There are many reasons I felt inspired to pick up a camera and follow this story.
The first time I stepped foot in Coney Island, one summer afternoon of 5 years ago, the city of New York seemed to vanish, replaced by a chaotic, unpredictable, and fascinating world.
Iconic rides, an old fashion wooden boardwalk crowded with people from all walks of life, colorful shady concessions selling a wild variety of merchandise, from stuffed toys and cigars to florescent pina coladas, the beach, the ocean breeze, the screams, the laughter, and yes to top it off, an authentic freak show!
I was immediately captivated by the raffish charm of the place and its extravagant characters seemed to rightfully belong to a movie set. And there was something else, something intangible – perhaps the spirit of Coney Island's glorious history still lingering in the air.
At the same time it was also apparent that the once magnificent "playground of the world" had been neglected. I couldn't help but noticing the empty lots and rundown buildings, the piles of trash and the sinister real estate signs posted at every street corner.
While walking around, I stumbled upon Gangster Cigar and struck up a casual conversation with Anthony. He had a lot to say on what was going on in Coney Island and It was enough to capture my curiosity. I returned the following day with a cheap camera, little experience, and a lot of enthusiasm.
The plan was to shoot a short film over the course of the summer, exploring the quirkiness of this unique amusement park and the reasons for its most recent state of neglect.
However, as I began spending time in Coney Island I realized that the story at hand was much bigger and complicated than I had imagined. In the last few years, CI had transformed into a battle ground between New York City and a real estate mogul in search of big profit. Caught in the middle was a community of amusement aficionados and business owners like Dianna, owner of Lola star Boutique, Dick founder of CI USA, and Anthony.
A summer transformed into a journey of 5 years.
At every turn I was faced with more and more complex questions such as: what is the best use of our limited land-space? How do we make sure that all parties are equitably represented in that discussion? Where do we draw the line between the inevitable necessities of “progress” and the insatiable demands of unchecked capitalism?
What kept me going during times of hardship was the love and admiration for Coney Island and its community, especially people like Dianna, whose courage and determination in the face of adversity is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.
Both simple and complex, this is a fascinating and timely story about the journey to preserve an American icon and an entire way of life.
Furthermore, it is an important story as it shows how seemingly powerless citizens and small business owners can band together through grass roots activism in a political arena increasingly dominated by corporate influence in order to gain a democratic compromise that satisfies all parties.
The battle for the future of Coney Island has provided the park and the surrounding neighborhood with a much needed facelift. New, shiny rides and glitzy storefronts have emerged on every corner, replacing the old and often run down structures, and attracting thousands of new visitors. But at the same time, the new zoning has created an opportunity for major national chains such as Applebee's to take root, and for an increasingly corporate environment to flourish – creating the risk for yet another unique historic and outlandish neighborhood to be forever lost to gentrification.