, and how it is an asset, and how it can become an even more important asset to the community. There’s a lot of brownfield sites here. There was a lot of pollution and the Creek's next to a poor, working-class neighborhood where there’s been a lot of remediation lately."

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy’s surge hit Coney Island and tested the limits of Denson’s interest in the environment and neighborhood. But he refused to abandon his Sea Gate apartment, and he trained his video camera on the waves even as the water poured into his windows before the power went out. Half a mile down the island, the storm also flooded the History Project’s mini-museum under Deno’s Wonder Wheel.

In his 2002 book, Coney Island: Lost and Found, Denson writes that the history of Coney Island can be characterized as a series of land grabs. Historically, the instigators have been political bosses, amusement industrialists and real estate tycoons, but Hurricane Sandy enabled the surrounding waters to reclaim the landscape in an unprecedented way. Coney Island is a barrier island, and barrier islands traditionally change shape. In his book, Denson describes how storms between 1660 and 1853 changed the island’s form. Sometimes Coney Island was three islands, sometimes it was breached. There were huge sandbars offshore that eventually disappeared, and, according to Denson, it was once almost a mile longer at the east end. Coney Island’s shape was essentially fixed in the 1920s, when the Boardwalk was constructed and an artificial beach was created. It received new waves of development in the 1960s and again in the 1980s, when the prefabricated houses were built. Denson says, "every 20 or 30 years there were big storms that would wipe out piers, and that would wash away everything. And it was always rebuilt." He remembers seeing boats floating down Surf Avenue when Hurricane Donna battered Coney Island in 1960, and there were larger storms in the 1990s. But October 2012’s Hurricane Sandy was something different. As far as his memory goes, this surge was unprecedented. Moreover, he says, "Coney Island is now filled with high rises and decaying infrastructure. It didn’t have this much development before. So in that way, this is the storm with the greatest impact."

"You know, the sad thing is that we did prepare for this," Denson told us. "Everything was up high on shelves and we really didn’t expect everything to tip over and dump things." The History Project packed its exhibition center artifacts and stored them on top of tall furniture. But the water rose higher than expected and knocked the shelving over. "Even though it was behind closed doors and a closed gate, the fact that the surge was so strong created these whirlpools that just ripped through and turned everything over. There’s no way that we could have predicted that."

The good news is that the History Project is fastidious about archiving their interviews, many of which are available on their website or at Brooklyn College’s Special Collections and Archives. Denson makes copies of everything, and almost fortuitously, their space beneath the Wonder Wheel is smaller than the previous one under the Cyclone, so the scaling back necessitated a storage unit far offsite where many valuable original artifacts are safe and dry. But other artifacts and ephemera that were on display were lost or severely damaged. Denson’s report on the aftermath of the storm was realistic. “We had a lot of artifacts that were damaged but not destroyed, and we’re going to try to repair them. A lot of our stuff was put in storage, but we had an original Mangles Whipcar, we had the Steeplechase horse – the only Steeplechase horse - on display. We had a lot of antique souvenirs that were damaged, and I had just put up the display of antique cameras through the ages -old field cameras, and all of those were destroyed.” The camera display was supposed to coincide with an upcoming exhibit on souvenir photography. Denson is currently writing a book on topic. The History Project lost a handful of daguerreotypes, most of which were from Denson’s personal collection.

Luckily, the antique tollhouse sign wasn’t on display at the time. “I mean, it’s the most valuable relic of Coney Island, " he says. "It's from the 1820s, and we call it ‘the first submission ticket.’  We have all of the provenance information on it, we know who owned it. A grant from the Albert Family allowed us to save it, and we spent thousands on restoring it. It’s a priceless artifact, and we hadn’t put it back on display because over the past two years we moved to a new space and we’ve been doing construction and wanted to build a special display case for that.”

However, the center itself is in bad shape. Newly-purchased equipment like display screens, video cameras, audio recorders, projectors, and digital picture frames will have to be replaced. The insulation lining the new recording booth was saturated and had to be thrown out, along with the bottom third of the walls. “You know, it’s sad,” he says, “because we moved from the Cyclone and we got this new space from the Wonder Wheel, and we spent all this time rebuilding it. We actually expanded this year. It’s a small space, and we put a lot into it. And because of the size, we have a lot of audio-visual stuff. And we have screens where we can put a whole exhibit- once an exhibit comes down it can still be put on the screens, and we lost a lot of the screens. We’ll have to replace them.”

But the History Project will continue to provide history and environmental educational programs to local schools. Denson is planning to bring the oral history project back, and Coney Island residents are already eager to share their experiences. "I’ve been hearing some incredible stories," he says. "So many people drove up, you know, came by that first week when we were doing the clean up. People we know from the community who were saying, ‘you wouldn’t believe what happened. We were swept away, we spent the night on top of a garbage truck.’ I did some interviews at Sea Gate, and a rabbi who was swept away trying to escape wound up staying on top of a garbage truck for 6 hours. And somebody who worked at the funeral home came by and told us an amazing story about clinging to a light pole on Mermaid Avenue to keep afloat. And, you know, I don’t know if people want to talk about it. It’s actually cathartic to talk about these things, though I’m sure that a lot of people won’t want to talk about it. If and when they do, we’ll be available."