When Charles Denson walked into the Thor Equities town hall development meeting at United Community Baptist Church, everyone wanted to shake his hand and get his opinion of Thor’s latest announcements and of the developer Joe Sitt—even Joe Sitt himself.
“Is Charlie back?” Sitt asked the crowd from his position onstage. “Charlie said in the paper that I had the opportunity here to be the hero. Well Charlie, that’s the only way I want to do this.”
Charlie remains skeptical.
“It’s nice but they haven’t really come up with anything unique,” Denson said the morning after the meeting. “What Sitt’s proposing is a corporate amusement park.”
It might seem strange for a multi-millionaire urban developer planning a $2 billion project to spend his public and private time courting a local art-director-turned-historian, but Charles Denson is not a typical historian. He’s not even a typical Coney Island historian. Denson is a historian of urban development in Coney Island.
Since Denson was 12 years old and living in the Coney Island Houses, he has devoted much of his time to documenting how development projects affect Coney Island, and in 2002 he turned this wealth of information into an award-winning book, Coney Island Lost and Found. The new Coney Island development hoopla has placed Denson in a unique position to cast judgment, and increasingly newspapers and neighbors have been turning to see what advice history can give.
“When Steeplechase (the original Coney Island Amusement part) closed down it was just like now. Everyone thought Coney Island was closing down,” says Denson. He points to a picture of Fred Trump, Donald’s father, standing in front of Steeplechase with a fire ax and some models. “That’s Fred Trump, he was a developer too. He had this horrible party where he invited his friends down to throw bricks through all the windows before they tore it down.”
Much of Coney Island’s past is shrouded in mystery and misinformation. Fires periodically destroyed large sections of the area, and when buildings and rides were torn down or renovated they were simply thrown away. But perhaps the worst culprit of misinformation has been the carnie custom to exaggerate and spin yarns, to turn 300-pound fat ladies into 700-pound fat ladies. Most historians cannot resist the allure of the 700-pound fat ladies, leaving Coney Island aficionados with history books that read like comic books.
Denson’s book tells the stories behind the fantasy: corrupt land deals, mechanics risking their lives to maintain dangerous rides, a series of declines and revivals, all double-checked and annotated with interviews, photographs, court records, and newspaper clippings. “You have to wear a dusk mask while going through all these files, but it’s all there. It’s amazing how accurate people are in court,” says Denson.
Recently, Denson started a project with the help of Astroland and the City to uncover previously unexplored Coney Island history. The Coney Island Oral History Project attempts to expand and document the area using memories as a starting point for new historical research. The project allows anyone to come in and record their memories of Coney Island. Select histories are archived on the project’s website, coneyislandhistory.org.
“One of the things about Coney Island is everyone has stories. Stories about Coney Island when they were young or how they met their wives,” says Chuck Reichenthal, district manager of community board 13. Reichenthal admits that he is a big fan of Denson’s work and that he has already participated at the booth several times and intends to participate again. “A lot of these stories get lost as we go on with our lives. Now they don’t have to,” he says.
Already Denson has collected stories from a former incubator baby who was put in a display show (now a full-grown adult), as well as the president of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club and the garrulous Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz.
“We’re trying to define the essence of Coney Island,” says Denson. “Coney Island is the people’s playground. It’s the most diverse place in the world. You see Muslim women covered-up playing games next to Hasidic Jews. It’s not a theme park—the theme is life.”
The recording booth is in a small exhibit space underneath the Cyclone rollercoaster. Every few minutes everything rattles as the rollercoaster roars over head. The space’s first exhibit is called Coney Island Land Grab! and chronicles Coney Island’s developments, beginning with a toll booth sign from 1823 and ending with a panoramic shot of the amusements from the summer of 2005.
“Those places in the middle,” says Denson, pointing to the batting cages and miniature golf, “have gone dark.”
Denson admits that Sitt’s plan is not all bad, that even he would like some more good restaurants in Coney Island. But Denson is worried that if rezoning occurs in the C7 amusement zone to allow restaurants and retail, it could open the door for there being less and less amusements in the future. Denson also feels that Thor’s 40-story hotel towers—two steel and class boxes twice as tall as anything else in Coney Island—would be a blight on the landscape.
“Right now you have the whole spectrum of experiences, whether it’s a well-run amusement park like Deno’s Wonder Wheel or Astroland or one of these little razzle games where they try to rip you off. With Sitt’s plan you have one owner, one vision.”
Says Denson, “If it goes bust, the whole place goes bust.”
Brian Childs is a writer based in Brooklyn.