Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Last Trace

The only thing I remember from an urban studies class I took in college nearly forty years ago was a discussion that dealt with urban archeology. The professor brought up the topic of incongruous features in the urban landscape which are perfectly logical, only if you know the history of the neighborhood. He was from Detroit and used the example of an expressway that inexplicably veered off course by several feet. Anyone coming across this odd feature of the road that had been otherwise straight for miles would have been perplexed. Long time residents of the neighborhood of course remembered the old brewery that stood in the path of the new superhighway which was built to skirt around the long gone building.

There is a similar incongruous road feature on the north side of Chicago, an overpass on Western Avenue that takes the street over Belmont Avenue. The overpass is convenient for drivers along Western as it enables them to bypass one of the hundreds of stoplights on the longest street in Chicago. Its elevation also provides motorists with a nice relief from the otherwise pool table flat topography of Chicago, as well as a terrific view of the surrounding neighborhood and the Loop, about six miles away. But why is the overpass here and not say a few blocks farther south over the much busier six-way intersection at Elston and Diversey, or perhaps a dozen of other seemingly more logical places?

Unless you're old enough to remember as I am, or at least know a little about the history of that particular patch of land at the northwest corner of Belmont and Western, you're likely to be stymied by the seemingly arbitrary bit of roadway that sadly is about to disappear forever.

Before the police station, the campus of trade colleges, and the non-descript strip mall that currently occupy the area, from 1904 until 1967 that 74 acre site bounded by Western, Belmont, the Chicago River and Roscoe street was the happiest place in Chicago, and perhaps the entire Midwest, Riverview Amusement Park. So popular was Riverview that the overpass was built in 1961 for the benefit of the few drivers along Western Avenue who were not headed there. That roadway is one of the last remaining traces of the park.

Riverview holds a special place in the hearts of anyone my age or older who grew up in Chicago and could count on spending at the very least, a few summer days and/or evenings at the park. Folks from the south and west sides made the trek either by car or bus, usually two or three of them. It was within walking distance for many north siders, in fact that's what lots of kids did on their way home after they spent all their bus money inside the park. As I was only eight during its final summer. I never experienced Riverview without an adult chaperone, still I have nothing but sweet, happy memories of the place. Because of my age, (well I like to think that anyway), I never rode the most famous and terrifying rides in the park, the roller coaster with its advertised 85 foot 90mph drop known as the Bobs, and the heart stopping Pair-O-Chutes; more on them later. I did ride the tamer Jetstream roller coaster which still was a little out of my league. More my speed was the fun house known as Aladdin's Castle, pictured on the right, the arcade, and the Shoot-The-Chutes, where a gondola would take you and perhaps eight other riders to the top of a tower, then be released down an enormous water slide into a pond below.

As wonderful as the park was during the day, it was spectacular at night. With everything lit up, it was a dreamland, a place far removed from the serious everyday business of school, work, or anything else the city had to offer. To get a feeling of what Riverview de nuit was like, check out the carnival scene from Alfred Hitchcock's great 1951 film Strangers on a Train. That scene doesn't end well for poor Miriam, the estranged wife of the protagonist. But with the lights of the carnival reflected in the broken lenses of her glasses, Miriam's death at the hands of the sociopath Bruno Antony played brilliantly by Robert Walker, is probably the most beautiful murder scene ever captured on film.

I bring that up not because murder was a regular occurrence there, but because like all carnivals, circuses and amusement parks of the time before our safety conscious, uber-hygenic, politically correct, self-absorbed, litigious era, there was indeed a darker side to Riverview.

Take the freak show. No self-respecting carnival or amusement park back in the day would have done without one of these, and Riverview's was right there on the midway, smack dab in the middle of the park across from the entrance to the miniature train ride. You simply couldn't avoid it. The best part of the freak show, sorry folks, that's what it was called, was its presentation on the outside. There you'd have the classic barker, whose job it was to entice passersby to spend their hard earned money to come inside and witness some of the strangest, most bizarre and unbelievable sights known to man, or something of that nature. Giant hand-painted banners, which today command top dollar, would advertise the amazing sights inside. Usually as a tease, one of the performers would come out and give a little presentation of his or her talent. There might be a contortionist, a sword swallower, a tattooed lady, a fire eater, or the human blockhead, a guy who would pound nails into his nose. I specifically remember a fellow called "the two-faced man" who was portrayed on his banner as a man who had two separate, distinct faces. The real two-faced man had in fact only one face, one side of it was what most people would consider "normal" while the other side was greatly deformed.

