One of the saddest days of Charles Denson’s life took place when he was a boy growing up in Coney Island and he watched through a fence as bulldozers tore down the last of the rides in Steeplechase Park. It was 1966 and the once-iconic amusement park was being demolished.
“It was a transitional time. Steeplechase Park was closing down. It was one of the saddest times of my life, watching them tear the park apart,” Denson told this newspaper in a phone interview on July 30.
By the 1960s, Coney Island had become bleak. Crime increased and residents walked down the street looking over their shoulders.
The only remnant left from Steeplechase Park is the Parachute Jump.
“I never gave up on Coney Island. I always thought it could recover,” Denson said.
Not only did Coney Island recover, these days, it is thriving. The beach, boardwalk and Luna Park have become tourist Meccas. Earlier this year, the Coney Island Boardwalk was declared a scenic landmark by New York City. MCU Park, where the Brooklyn Cyclones play, draws crowds of baseball fans and the neighborhood boasts numerous restaurants. The Ford Amphitheater is a glorious addition to the ambience.
Denson, 65, has watched the renaissance with pride.
Denson, a photographer and documentary filmmaker, is co-founder of the Coney Island History Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the neighborhood’s history.
He has also written three books. “Coney Island Lost and Found,” was published in 2002. “Wild Ride! A Coney Island Roller Coaster” came out in 2007 and “Coney Island and Astroland,” made its debut in 2011.
Denson, who was awarded a journalism fellowship by the University of California at Berkeley in 1999, has given lectures on his beloved Coney Island at the Brooklyn Historical Society, the New York Historical Society, the Brooklyn Public Library and Brooklyn College.
“I grew up in Coney Island, on Surf Avenue,” Denson told this newspaper. “My dream as a kid was to write a book about Coney Island.”
He attended local schools such as PS 188, P.S. 288 and Mark Twain Junior High School.
Denson founded the Coney Island History Project in 2004 with Carol Albert, whose husband had owned Astroland, one of the four legendary amusement parks that were open at various times over the past 120 years. Dreamland, Steeplechase Park and Luna Park are the other three.
Albert had an idea of what the new group should do as a first project. “Carol had worked on collecting oral histories of the Deep South. She suggested that we start recording people’s personal histories of Coney Island,” Denson said.
So Denson and Albert set up a memory booth on the Boardwalk, asked people to share their memories of Coney Island and recorded them. “It was emotional for some people. They cried because it was a magical place for them when they were children. And some of the people we interviewed were over 100 years old,” he said.
One man was old enough to remember Dreamland which burned to the ground in 1911.
The Coney Island History Project, located at 3059 West 12th St., has artifacts from the past, including an original Steeplechase Park horse and a toll house sign dating back to 1823 when people had to pay a five-cent toll to enter Coney Island by horseback.
The strength of Coney Island has always been its diversity, according to Denson.
In the early 20th century, “People of all nationalities came to the beach to relax and enjoy the sun, the sand and the water,” he said. “They called it the ‘Nickel Empire.’ You could come here for the price of a subway ride. You could be free of the steamy tenements for a day.”
Coney Island has always been a hospitable place for immigrants seeking the American Dream, Denson said.
“One hundred-twenty years ago, you could come here and start a business. If you worked real hard you could make enough to support your family. Nathan’s Famous was started by a Polish immigrant,” he said, referring to Nathan Handwerker, who opened a hot dog stand in 1916 that grew into a world-famous restaurant.
Immigrants also worked in the factories that populated Coney Island in the early to mid-20th century. “Eastern European wood carvers made a lot of the rides,” he said.
Today, Coney Island is the kind of place where “you can see women in burqas walking near Hasidic Jewish men and everyone gets along,” Denson said.
For more information, visit: www.coneyislandhistory.org.