In 1965, Charles Denson, then a 12-year-old kid living in a Coney Island housing project, saw a map of his community in the New York Daily News and learned that the area had once been separated from mainland Brooklyn. “At that point I became fascinated with the history of the place,” he says. “I went to the library and got out a book called Good Old Coney Island by Edo McCullough and tried to connect the neighborhood of the past with the neighborhood I lived in. I wondered where the giant elephant had been, where Dreamland had been.”
Denson recalls questioning Al “The Ice Cream Man,” a guy in his seventies, about what Coney Island had been like while Al rolled his cart along Stillwell Avenue. “He referred me to the local Chamber of Commerce,” Denson recalls. “I went there and was told that because of a fire, they only had a few old pictures but I looked at what they had and got really excited. Shortly afterwards, Bill Nickolson, the head of the group, called to tell me that Steeplechase Park was scheduled to be demolished. I wrote a letter of protest to Marie Tillyou, the daughter of the park’s founder and owner of the property, but got no response. Then, when tv crews came to Coney Island around the time of the scheduled demolition, Nickolson asked me to come in and introduced me to the press as The Coney Island Kid.”
Despite “the kid’s” efforts, Tillyou sold the property to Fred Trump, and Steeplechase was destroyed in 1966. But Charles Denson had found his calling.
The author of the acclaimed 2002 book, Coney Island: Lost and Found, Denson is the founder and Executive Director of the Coney Island History Project (CIHP). Created in 2004, the Project runs a seasonal exhibition space in a former concession stand located under the famed Cyclone roller coaster on Surf Avenue. In addition, Denson and his staff have an ambitious year-round agenda that includes recording, archiving and sharing oral histories; holding lectures and organizing exhibitions on Coney Island’s history; and honoring community leaders and amusement park pioneers through their Coney Island Hall of Fame, accessible online.
“This is not about nostalgia,” Denson stresses. “It’s about capturing Coney Island’s essence and heritage. Coney Island is one of the most diverse places on earth, a place where all socioeconomic groups have been able to meet, mingle, and have fun.”
While Denson refuses to wallow in the community’s glory days, he acknowledges that many New Yorkers and former New Yorkers have a deep emotional connection to Coney Island’s amusement areas and beach. What’s more, he reports that it is not unusual for people to drive up to the Project office and hand staff photo albums, scrapbooks and memorabilia. “They tell us that they want us to have these things because they’re afraid that their children will throw them away when they die and they want their memories to be preserved,” Denson says.
Tricia Vita, CIHP's administrative director, says that she is continually amazed by the excitement Coney Island generates. “We see people who are coming for the first time and others who are coming back with their kids and grandkids,” she says.
Vita recalls that on a recent weekend, two elderly women walked into the exhibit space and recounted their experiences at Luna Park, an amusement Mecca that closed in 1946. Dubbed an “electric Eden” because of its 250,000 lights, the women remembered seeing Cary Grant there, walking on stilts. Another visitor told of seeing “fire in the sky” as a young boy, a result of the arson that routed the community in the 1960s. Still others talk about going on the parachute jump, which closed in 1968.
According to Vita, several hundred oral histories have already been collected and are available to listeners through CIHP’s website. She encourages anyone with stories about Coney Island to be interviewed by their staff so that their tales can be added to the project’s archive. An audio tour is also being created—and will eventually be available to download onto mp3 players—so that those strolling the streets can get a sense of Coney Island’s past while enjoying its present. “We hope to recapture an authentic sense of place by evoking the spirit of demolished attractions,” Vita says.
Colorful displays in the exhibit space on Surf Avenue further teach visitors about the forgotten. And, while the CIHP office is only open from Memorial to Labor Day, staff mount shows in libraries, schools, subway stations, and museums throughout the year. Coney Island “stars” the group has celebrated include the inventor of the hotdog, Charles Feltman, dancer and provocateur Fahrada Mahzar, and ride inventor and repair wizard William F. Mangels. A tribute to songwriter and performer Woody Guthrie, who lived in Coney Island from 1943 to 1952, is currently on display at the Project office. A show to celebrate Dr. Martin Couney, a Sea Gate resident who operated a neonatal care facility as a ten-cent sideshow between 1903 and 1945, is being planned.
At the same time that the Project works to honor people lost to history and capture the memories of regular folk, staff and volunteers also have their eyes and ears on Coney Island’s present and future. In fact, Denson and Vita admit that, of late, they’ve been spending a great deal of time analyzing the city’s most recent redevelopment plan for the neighborhood. Nor surprisingly, they find looking back instructive.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about why Coney Island went downhill in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. It was not the gangs,” says Denson. “To me, all the problems were caused by a failed urban renewal project that did not serve the neighborhood, but only served developers. I believe the city abandoned Coney Island in the ’60s and ’70s, allowing it to become a high crime area. The attitude was, ‘If you don’t like it, move.’” He believes that many residents were displaced because serviceable buildings were destroyed by large-scale development and is outraged that the same thing may be happening again.
Indeed, the New York City Economic Development Corporation unveiled a plan in May that Denson, Vita, and most Coney Island residents deem a disaster. “The plan is way too dense,” Denson begins. It calls for 26 30-story high-rises along Surf Avenue and reduces the amusement area from 47 acres to one nine-acre strip along the boardwalk. The plan also includes a year-round mall and boutiques. “Coney Island has always been a place where people of small means can come and have fun. There are enough shopping malls and enough condos and high-rises in other parts of Brooklyn.” Denson believes, “We should make Coney Island a world class amusement park, a place where people from all over will want to come.”
Vita agrees. “I’d love to see a revitalized Coney Island that pays homage to the past with the re-creation of old rides so that they’re safe and contemporary,” she says. “William Mangels invented the first portable thrill ride, The Whip. It’s still a viable, fun ride but we don’t have it at Coney Island and we should.”
Although Vita is heartened that the city has agreed to refurbish Mangel’s 1932 Bishoff and Brienstein Carousell—odd spelling of ‘carousel’ and all—she hopes that new developers will respect the old as they plan the new. “Coney Island has always been a big, jam-packed place with a lot of amusements,” she says. “Retail shopping and an imax theater will destroy its character and take away all that is unique and special.”
“No matter where you go in the world, everyone has a Coney Island story,” Charles Denson adds. “People come as kids with their parents, then as teens with dates or friends, then as adults with their own kids. Everyone wants to see improvements. But you don’t have to kill Coney Island, or give up on it, to make it better.”
CIHP has clear ideas how Coney Island should be improved. The Project hopes city planners will realize that the neighborhood’s unique past is an essential part of constructing its future.
The Coney Island History Project is located at 1000 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11224 and can be reached at 718-266-0012. The exhibit space is open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 1:00 -6:00 P.M. Admission is free. Visit the CIHP at their website: www.coneyislandhistory.org. They can also be e-mailed at [email protected]neyislandhistory.org.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.