Troubled waters: Exhibit looks at history of the Coney Island Creek

Water man: Local historian Charles Denson assemblied this comprehensive exhibit about the history and possible future of Coney Island Creek.
Photo by Trey Pentecost

This historian is really up on a creek.

A new exhibit at the Coney Island History Project explores the past, present, and future of Coney Island Creek — the now mostly-filled waterway that once separated the People’s Playground from the mainland. The Creek is the last remnant of the neighborhood’s little-known history as a land of marshes and farms, said the Project’s executive director.

“The whole point is that Coney Island is really an artificially built environment — you had this beautiful natural world, and the Creek is the last vestige of this massive estuary,” said Charles Denson, who lives in Sea Gate.

The exhibit looks back to when Coney Island was a 17th-century fishing and hunting spot, known for its wild rabbits, or “coneys.” It became a hub of development by the 19th century, and a luxury hotel in the 1870s began a long tradition of businesses dumping their waste in the Creek. During the late 20th century, dyes spilled out of factories along the shore and made the waters a Technicolor natural wonder, said Denson.

“The dye company would pump waste into the Creek, so every day it was a different color — sometimes it’d be green, bright purple, horrible yellow — and we just took that as just the way things were,” he said. “It was pretty much considered an open sewer, so people would just dump stuff.”

Denson, who is also working on a book and documentary about the waterway, said his interest in the inlet stems from when he was a curious kid bounding along its banks.

“I have a whole history of my childhood spent on the creek — I was an explorer when I was a little kid, so I would go over to the creek and there were dead animals, abandoned cars, amazing shipwrecks,” he said. “It was a really mysterious place. It was abandoned, and nobody seemed to care about it.”

He hopes the exhibit will inspire locals to care more about the Creek and join efforts to clean it up.

“The potential is to do restoration and to stop the pollution — people could swim in it, boat in it, fish, without having to worry about being poisoned or getting sick,” he said. “We’re working make it a beautiful restored estuary.”

“Coney Island Creek and the Natural World” at Coney Island History Project (3059 W. 12th Street between Bowery Street and the Boardwalk in Coney Island, (347) 702–8553, www.coneyislandhistory.org). Open Sat–Sun, 1–7 pm, through Sept. 3. Free.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
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