written by Su Mayor
Amy Nicholson is a documentary filmmaker living in New York City. Her first short film, Beauty School, aired on PBS, NYCTV, and the Documentary Channel and her first feature film, Muskrat Lovely, was broadcast on Independent Lens. Amy Nicholson’s documentary Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride is screening on the film festival circuit and has won a Special Jury Prize at its World Premiere at New York’s DOC NYC festival in November 2012 and is the winner of the Outstanding Achievement in Editing award at First Time Film Festival in March 2013. Zipper was an official selection in the Documentary Features category of the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival. I had the pleasure of talking with her during the festival to get the inside scoop to the continuing economic development problem of Coney Island. Zipper addresses the politics and greed involved in Coney Island’s land zoning and usage through the story of Eddie Miranda, a small-time ride operator of the 38-yearold carnival ride Zipper that operated in the heart of Coney Island’s amusement district until 2007.
What inspired you to profile Coney Island as symbolized by the Zipper ride?
The documentary grew out of a short film about the Zipper that started when I tried to make homage to this ride that I loved. I knew it was leaving Coney Island and that there was a lot behind the move. But when I set out, I did not necessarily set out to tell this big story about Coney Island because most of the story had not been told at that time. It is important to note that at the beginning of my process, everybody thought that Coney Island would be closed within three months; everything was going to happen in the summer of 2007. It was all going to close down and then miraculously reopen as a new Coney Island. However, politics does not work that way nor does land use. And it got very, very messy and it got messier as it went along. So the story kept morphing. We got to the end of what I thought was our shooting and our guys left. We had Zipper’s story and did interviews with the ride operators. We had enough to make a really nice film about the Zipper, the Zipper’s history and its history in Coney Island, along with it leaving Coney Island. I had gathered a lot of background information, but I was not sure what I was dealing with and I was not really confident in telling the story of why it left. So I asked Dick Zigun, who ran the Coney Island museum, “who was the best person to interview.” I wanted to interview at least one politician. Who was the one person who could really explain everything clearly so that the context would be in the film? He sent me to Dominic Recchia. Once I went to Dominic Rechhia, I realized that it was a much, much bigger story. That interview was crazy – good crazy – bad crazy – oh just crazy!
How were you able to convince so many stakeholders to talk candidly about the complex and contentious socio, economic, and political matter of Coney Island’s land development?
There have been other films made about re-zonings. The filmmakers are all brilliant and do great jobs, but somebody is usually after something specific. They want answers about why this travesty was happening. I did not know that it was happening, so I could not be angry about it; I was just sort of sad that the Zipper left and I did not really know the rest of the story. So I went to these interviewees as a layperson. I went to them just as a resident of New York, a tax payer, and a filmmaker, but mostly just someone who wanted to ask questions about what was happening, just to understand and so my approach was very different. I was not set to get anyone, to prove anything, or paint it a certain way. However, I did have a few hard questions to which I got some very interesting answers to, but I had not picked a side.
This was noticeable in the documentary as you provided equal amounts of time and opportunity for each party to tell their story even though you may not have agreed with all of them.
Of course, because that is what is fair. I know that sometimes it is a criticism of documentaries like this one that it ends up being investigative journalism, instead of telling everyone’s story and letting the audience decide. And of course I have a point of view but there is a big difference between a filmmaker having a point of view and trying to prove a point or having an agenda.
The documentary did a good job in presenting the socio-economic and political problem in a multi-layered fashion, but mostly in an objective manner to show the complexity of the issue, but in the end it did appear that the rhetoric was siding with the small business operators of Coney Island. Do you feel that your point of view is to address the problems that the operators are facing and not necessarily side with the other parties, whether or not there is a right or wrong decision?
