A sticky-fingered history buff may be stalking Coney Island.
Street signs honoring three Coney Island legends have disappeared from their posts, according to the Coney Island History Project, which reported the missing signs to the city last week. The honorary street signs are important because they’re enduring reminders of historically significant people and eras in a changing neighborhood, said the organization’s executive director.
“It’s very important, with all the transitional stuff going on in Coney Island, that the past not be forgotten,” said Charlie Denson. “The point we’re making is that these signs are people who have been honored in the past, and they shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Denson said that one of the organization’s walking tour guides noticed on Sept. 9 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 gone. Two street signs co-naming a portion of Surf Avenue after Milton Berger — a local press agent and neighborhood booster — apparently disappeared in August.
The sign designating Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way was installed in front of one of the hot dog vendor’s two long-standing locations a year ago this month to mark the eatery’s 100th anniversary. The Polish pair fell in love and began running the business together after Nathan hired Ida Greenwald, whose (still) secret spice formula made their franks famous. They worked together until they retired in 1971, and both died less than a decade later.
The two signs honoring Milton Berger — on Surf Avenue between W Eighth and 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.
Berger gained the nickname “Mr. Coney Island” for his efforts to bolster the nabe’s image in the face of its post-1950s decline.
“In the 1960-70s, when crime was the big story, Berger was able to put a positive spin on Coney Island,” Denson said. “He was a real showman.”
Over the years, Berger 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. Berger’s sign across from the Cyclone shared an honorary designation with Dewey Albert Place, named after the founder of Astroland in honor of the 70th anniversary of the coaster, which Albert operated. Albert’s sign remains on one the signposts from which Berger’s vanished.
The circumstances of the signs’ disappearances are not identical, according to the Coney Island History Project. The bolts and brackets that held the Handwerkers’ sign in place remain intact on the pole, but with both of Berger’s signs, the bolts and brackets disappeared with the signs. Denson said the organization does not know whether the signs were actually stolen, or rather simply the victim of some innocent but bizarre coincidence.
After Denson’s group reported the missing signs through the Department of Transportation’s website, it received a response stating that the agency usually takes 14 days to respond to that kind of complaint. Denson said that he wished the signs would be replaced sooner by the agency, but he acknowledged that the missing signs are not a public safety issue that require an immediate response.
“I guess you expect that with city bureaucracy,” said Charlie Denson. “But we don’t want the precedent to be that they don’t go back up.”
A spokesman for the Department of Transportation said that the department has prepared a rush order to reinstall the missing signage and hopes to do so this week. The spokesman said that replacing missing signs typically takes up to two weeks, and that the process requires an agency representative to visit the site to confirm that a sign is actually missing, and then send a requisition to manufacture the sign, before scheduling the installation.
On the Coney Island History Project’s walking tours, guides usually point out many honorary street signs in the neighborhood, including those that honor Denos D. Vourderis, the founder of Wonder Wheel Park; Ruby Jacobs, the founder of Ruby’s Bar and Grill; and Gargiulo’s, the neighborhood’s Neapolitan eatery.
Denson said that Coney Island wouldn’t be the neighborhood it is today without Berger’s and the Handwerkers’ contributions to the neighborhood.
“These are people who kept Coney Island alive in the darkest days in the 1970’s,” Denson said. “There really wouldn’t be Coney Island if there hadn’t been people like Berger and the Handwerkers.”