The disappearance of Coney Island's character; the people's paradise lost
[Over the weekend, Flixist will be covering New York's First Time Fest film festival. This review was originally posted as part of our DOC NYC coverage, and is being reposted here with an added second opinion. You can see all our coverage of First Time Fest here.]
When I was in grad school, a lot of my peers said that they wrote about place. By that they meant people's attachments to certain places, whether in personal terms (old houses, old hang outs) or in larger social terms (public spaces, historic landmarks). In Zipper, Amy Nicholson's documentary on Coney Island, the subject is how a place changes. Since it's New York, that means a meditation (and lament) on the nature of gentrification and homogenization.
Zipper is about the death of place and a way of life. That sounds hyperbolic, but that's what it feels like to the ride operators and boardwalk workers. If not death, Zipper's about change at the cost of the space's identity -- think Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives, the Borg.
"You are one of us -- welcome to Applebee's."
Zipper (Zipper: Coney Island's Last Wild Ride)
-- Colson Whitehead, The Colossus of New York
Coney Island was called a people's paradise. I don't know if it's thought of that way anymore. It's one of those unique junctions where city meets water; home of freaks and geeks and performers, lots of gangs (no surprise that The Warriors staked a claim there), and normal folks who could schlep to the beach on weekends to get away for a little bit. My own experiences with Coney Island are few since I'm not much of a beach person, but a lot of my artist friends have strong ties to it. These haunts seem lived-in and more authentically New York in that odd way that, true or not, places like sponges absorb history -- the old New York read about, the idea of New York dreamed about, the New York of romance and punk rock and Basquiat, anything but the New York now.
Over the last few years, city officials and real estate developer Joe Sitt have been altering Coney Island. They want to turn it into, essentially, a mini-Six Flags and shopping mall. The goal is to have an amusement park and condos and luxury hotels down at the old site. Everything old will get swept away. Sitt has the blessing of the city government, but not of the locals. With the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, it's hard to say if these plans are being reconsidered. What Sandy did accomplish, however, was hasten the slow and unfortunate decline of Coney Island as Coney Island. By the time I moved to New York, Astroland was gone. Other pieces disappeared bit by bit since.
Nicholson frames her film around a particular ride at first. It's called The Zipper. It flips, it spins, it rotates, and it shakes the shit and the change out of every hapless rider. There's video of some people on The Zipper. A few seem elated and in the throes of some joyful abandon. Others seem like they're about to faint from fright. One young woman is convinced that she's going to die. Like many other attractions at Coney Island, The Zipper is no more, dismantled and shipped off to Honduras in 2007.
The target for the most contempt in Zipper is Sitt himself. He's a Brooklyn guy, born and raised, and insists in a weasely tone that he has Coney Island's best interests in mind. He even has a shirt to prove it. His real estate company, Thor Equities, bought up most of the lots in Coney Island in order to develop his "amusement park concept." It's the garish mediocrity of Times Square transplanted to Coney Island with just a touch of Atlantic City. That amusement park concept bleeds every last ounce of personality from Coney Island. In its place, you'll get your Cold Stone, your Outback Steakhouse, an indoor water park, and a Build-A-Bear-Workshop.
It's amazing the amount of cheery, clueless candor Nicholson's able to capture on film. It's documentaries like Zipper that make me wonder if the subjects who are interviewed ever realize how they're portraying themselves. Most of the time, the interviewees that seem the most delighted in their own work are the people who are the most awful to everyone else. Is that a reflection of their actual lack of self-consciousness, or is it the disarming effect of a camera? Do they not realize that documentarians are, if they want to be, both filmmakers and independent journalists?
The rat fink-quality of some of the interview subjects (mostly the politicians) is a counterpoint to the Coney Island locals. Eddie Miranda, owner/operator of The Zipper, and his crew are Coney through and through. They don't have shirts to prove it like Sitt, but that's because a stupid shirt proves nothing. They've lived and worked in the area for decades. Stories are shared about rides and the changing face of the landscape. There's a sadness and an anger given what's happening to Coney Island, but there's also a kind of resignation.
