The snaking guitar and clanging cowbell of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” can be heard at the start of Amy Nicholson’s “Zipper: Coney Island's Last Wild Ride,” a new documentary opening this weekend. If anything, the tune serves as a suggestion to those upset over yet another David and Goliath story about regular citizens and bureaucratic jerks serving the needs of wealthy businesses. The Zipper itself is a twisting, thrashing carnival ride, one of the last remaining parts of the former Coney Island, left standing for months as the territory surrounding the ride was bulldozed, in an attempt to reach new lows in gentrification. To the locals, it is a landmark; to the suits, it’s a relic.
For those out-of-towners, Coney Island was one of the very last vestiges of weird in the post-Giuliani-era New York City. Parades, attractions, and rides suited both those happy families eager to soak in the beach and the local weirdos, madmen and trend-setters that made the Brooklyn location a safe haven from the increasingly-hostile corporate landscape of Manhattan. That all changed when the imposingly-named Thor Equities made an aggressive purchase of the land, a transaction not made in good faith.
The intentions were to remodel Coney Island as an entertainment mecca, with newer, fancier amusements and a number of brand names and corporations staking their claim to what isn’t theirs. This multi-step process involves the elimination of any homegrown attractions, which includes the Zipper. It also involves a zoning request to the city, allocating additional land for the added recreations, many of which would emerge from out-of-state proprietors. Mayor Mike Blooomberg initially plays tough with Thor Equities, but anyone who knows Mayor Bloomberg understands that the man can’t resist a good money-making opportunity, no matter how many people are uprooted and booted from their homes.
A word about Joe Sitt, the president of Thor Equities: Sitt, a slouchy nerd with an insincere smile, gets a lot of what he assumes is flattering face-time in this doc. Allegedly a former Brooklyn resident himself (he claims he is called Joey Coney Island by locals, which sounds like vaguely treasonous behavior if true), he pauses one question to brag about the Rolodex of names interested in Coney property. His shit-eating grin only widens as he rifles through a list that includes names like Dave & Buster’s, Coldstone Creamery and Bubba Gump Shrimp as if it were the coolest thing ever. Later he defensively asks what the problem would be exactly if he turned Coney Island into a facsimile of Six Flags. In the future, when technology allows us the illusion of films as immersive, fully interactive experiences, let this be the first older film to be converted, so man, woman and child can line up and punch this “Revenge Of The Nerds” cosplayer in the goddamned face.
The decision rests in the hands of Coney Island’s councilman Domenic Recchia, who seems seduced by the bright lights. He is seen dialing back most of Sitt’s outlandish promises of a complete corporate overhaul of Coney Island. But his true colors are ultimately revealed during a segment of the film where the “allotted” land for amusements is dialed down from a mandatory fifteen acres to nine. He suggests that the term “amusements” is malleable, and that the difference could be made up by the garish-sounding indoor waterpark hotel they have planned, suggesting he’s never once been to Coney Island proper.
The doc seems insufficient in regards to Eddie Miranda, the lifelong Coney resident who owns the Zipper and considers himself a major part of the community. We never get to know much about Miranda and his co-workers, and when the documentary reaches an emotional end, we haven’t established the necessary proximity to this group of people. The focus is spread too thinly on the various colorful local voices, all of whom openly campaign against Recchia’s intentions with zest and flavor. Perhaps this is fodder for another doc: there is no positive equivalent to the teeth-gnashing moment when Sitt calls himself a “preservationist speculator.”
“Zipper” shares its DNA with another recent NYC doc, the passionate “Battle For Brooklyn,” which featured a similar land-and-zoning scam run by Bloomberg’s New York, this time to benefit Bruce Ratner’s gaudy Barclays Center. Both films seem minor, but their outrage and sense of civil responsibility is artful in itself. “Zipper” doesn’t have the human element that “Battle For Brooklyn” boasts, but it does have a more hopeful coda, one that washes the taste of the various, meant-to-be-encouraging sketches of what the new Coney Island would resemble. “Battle For Brooklyn” serves as a warning, a necessary call-to-arms. “Zipper” reminds us that we must fight, but remain strong, refusing to fear the reaper. [B+]