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Can the ‘Melting Pot of Humanity’ Survive This?

This summer was supposed to be big for Coney Island.

Memorial Day weekend would mark the 100th anniversary of the Wonder Wheel, Coney Island’s 15-story feat of engineering in the form of a Ferris wheel, with swinging cars and panoramic views of both city and ocean. A three-day centennial celebration was planned, including a performance by the Broadway cast of “Wicked.”

The festivities have been postponed. Instead, Dennis and Steve Vourderis, brothers and second-generation owners of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, are taking part in an online video series called “Deno’s Days of Distancing Together.”

Dick Zigun, known locally as the “unelected mayor of Coney Island” and head of the nonprofit behind the popular Mermaid Parade, has also pivoted. Now he’s dressing in a top hat and “mayor” sash to give weekly “State of Coney Island” addresses online. Recently, he initiated a face mask design contest, possibly in an attempt to engage creative New Yorkers who would typically be making mermaid costumes around now.

Coney Island “represents popular culture,” Mr. Zigun said. “It’s a release valve for all of New York City.” But whenever New York City begins to reopen, Coney Island’s greatest strength might also be its biggest vulnerability. “Now we have this fear of each other’s bodies, and touching, and sweat,” said Dianna Carlin, the owner of Lola Star Boardwalk Boutique. “Coney Island is the melting pot of humanity, but are people going to want that?”

Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

They probably won’t want to line up for Luna Park’s four new attractions, including a log flume ride and a ropes course, which were planned for this summer. And Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent declaration that public beaches opening by Memorial Day Weekend was “not in the cards” has certainly not helped to inspire confidence.

Even in the best-case scenario, if beaches and nonessential businesses are eventually allowed to reopen under certain guidelines, it’s hard to imagine “the People’s Playground” making any kind of profit this summer without the wild abandon of summer crowds and long lines. It’s the definition of a seasonal business.

“The whole economic ecosystem is unique,” said Alexandra Silversmith, executive director of the Alliance for Coney Island. “While some other neighborhoods hopefully will be able to fully reopen come fall, for Coney Island that doesn’t really help with any of the 2020 costs these businesses will have incurred.”

Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

For Ms. Carlin, who sells handmade T-shirts and accessories out of the boardwalk shop she’s owned for 19 years, a socially distant summer could be the final nail in the coffin. Since the end of last year, she’s been fighting a 400 percent rent increase from Central Amusement International, a developer the city contracted to build Luna Park and manage a portion of the amusement district. (Its parent company, Zamperla, manufactures the park’s rides.)

In December, Ms. Carlin led a protest against the increase on the steps of City Hall, and in February, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to help on “The Brian Lehrer Show.” But Ms. Carlin said she still hasn’t reached an agreement with her landlord. As spring turns to summer, every week of lost business becomes more dire.

“If we’re closed in June, and able to open in July, that’s going to cut our revenue at least one-third of what we’d make for the year,” Ms. Carlin said. She’s been “contemplating whether it’s time to walk away from the retail business” and instead focus on her Dreamland Roller Disco parties, whenever they will be safe for her to produce again.

Ruby’s Bar & Grill, which has been serving boardwalk customers since 1934, is another of the six small businesses facing the disaster of a rent hike and revenue loss. Michael Sarrel, the owner of Ruby’s, estimated that business for 2020 would be down 75 percent from 2019. He applied for a loan with the Small Business Administration, but was denied. “It’s a horror show,” he said. “We can’t afford to pay this rent. It’s a hardship to begin with.”

Credit…Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

Ms. Carlin wondered if the city might step in and preserve the boardwalk as a cultural treasure of the city. Part of the immediate assistance might include, she suggested, waiving the rent for small businesses this season.

A concrete deal has yet to surface. “This administration is committed to maintaining Coney Island’s character while making investments to ensure it’s resilient, equitable and prepared for the future,” said Julia Arredondo, Mayor de Blasio’s deputy press secretary.

Alessandro Zamperla, the president of Central Amusement International, wrote in a statement: “We look forward to hearing from the City of New York concerning an economic path forward.” He conceded that the damages caused by the pandemic to Coney Island’s seasonal small businesses had been “considerable.”

