If you haven't yet seen the movie Zipper: Coney Island's Last Wild Ride, you absolutely must. I won't take no for an answer. And you're about to get your chance--the movie will be playing at IFC Center in the Village for a one-week engagement starting August 9.
Zipper tells the harrowing true tale of corporate and political greed as
Bloomberg, real-estate developers, and other vampires battle for control
over one of the city's last authentic places.
I asked the film's producer/director, Amy Nicholson, a few questions:
Q: What do you think was Coney Island's importance to the people of New York, and to the meaning of the city? Do you think it still holds the same importance today, after its gutting?
A: For more than a hundred years Coney Island has been near and dear to the hearts of New Yorkers and people from around the county and the world, in spite of her many ups and downs over time. Coney had become hugely important sometime around the mid 2000s because by that time New Yorkers had seen so much of the city changing at a breakneck pace. Brooklyn itself had become a brand! So Coney Island was this magical place with great aesthetics, all kinds of people and, yes, a little grit. It was really free of the stiffness that came with the a-bank-on-every-corner New York.
Coney Island’s history can’t be erased, and it will always have a special place in the hearts of many, but you can really feel the difference now. The new stuff is very nice, but it has no soul. And a lot of the guys who were down there running rides or working games are gone. They were part of Coney Island’s history and they gave it a lot of its character. One of the biggest losses for me personally was the signage created by Steve Powers and Creative Time back in 2002/2003--so much of it gone, thrown into dumpsters.
Q: What did we lose when we lost Coney Island to Bloomberg, Sitt, Zamperla, and the national chains?
A: I guess that depends on your perspective. If you work in commercial real estate, you probably think it’s great. If you work in the city’s finance department you’re happy that the new Coney Island has the potential to generate a fortune in tax revenue. If you already think that much of the city looks exactly like much of the rest of the country in terms of strip malls and the same 15-20 chain stores and restaurants then you’re definitely going to feel a great sense of loss when you get off the train at Stillwell Avenue and see the new Applebee’s, etc.
It’s getting harder and harder to find authentic places--anywhere in the country, not just New York. Places that are cozy, old, reeking with history, filled with stories, patina, gritty, fun, and welcoming. It takes a long time and a lot of serendipity for a place to develop those qualities. Think about your favorite bar, newsstand, home, roadside attraction, community garden, restaurant, carnival, diner, corner store, or neighborhood. If they disappear, what replaces them and how does it make you feel? I think Eddie (owner of the Zipper) said it best at the end of the film: “No matter what you put there, it’ll never be the same.”
Q: What made you decide to shoot on film?
A: Film is analogue like Coney Island. We were looking for a certain feeling and we felt like we could capture it best on film. Looking back, I should have my head examined! But I am so glad we did it. The project will always seem timeless which is exactly what we wanted.
Q: How did you get Joe Sitt for the movie? Wasn't he aware of how bad he would look?
A: It took a really long time. I called and met with his publicist. I think Sitt wanted to tell his side of the story and I actually don’t think he looks so bad. I mean, he’s a developer and this is what they do. The press made him look terrible during the throes of the rezoning, and we had to include that coverage in order to accurately tell the story. He actually made good counterpoints to some of the City’s rhetoric. I certainly don’t care for his taste in entertainment, that’s for sure. But I did not set out to make him the villain. Capitalism is the villain for me. And politics-as-usual. Oh, and it did take me a very long time to actually get a signed release form!
Q: What's happened in Coney since the film ended? What's left that makes a visit still worth it--and not totally heartbreaking?
A: With the exception of Deno’s and a few other games and rides, pretty much acre for acre most of the old rides and attractions (along with their owner/operators) have been replaced by new rides and attractions all managed by Central Amusements International/Zamperla. The devastation brought on by Sandy made it painfully clear to all parties that much of the large-scale development of big-box retail, hotels, theme restaurants, etc., is going to have to wait until some genius can figure out how to change the weather.
Go and sit on the beach and watch the people. They are fantastic. Starting with the trip out there on the train on a Saturday morning, there are always some excited kids with floaties all ready to go. The closer the train gets to the last stop, the more mental they become. So, to them, Coney is as great as it ever was.
Go to the Eldorado for the best music ever and those great disco lights. Williams Candy is my favorite place in the whole world. The Coney Island USA Freak Show is totally worth it. Wonder Wheel and Spook-a-rama are great. The History Project always has something good going on and right now they have the old Cyclops. Take quarters to put in Miss Coney Island next door, and for Grandma’s Predictions under the Wheel. I can’t do the Cyclone anymore, but I could stand there and watch it all day.
Q: What do you think is the future for this one-time wonderland?
A: Sadly, no one can simply throw it in reverse because the minute the city decided to rezone it and Sitt decided to swoop in and start buying up property, it was over. That land is now worth whatever can be built on it, and whatever the next landowner is willing to pay. And both sides agree that at the cost of land, amusements is a non-starter. There’s no more protective zoning for amusements, and although the city leased the parkland they created to Zamperla, it’s a fixed amount of land and it’s one operator. The infrastructure has to be addressed before anything too big can be built anywhere outside of the parkland, but no future administration can undo what has been done unless they use eminent domain.