Zipper: Coney Islandís Last Wild Ride
Produced by Amy Nicholson
Directed by Amy Nicholson
DVD , color, 77 min.
Sr. High - General Adult
Entrepreneurship, Government, Politics, Urban and Regional Planning
Reviewed by Rebecca Adler Schiff, College of Staten Island, City University of New York
Date Entered: 3/14/2014
Was Coney Island, Brooklynís famed amusement park dating back to the turn of the previous century, experiencing only a temporary setback by the turn of the present century, from which it could in time have recovered? Was an irreversible decline rather set in motion and hastened by real estate speculation? Amy Nicholsonís instructive documentary Zipper, an impassioned lament for an era gone by, replies a cautious yes to the first question and a more emphatic yes to the second. Undoubtedly outsized offers for land and property, and prohibitive rent increases, all made by investors on the bet that eventual rezoning would drive prices and profits up exponentially, effectively stripped the park beyond recognition. Despite the pleas of local residents and amusement park personnel, the Coney Island of old was to be razed, to be replaced by a gentrified transmogrification consisting of luxury hotels, high rise condominiums, a shopping area, and a park drastically reduced in size, the latter designed by a multinational corporation a la Disney or Six Flags. For the demise of a New York City treasure, developer Joe Sitt and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg bear the most responsibility.
Coney Island is the name of the small peninsula located at the foot of Brooklyn jutting into New York Bay. Historically it was Americaís premier amusement park and iconic summer resort. Through the years the island has a long regrettable history of zoning battles and so-called neighborhood revitalization projectsóone need look no further than Robert Moses and Fred Trump, whose operations reduced the original park area considerably. Zipper focuses on the new Sitt/Bloomberg rezoning plans taking shape, and on the efforts of the residents of the neighborhood to fight the gentrification the plans will inevitably bring about. The residents of the unique Coney Island neighborhood appear to be proud of their diversity, their free spirit, their carnivalesque spontaneity and creativity.
Interestingly, the film is in part held together by the synecdoche of the dismantling of one of Coney Islandís favorite rides, the Zipper, a hair-raising carnival ride said to be the most thrilling ride of them all, involving three separate concurrent motions, around, up and down, and upside down. The owner and operator of the Zipper, Eddie Miranda, was still making a fairly good living along with other amusement ride tenants when his landlord told him heís selling the property to a land developer. The Zipper accordingly succumbs to a final ride, a fate that had already befallen many other small family-owned establishments and amusement rides in Coney Island, leaving the area an economic blight, a patchwork of desolate, vacant lots. Looking at the result, you get the feeling developers looked at the area the way a predatory animal looks at a limping prey. However, in contrast to the argument of inevitable decline, a graph displayed earlier in the film shows a steady increase in Coney Island beach attendance from 1.9 million in the year 2000 to 15.6 million in 2007, contradicting the belief that the area had been continually on the downswing even before rezoning was being considered.
Moreover, itís clear from the discussions in the film that Mr. Sitt has made, and will make, enormous sums selling his cheaply bought lots back to the city at many times what he paid for them. Also the area of land specifically designated for the park itself is reduced as the negotiations proceed from an earlier proposed sixty acres to, in steps, fifteen, then finally nine. Still, at a City Hall signing of the bill permitting the rezoning, most of the participants are smiling about their great accomplishment. The participants include the apparently loyal Coney Island city councilman Dominique Recchia, who turns out to be a boyhood friend of Mr. Sitt and Ö the sponsor of the bill. A sense of profound betrayal permeates the air. Indeed to have observed what has gone before, the signing itself appears to be more a requiem than a victory march.
Besides the emotional impact of the film being witness to the destruction of a great institution, Zipper stands as a powerful indictment of the way city government colludes with private investment interests to obtain goals that may benefit those interests rather more than the citizens the government represents.
Zipper leaves one with the impression that the bad guys have won. Nevertheless one hopes time may still produce a more auspicious outcome. The film, at least, is brilliantly crafted, sends an important message, and is highly recommended.
P.S. Hurricane Sandy, the deadly destructive October 2012 storm that wreaked havoc on swaths of New York State and New Jersey, did extensive damage in Coney Island, both to property and to the beach. Itís uncertain at this point how plans already put in place will be dealt with.
- Winner, Special Jury Prize, DOC NYC