Coney Island housing projects
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.”
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