End of the ride? COVID-19 imperils 'people's playground' of New York

End of the ride? COVID-19 imperils 'people's playground' of New York

People walk on the Coney Island boardwalk
People walk on the Coney Island boardwalk on a rainy day on Aug 13, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: AFP/Angela Weiss)

NEW YORK: Summers in Coney Island usually ring with the sound of excited screams from roller coasters, playful shouts from bumper cars and children's laughter from spinning teacups.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has silenced the famous New York boardwalk, causing one of the most difficult periods in its 150-year history and sparking fears for its future.

"It's horrible, it's depressing," said Dennis Vourderis, sitting amid the shuttered rides of Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, which he co-owns with his brother.

2020 was supposed to be a big year for Deno's, with the park celebrating the 100th anniversary of its best-known attraction - the 45m high Wonder Wheel.

But the COVID-19 lockdown and the absence of foreign tourists have made this the first summer since its opening in 1920 that the Ferris wheel hasn't turned, ending a run that survived even World War II.

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A woman walks in front of a closed store front on the Coney Island boardwalk
A woman walks in front of a closed store front on the Coney Island boardwalk on Augu 13, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: AFP/Angela Weiss)

The Vourderis brothers have had to put on hold an expansion plan after they spent US$12 million on adjacent land and a new ride.

"Normally, our revenues are several million dollars. This year it's zero. We've had some sleepless nights for sure," Vourderis, 61, told AFP.

Nearby on the boardwalk - on the southwestern tip of Brooklyn - is Ruby's Bar and Grill, a restaurant that has served holidaymakers since 1934.

"Our business is off 75 per cent from what it would normally be," said owner Michael Sarrel.

"PEOPLE'S PLAYGROUND"

"We won't be able to make enough money to pay the rent this season. In fact we've given some strong consideration to possibly selling the business," he added.

Coney Island first became an amusement district in the 1880s; New Yorkers sometimes call it "the people's playground."

In a normal year, around seven million people flock to its beach and boardwalk, taking a twirl on its cheap, old-fashioned fairground rides or snacking on fluffy pink cotton candy.

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A man jogs on the Coney Island boardwalk
A man jogs on the Coney Island boardwalk on Aug 13, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: AFP/Angela Weiss)

"It's every type of person you could possibly imagine mixing seamlessly together and celebrating life," said Lola Star, who owns a boutique clothing store on the boardwalk.

"It's so magical and so important to the city."

The coronavirus crisis comes at a precarious time for Star, real name Dianna Carlin, who is locked in a dispute with her landlord over a rent hike.

Star feels she is the victim of attempts to gentrify the area, and she fears the pandemic could sound the death knell for her 20-year-old shop.

"It has been the most difficult episode of my life. I'm struggling to keep my business afloat," she told AFP.

After suffering years of neglect and decline between the 1970s and 1990s, Coney Island has been revitalised since the turn of the century.

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A man sleeps on the Coney Island boardwalk
A man sleeps on the Coney Island boardwalk on a rainy day on Augu 13, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: AFP/Angela Weiss)

But the cleanup has also sparked a fight for the soul of the quirky area, with several small family-owned businesses disappearing as high-end chains move in.

In 2009, the administration of then-mayor Michael Bloomberg bought three hectares of the downtrodden district from a developer who wanted to evict tenants and build Las Vegas-style resorts and luxury apartments.

The city leased the land to Zamperla, an Italian amusement rides manufacturer, allowing it to open the Luna Park amusement zone and set rents for Lola Star's boutique and a handful of other businesses.

GENTRIFICATION

Star claims Zamperla is trying to hike her rent by 500 per cent.

Company president Alessandro Zamperla claims the increase is "nowhere near" that but told AFP that her previous rate was "significantly below market value".

A New York City spokesman told AFP the government was "working with partners" in Coney Island on ways to "maintain its charm".

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View of the Coney Island beach and boardwalk
View of the Coney Island beach and boardwalk on Aug 13, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: AFP/Angela Weiss)

But businesses say they haven't received enough help to survive the coronavirus.

Government payroll protection loans barely covered a few weeks of expenses, Alexandra Silversmith, executive director of the Alliance for Coney Island, told AFP.

Coney Island has survived crises in the past, most notably Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which gutted shops and destroyed rides, covering them in sand.

But amusement park owners say coronavirus has been more difficult, with the financial devastation compounded by the psychological trauma of not knowing when businesses will be allowed to reopen.

They fear coronavirus will wipe out their whole April-to-October season.

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A man with an umbrella walks on the Coney Island boardwalk
A man with an umbrella walks on the Coney Island boardwalk on a rainy day on Aug 13, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: AFP/Angela Weiss)

Other sectors of New York, where COVID-19 has killed 23,000 people, have reopened as the city works to bring the virus under control.

But maintaining social distance on a roller coaster or a teacup ride is difficult.

Back at Deno's, staff have used their down time to freshly paint their rides, and Vourderis is trying to stay positive.

"We'll just have to celebrate the wheel's 100th anniversary next year," he said.

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