CONEY SIGNS. Some strange and wonderful signs around Coney Island…

by Kevin Walsh

Acting on a report from a ForgottenFan that the two remaining

Ocean Parkway milestones (seen on this page) at Avenue P and Neptune Avenue had been removed, on Christmas Eve 2006 I jumped on an F train and headed, in alarm, for Midwood. Thankfully both the nearly 150-year-old markers are still there, although if the city decides to revamp Ocean Parkway they’re definitely in danger, and I plan to notify the Brooklyn Historical Society about it; whether they’ll pay attention is another matter.

Since it was 55 degrees in this El Niño/global warming winter, I decided to hike from Midwood to Brighton Beach and then on to Coney, its pull in the winter not to be denied. Though I frequent Coney just about every summer for the Mermaid Parade, I am also drawn to it in the winter, if only to hear the wind whistling through the AstroTower. Word comes now, though, that by 2008, the AstroTower will be no more…and if the ice caps keep melting, Coney will be under water.

There are more Forgotten New York pages on Coney Island than any other neighborhood (we recently highlighted the yellow submarine in Coney Island Creek) … and indeed FNY has yet to visit many NYC areas and chronicle their Forgottenicity. Coney has an atmsophere like no other. NYC has had other amusement areas…Canarsie’s Golden Park, razed by Robert Moses in the 1930s; Rockaway Playland, closed in the early 1980s; and even Staten Island’s South Beach area. Inwood in Manhattan had a little-known amusement park in the 1890s. Only Coney Island remains, and has had its somewhat risqué, honky tonk yet somehow family-oriented atmosphere of old recreated by its unofficial mayor Dick Zigun and his organization Coney Island USA over the past couple of decades.

To give you an idea of Coney Island’s former glory, here’s a newsreel from 1940, when Steeplechase, Luna Park, and so much more, were still open.


Ah, well. It’s just a ghost of all that now, even in midsummer.

Coney, in its now-diminished state, is under siege (some would say) by shopping mall developer Thor Equities, who promise to tear down most of the frontage along Surf Avenue and install, among other things, a roller coaster that runs through buildings and a double-deck carousel. The renderings all look kind of dystopian and Blade Runner-ish to me. The tawdriness and decrepitude I recognize at Coney would disappear as the big money moves in and luxury housing sprouts along the boardwalk, and I can’t help but wonder if we’re going to get Long Beach where Coney used to be. Ot Atlantic City, if they allow casinos. Dick Zigun is on board, but he draws the line at condos, favoring hotels only.

This time, at Coney, I decided to show the incredible variety of signage, showing well-known characters from comic books, mythological talismans of the past like sea monks, the multi-toothed Steeplechase guy, mermaids and sea-things, and sinister clowns…many of these signs may leave Coney forever in a couple of years, if Thor Equities comes on the scene…divored from context, they’re singularly bizarre.

Jones Walk. The sign in the middle is a mishmash of English and Russian.

Jones Walk-Bowery Street. The image of rabbits, or “coneys”, overrunning the Cyclone is arresting. How many patrons know that “coney” is derived from the Dutch word for rabbit? When the Dutch arrived in the 1600s, they found the long-eared lagomorphs all over Coney which was indeed an island at the time.

I couldn’t show all of Rita Ackermann‘s phantasmagoric Jones Walk mural, so I’m just showing snatches of it, depicting blindfolded snake charming beauties, knife-thrower assistants, and birds with forks for legs; the leopard print bathing suit girl with the buckets appears more than once in Ackermann. Her work has been compared with the recluse Henry Darger‘s, and she has worked with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, among others.

Bowery Street. You have to love the image of a monkey and a clown vying for the favors of a mermaid, one offering a hot dog, the other flowers. I think sushi might do the trick.

Center: Rat Fink, a symbol of hot-rodding culture from the swingin’ Sixties invented by artist Ed “Big Daddy” Ross as, it’s said, a parody of Mickey Mouse. Someone once said Elvis Costello looked like Buddy Holly after drinking a can of STP, so you get the idea here. Jones Walk again.

Al Capp’s Mammy Yokum appears on an awning where there are no other Li’l Abner characters. Recognize the Steeplechase guy in the center? And, once again, the “coney” theme. More from Jones Walk.

A few from Surf Avenue. There’s a stylized Wonder Wheel with the moon behind (actually this view faces north so the moon doesn’t rise behind the Wheel) as well as Ms. Pac-Man, dating the sign to the early 1980s, and B&B Carousell, which, complete with extra “l” has been located on Surf Avenue since the mid-1910s. For awhile its future was in doubt, but it recently found a buyer and it will be restored.