Once the suckers, I mean patrons, paid their money to get inside, they'd get a little routine from the performers, usually giving their life story then explaining their condition, if their talent was something unusual about their body, or a little demonstration of something they could do that was unusual. David Letterman used to call acts like these, "stupid human tricks." They weren't done sucking your money after you got inside the sideshow, there was always another opportunity to tease you with something even more unbelievable, beyond another door or obstacle. Here's a link to a page, on a site devoted to sideshows, featuring one of the Riverview performers, Sylvia, the Girl with the Elephant Feet.

It seems that no discussion about Riverview today would be complete without at least a mention of the dunk tank. You still see these at carnivals, somebody, usually a guy sitting on a plank suspended above a tank of water, hurling insults at passersby, encouraging them, for a fee of course, to toss a ball at a target. If the tosser if successful in hitting the target, the plank collapses, sending the guy into the drink. At the Riverview drunk tank, all the performers sitting on the planks, inside of cages no less, were African American men. The attraction was called "The African Dip." Unsubstantiated rumor has it that once upon a time it was called something else, much worse. In 1963, Mike Royko the great Chicago columnist, wrote an article stating the attraction "was disgraceful and racist... provided whites with malicious joy, while demeaning Negroes, stripping them of dignity" and "had no place in the 1960's the era of the civil rights movement." There was a public outcry (although none of the organized boycotts you may have read about) after the story came out and in a short time, the attraction was closed. Years later, Royko while still rightfully proud of the article, noted that after the amusement closed, well I'll just let him describe it:
The only problem was that about six black men showed up at my office, stood in front of my desk and demanded to know why the hell I had caused them to lose their well-paying jobs. 
As one of them said: ``I was making good money for shoutin` insults at a bunch of honkies and gettin` a little wet, and most of them couldn`t throw good enough to put me in the water one out of every 25 throws.` I explained that there were greater moral and social issues involved. 
And he said something like: ``Yeah? Well, what about the moral issue of you getting me fired? What kind of job are you going to get me now?``
Today, outside of the syrupy nostalgia pieces, you cannot read anything about Riverview that does not comment about rampant racism in the place, and about how uncomfortable black visitors were made to feel there. This includes a nice little piece that the local public radio station WBEZ did a few years ago. It's interesting to note however that of all the black people they interviewed for the piece and the several more who made comments on the accompanying web site, to a person they said how much fun they had at Riverview and how they kept coming back. They may have been taunted on the way to and from the park as at the time it was in an all white, working class neighborhood, but at least the folks in the piece insisted they felt safe inside the park.

As many of the people said in the radio piece, that was simply the way it was at the time. The black kids at the park in the fifties and sixties may have felt uncomfortable with the dunk tank, but it apparently didn't prevent many of them from participating in the amusement by taking turns at attempting to dunk their well-paid taunters. Not to excuse any of it, it was a horrible and disgusting attraction. We can blast Riverview all we want from the safe distance of fifty or sixty years, but the truth is, the amusement park was a microcosm of society and frankly it's a little silly to single it out for being a product of its time.

Riverview's time ended on October 3rd, 1967 when its owners, the grandchildren of its founder Wilhelm Schmidt sold the land under it for six and one half million dollars to a local investment group . It was announced to the public the following day that the doors to Riverview that closed for the season one month earlier, would never open again. It was the first time anyone without direct involvement in the sale had heard about it. Despite showing its age, throughout the sixties the owners of the park continued to invest in infrastructure and new rides. In the summer of '67, its final year, Riverview had 1.7 million visitors, more people than attended Cubs and White Sox home games that year combined. The news of its demise took everyone by surprise. I cried when I heard the news, it was my first experience of the loss of a part of the city that I truly loved.

The reasons given for the closing were the ever increasing cost of upkeep and the escalating problem of violence inside the park.

What made Riverview different from other amusement parks was there was no admission charge to get in, you'd only pay for the rides or other attractions. This may have led in part to its decline as shall we say, a certain undesirable element, what today we'd call gang-bangers, entered the park freely reeking their own brand of havoc (albeit tame havoc by today's standards), causing a certain amount of uneasiness among its patrons. As a kid, I was blissfully unaware of that, and doing some reading on the subject recently, have come to the conclusion that much of the violence reported was overstated. Had the owners sincerely wanted to keep the park open, much of the crime problem could have been addressed, simply by charging admission at the gate. a move the Museum of Science and Industry successfully instituted in the nineties.

It's more likely the owners, perhaps tired of the amusement park business, preferred the quick payout, about 47 million in today's dollars.

