The Zipper, a carnival ride one that once operated in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, was constructed with the bars just wide enough apart so that patrons’ change would fall out, and the carnival workers could collect it, like a tip. The so-called “carnies” said this arrangement worked well: they collected the spare change and Metrocards that regularly fell from the Zipper.
Sometimes, they got special surprises. “Teeth, weapons … remember the dildo?” a Zipper operator asks the ride’s owner, Eddie Miranda, in a new documentary about the recent history of Coney Island. Miranda and his fellow carnies lost their livelihood when Coney Island’s aging carnival rides gave way first to vacant, seemingly-abandoned tracts, and later to the development currently underway by Joseph Sitt, the CEO of Thor Equities.
An unlikely leading man, Miranda is the star, along with Sitt and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, of “Zipper,” which will be released in New York and Los Angeles next month. The feature-length film attempts to tell the tale of the redevelopment of Coney Island through the fate of the eponymous ride, which was director Amy Nicholson’s favorite as a child.
The film starts with Brooklyn-born Sitt buying up a portion of the Coney Island waterfront for about $150 million beginning in 2001, banking on a rezoning by the city. In the oft-told story, Sitt sits on the properties (how appropriate) for years while the rezoning is discussed, before Bloomberg and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden begin pushing to revamp the area in 2006. Eventually the city bought back a large portion of the land to convert it to parkland.
Along the way, many “compromises were made,” all sides agree. Detractors slam the city for paying a private developer such a high price for land they could have bought for cents on the dollar earlier, and for allowing high-rise hotels and national chain retailers in the final zoning plans, potentially destroying the character of the historic neighborhood. Sitt, like local City Council member Domenic Recchia (also a driving force behind the plan), maintains throughout the film that he only wanted to restore the historic neighborhood to its former glory. Difficulties arise because stakeholders have vastly different ideas about what would be good for the area.
Sitt, who calls himself a “preservationist speculator,” can’t see why people wouldn’t want him to build “a gigantic amusement park à la Six Flags,” while Recchia bemoans the neighborhood’s lack of an Applebee’s. Burden inscrutably blurts at one point: “Where are you going to have your bar mitzvah? Coney Island!”
At issue are two points: one, did Sitt willfully blight the area after buying many of the parcels, in an effort to shepherd along the zoning change? On this point, the film makes a decent case that he did, interviewing vendors and local owners who say they were made to leave only to watch their spaces sit vacant for years. Lynn Kelly, vice president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, says it was “premature to vacate or evict,” some of the local tenants.
Second is the more slippery question of whether Sitt was too close to Recchia, who himself admits he met with Sitt while pushing for the rezoning that eventually resulted in the city paying the developer $95 million for 6.9 acres in 2009 (other City Council members traditionally defer to the local Council member on land use matters, the documentary says, and Recchia successfully pushed the proposal through the council in 2007). Here the film is less convincing, although the thorough chronicle of the land use review process does drive home the point that such decisions – of grave importance to some – often come down to one person whose motivations are unknown. It also highlights how the Bloomberg administration has almost nonchalantly altered the fabric of our city, often without much conversation (for example, the Williamsburg waterfront).
Yet, despite pretty graphics and high production values, the film fails to convince us that much out of the ordinary has taken place. While the players seem out of touch, they don’t read as corrupt; rather, it seems like city politics as usual. And years-old tape of press conferences on civic issues where we all know the outcome doesn’t make for riveting viewing. The characters also fail to compel, with protesters who carry signs like “strippers not strip malls,” coming across as irrelevant as any other resident impassioned about a local issue that interests few.
And of course, with taxpayers’ money, the city did spend $14 million an acre, when the land was going for $1.3 million an acre before the rezoning. Alas, the film takes an hour to make this point and doesn’t manage to place the blame on anyone, except for possibly Recchia’s Plebian taste. The movie also gives up any pretense of balance when the director resorts to didacticism, such as playing Recchia’s voice calling Sitt a “community activist” over a visual of a newspaper article calling him “the Grinch who stole Coney Island.”
The conceit where Nicholson follows the Zipper, a nauseating ride (literally, and yes, there are unnecessary vomit shots) available at any small town carnival on any given day, also fails. Long shots of the ride being shipped away over dramatic strains of piano music feel forced, while endless b-roll of abandoned rides end up actually making the contrary point – maybe the whole place should be bulldozed.
In the end, Nicholson follows the ride to its next destination — Telas, Honduras, where locals are thrilled to ride the Zipper. This nicely underscores what seems to be the (poorly articulated) thesis of the film: Coney Island, long the center of entertainment for the common man, will soon become a banal high-end destination — complete with a Banana Republic and a Cold Stone Creamery — like so many others in New York City. If it were less caught up in pointing fingers, the film might have made this point earlier and better. Fortunately, the Zipper operator puts it succinctly for us, paraphrasing what he believes to be the city’s message: “fuck the people who have no money and want to come to the beach.”
The film will show at the IFC Center in the West Village starting on Aug. 9 and at the Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills starting Aug. 30.