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The Coney Island History Project Reopens Post-Sandy

The Wonder Wheel at Coney Island (photograph by the author)
The Wonder Wheel at Coney Island (photograph by the author)

After sustaining significant damage in Hurricane Sandy, the Coney Island History Project is reopening their reconstructed space on March 24, Coney Island’s Opening Day, and are already looking at ways to capture the story of the storm as part of their mission to chronicle the area’s history.

Since 2004, the nonprofit has aimed to record the oral history of Coney Island, and their location by the Wonder Wheel is an ongoing exhibition space to show artifacts and art related to the historic coastal amusement hub and the surrounding neighborhood. During Hurricane Sandy, about four feet of water entered their building, damaging many of their maps, photographs, electronics, records, and their recording booth where they’ve been capturing oral stories.

Charles Denson & the Cyclops head (photograph courtesy Charles Denson)
Charles Denson & the Cyclops head (photograph courtesy Charles Denson)

“We prepared for the storm, but nobody expected that much water,” Charles Denson, director and founder of the Coney Island History Project, said in a phone conversation. (A video Denson took during the storm vividly shows the overwhelming amounts of water.) When the waters receded, mud was left over much of the space, and some delicate materials, like an exhibition of old dauguerrotypes and antique cameras, were lost. It took months to dry out other paper materials, which Denson described as being “kind of like papier-mâché.”

The Coney Island History Project is restoring many of the larger artifacts, such as a “Fairy Whip” car from 1920 by Coney Island ride innovator William F. Mangels, which Denson said was “pretty much ruined,” and a chair from the beer garden at Feltman’s that got “a little rusty and muddy.” These objects, Denson said, speak to “the creativity in Coney Island” and its role as “the testing grounds for the amusement world.” Denson, a photographer himself, also lost hundreds of prints, and his exhibition that was in the Coney Island library was destroyed. The exhibition was part of the documentary he’s been working on about Coney Island Creek, and it was actually the overflow of that creek with the storm surge that caused much of the flooding in Coney Island. Denson, who grew up in the neighborhood, said this has always been a source of Coney Island flooding since the creek’s wetlands were filled in, but “this time it was just disastrous.”

While they’re still working to move back in some of their artifacts, they have cleaned and will have as their (startling) special guest the Cyclops head that was once on the Deno’s Spook-A-Rama dark ride, which suffered damage in Sandy. “It really is a thing of folk art,” Denson said. “People made these monsters in the 50s. It’s one of the last artifacts like that in Coney Island.” With the reopening, the Project is also going to start collecting personal stories from those in the area on the storm. “Mainly, it’s important to show that were persevered, that we’re not running away,” Denson said. “We’ll reopen and we’ll do whatever it takes to promote this history.”

The Coney Island History Project (located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn) reopens on March 24, 2013.

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