Santa Monica’s Playland in the Age of COVID

A Pandemic Photo Essay

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All photographs by Aimee Liu

The Santa Monica Pier under lockdown seems like a ghost land. You can visit, but you may not play. You can imagine the roller coaster’s rumble and the squeals of excited children rising up, up, up in the Ferris wheel, but the sounds live only in your own head.

This Saturday my husband and I visited the Pier for the first time since the pandemic shut it down. It’s open for strolling, and a couple of restaurants offer outdoor dining, but the fun has gone out of the fun park. Early in the morning, it’s a sobering reminder of the many ways that COVID has suspended our lives.

Approaching on the beach path, you can sense even from a distance that something is not right. The flag flies, but nothing moves on the roller coaster. The lights of the Ferris wheel gamely blink through their programmed patterns, but the wheel never spins. No kids play hide and seek in the shadows. Only out at the very end, does the bank of fishing lines offer a stubborn glimmer of normalcy.

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Despite the pandemic, the Pier has been maintained. Its metal palm trees look freshly painted. The yellow barricade tape has been removed from the stairs leading up to the boardwalk. Still, the utility warnings seem to carry an extra charge in the age of COVID.

One sign of the times is the view from the Pier. People with nowhere else to go have always gravitated to the beach, and with Covid undermining the economy, the problem of homelessness across Los Angeles is up 16% this year. A mile to the south, in Venice, Ocean Front Walk has become a tent city for the unsheltered.

The numbers in the separately incorporated city of Santa Monica, however, tell a better story. Homelessness actually was down 8% here at the start of 2020. Experts credit the city’s investment in outreach teams and services. You can see the results from the Pier.

Tents are few, the needy more solitary. Some curl up next to suitcases and backpacks. Others just stretch out alone, with nothing, waiting. Their plea for help may be silent, but it’s impossible to ignore.

When our kids were little, we spent countless hours at the Pier. We rode the rides and played the arcade games. We built sand castles or cranked spray through the nostrils of the children’s dragon on the beach below. We rode the carousel at birthday parties.

Now even the playground is closed, the rides’ bright colors an empty tease. Weeds grow wild and unruly, as if they’re the ones waiting their turn.

Looking back along the nearly empty boardwalk, it’s hard to miss the history that the Pier represents. Santa Monica’s residents have been gathering here to fish, swim, and attend band concerts ever since the Pier was originally constructed in 1909. The first roller coaster arrived in the ‘teens, the carousel in 1922. In the ‘70s Disneyland and other mega-theme parks threatened to put the old-fashioned fun park out of business, and a violent storm in 1983 destroyed over a third of the Pier’s length, but the city rallied to save its landmark. By 1990 the structure had been rebuilt, with Art Nouveau street lights and a heavy timber boardwalk, just like the original. In 1996 Pacific Park brought back the roller coaster.

With no loudspeakers blaring pop music, no crowds dressed in flip-flops and cutoffs or telltale political t-shirts, the Pier this morning felt timeless.

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The bumper cars were always a family favorite. Adults and children alike, we released our aggression with shameless abandon.

No fear! No limits! Apart from the seat belts, no real rules. We bumped each other. We bumped the rails.

Of course, we bumped the rails! Why else would we come?

Now the bumper cars have fallen silent. They look like they’re wearing body bags. They cluster like omens of doom. Warning! They seem to say. Beware. Too many rules have been broken.

The Twilight concerts on the Pier began in 1985. Every summer, this now-vacant parking lot would be transformed into a weekly music and dance festival.

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Our family often joined the beach-blanket throngs, discovering bands like Ozomatli, The Young Dubliners, and Buckwheat Zydeco and catching up with Richie Havens, Jimmy Cliff, The Bangles, and other old favorites.

The music would spill out over the beach. The evening would turn to night. We’d sit and sway or get up and shimmy. We’d bump into old friends. The air grew sweet with cotton candy, occasional whiffs of hashish, the salty spray of ocean as the boardwalk thrummed beneath our feet. All while the giant Ferris wheel twinkled and spun overhead.

I’ve lived in LA for more than forty years. Over the decades, the crowds on the Pier have grown bigger, the rides a bit slicker, and every now and then a major crisis — riots, earthquakes, storms, you name it — have threatened to terminate innocent pleasures such as a day at the beach. But Santa Monica always seems to push back, rebuilding, reinventing, refurbishing not just its image but its most deeply valued treasures.

The Pier is certainly one of those treasures, a source of escape and delight, rest and surprise and community for generations. As eerie as it appears mid-pandemic, there’s no doubt, it will endure, determined to keep on keeping on, celebrating its place in the sun.

Written by

Aimee Liu is the bestselling author of the novels Glorious Boy, Flash House, Cloud Mountain, and Face and memoirs Gaining and Solitaire. More@ aimeeliu.net

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