Sunday, March 6, 2016

Luna Park

Luna Park, St. Kilda, Victoria
While we're on the subject of classic amusement parks, I'd like to bring up one that is very much alive, about 10,000 miles away in Australia.

I had the great privilege of visiting Melbourne a few years back and was struck by the similarities of the capital of the Australian state of Victoria, and my hometown of Chicago. The two are about the same age, Chicago having received its city charter in 1837, and Melbourne in 1847. Both are the traditional second cities of their respective countries, although only Melbourne can still legitimately claim that title. Both Melbourne and Chicago were boom towns in their early days because of their advantageous geographical locations as far as trade and commerce are concerned.

Walter Burley and Marion Mahony
Capitol Theater Building
One big difference between the two is that Chicago became a city sixty years after American independence from Great Britain while Melbourne was founded as an imperial city. Much of its Victorian era architecture reflects that fact. Locals like to joke that the city's main train station, the beloved over-the-top, Flinders Street Station, was designed back at the home office in London, but there was a mix-up and its plans were mistakenly sent to Melbourne instead of Bombay(Mumbai), where the station was intended to be built.

Manchester United Building
sporting a tower that should
look quite familiar to Chicagoans
Despite the large number of British inspired Victorian era buildings, there is a strong architectural bond between Melbourne and Chicago. Walter Burley Griffin who earned his chops in Chicago in the offices of Dwight Perkins and Frank Lloyd Wright, and then on his own with a successful practice, moved to Australia with his professional partner and wife Marion Mahony Griffin when they were commissioned to design the plan for the new Australian capital city of Canberra. The couple established an office in Melbourne as well where they made their presence known with some of that city's' finest buildings including the Capitol Theater pictured on the left, with a facade that would fit quite nicely in Chicago's Loop.

The adjacent building just visible in the left corner of the photograph is the Manchester United Building designed by Melbourne architect Marcus Barlow. That 1932 building is a neo-Gothic skyscraper, a genre which was in vogue in Chicago in the twenties. The tower of the Manchester United Building should look very familiar to anybody who has ever been to the Windy City with its strong resemblance, flying buttresses and all, to Raymond Hood's Tribune Tower.

Melbourne Mish Mosh
These two Chicago inspired skyscrapers reside in Melbourne's Downtown or as they call it, their Central Business District, CBD for short. The CBD like Chicago's Loop is like an architectural workshop displaying a wide range of styles from the aforementioned British Victorian, and Chicago Industrial, to almost every subsequent popular style of the era, neo-Gothic and Classical, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modernism, Brutalism, Deconstructivism, Post Modernism, virtually every kind of "ism" you can think of except for one. That one would be "contextualism", the idea that new buildings should be designed to fit in with at least the spirit of the extant buildings in the neighborhood. By and large the architectural landscape of Melbourne is far less conservative than Chicago's, and planners and architects of that city have more free reign to experiment with forms, styles and one particular trait, whimsy. All that would be frowned upon here. The result is a hodge-podge, crazy-quilt collection of buildings that don't appear to speak to each other as much as scream at each other.

Let's face it, this sort of thing would never fly in Chicago
The strange thing is that it works. Strolling the streets of the CBD is a journey of discovery; approaching each intersection, you never know what you'll find around the corner. What ties it all together is a system of arcades, elaborate ones from the 19th century, connected by more rough hewn ones from the last two decades, that create a system of walkways, some indoor, some outdoor, that break the monotony of the rigid street grid pattern. In a way this reminded me of the Chicago Loop of my childhood with its many subterranean haunts and multi storied buildings filled with a wide variety of mom and pop shops that invited visitors to explore businesses catering to every possible interest. A victim of its own success, today, Loop property values and rental costs are prohibitive for all but the most lucrative businesses, and what was once a place of endless variety, the Loop is now almost strictly the domain of chain restaurants and retailers, closed door offices, and residential units.

Alas, such is "progress".

Anyway, I experienced a real feeling of deja vu when I took the streetcar (another long vanished part of the Chicago landscape) out to the bordering suburb of St. Kilda, and visited Luna Park. There were many amusement parks all over the world with that name, some of which still exist, including the one at Coney Island. The St. Kilda Luna Park opened in 1912 and has enjoyed nearly continuous operation ever since, save for a period during World War I.

As soon as I stepped through the mouth of Mr. Moon and into the amusement park, I was transported back nearly fifty years to my childhood days at Riverview. I couldn't help be struck by Mr. Moon's resemblance to the face of Aladdin in front of his castle, the fun house of my old stomping grounds. Just like Aladdin's Castle, the first thing you encounter at Luna Park is this:

The roller coaster pictured below, called the "Scenic Railway" which completely encircles Luna Park, dates from the very beginning of the park and is the oldest continuously operating roller coaster in the world:

Like Riverview of old, admission is free so you can walk around Luna Park to your heart's content. The rides of course are not free. From what I can tell, even taking inflation and exchange rates into account, ticket prices are exponentially higher than Riverview's, but probably not out of line with comparable amusement parks these days. Case in point, a one minute and half ride on Coney Island's famous Cyclone roller coaster will set you back nine bucks.

Here are pictures of a few of the rides in St. Kilda:

Pharaoh's Curse

The Coney Drop, a replica of a ride at Luna Park's namesake amusement park in Coney Island

The Twin Dragon

The Scenic Railway

In case you're an old time Chicagoan jonesing for a Riverview fix, before you pack your bags and fly halfway around the world, let me just say you could probably take the entire Luna Park and place it inside the area once occupied by Riverview's Shoot the Chutes, and still have space for the Wild Mouse ride.