Mr. Sarrel of Ruby’s said he’s still preparing for an eventual opening. He’s installing new awnings, clearing the beer lines, and turning on the ice machine and freezers. Now that the weather is warmer, he is doing takeout on weekends, selling burgers, fried shrimp, and bottles of beer to masked pedestrians and bikers on the boardwalk, though business has been modest. “I think people are tentative about coming into any place now,” he said.

Credit…Calla Kessler/The New York Times
Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Meanwhile, Dennis Vourderis, of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, has been hashing out the logistics of what a reopened Deno’s might look like this summer.

“We’ll have a number of sanitizing crews that will go from ride to ride,” wiping down anything visitors touch, he said. Other changes include hand-sanitizing stations, a touchless ticketing system, and markers to keep guests six feet apart. Rides with individual cars, like the Wonder Wheel and the Spook-a-rama haunted house, will be the easiest to operate under social distancing guidelines, Mr. Vourderis said.

In mid-May, the Vourderis brothers opened two of their concession stands for takeout.

Eight of the park’s 15 full-time staff are currently working, and the park is waiting to hire roughly 75 summer employees, should it get a green light of any sort. Mr. Vourderis said that the amusement park has been approved for several loans so far from the federal government’s Small Business Administration.

The canceled spring season, typically bustling with locals on weekends and film and television shoots on weekdays, has already taken a significant toll. In January, Deno’s had announced an expansion that would nearly double the adult section of the park. They’d been planning to open the area next year, Mr. Vourderis said, but were counting on profits from this year to help with the financing. “We’re hoping that either additional loans come through or we get to open our gates soon,” he said. “Bear in mind that we only have five months to make this money.”

Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Mr. Zigun, meanwhile, is holding out hope that the annual Mermaid Parade, which drew an estimated 800,000 people last year, will be able to take place in the fall (he has already announced two Broadway playwrights as parade King and Queen). But he’s uncertain whether the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, or the Coney Island Museum, also run by his nonprofit, will be able to open this year.

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His organization, Coney Island USA, is fortunate to own its landmark Spanish Colonial Revival building on Surf Avenue. The group was approved for a loan from the Small Business Administration, though Mr. Zigun noted that any performances are a long way off, as arts venues are in the last phase of New York State’s reopening plan.

If Mr. Zigun is able to reopen this year, the priorities would be the gift shop and the museum, where it’s easier to maintain social distancing. Mr. Zigun said he’s mining his “encyclopedic knowledge of carnival hucksterism” in considering how to modify the 45-minute sideshow.

Instead of six performers — from fire eaters to sword swallowers and snake charmers — for an audience of 100, Mr. Zigun is envisioning shorter, solo performances for smaller groups. “Maybe we go to a girl-to-gorilla-illusion, a stand-up, 10-minute experience that’s so over-the-top it’s going to be attractive and worth paying for,” he said.

The coronavirus outbreak has hit at an inflection point for Coney Island, which over the past decade has seen a surge in development and ensuing gentrification since its 2009 rezoning, as well as the widespread destruction of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The neighborhood is also already struggling with high storefront vacancy rates.

Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

But the timing of the outbreak and its unpredictable trajectory could make the impact to the area all the more devastating. “When Sandy hit, we were closing the next day, so we had six months to clean up and rebuild,” Mr. Vourderis said. “We also had the profits from the summer to put toward that cleanup and rebuilding process.” The pandemic is affecting revenues and public confidence, he continued. And “Coney Island is a very public place.”

Earlier this month, The City reported that Mark Treyger, the city councilman who represents Coney Island, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and State Senator Diane Savino called for loans to be turned into grants in order to mitigate the impact the virus will have on seasonal businesses. “We cannot and will not allow the clock to turn back on Coney Island,” Mr. Treyger wrote in a letter.

Mr. Vourderis is trying to stay positive. “Coney Island has the advantage of fresh air, sunshine, and the beach,” he said. “When I stand out on the boardwalk and I’m looking out at the ocean, it just has such a calming and reassuring effect that everything will be OK.”

Source: NY times

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