It's pretty remarkable how well Zipper holds attention since it's a movie that's full of zoning law issues. Nicholson comes at this all as a curious layperson, which actually helps break down the different twists of the real estate deal as they occurred. (Though I'm still not quite sure what happened, as if I was the victim of some strange con.) It's a confusing story rendered in simple terms, both in the film's use of graphics and diagrams and in its choice of archival footage. We watch the acreage for the new park keep shrinking and shrinking, and irritation grows in response. To recapture a sense of the Coney Island of old, the news clippings shown on screen are displayed with the shift and jitter of a microfiche reader.
As the vote on Coney Island's fate looms, we watch the community express its outrage. Lots of young transplants are equally pissed, and that might be because they want to rediscover the spirit of New York's past. (There's a larger conversation in this about some New York transplants recreating old scenes and old movements rather than inventing their our spaces and own movements, but that's too big a topic for here.) I wondered: if death is an inevitability for a person, is death also an inevitability for a place? If the last shot of Zipper before the credits is any indication, the answer is probably yes. It's a haunting image but so simple, and it gave me a sense of how much was gone in just a matter of seven years. It's why so many people longed to hold onto it just a bit more and a bit longer; it's the reason that so many people write about place.
But does it need to be death for a place necessarily? Maybe it's just change -- sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. If the city and Sitt get their way eventually (we'll have to see what happens once there's a set plan post-Sandy), it seems for the worse. What will it mean for Coney Island residents, many of whom are still trying to get their lives back in order? What will it mean for a city that's constantly battling between assertions of authentic identity and its need to appeal to feckless-yet-moneyed tourists? And, I think it's worth asking, how will Zipper play outside of New York to someone not familiar with Coney Island?
To that last question -- the only one I can answer -- I think the movie won't have quite the same resonance since it's so New York, even to transplants like me. (Nicholson's a transplant as well, from Maryland, if I remember right.) But it's a bit of a love letter and goodbye letter, and those are personal things, not always social ones.
Zipper is just one of many eulogies for Coney Island, whose days as we know it ended a few years ago, and to many, invisibly. Like Colson Whitehead wrote at the end of his Coney Island chapter in The Colossus of New York:
Alec Kubas-Meyer: When I was younger, there was a carnival that would periodically come and park itself on the lawn of my suburban town's high school. It was probably the most exciting thing to ever be in our town, and I remember going there pretty fondly. The most impressive attraction was the Zipper, a ride that I always admired but never went on. I don't think it was fear or anything; I think it was about the money. $5 for a ride was a lot, especially when nothing else was even close to that price, and I was worried that I would be on one of the cars that barely spins. So it didn't happen. The next time I see a Zipper, and hopefully there will be a next time, I will pay through the nose to go for a ride.
The politics behind what the de(con)struction of the Coney Island that people older than me knew and loved are fascinating, and Zipper does a good job of giving a basic overview of what happened. I wouldn't call it a completely comprehensive or unbiased look at what happened, but it also never pretends to be. To her credit, director Amy Nicholson interviewed both sides of the issue, even if her film's juxtaposition of words about the grand future of Coney Island and the reality of the Zipper shutting down verges on Michael Moore levels of emotional manipulation. That juxtaposition is both the documentarian's greatest tool and greatest weapon, and it is used to considerable effect here. The credits rolled and I was angry at all of the people who let Coney Island be shrunk from 60 acres to 9. It's basically blasphemy, and to know that you just have ask the neighborhood's occasionally-difficult-to-understand residents.
A little more context for the footage of the boardwalk, which shows the heyday and the more recent past with no real details about timing, would have been nice, but even without that, I found myself heavily invested in a ride which I hadn't even known existed until the film started playing. If that's not a sign of a good documentary, I don't know what is. 75 - Good