What's more, in these sensitive times, there are no collapsing stairways, dunk tanks, or guys who control air grates in the floor, opening them when unsuspecting ladies in skirts walk above. And for the life of me I couldn't find a freak show to save my life.

No, it's all good, clean, PC fun, even the roller coaster as you can see is so tame, park employees ride it standing up. In reality, given its size and the intensity of its rides, Luna Park, Melbourne could probably be better compared to another defunct Chicagoland amusement park, Kiddleland, which entertained families in west suburban Melrose Park for sixty years from 1950 until 2010.

This isn't meant to dis Luna Park in any way, it is a wonderful place that holds countless memories I would imagine for every Melburnian since 1912. Just like other amusement parks, it's had its ups and downs with sporadic threats over the years to close it down. But times change and what to one generation is tired and old, to another is warm and charming. Luna Park exists today because it survived through the bad times long enough to be cool again.

In light of that, it's tempting to wring our hands here in Chicago and wonder if only the owners of Riverview had not been so eager to sell back in the sixties, and instead had the foresight to carry on, maybe, just maybe, we'd now have a tremendous vintage amusement park that would be the pride of the Midwest as well as a huge money maker.

That's a nice fantasy but quite honestly I can't imagine a scenario where Riverview could have possibly survived to this day. First of all, in 1968, the year following Riverview's closing, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and much of Chicago burned. What followed was a mass exodus of people (who could afford it), from the city to the suburbs. Riverview already had a reputation, whether deserved or not, for being dangerous, and that reputation most certainly would have increased in the late sixties/early seventies, as the words "inner city" became synonymous in the minds of many, with crime and danger. The motivation to sell would have only increased in the ten years after Riverview closed.

Then in 1976, what almost certainly would have been the death knell for Riverview, had it not already been dead, was the opening of Great America Park in Gurnee, Illinois. The big attraction to Riverview was always its size (it was billed as the largest amusement park in the world), and the scariness of its rides. Great America was much bigger and its rides were scarier. On top of that, Great America was located way out in the distant suburbs, you neded a car to get there. Once there you needed a significant chunk of change just to get into the place, a trip there would cost a family of four well into the hundreds of dollars. You might think this would be a deterrent, which it certainly was for people without the time and the money to make the trip. That was exactly the point. For those who had the money, it was well spent as it kept out the riffraff, (i.e.: people like me, who never set foot in the joint), insuring a pleasurable and above all safe family outing, at least in the minds of its visitors.

Had Riverview survived into the mid-seventies, it would have been seen as the poor man's Great America, which certainly would have degraded it's by then, damaged reputation.

Now imagine it had stubbornly survived all that, and lasted into the era of the revival of the big American city in the eighties and nineties. Had that been the case, the property value, not for the development of industry as was the trend in the sixties, but for the development of mid to upper income housing, would have made the value of the land underneath Riverview skyrocket. Had the owners sat upon their property say twenty or thirty more years, the value would have increased perhaps tenfold, that after inflation is figured in. Looking back, it's kind of funny to think the Schmidt family sold the land under their amusement park, thus insuring its doom, for a mere six million dollars.

Could a dilapidated 1990s Riverview have survived the temptation for its owners to sell the land for perhaps several hundred million dollars? Most likely not.

You may be asking, given their similar circumstances, if the Luna Parks in Coney Island and Melbourne survived why couldn't Riverview? I would answer with two simple reasons, location and size. Those two parks were built in the middle of historic resort areas fronted by beaches. Their neighborhoods had amenities that catered to the beachcombers and other visitors, and the amusement parks served as merely one of many attractions. Think of Coney Island and you think of the Boardwalk, Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs and of course, the beach, along with the Wonderwheel and the Cyclone. While the neighborhood went to pot in the sixties and seventies, people still went to the beach. In a city where everybody rides the subway, at least half the New York City subway lines go to Coney Island. Likewise, St. Kilda is at the end of a tram line that runs through the heart of the CBD, making it easily accessible to visitors such as myself.

By contrast, Riverview was built in the middle of a residential and industrial neighborhood. Had it been located on the shores of Lake Michigan, it may have been a different story. Riverview's neighborhood never went through a drastic transformation as the neighborhood of Coney Island, but aside from the concentration of antique shops on Belmont Avenue, by itself there's not a whole lot there to attract visitors.

It's not particularly difficult to get to Riverview on public transportation, but it's not on an "L" line, you have to transfer to a bus. Unlike Great America, it's not right off the highway either, you have to navigate city streets. Riverview by itself was the destination of its neighborhood, and when it was the only game in town, it was well worth the effort to get there. If it had become no longer the only game in town, not so much.

Then there was its size. Riverview took up 47 acres of land. Compare that to just over three acres at the current Luna Park in Coney Island and about the same for St. Kilda. Back in the days when land and labor were cheap, it wasn't much of an expense to keep a big park going. Things change. Combine that with the cost of keeping order in the increasingly disorderly Riverview and it's not too hard to understand why the owners wanted to get while the getting was good.

Hard for me to say it but maybe it's a good thing that Riverview closed when it did. More than likely, it would have gone into a downhill trajectory for at least twenty years had it remained open. By the time things got better for the city, it might have been beyond repair. Had that been the case, our memories of it would be much less sweet. As it is, like the careers of the Beatles and Peyton Manning, despite showing its age, Riverview's days ended while it was still on top.

Perhaps there's something to be said for that.

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