Eight years ago, Amy Nicholson was riding the subway, flipping through the October 26 issue of the Daily News, in search of the word jumble, when she came across an article on the closing of her favorite Coney Island ride, The Zipper. Nicholson remembers her heart dropping as she read that the lot The Zipper stood on had been sold to Thor Equities, a development company run by the now-infamous Joe Sitt, and that the ride and eight others off had been ordered off the newly-acquired property.
Desperate to know why this was happening, Nicholson headed to Coney Island and met with the Zipper’s owner, Eddie Miranda, and the rest of his crew. That initial interview turned into a documentary entitled Zipper, which, through interviews with city officials, Zipper employees, and Sitt himself, tells the story of the controversial redevelopment of Coney Island that shrunk the 60-acre amusement park to a nine-acre space co-owned by the City and Thor Equities. Filmed between 2007 and 2009, the critically-acclaimed doc hit the festival circuit in late 2012 and will be released on deluxe DVD at the end of the month.
The story of Coney Island continues to roil on with locals telling the Brooklyn Paper just last week that Joe Sitt’s Coney Island properties remain woefully vacant, many of them covered in trash and other debris. We spoke with Amy Nicholson about how this sad, almost unrecognizable version of Coney Island came to be and what needs to be done to preserve the best of the People’s Playground. Throughout, we’ve included outtakes from In A World Of Their Own: Coney Island Photographs By Aaron Rose, a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, to give a better idea of what we’ve lost and how we may bring it back.
So, you first visited the Zipper’s owner, Eddie Miranda, and his crew in the fall of 2006. Were they initially wary of you?
Yeah, they were a little wary because people were coming around and they were already embroiled in trying to stay one more summer. And people had been coming around, asking questions. There was a lot of press. And everybody thought the whole thing was going to shut down on Labor Day, which didn’t happen. I think what a lot of people didn’t realize is it’s a lot of little, different owners. Eddie rented a lot from another guy who swore he wasn’t going to sell it.
How did you break down that barrier between you, the visitor, and them, the in-it-for-the-long-haul guys?
I just kept going back and I somehow convinced them that I wouldn’t get in their way. I really had their best interests at heart and I really wanted to tell their story. It took a while. They really were the sweetest, nicest guys under it all, but they were also really hardworking and just kind of salt of the earth.
How long was it before you realized that their property and eight other properties had actually been purchased during a massive buy up by Joe Sitt of Thor Equities?
I was only aware through the guys on the Zipper lot. I knew a developer had bought the property and Joe Sitt had made a big splash in the New York magazine in 2005 and as part of my research I came across that article. It was a very audacious article. It basically said, we’re going to go down there and we’re going to make it into Vegas.
But later on in your filming you discovered that city councilman Domenic Recchia was the one who got Joe Sitt involved.
I had no idea of the relationship that Domenic Recchia had with Joe Sitt until I interviewed Domenic Recchia. And that was in the beginning of 2008. Dominic gave me a great interview. He was very candid and he sort of speaks off the cuff. I remember coming home from that shoot and my husband was helping me that day. We were putting things away and were all very quiet. And my husband said to me, “Did he just tell you that the reason Joe Sitt found out about what was going on in Coney Island was because they were pals and they had a cup of coffee and he invited him to be the developer on the project?” And I said, “I think he did.” I think we found the missing link in a weird way. My husband said, “That’s amazing. You have to get the rest of this story. You have to keep going.”
That revelation in the film was jaw-dropping.
Yeah, because you kind of know that’s how politics works and in a weird way, you can’t blame Domenic because [he] was just doing what he knew the City needed. And he said as much. He said the City was developing all over the place; they were doing these big rezonings. They were doing it as an economic development policy, but nobody had thought about Coney Island. [He said,] “They wanted it to be presented like a business and so I needed a developer to do all that work for me. Joe Sitt was the one willing to do it.” And on the side, he bought up all the property.
In fact, Joe Sitt bought up so much Coney Island property that he became embroiled in a fight with the City, which wanted to buy back the property for their own development. Eventually, you were able to speak with Sitt about what he’d done and he was disarmingly nice. During your interview, did you think that he fit well into the big, bad developer archetype?
That’s a tricky question. In the way I do my films I always find that people reveal who they truly are by the way that they talk. And I felt like he revealed his personality exactly as it is. I think he wants to come off as being a man of the people and folksy. He literally uses the word “folks” a lot. And he will say a thousand times over that he was down there because he grew up in that neighborhood and he wanted to do right by the community. [But] he’s an animal. He takes no prisoners. He has a very bombastic style and he is a very shrewd man. And I think he’s very smart and I think he is very brave.
Being the shrewd man he is, Joe Sitt ended up fighting with the City for years over properties he owned in the newly-proposed 9-acre amusement zone. The City wasted time haggling with Sitt while Coney Island sat in the lurch. What do you think was ultimately the greatest threat to Coney Island: the City’s incompetence or Sitt’s greed?
I think that the City had a brilliant economic development policy. It’s brilliant! It worked like a charm. Look at this city! You can’t get an apartment here. It was a brilliant, brilliant policy. But then you have people like Joe Sitt. And I think he went for what he went for and I think the combination of those two things is what did Coney Island in. I don’t think it was one or the other. That’s why I say the City is not the villain, the developer is not the villain. The villain is capitalism. In Joe Sitt’s case, he wants to make money. In the City’s case, they want to grow the city without raising taxes and when your goal is money, your goal is not in the best interest of the community.
In a way, it felt like the City and Joe Sitt’s outsized desire to transform Coney Island into this upscale amusement park was a bit classist. Did you get that vibe as well?
Yes, I did. Coney Island is an analog place. It’s analog fun. It’s old school fun. I felt like if anyone had gone down there and spent hours just roaming the beach, sit down, take a squat, look at the the people that are around there, I think that different decisions would have been made. However, I’m not really even sure that was a factor. I think the City got caught in such a rock and a hard place with Joe Sitt buying up the property that they really kind of at some point had to do what they did. There was a delicate fabric there of something that was really wonderful and a wholesale renovation of that destroys that fabric. My feeling is there has to be a way to figure out how to improve a place without destroying what’s great about it. I think what was great about it was rides like the Zipper and guys like Eddie and those people got lost in the shuffle.
In the end, the City ended up buying back some of Sitt’s property at an exorbitant price and these days, they’re doing their part. In fact, an amazing, new rollercoaster is coming this summer. Meanwhile, much of his land reportedly remains empty. What do you think will be the ultimate fate of Coney Island?
I worry that people are going to forget what happened, but I think that the opposite is true. We see what has bared out in Coney Island and the City is doing their darndest to fill it with as many rides as possible. [But] I think that misses the point. It’s not about the number of rides. I just miss my guys. In the bigger picture, I think that now people are really starting to see the results of three terms of rezonings. Twelve long years. A decade. In a decade, the City has changed completely. And I think people are getting a little scared now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Follow Nikita Richardson on Twitter @nikitarbk
Special thanks to the Museum of the City of New York for sharing these wonderful photos. The Aaron Rose exhibit will be on view through August 3, 2014.