The city still hasn’t replaced a pair of street Coney Island street signs honoring a local legend that vanished back in August, despite a promise to have them restored months ago.
The two signs co-naming a stretch of Surf Avenue after former Coney Island press agent and community activist Milton Berger have been missing since they disappeared over the summer — even after the Department of Transportation promised in September to replace them within two weeks — ranking Berger’s local champions.
“I do realize the Department of Transportation has a lot of different signs, and signs that have to do with safety are going to get a different priority,” said Tricia Vita, administrative director of the Coney Island History Project. “But I want to be sure that the sign gets replaced, because [Berger] doesn’t have anyone watching out for him. It’s up to us to watch out for him.”
Berger gained the nickname “Mr. Coney Island” for his efforts to bolster the nabe’s image in the face of its post-1950s decline. Over the years, the renowned promoter worked for the old Steeplechase Park, the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, and Astroland amusement park, and was instrumental in getting the Cyclone roller coaster landmarked. He also started the nabe’s famed Armed Forces Day air show and came up with the idea to start the tradition of opening earlier for the season — on Palm Sunday, in April — in 1956, which helped boost revenue, according to old issues of Billboard magazine.
The two signs honoring Berger — on Surf Avenue between W. Eighth and W. 10th Streets, and on W. 10th Street, across from the Cyclone roller coaster — went up in 1997, just a few months after he passed away. But last August, they disappeared, according to the executive director of the Coney Island History Project, Charlie Denson.
Then one of the organization’s tour guides noticed in early September that the street sign at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues honoring Nathan and Ida Handwerker — the founders of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs — was also gone, according to Denson.
The Department of Transportation told this paper last September that it put in a “rush order” to replace all three missing signs, but though it swiftly restored the Handwerker sign, it never bothered to replace the two Berger signs.
Worse, the agency has ignored Vita’s repeated inquiries over the past few months. City records show that Vita filed a complaint with the city about the missing Berger signs on Sept. 18, but the city closed out the complaint almost a month later on Oct. 11, despite never replacing the signs.
When a reporter from this paper asked the agency in early January why it had closed out the complaint, why it still hadn’t yet replaced the Berger signs, and when it expected do so, a spokesman only promised that the signs would be back up by the week of January 14.
Vita said that she hopes the city will replace the signs honoring Berger to ensure that members of the changing nabe won’t forget him or his contributions to it.
“He was the Mr. Coney Island of his day, and he did a lot of things that we continue to do today, like publicizing Coney Island year-round,” Vita said. “Even though he was behind-the-scenes as a press agent, he had a big influence.”