I think it was overall not so much to fight with parties, as I did not approach it as a fight, I just could not really pick a side. There are things about zoning and why things are done and how things happen that I could not possibly understand nor could any normal person in their life. There are decisions that are so beyond my grasp that is made at the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), at City Hall, and at City Planning, which is why there are colleges teaching this subject matter. However, from my point, if you want to call it siding with the small businesses, it is that I felt that the small businesses were what gave Coney Island its character – though literally, they are all characters, not only the Zipper crew, but all the other guys that are down there. Love them or hate them they are characters, but characters who share a history. I think they made Coney Island what it was. These people were willing to push through the hard times during the 80s and 90s when it was not pretty and it was really rough, but they stuck it out. They provided the heart and soul of Coney Island. But how can they survive in a corporate American business structure?
In the film there was an insert stating that a single multinational corporation leased the land that the City of New York purchased from the developer Joe Sitt. So where do these small business operators go and what do they do?
They cannot afford the new lease rates anymore, which is part of the problem. What happened was that the City executed their plan and one cannot fault the City for it. They did not just walk away. They did not throw their hands up and told Joe Sitt, to keep on holding the C7 zoned property and let it sit vacant for years to come. The City officials could have called his bluff, but in the end he called theirs. However, the fact is, he beat them to the punch, because he had information as he was invited early to the table by the local Councilman. However, if one looks at the bigger picture, if the economic development policy is to have developers do your bidding – literally execute your plans, they cannot be faulted for wanting to profit from the very thing you are promoting. And in the end the City bought the land they needed to execute their plan, even though the plan was compromised and the public was very much against it, but they pushed it through, as they got Councilman Dominic Recchia to agree to it as he got concessions for his district – it was all politics behind the scenes. Technically, it is the City’s Parkland, leased to a for profit company Zamperla, holding the lease for some amount of years, at a certain rate that sub-leases to vendors interested in operating in Parkland. Outside the Parkland acreage concessions allowed for taller buildings, hotel uses, retails of a certain scale, and entertainment uses such as rides, but no big box stores. But the fact that it allows for hotel uses, automatically raises the value of the land making it virtually impossible for a small business operator to carve out a living on a section of the land as they would not be able to afford the astronomical lease rates. Why would any developer put a little amusement park ride on land when it could have a hotel or movie theatre there? By this execution they sort of made it so no little guy could be there ever again as no one would lease to them.
Given this development, what is the current state of Coney Island? Have developers started building hotels or is it still mostly vacant lots?
In Parkland itself, Zamperla has done a very good job of putting their rides in and building a rollercoaster. With the help of the City they will be opening B&B Carousel again this year. So the part in the nine acres that was set aside for amusements has been developed between the City and Zamperla; they have made that happen. The City has taken the Coney Island Development Corporation, housed within the EDC and whatever was left of that money and created a business improvement district, assembling the more prominent peoples, Zamperla, Vourderis Brothers who run Deno’s Wonder Wheel, and some of the bigger restaurants in the area as a coalition of business people who are trying to keep it all going.
Nothing has been built on Joe Sitt’s land apart from a one-storied building on the corner of one of his lots. As far as I know most of the land has not been leased. I think he has leased part of that building to a mall-like candy store for this summer, however a lot of his property is vacant and he has leased it to a carnival rides operator for this summer. But he has tried to do this the past couple of summers; he had a flea market and he had an amusement operator last summer that never really opened. There has been talk of Applebee’s and Johnny Rockets. From what I understand the City also held up a few permits. However the infrastructure is in horrible shape, which was part of what the City promised to do, fix the infrastructure so that the land could be developed. But after Superstorm Sandy all that is up in the air.
How did Sandy really affect the commerce of Coney Island?
It is funny, because I saw an article in the Observer by a writer that I really admire, who wrote about how it is going to be nice because “it all got washed away” and how everybody had to fix everything up and put a new coat of paint on, so it sort of hurried things along. Personally, I love the patina of oil and grease and French fries that has permeated into the ground there.
Obviously, it affected some of the rides operators that were still independent. The Eldorado, an old school, indoor bumper cars operator that still leases from Joe Sitt, had a great sound system; it was totally flooded, which rusted the whole floor, and ruined the cars and the operator is still struggling to get back. So, some of the smaller operators there had to stop, fix some of their motors, and retool, which is a hardship for them.