Bowery Street and Henderson Walk. Once again, a stylized rendition of the famous Steeplechase guy, with an incredible amount of teeth. If this character came up to you in the street, you’d probably run the other way, quick.“Balloon Raceing” was actually open (on the Stillwell Avenue side) on this 55 degree day, when there was considerable Boardwalk traffic. Clowns are the strangest things on earth.

Boardwalk, Stillwell Avenue, West 12th Street.

Stillwell near Surf.

My favorite mermaid, July and December 2006. The mural is already beginning to deteriorate a bit…

At Surf Avenue and West 10th Street you find one of Coney Island’s two remaining Child’s Resturant buildings, in danger of being torn down with the Thor Equities purchase (the other at West 21st and the Boardwalk, with its brilliant terra cotta embellishments, has a buyer and will eventually reopen). The building is home to the Coney Island Museum and Sideshows By the Seashore, which will likely be relocated elsewhere. The building is festooned with posters by longtime Coney Island artist Marie Roberts.

“As Artist-in-Residence at Coney Island USA, Fairleigh Dickinson University professor Marie Roberts is continuing a legacy that stretches back to her Uncle Lester, who was a “talker” at the Dreamland Circus Sideshow in the 1920s. Growing up in Coney Island, Marie grew up listening to family stories of Coney, replete with tales of traveling sideshow freaks who stayed as guests at the family house (which she still lives in) while in town to perform.

“With her large, colorful banners hanging prominently outside of today’s Sideshow, Marie has helped keep the art of the sideshow alive for a new generation of Coney visitors to marvel at and enjoy. And, as a professor, Marie teaches her students the art of banner painting with the hope of keeping the art form alive well into the 21st century. Despite her busy schedule, Marie, a committed vegetarian, also finds the time to care for and rescue local cats in need.”

And now comes word that Astroland, Coney Island’s newest amusement park (though it was built in 1963 on the site of the old Feltman’s Restaurant — where the hot dog was introduced) is to be dismantled after the 2007 summer season. Even its name dates back to the go-go Sixties, when baseball teams and stadiums were named in honor of a time when America was actually fascinated with space exploration. I daresay if we announced a moon or Mars mission tomorrow the response would be a mix of indifference and anger.

Thor Equities, the developer of New Coney, has purchased the 3.1 acre park for one and a half billion from the Albert family. In Coney Island Lost and Found, Charles Denson tells us that Dewey Albert, with two partners including Nathan Handwerker of Nathan’s fame, purchased the property in 1955 specifically to keep the Master Builder, Robert Moses, from getting his mitts on it (apparently fearing what he would do with the old Feltman’s site), and to maintain it for amusement use.

In 1963 the original rides were the Cape Canaveral Satellite Jet ride, the Water Flume (the first ride of its type on the east coast), and the Mercury Capsule Skyride. Remember, NASA’s fisrt three manned space programs were Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. The following year they dismantled the Superba carousel, built in 1903, and installed one of Coney’s signatures, the 270-foot AstroTower, known to Brooklynites as the “bagel in the sky” from the rotating car that ascended and descended the tower. The last Astroland amusements included Dante’s Inferno, Scrambler, Hot Rod Bumper cars, and the Power Surge.

Zamperla Amusements, an Italian corporation, has opened the new Luna Park on the old Astroland site. It was built to be reminiscent of the famed Coney Island park from the early 20th Century.

Gregory and Paul’s Snack Bar; Astroland from the beach. The Wonder Wheel, a Coney icon since 1920, seems safe.

Artist Colos Salmedia and VSA Partners have produced a very informative mural on the Coney Aquarium’s long Boardwalk-facing wall, with a capsule history of Coney. Here are some of the highlights…

“Paradise By the Sea”? So claimed the Shore Hotel, at Coney’s crossroads, Surf and Stillwell. I shot these in hidden Henderson Walk. I confess I’ve always had an idea to stay at the Shore for a couple days, just to say I had. I missed my chance as the building was torn down in early 2011.

Also shown is the old Henderson’s Music Hall, also now demolished. It had been cut in half when Stillwell Avenue, formerly Stratton Walk, was widened in 1923. For a time thereafter, the alley was called Stratton-Henderson Walk. The Henderson name comes from vaudeville theatrer owner Fred Henderson, who built the hall in 1899. Dan Glass of L Magazine describes a recent visit.

Many of the signs and buildings shown here have now disappeared.