CO-FOUNDER, CONEY ISLAND HISTORY PROJECT
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Just about everyone has a Coney Island story and Charles Denson and the volunteer team from the Coney Island History Project want to hear it.
“Carol Albert, former owner of Astroland, and I founded it 10 years ago as an oral history project to record the memories – the past and the future – of Coney Island as a whole,” explained Denson, a lifelong Coney resident. “Coney Island is a visceral experience for most people, whether good or bad. When people talk about visiting or living here, they kind of choke up.”
The Project’s collection includes an online oral history archive, as well as an Exhibition Center located in the shadow of the iconic Wonder Wheel.
All free, exhibits have included a retrospective on Coney Island development and the origins of the Steeplechase face, and feature “all kinds of artifacts” such as old signs, photographs, films and a Wall of History of people who have contributed to the project.
Walking tours, lectures and collaborations with local schools and museums such as Green-Wood Cemetery, the Wadsworth Athenaeum and Brooklyn College – the project’s eventual final destination – are also offered.
CAREER: Denson used to work in newspapers and magazines, but now focuses on creating independent films and on being CIHP director. “This is my mission, to focus on Coney Island issues,” he said. “It’s a very diverse and colorful community.
“I started writing a book on Coney Island when I was 12, called “Coney Island: Lost and Found,” he said. “It’s part memoir, part history. A lot of people can relate to that. It’s in its fifth reprinting now.”
Denson has since written two other books and produced several films, including a documentary about long-time local butcher and project volunteer Jimmy Prince, and one “about the gangs of Coney Island – who were the inspiration for 1979 film “The Warriors.””
His current film is about Coney Island Creek, its role in community life, the need for restoration and the impact of Sandy’s floodwaters and ongoing pollution. “I want it to become a community asset rather than a liability,” he said.
MOTIVATION: “I grew up during time of great turmoil and urban renewal when the neighborhood was going up in flames, had high crime and was ignored by the city,” said Denson. “There was a lot of civic neglect. That’s what drives me now to advocate for improvements in the community.
“Things have been greatly improved recently, but Sandy was a setback,” he added. “But the community is resilient and will recover. I want to see it continue to improve.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Denson counts the area’s “massive rezoning” to be his biggest challenge “because when I was young I felt we were powerless as a lot of decisions were made without community input. This time, it was a battle but we had a voice. It was frustrating but rewarding to be part of the process.”
BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENT: Denson is most proud of the establishment of the Coney Island History Project “and the public’s positive reaction to it.
“To turn people onto Coney Island from all over the world to express what it means to them is great,” he said.
PERSONAL LIFE: Denson splits his time between Coney and California. His Seagate apartment was flooded during Sandy; he is the last of his family to still live in the area. He attended the School of Visual Arts and studied architecture at CCNY.