There Was a Lot of Living Going On
“If you have somebody that knows how to mess with the ride, give you a good ride, that’s a real… you know, that shit gets your adrenaline going.” Jerry operates the Zipper, a ride at Coney Island renowned for getting your adrenaline going. As he speaks, Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride cuts to a series of riders, screaming and laughing, and screaming some more. And it’s not only riders, as Zipper owner Eddie Miranda points out. “Everybody used to stand there and just watch the Zipper. Everybody’d just come and stand there and look up. It’s like they were riding the ride because they were screaming just as much as the people who were in the cars.”
Watching all the smiles and the shrieks and kids staggering off the ride, delighted and delirious, you get some idea of the Zipper’s infectious magic, the irrational and overwhelming joy it offers. Or, more precisely, the joy it offered. As Amy Nicholson’s documentary goes on to show, the Zipper is no longer featured at Coney Island, where it was a top ride—even, as Eddie and Jerry have it, the top ride—for decades. In following the saga of this loss (for now, the 38-year-old Zipper is installed at a resort in Honduras), this deft and engaging film—winner of the special jury prize at DOC NYC in 2012 and screening at Stranger Than Fiction on 5 February—considers multiple contexts, namely, the workings of money and power in New York, workings that led to the closing of the Zipper and the other 41 profitable small businesses.
The Zipper, as Eddie points out, speaks to tradition and pride on Coney Island, the storied southern Brooklyn amusement center, first popular in the 1830s and fallen on hard times since World War II, following a series of fires at Luna Park, increasing street gang activities, and, in 1964, the closing of Steeplechase Park after its purchase by developer Fred Trump (Donald’s father). Trump suggested he would leave the park open while awaiting rezoning for residential development, but instead the park was shuttered for two years, then bulldozed in 1966.
Viewed through a chainlink fence, scenes of bulldozing make visual the sense of loss that Eddie and his crewmembers describe. Coney Island was for so long a resort for people without means to travel to upscale resorts that the threat of its loss in 2007 generated street demonstrations, with marchers wearing sequins and feathers and bunny costumes and banging pots and drums. A merman pronounces, “We have enough McDisney coca-lands. We need to keep this alive, to celebrate the individual lunatics that make New York the reason all these people want to bring their money.”
Other citizens hoping to preserve the park make similar points repeatedly. The argument for development typically involves “improving” the area, by means of retail businesses, residential housing (that is, condos), and chain restaurants (of the Applebee’s and Friday’s variety). It’s clear that none of these developments means to celebrate individuals, lunatic or otherwise, and that they do mean to make lots of money for private corporations.
In Zipper, the primary representative of the process is Joe Sitt, who introduces himself by recalling his childhood nickname, “Joey Coney Island.” A longtime comic book collector, he says he named his development business, Thor Enterprises, after the character he saw as a city dweller and a defender of planet earth. This idea, he smiles, “was consistent with the theme of our company.” And so, he says, Thor Enterprises determined to buy up parcels of land, and, much like Trump some 35 years before, wait for promised zoning changes. During the wait, Coney Island land prices fluctuate, a process charted here in an animated roller coaster, the car creaking toward the top of a hill… before it inevitably descends. Amusement park rides, you realize, are premised on physics, they account for gravity rather than schemes and fantasies.
Real estate developers—call them profiteers—by contrast, are all about the schemes. When the residential-friendly zoning changes don’t materialize in the way Sitt imagined, but yet he owned land for which he could charge rent beyond the means of longtime lot occupants like Miranda. As the Bloomberg Administration and local officials continued to negotiate with Sitt, the rides and shops had to go under or move on. “I shed a tear as she drove away,” remembers Jerry over a shot of the Zipper loaded on a truck and heading down a long, grey city street. The contrast between this image those of the Zipper working its magic, so huge and bright red and, for all its mechanics, so strangely supple, is surely striking. As it is here treated like a thing, an object en route to relocation, the Zipper looks less like a thing and more like a bit of vibrant Coney Island life, even as it’s now hobbled.
This is the indelible point made by Zipper, that profits have costs. That it does so with good sense and good humor makes it simultaneously a great tribute to a great, wild ride.