Joe Sitt, Coney Island, and the Tea Party playbook

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a screening of ZIPPER: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride. The documentary is in a limited engagement at IFC Center, and it should be required viewing for anyone who cares about how our city caters to the rich and powerful.

Zipper silhouette Coney Island

From the poster designed by – guess who? – Steve “ESPO” Powers.

The story revolves around a ride called the Zipper. Director Amy Nicholson makes us fall in love with the contraption, using beautiful cinematography to capture its excitement, even taking us to the factory in Kansas where it was built. We also get to know the carneys who have worked it for years, many having grown up tending the midway.

But the Zipper is just a conduit for a larger focus: the destruction of Coney Island by greed and cronyism.

Joe Sitt, the head of Thor Equities, has been buying property in Coney Island’s amusement area for a decade. His bet was that the city would rezone the area to allow for condos, high-rises, and malls, moving away from its century-old carnival tradition. Through his friend, Council Member Dominic Recchia, he is able to secure City Council approval, instantly increasing the value of his land ten-fold.

Sitt named his company after a comic-book hero. Just as Thor viewed himself as a defender of the universe, Sitt sees himself as a “defender of cities” – not to mention as a preservationist. Seriously.

Most telling is that the only time he gets really excited (like, pee-your-pants excited) is when he tries to counter the claim that no one is interested in Coney Island. Wait! “Let me take out my BlackBerry,” he tells us – then proceeds to list off at least twenty gaudy national chains. Cue awkward laughter in the theater.

Vanishing New York has an excellent analysis of one of the first newcomers, IT’SUGAR, which I would describe as a porn shop for candy consumers.

Nicholson’s coup de grâce is a mash-up of Recchia’s comments denying Sitt wants to bring in chain stores with Sitt reading off the list a second time. I am lucky I was watching this in a theater or my computer screen might now be shattered, courtesy of my fist.

I noticed that Sitt’s strangling of Coney Island had a number of things in common with the way the Republican Party – and in particular, the Tea Party – has treated its Congressional responsibilities under the Obama administration. Go watch ZIPPER and let me know if you agree.

Step one: create or exacerbate a problem

Over the last five years, the GOP has placed a kibosh on nearly all governing activities, or anything that would stimulate the economy and boost President Obama’s popularity.

Coney Island’s attendance had increased dramatically between 2001 and 2006. But Sitt refused to negotiate with carnival tenants to renew their leases, forcing them to pack up. Then he did nothing with the vacant land (since it was zoned for amusements).

Step two: use that problem as evidence that current policies aren’t working

Republicans cast President Obama’s first term as a failure, citing the stagnant economy they had refused to address.

Sitt pointed to the abandoned former carnival area as proof that something needed to change. It’s blighted, it’s empty. Surely something can be done to make this land viable again.

Step three: leverage power and money to get the change to happen

Republicans were unsuccessful at this in 2012 – they had too many other flaws, and they had to convince a large population. Still, they managed to persuade 47% of Americans to vote against their own interests.

Sitt, on the other hand, had to deal only with Mayor Bloomberg and a single Council Member, since it’s customary for the Council to follow the home member’s wishes on land-use votes. Recchia pointed to a “community process” – town-hall meetings that showed overwhelming disapproval – but, as one local speaker said, “money talks”.

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2 Responses to Joe Sitt, Coney Island, and the Tea Party playbook

  1. H.Nemzer says:

    I must catch that movie.
    Also, an excellent read with vintage photos on the continued assault of the Coney Island Amusement area is “Coney Island Lost and Found” by Charles Denson (2002).

  2. Pingback: Greed Is Not Good | World's (Not So) Funniest Blog

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