Given your research and the aftermath of Sandy, would you say that there is an ideal solution for Coney Island?
The problem for me is that the “thing” that I think has been lost, is not tangible. It cannot be measured. You can look at the issue in black and white, as charts and graphs on paper and think about issues like land value, how you organize everyone, and how you protect the people that are there while ushering in a new Coney Island, all the things that the City talked about, which are all wonderful things. However, there is a huge cost to this type of wholesale rezoning that forces wholesale redevelopment. It is not just in Coney Island, but in any neighborhood that goes through this – look at Williamsburg. The intangible cost is a harder thing to talk about. Therefore, it was very important for me to capture the intangible; the spirit of Coney Island. And yes, Coney Island is a bit down and dirty, but that is because it is open to everyone. These intangible, touchy-feely, mushy, hard to talk about things does not get included when discussing a solution for the problem.
However, to her credit, Amanda Burden, who is the director of the New York City Department of City Planning and chair of the City Planning Commission, she understood a lot of these factors; to keep Shoot the Freak, to keep the craziness, and the open environment – she gets it, but where is that voice in the end? Where did that voice go?
Since it is too easy to brush all that craziness aside, I felt like I needed to make a film where at least you could almost smell it, capturing it in a way that is not possible in a conversation or a PowerPoint.
Do you think that Zipper is almost serving as a symbol that encompasses a wider rhetoric beyond Coney Island, representing the current economic debates going on and that have been going on for the number of past years regarding unemployment, the 99% demonstrations and so forth?
Absolutely, I hope that it can be. There are many other examples, especially in New York, like I said where Williamsburg was a really good example, but those examples usually deal with gentrification. I don’t think that you could point to Coney Island and claim gentrification. But on the other end of the spectrum, it is not nostalgia for the past either, because nostalgia is “we don’t want to move forward and we don’t want things to change.” It is not an aversion to change; it is an aversion to corporatization. What ends up happening, like with many neighborhoods in New York and little downtowns across America, is when everything goes to the highest bidder, or when the goal is to squeeze the money out of the land, as much as possible, it sort of drives the conversation, about what will go there and what will happen there. The City can put in as many protections in the zonings as may seem needed, but what still ends up happening is this homogenization of places that used to be very individual – very local with their footprint; their handprint on it. It is another crazy, weird, intangible “thing” that is really hard to talk about. But I think that it is worth looking at it, because one sees that everything is starting to look and be the same, which is a really big issue. It taps into a lot of areas – a litany of corporatizations, chains stores versus local businesses, and yes we can hop onto the 1%, stirring a lot of issues into a big stew.
For me with Coney Island, the reason why I said, “wait a minute, somebody has to write this down and somebody has to make sure that this history is recorded,” was that Coney Island has always been the antithesis of all of that. It was the place one could run away from the gentrification of Manhattan, it was the place where one could be poor and no one would bat an eyelash; it was about promoting, a kind of let it all hang out, do whatever you want anarchy of that carnival culture. When that gets all cleaned up and tidied up, you have taken away what the whole place stands for. That is what we talk about when we say the wiping away of Coney Island’s history, not just we have replaced old rides with new rides. It is just not even stevens in terms of change and historical spirit.
Talking about historical spirit, your film incorporates a lot of historical footage…
I tried not to do too much because Ken Burns did that brilliant documentary on Coney Island’s history that one can ever come close to outdo as it is just an amazing film. I tried to use it sparingly and only in places where I was trying to illustrate a point.
Like the interviews and news broadcasts… and also the personal historical footage from the interviewees of the carnies and the flashback footage from the 70s.
