Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride is at least the fourth documentary to come out in the past two years to chronicle the Bloomberg administration’s much contested redevelopment of Brooklyn. Like any of these sociopolitical, hyper-local docs, namely My Brooklyn, a brainy, well-researched, and articulate analysis of the effects of gentrification in and around the Fulton Mall, Zipper is about the rezoning of an iconic Brooklyn location—in this case, Coney Island’s amusement parks—in order to develop condos and corporate businesses, and as such to generate higher profits. Besides the usual cast of Bloomberg administration officials, both documentaries feature the CEO of Thor Equities, Joe Sitt, a smiley guy who proudly declares his Brooklyn roots while seemingly unaware that his business practices are sanding off his hometown’s character (he calls himself “proud to be a preservationist speculator”).
Contrary to its full title and its scenes of pathos and nostalgia, Zipper isn’t simply an ode to a bygone era. The doc seeks some understanding of the forces shaping the new Coney Island, and it’s strongest when contrasting, or even undercutting (through clever edits and the use of Strauss’s The Blue Danube Waltz) the interests and opinions of these characters, creating a farcical sense that they’re all riding the merry go round of politics. Although these montage scenes work to offer comedic relief, they also point to director Amy Nicholson’s own confusion regarding the understandably complicated power relations between city officials, developers, small businesses, and protesters. And because Nicholson lacks a strong understanding of the proceedings, Zipper continuously resorts to clips from a public-access show to summarize the chapters in the Coney Island redevelopment saga. The effect of this is a documentary that feels warm and fuzzy about its subject, but at the same time depersonalized.
For instance, there’s no indication here that the Zipper is Nicholson’s favorite childhood ride, and since the film champions the uniqueness of Coney Island, audiences may question the focus on a generic ride—rather than, say, Shoot the Freak—that could be found at amusement parks all over the country, the very characteristics that are bemoaned about the new development plan (Sitt actually thinks that a Six Flags, arguably the most corporate and bland of scenarios, would be the best outcome for Coney Island). Regardless, Nicholson paints the Zipper as a thrilling ride that people loved, and uses its owner and operators as endearing models of working-class victimhood. As a contrast to the hundreds of millions of dollars being transacted between tight-fisted Sitt and the city, the thrill ride’s operators supplemented their meager earnings with “tips” that fell from patrons’ pockets. And whether or not you agree with Bloomberg’s statement that Coney Island’s “amusements haven’t kept pace with changing times and tastes,” or Domenic Recchia’s complaint that there isn’t an Applebee’s to eat at, you should find yourself agreeing with Zipper that the new plans, which reduce the size of the park to a marginal nine percent, will strip away the character Coney Island has become known for.