Coney Island and Hurricane Sandy: Down but never out!

View of Steeplechase from Boardwalk, Coney Island, 1956

First of all, my heart goes out to the millions of people affected by Hurricane Sandy. Watching the news from the warmth of my Massachusetts home makes me grateful to have been spared the worst and heart-broken for those who weren’t. I am a New Yorker by birth and by heart, and lived there most of these 81 years. It was only love that brought me north where I’m happily ensconced with my wife of 25 years. We met when she lived in New York, though she isn’t a native and life opportunities called her elsewhere. I followed.

Eyewitness to Sandy on Coney Island, Charles Denson, 2012

While the storm devastated a large portion of the Northeast, I am personally drawn to the dire situation in Coney Island and am making my appeal for others to help out. (Please see links below) This article from The Huffington Post entitled “After the Hurricane, Coney Island’s future hangs in the balance” shares some eye-witness accounts from two of Coney Island’s contemporary champions, Dick Zigun and Charles Denson. Dick co-founded Coney Island U.S.A. in 1980 and has been a primary defender and innovator of the place ever since. I like his statement of purpose on his website, which speaks of defending the honor of American popular culture. Here here! Charles founded The Coney Island History Project dedicated to increasing awareness of Coney Island’s legendary past and encourage an appreciation of the Coney Island neighborhood today. Hats off to both of these guys and their cadre of loyal supporters for embodying the spirit of a place that has long been the heart and soul of New York City – and beyond.

I was born in Coney Island – literally and figuratively. On April 17, 1931 my mother lay in Coney Island Hospital exhausted from my arrival not far from our family’s home on Coney Island. I can’t remember the exact location of our early home, since we moved up to Bensonhurst when I was about six or seven where we lived at 18th Ave. and 78th Street for much of my boyhood. But it was just a short trolley from Coney Island. With 25 cents in my pocket in the morning I would head to Coney. Having spent all my money on hot dogs, candy and rides, I would draw pictures on the boardwalk for the fare home, but generally just hitched a ride on the back bumper of the trolley since whatever I earned generally went toward one more ride.

Boardwalk Stairs, 1950
Boardwalk Stairs, 1950

I took my very first photographs at Coney Island. It was 1946 and I was 15. I borrowed my upstairs neighbors Rollieflex and headed straight for the Cyclone. After too many days of borrowing, my neighbor billed me $5 a day for the rental of his camera!

When I say I was also born on Coney Island figuratively, it’s because my birth as an artist and photographer was nurtured within its womb. My outlook on life, which most would say is optimistic and appreciative, was forged in the crucible of Coney Island, which is why I have always called my six decades of Coney photographs A Coney Island of the Heart.

It’s not only a place; it’s a state of mind — a crucial piece of New York City’s psyche — and the nation’s. It’s about equality and the common pursuit of pleasure no matter what class or culture you’re from. It’s about the embrace of the bizarre and the ordinary and the freedom to have uninhibited fun with throngs of others who are all there for the same reason. There is simply no other place like it in the world and it needs to be preserved and restored for future generations.

Come what may, Coney Island has and always will rise from the ashes. As Charles Denson says in the article,

Coney Island has been destroyed many times. It’s burned to the ground, it’s been destroyed by urban renewal, it’s had fire storms, and it will survive this.

Please contribute what you can to the people and the place by donating time, money or other resources through these or other organizations.

  • – Occupy Sandy is a coordinated relief effort to help distribute resources & volunteers to help neighborhoods and people affected by Hurricane Sandy. Members of this coalition are from Occupy Wall Street,, and They have specific requests for Coney Island Relief.
  • Congressman Domenic Recchia’s office is coordinating some Coney Island Relief Efforts.
  • – Dick Zigun has put out a particular call for helping restore entire first floor of their headquarters.
  • – The Coney Island History Project needs your help too! See photos and look at the appeal here.

Here is a small visual tribute from my Coney Island of the Heart portfolio to the people who have reflected its indomitable spirit then and now! How about a fundraising auction? I’ll gladly donate!

Bad Luck Tattoo, 1957
Bad Luck Tattoo, 1957
Man and daughters at Sideshow, 1949
Man and daughters at Sideshow, 1949

Blanket Toss Play, 1955
Strange Encounters, Coney Island, 1990
The reason I love Coney Island — the world is there together! I think that’s Dick Zigun on the rail. Perhaps he’ll let me know!