New York’s families, elected officials and candidates descended on Coney Island on Friday morning to celebrate the reopening of the neighborhood’s famed amusement parks, more than a year after the pandemic forced them shut.
“The rides open today,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press event on the boardwalk. “Our hearts open up too, because we love this place.”
Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, which attract visitors from around the city and the world, had been closed since the end of the 2019 season nearly 18 months ago, prompting an economic downtown that left nearby residents and businesses struggling to get by.
The closures cost about 2,000 seasonal jobs and an estimated $100 million in lost revenue, according to the Alliance for Coney Island, and local officials say unemployment in parts of the nearby area jumped to nearly 30%.
But even for some of those now benefiting from those jobs, the reopening of the parks represents more than just a much-needed paycheck.
“I’m excited for all the kids to come back,” said Keith Swinton, a Crown Heights resident who was operating the Beach Buggy ride at Deno’s on Friday. “It’s just great to see them have fun. I was here when I was younger, so it’s cool to be working here again.”
The parks will operate at 33% capacity, with added health precautions like mandatory face masks for most guests. Luna Park tickets must be booked online in advance, while tickets for Deno’s can be reserved online for in-person purchase.
The parks will be open on weekends through Memorial Day—after that, they’ll run on a full, seven-days-a-week schedule.
“We all are excited and thrilled that we are given the opportunity to prove to the world and to New Yorkers and everybody else that we can do this safely,” Dennis Vourderis, a co-owner of Deno’s, said on Friday.
The reopening festivities also attracted politicians and candidates from across the city to the beachfront neighborhood. High-profile officials like US Senator Chuck Schumer, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul were in attendance, and at least three mayoral hopefuls—Andrew Yang, Scott Stringer and Kathryn Garcia—made an appearance.
As they wandered the boardwalk and spoke with residents and business owners, many of those officials spoke about the government’s role in ensuring the area’s future.
“We passed the American Rescue Plan and more than $100 billion in assistance is coming to New York City and New York State,” Jeffries told Bklyner. “We now have to make sure that the city and state government do their part in ensuring that the resources reach the people here in Coney Island as well as the businesses in this community.”
The comments were a reminder that local businesses here still face a variety of headwinds, even as the city and state’s vaccination efforts allow the economy to slowly reopen.
Maya Haddad Miller, who operates the Brooklyn Beach Shop on the boardwalk, for example, said she and other nearby businesses had struggled to compete with mobile food and merchandise vendors whose presence increased after the city revamped its vendor enforcement strategy last year.
“The new issue was competing with people selling the same stuff that you are right in front of your shop,” Haddad Miller said of her initial attempts to re-open last summer.
Dianna Carlin, who has run her eccentric Lola Star boutique on the boardwalk for over 20 years, said Central wanted to raise her rent “500%” and had refused to negotiate during the pandemic. She said she was currently operating without a lease.
“My store is still in danger of being kicked out of Coney Island,” she told Bklyner.
The administration of former mayor Michael Bloomberg leased the city-owned land under Luna Park and the boardwalk businesses to Central in 2010, and gave the company the ability to dictate its own lease agreements with small businesses owners. The agreement was part of a larger redevelopment plan for Coney Island that has yet to fully materialize.
Alessandro Zamperla, who runs Central, did not respond to a request for comment from Bklyner. Local Council Member Mark Treyger told Bklyner he had pushed the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the agreement, “to help the subtenants and the amusements.
“It’s not just one or the other,” he said. “It’s about everyone here.”
Those disputes will likely continue to play out in the coming months. But on Friday, despite an overcast sky and chill-inducing ocean breeze, the mood around the boardwalk and amusement parks was undeniably one of hard-won optimism and even excitement after an exceedingly difficult year.
“Me and my mom used to come here often,” Michael Rodriguez, a Queens resident who was waiting in line to enter Luna Park, told Bklyner. “She passed away in March 2020. And I’m just coming to find comfort and go on all the rides and know that she’s there with me in spirit.”
Rodriguez, 32, who was joined by his boyfriend, said that being able to attend the park again was a chance both to reflect on the past and look forward to a hopefully brighter future.
“We’re so excited to be here,” he said. “We’re big kids right now. I feel like a big kid.”