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The Battle At Coney Island

A few small families slowly wander towards the Coney Island boardwalk, stopping intermittently to take pictures of each other. One mother points out the FOR LEASE signs and closed businesses– the games and arcades, the aquarium a short walking distance away– to her children and explains what each of them do when they operate in the summer.

“No, I don’t think they’re open in November,” she says to them. “I think they open in May. May, until September.”

If it was May, Coney Island would be a dazzle of blinking lights and blaring music, warmed by smells of hot dogs and cotton candy. On this bitter cold afternoon in late November, however, the area’s entertainment sector lies dormant. Yet even though the rides are all closed and an autumn chill whips across the shuttered storefronts, people are still coming here. Bundled in warm jackets, their hands in their pockets, they walk up and down the boardwalk, past colorfully painted buildings that now bear the signs SAVE CONEY ISLAND.

Barely a month earlier, at a time when most people were preparing themselves for the colder weather, 10 businesses on the Coney Island boardwalk– some with a history dating back 70 years– were awaiting to hear their fate on the South Brooklyn strip near the beach that has become the source of their livelihoods. Central Amusement International LLC. (CAI), the company that gained ownership of and reopened Luna Park, had also gained the rights to these business’ leases, and announced that by the end of the month, they would decide which of these establishments would stay in business. On Oct 31., CAI announced that only two of the businesses would stay on the boardwalk– the remaining eight businesses were told to leave.

The eight businesses were supposed to evacuate their buildings by mid-November. But instead of disappearing from the boardwalk, the businesses– which include boardwalk staples such as Paul’s Daughter and Ruby’s Bar & Grill, dive bar Cha Cha’s of Coney Island, and carnival game Shoot the Freak– announced that they were joining forces and suing CAI.

The Grill House, boardwalk server of hot dogs and other beach-friendly foods, is one of the establishments that had been asked to leave, but for employee Octavio Hernandez on this Saturday afternoon, it’s business as usual.

Friendly and easygoing, Hernandez prepares freshly cooked hot dogs for a thin but unceasing line of customers, many of whom he seems to be familiar with. “Magnificent cooking,” one patron remarks about the hot dogs, joking that it’s a “heck of a lot better” than his ex-wife’s culinary skills. Another customer, decked out from head to toe in faded denim, asks Mr. Hernandez to change the radio station from its current classic rock station, and Hernandez casually complies (after the new station plays a stream of syrupy Top 40 songs, the same man later asks him to change it back).

While the establishment’s owner is in Florida with his family, Hernandez is in charge of The Grill House. Working alone behind the counter, amidst the recent turn of events for the business, he is left to make most of the managerial decisions by himself. He explains, for example, that he hadn’t been planning on opening the eatery today but changed his mind because he knew that the cadre of regulars who come by every day would be hanging around there, faithfully waiting for their beers.

Hernandez, who says he has a second job, is nonplussed about the potential loss of this one and is not afraid to speak candidly. When he found out that the eight businesses were getting evicted, he says he was not surprised. “I just didn’t understand why they got such a short notice.”

 

Hernandez says suspects that the two boardwalk businesses that did not get evicted, popular hot dog joint Nathan’s and souvenir shop Lola Star are staying in business because they are chains (Nathan’s has another shop on Stillwell Ave., while Lola Star has a second location in the Coney Island-Stillwell Ave. subway station) and thus have more power, while the other eight businesses are getting kicked out because they are smaller fish. “It’s a monopoly game. It’s a checkmate, you know?”

If the eight businesses don’t win the lawsuit and do in fact have to leave the boardwalk forever, Hernandez thinks they’ll be replaced by other chains, the likes of Shake Shack. “It’s a thing about big money versus small money.”

 

As for whether the businesses will win the lawsuit or not… “That depends on how good their lawyer is, ” he says objectively.

