Founded a century (or centuries) ago, these businesses survived world wars and economic depressions. Now the pandemic could close them forever.
PARIS — New York City's Roosevelt Hotel, a midtown mainstay that first opened to the public in the roaring 1920s, is now a not-so-distant memory after closing its doors — permanently — just before Christmas.
Like so many businesses around the world, the nearly century old facility — famous, among other things, as the place where then New York state governor Thomas Dewey erroneously declared victory over President Harry Truman in the 1948 U.S. presidential election — is a victim of the times. The grand old hotel survived the Great Depression but not, as it turns out, the revenue loss caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The economic and financial costs of the current health crisis are being felt far and wide. But there's something particularly poignant about the demise of businesses that enjoy true landmark status, places that are cultural cornerstones in our communities.
Owners and employees pay the heaviest cost, of course. But for clients, culture and the public as a whole, what's at stake in each case is also a tangible piece of history that, once gone, is gone for good:
Is the festa in Venice over forever?
By the time the Roosevelt Hotel opened, in 1924, Venice's venerable Café Florian had already been going strong for more than 200 years. And this past December, it officially reached the three-century mark. That's a lot of candles!
But rather than mark the milestone with some kind of celebratory festa, all was eerily quiet. Sadly, the doors of Café Florian's elegant lounge — whose famous clients included Nietzsche, Grace Kelly and Margaret Thatcher — were closed to the public, as ordered by the government. More troubling still is that they could remain that way even if Italy's current lockdown measures are lifted.
"We pay around a million (euros) a year in rent to a private landlord and the State. The private sector has exempted us from half of the part of it, the State nothing," the owner told La Vanguardia. "We will stay open as long as we can, but more than that we cannot guarantee."
A Mexican treasure
Across the Atlantic, the pandemic has also forced the closure — for now at least — of another historic hangout spot with a penchant for attracting celebrity guests.
Mexico City's Sálon Los Angeles, the country's oldest dance hall, was founded in the 1930s during the height of the swing and Charleston dances, and its famous patrons include Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and Celia Cruz.
The ballroom was redecorated in the late 1940s — the era of chachachá and mambo — with mirrored columns and neon colors. Then owner Miguel Nieto Hernández also gave the sálon its iconic motto: "Who does not know Sálon Los Angeles, does not know Mexico."
And yet, there's real concern now that the place may not survive. Current owner Miguel Nieto is struggling to keep up with expenses, despite receiving some aid money from the government. Dedicated customers are also helping in the form of small donations. "In the Sálon Los Angeles, we have learned that we must live life as intensely as if we were to die tomorrow and as prudently as if we were going to survive," Nieto told the Mexican daily El Universal.
The meter is running in London
Survival is also the name of the game these days for London's iconic black cabs, which were facing an existential crisis even before the pandemic due to stiff competition from ride-hailing apps like Uber.
Now, with few tourists and many Londoners working from home, they're struggling even more. According to the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, the number of active black cab licenses has fallen from more than 18,000 to just over 14,300 since June.
London black cab — Photo: Hanno Rathmann
The so-called "army of black cabs' is now pinning its hopes on the UK's vaccine rollout — and in more ways than one. As reported in the Financial Times, drivers are offering fixed price-rides for vulnerable and elderly to medical centers.
So far it's unclear if the government will take them up on the offer. The other question mark is just how long the classic cabs can hold out. "I can't even begin to describe it to you; dead is underplaying it," Howard Taylor, a taxi driver for 33 years, told the newspaper. "The city is bereft, it is desolate. It is like tumbleweed."
Going down the drain in Hungary
London isn't the only place lamenting the loss of tourists. Hungary is hurting too, especially its network of thermal baths, which have been an integral part of the country's culture since the Romans invaded.
Now, with border closures limiting the number of foreign visitors, and older clients reluctant, for safety's sake, to return, as many as two thirds of these spas might be facing closure.
"By the summer, 40% of our yearly revenue was gone, and by the end of the year, 70% of the revenues will disappear at some of the spas," Attila László Boros, head of the Hungary Spa Association, told the Chinese media outlet CGTN. Estimates are that of the 18,000 people employed in the industry, up to 4,700 face layoffs.
A San Francisco treat
Across the world, the COVID-19 outbreak has also pushed countless restaurants over the proverbial precipice, including the famous Cliff House Restaurant in San Francisco, California.
Known for its stunning view of the Pacific Ocean, the iconic eatery weathered many storms since it first opened more than 150 years ago. It even caught fire — twice — including once on Christmas Day.
But what it couldn't cope with, in the end, was the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Unable to sell it's high-priced seafood, the Cliff House closed its doors for good last month. More than 100 gathered to watch the restaurant's iconic sign being taken down. Somewhere, Mark Twain, who dined there on multiple occasions, is turning in his grave.
The future of the building itself is unclear, and will depend on the National Park Service, which had leased the land to the Cliff House owners since the 1970s.
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California is lobbying for the structure to be preserved. In a statement, she encouraged "the National Park Service to explore all possible opportunities to maintain the historic role of this building as a restaurant and visitor destination. Our history is too important to set aside so readily."
True indeed. Even if responding to today's emergency is the first priority, we should remember that history can never be rewritten.