The footage came from the very famous DP, Bob Richman, who did the September Issue and Some Kind of Monster and also shot some other great films – he was a big fan of Coney Island and I found out that he had that footage in his basement. If you talk about the heyday of Coney Island, most people talk about post World War II and it was particularly important to me to show what it was like in the 70s. It is very hard to get footage from that era, because it was scary in the 70s; no one went down to Coney Island and nobody talked about it. But, I think in the mind of the guys who have been working there, the 70s was their heyday and it was very important to me to show when they started out there – it was rough and they all kind of hung together – and they survived, learned the business starting by getting coffee for people, running errands, working their way up. And like Eddie said in the interview, it was rough but people came, they still wanted to come.
How long did this project take from start to finish?
From the very, very beginning when I got the idea from reading an article on the subway about the Zipper ride when Eddie found out that he was being thrown out, which was published in The Daily News in October 2006, it has been six years, from start to finish. It took a long time to get the interviews with the city officials. The City really wanted to sell the project to the public, which made it really hard to find out what the issues were, unless one listened very closely that required following up with inquiries for clarification. Also, Joe Sitt did not want to go on camera until he made a deal with the City, so we had to wait into 2010 and then went back to get some pickup shots as late as the summer in 2010, completing most of our editing in 2011.
Is there anything else that surprised you by any of the information disclosed during the interviews?
One of the things that really surprised me was that Seth Pinsky, who was president of the EDC, made a statement about 2003, that I had listened to many times and then also had to call for further clarification, stating that they had decided in 2003 that the land was already too valuable to support amusements that blew me away. This is why we included the insert about the land valuation in 2003 in the film. Then this fight went on for six-seven years, which goes on to show you when the stakeholders’ timeline began.
However, the land usage issue must have started even earlier, as Joe Sitt started purchasing the land even earlier?
He confirmed that he had made deals, which had not closed yet, for a few parcels of land prior to 2003. However, he did not want to disclose the exact timings of his deals. I could also not get the exact timing of these deals from Dominic Recchia either. I asked them both who bought what when? I was surprised that Recchia even mentioned the coffee that he and Joe Sitt had together. But Joe Sitt did say that he was down there sniffing around during the Giuliani administration. As a speculator and a smart man he was able to see that City was going to want to do something with the land eventually. But I don’t think that he did that in a vacuum; I think he was tipped off.
The overall narrative of the film seems to be divided in three sections: showing the problem, identifying each party’s motive, and then the outcome. Why did you choose to delay showing the connection between Joe Sitt the developer and Dominic Recchia, a New York City Council Member?
We just felt like it was much more impactful to have that information right before you find out about the compromise. We wanted it all to be first in the up and up and we worked very, very hard to paint Dominic Recchia as the man in the middle. And he really was the man in the middle as he did not really agree with the City’s plan all the way up to the bitter end. There was still some question whether he would vote for it, because his friend had bought up all this land that was about to become valueless if the City proceeded in condemning it or whatever they needed to do to get it to Parkland. So, I think he wanted to protect his friend’s interests but he also wanted to do something for his community and I think he was torn. Therefore, we wanted to keep him as much in the middle for as long as possible. Then the compromise comes as no surprise in order highlight the disappointment for the audience when it is revealed that Parkland becomes even smaller and will allow for hotels… But even when the City made the big compromise, Joe Sitt still did not wanted to play ball. There was a lot of tension over that rezoning. When we interviewed Bob Lieber, which was not included in the film, he basically said that Joe Sitt was not returning his calls anymore – Joe Sitt was playing hardball. The City played hardball, but Joe Sitt played harder, he left them hanging until the very end. The City did not meet his original price but they did raise their offer. He was a tough negotiator and he was not about to walk away from waterfront property that was worth a fortune, making a very good return on his investment, while having the ability to build whatever he wanted on his remaining property. The problem is much, much more complicated from what we could present as a documentary.
Zipper, Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride is playing on the film festival circuit with its next screening at the Montclair Film Festival on Saturday, May 4th at the Bellevue Theatre. We at the Atlanta Film Festival 365 look forward to tracking its route and its quest to inform the public about the continuing development issues of Coney Island and the plight of the small business operator when government and corporatism vies for the same profit centers.