Directed by Amy Nicholson
In the recent documentary My Brooklyn, director Kelly Anderson convincingly argued that Downtown Brooklyn wasn’t in need of redevelopment. It was in fact a bustling economic center, but it practiced the wrong kind of economy: small-potatoes businesses catering to the black community, which weren’t good enough for our new luxury-housing/big-box-retail overlords, who pushed for and won a rezoning. In Zipper, director Nicholson suggests something similar happened to Coney Island—a dicier argument, but one she poignantly, damningly wins.
Obviously, Coney Island was in decline compared to its early 20th-century heyday by 2005, when developer Joe Sitt and his company Thor Equities began buying up amusement-area properties. (Thor was also behind the destruction of the Albee Square Mall, chronicled in My Brooklyn.) But it had managed to weather late-20th-century economic troubles with much of its character intact: Astroland and Deno’s still offered the classic amusement-park experience, and there were dozens of other games, concessions, and rides, including The Zipper on W. 12th Street, a wild ride involving a large oblong boom with a dozen cramped cars attached for passengers; for two minutes and $5, the boom turned, the cars spun, and everybody screamed.
The ride’s carny operators and Coney-local owner are the movie’s anchors, personifying what was pushed out and lost when Sitt and the city battled to execute their similar plans for the neighborhood's future. Nicholson offeres a clear account of the tangled land-use politics that plagued the area at the start of the 21st-century: how Sitt argued the neighborhood needed to be reborn, proving his point by pushing out the amusements and food vendors that were already there, turning Coney Island into an empty-lotted ghost town; by 2008, even Astroland had closed.
The Bloomberg administration, which reportedly doesn’t trust Sitt, stepped in to take Coney Island away from him, but Nicholson portrays the city not so much as an anti-Thor savior as a very Thor-esque stand-in; the two sides’ ultimate compromise substantially reduced the size of the amusement area and handed over control to a large operator, Zamperla, that proceeded to evict more long-time Coney businesses, making way for new ones like Applebee’s. When City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden waxes about the unique character of places like Shoot the Freak, it stings; the game was one of those lost to the redevelopment Burden helped bring about.
Most of the movie’s best moments come from accusatory and sharply witty editing; the crosscutting between the Zipper being dismantled and the city council voting to rezone the neighborhood is as effective as the baptism scene in The Godfather. But it’s when Nicholson calls bullshit on politicians that the film is most powerful: when local councilmember (and Sitt friend) Dominc Recchia says amusements can’t make money anymore because of high insurance costs, she cuts to the owner of the Zipper who says he was doing all right; when Christine Quinn says the City Council can make Coney Island a place people want to go to again, Nicholson cuts to shots of the beach as crowded with people as sidewalk ice cream is with ants; when Recchia says there’s nowhere in Coney Island for him to take his kids out for dinner, Nicholson cuts to a family eating outside a restaurant on the Boardwalk—a brown family, which gets at the heart of the Coney problem: not that it’s a place no one wanted to go to, but, like Downtown Brooklyn, it was a place in New York where rich white people still felt uncomfortable.
From 2007-2008, I covered the Coney Island beat as a graduate student, particularly the redevelopment. (I kept looking for myself in Zipper because I was at a lot of those public meetings!) Born and raised in Brooklyn, I had spent some summer afternoons at Astroland, but it wasn’t until I started walking the streets that I really got a sense of what Coney Island was, what it meant. I got a sense of its unique charm: the homespun entrepreneurialism, the peaceful coexistence of the awesome and the seedy, how hard it worked to be fun and not just present an image of what fun might look like. I got a sense of its soul, manifesting itself on every face, shiny surface and grain of sand. It wasn’t a perfect place; it could have used more investment, more glitz. But there’s a way to invest in communities, to develop and encourage business, that doesn’t require a wholesale dismantling of what already exists. In Brooklyn during the Bloomberg years, though, from Atlantic Yards and Downtown Brooklyn to Coney Island, you’d never know it.
Opens August 9 at IFC Center