On October 4th, 1967, the day of the public announcement of the closing of Riverview, Mike Royko published his tribute to the park in his daily column in the long defunct Chicago Daily News. The column was titled: Riverview Park: A Coward's Tale. You can find an excerpt of the piece here. The column describes Royko's profound fear of the Parachute ride mentioned above. Here's how it starts:
It was the red badge of courage, the moment of truth. It was put up or shut up.

There could be no conscientious objection - no draft card burning - when you faced the Parachute in Riverview Park.

This was it. You had what it took or you didn't.

And for those who didn't, the chance is gone forever. They will have to live with the knowledge that they couldn't do it.

Oh you can say: "But I rode the Bobs, and the Bobs was really something."
I once rode the Bobs eight times without getting off.
Sure it was rough, that first dip, and it took extraordinary courage.
But it wasn't the Parachute. You couldn't see it miles away. It didn't rise into the sky, warning you that soon you must look deep into your soul to see what, if anything was there.
The parachute tower stood about 200 feet in the air, about the equivalent of a 20 story building. The riders, two to a chute, strapped to wooden benches were slowly hoisted to the top of the tower, whereupon the operator would throw a switch sending them into a free fall for about twenty feet before the parachute would open up for a gradual decent to terra firma. My mother who was an avid rider of the Bobs, rode the Parachute ride once, that was enough for her. As mentioned above, I never rode it and neither did Mike Royko.

My mother loves to tell the story of something that happened one day when she was in eighth grade. It was late in the school year, close to graduation and the kids were antsy to get out of school. A couple of boys who were known for their antics, didn't return to class after lunch. Now her school was located about one and a half miles from Riverview and the Parachute tower, at least the top of it, was visible from her classroom. In the afternoon, a kid in my mom's class noticed that one of the parachutes was stuck at the top of the tower. Minutes passed, then hours. When the kids left school that day, that parachute and its human cargo were still stuck nearly 200 feet in the air.

On the way home from school, my mom picked up a copy of the late edition of the Daily News to see if it had anything about the malfunctioning ride. Sure enough it did. Turned out it took over three hours to release the chute with its passengers. Those two passengers were, you guessed it, her classmates who had ditched class that afternoon.

Riverview's motto for many years was "laugh your troubles away." My mother said those two boys got a good laugh out of all the attention they got. That is until they came back to school. It turned out the nuns saw their picture in the paper too.

"Laugh your troubles away" was coined by the Rivrview PR Department (if there ever was such a thing) during the Great Depression. There's a certain poignancy when you think about people on the brink still having the outlet of Riverview to let loose, if just for a few hours, escaping the dreadful realities of life at the time. It was then that William Schmidt, son of the founder, invented the foot long hot dog, a novelty that was successful because in Schmidt's words, "it was cheap and filling." In our health conscious time many of us might cringe at the idea of eating unidentified animal products stuffed into a twelve inch casing made of beef intestines, but to the many visitors of Riverview in the thirties it was the one extravagance they could still afford.

Until its sudden demise, Riverview with its free admission, was a place teenagers could go and hang out without getting into too much trouble. If there were normal teenage anxieties, frustrations, or any other pent up feelings that needed releasing (if you catch my drift), it was nothing that a few rides on the Bobs couldn't fix. Here's Royko again:
Much later, I discovered the secret of riding the Parachute. Go there with a girl.
A boy has to suggest the Parachute to prove he is a dashing fellow. A girl has to say yes to prove she is a good sport. I'm told they still have this arrangement, except now it is sex instead of the Parachute.
I suppose one could say that Chicago or any other big city is by necessity, a victim of its own success. The ever increasing demand for land translates to ever increasing property values which means that trivial venues such as amusement parks, miniature golf courses, drive in theaters or just about anything that is a remotely interesting place to just hang out and have a good time without spending half a paycheck, is doomed. Perhaps society pays a price when the only place teenagers can go on their own is the shopping mall.

Despite the dark side that we like to dwell upon these days, I don't know a soul who spent any time there who has anything but fond memories of the place. Googling "Riverview" the other day, I came across this video produced by WGN TV which is a tribute to the long lost park. It closes with a shot of Bozo the Clown, as portrayed by Bob Bell (the inspiration for the Simpsons' Crusty the Clown), walking into the sunset along Riverview's midway. I'm sure to anyone who didn't grow up in Chicago in the sixties, that shot has to be unbearably creepy and corny.

But to those of us who did, that one shot sums up our collective childhood.

You just had to be there.


Here is a fascinating account of the Riverview Parachute ride, written by a man who helped run it.

Here's my subsequent post on my family's visit to the site of Riverview and our last ride on the Western Avenue Overpass.

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