Barely a minute’s walk from The Grill House stands Ruby’s Old Time Bar & Grill, a family-run bar and restaurant that has been on the boardwalk since the Thirties. The day has come to an end, and bartender and co-owner Michael Sarell is walking out of the bar alongside the last customers.

Unlike Hernandez, the news of Ruby’s eviction hit Sarell on a personal level. “I was angry. Angry, sad. A lot of different emotions,“ he said, later adding, “It’s family. This place is Ruby’s. Ruby’s was my father in law. So it’s like somebody’s telling you that they want to take away your family.”
While Sarell closes up the bar for the day, a man approaches him and express his support for Ruby’s. “I’ve been here in the past,” he says. “Good luck with the court case.”

“Thank you, I appreciate your support,” Sarrel responds warmly.
“Yeah, we just stopped by to have what might have been our last drink here,” the man said. “I guess we missed it.” There is what sounds like a trace of disappointment in his voice.

After the man leaves, Sarell reflects on the legacy of Ruby’s. “See there, there’s the interesting thing… it’s amazing how many different people that this place has touched, so it’s not just a place of business for making money, it’s a place for people to come and have a good time. So I think that’s the sad part. That’s the sad part, to lose a place where people come to have a good time. ”

Customers at Ruby’s share in Sarell’s sadness. “I think that the idea of renewing Coney Island is a good one, but not at the expense of stripping away its authenticity,” said Eric Safyan, 36, a Coney Island resident and regular at Ruby’s.

“It’s been here since 1934,” says Yana Feldman, 33, who initially started coming to Ruby’s at the suggestion of boyfriend Safyan. “You know, like what are they gonna put in? Bennigans, or like TGI Fridays, or something. So, I thought it was sad because it’s a loss of New York’s history.”
Jake Rockowitz, 36, thinks shutting down Ruby’s will leave a void that cannot be filled. “Ruby’s was the bar of Coney Island. It’s like I don’t think there’s any other bar that’s been here that long or has that many locals going to it. Now there won’t be a really local bar in Coney Island. And it’ll be a shame.”

Sarell feels that an underlying reason behind the evictions is a plan by New York City to refresh the boardwalk by clearing out what it sees as old, shabby and derelict. “I mean, if you look at all the businesses,” he says, “if you looked at them one by one, I mean, they’re all in need of repair…And the city thought that the best way of doing it, instead of each individual person doing it, is to get like one entity or two entities just to do it all.”

Ruby’s and the other businesses that have joined together call themselves the Coney 8. “We believe that our best chance for survival is as a group. Instead of being separate and them picking us off one by one, he’s got to take all eight of us down together. And we’re hoping that– you know the expression “there’s strength in numbers”? We’re hoping it’s true.”

The Coney 8 have been getting an outpouring of support from the community and politicians. At the time of the interview, there were 7,000 names on their petitions, and Senator Carl Kruger paid a visit to Coney Island and said he’ll see what he can do about brokering a deal to keep the businesses operating.

The owners of Ruby’s want their bar to serve customers for decades to come. “Well, what we’re trying to achieve is to keep the tradition alive. I mean, the place has been here since 1934. That’s 76 years. So, we’re trying to pass along that tradition to the next generation and the generation after that, and the generation after that, so, that’s what we’re hoping for.” (Representatives from Central Amusement International could not be reached for comment.)

Despite his fighting spirit, Sarell has some doubts about whether they will win the lawsuit. “I’m not confident at all. I mean, I think I’m about 80 percent confident that…” he pauses, and his voice shifts as if he’s holding back tears, “we’re just buying time.”

“I look at this place,” he continues, “sort of, you know, right now… Ruby’s is in a coma. Okay, and Ruby’s is on life support. And it’s got equipment that’s keeping it alive, you know? And, you know, I believe eventually that the equipment won’t be enough to keep it working, and it’s just gonna go.”

Almost instantly, however, his voice becomes positive and upbeat again, and the fighting resolve seems to return. “But, one never knows, you know? There’s amazing recoveries that happen with people and businesses.”

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