New York's Chinatown kicked off the Lunar New Year Thursday with traditional lion dancing and firecrackers. The community hopes the Year of Monkey will bring much needed prosperity to the area. Several hundred revelers braved the cold to welcome the start of Lunar New Year celebrations in New York's Chinatown. Some even took the day off work to watch the festivities.

"Every year we have to get together to see the lion dancing, firecrackers, everybody celebrate together," one man said.

The celebrations included lion dances, performed against a backdrop of rhythmic drumming and clashing cymbals. The lion dance, in which costumed acrobats wear colorful lions' heads, is meant to drive away evil spirits and bad luck in the coming year.

So too are the firecrackers, exploding in smoke and a deafening roar. In this case, nine columns of chinese firecrackers were used to symbolize continuous vigilance against misfortune. The number nine signifies everlasting in chinese culture.

Many residents in Chinatown are hoping the new year will bring better economic times. The community, in lower Manhattan, just blocks away from the World Trade Center, suffered in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Last year's outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome - SARS - kept many visitors away and pushed the economy down further.

Don Lee, one of the organizers of Chinatown's festivities, says it's been a rough couple of years for businesses there. "I know that biz is still down 10 to 20 to 30 percent in some instances. The problem is, in Chinatown the profit margin is extremely low as you can imagine. It's been tough," he said.

That sentiment was echoed by one owner of a small shop, who sells souvenirs to tourists. "The business is very bad right now. Usually no people come here," she said.

Plans by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation might give business owners some hope for a more profitable new year. The group is planning a two million dollar marketing and tourism campaign aimed at wooing visitors back to Chinatown

Mr. Lee said while promotion and marketing are useful, other measures are needed as well to help jump-start the local economy.

"The number one issue keeping this community from rebounding and becoming a great community again is the lack of parking and lack of access in transportation," he said.

He says city and state officials need to do more in providing the access and parking local business owners are calling for.

This year's festivities include a Lunar New Year parade Sunday, and organizers are expecting crowds to top last year's record 200,000 people.

In the Chinese calendar, the Year of the Monkey signifies happiness and vitality - characteristics many hope to see in Chinatown again.