Friday, March 4, 2016

The Last Ride at Riverview

Inspired by the impending demolition of the 54 year old Western Avenue Overpass which began this week, I took the kids for one last ride up the old roadway for a final chance at a view of the city that will be gone forever. If you recall from two posts ago, that roadway's purpose if you don't know its history, may seem perplexing. It was built to bypass the tremendously popular Chicago icon, Riverview Amusement Park. Perhaps when the overpass was built in 1961, Riverview and its million and a half yearly visitors seemed like a fixture that would be around forever. Alas, six years later after the 1967 season, Riverview closed for good. Long after the Shoot-the-Chutes, the Bobs, the Parachute ride and Aladdin's Castle were turned to scrap and dust, the roadway remained until nature ran its course, and a few years ago a decision had to be made, either rebuild the dilapidated, out-of-date structure, or simply remove and replace it with a conventional roadway

Many motorists no doubt would have preferred the former solution but such is life. Sorry to say it, but as of March 1, 2016, the last ride of Riverview is no more.

The Western Avenue overpass as it looked during its last weekend of operation.
Here you see local traffic on the right, while on the left,
some of the final motorists to ever use it "fly" over Belmont Avenue.

After Riverview closed, from a practical standpoint, for drivers on Western the overpass was a nice, but relatively insignificant bonus as it enabled them to avoid only one stoplight. From the street level as you can see, the overpass is something of an eyesore, and as far as I can tell, there was little opposition to its demolition.

The intersection of Belmont, Western and Clybourn.

Of course nothing is ever perfect, and the demise of the overpass will no doubt result in more backups at the five way intersection of Belmont, Western and Clybourn Avenues. That's not counting the horrific congestion its demolition and reconfiguration will cause. The whole project is not scheduled to be completed until September, 2017.

A symbol of the pre-eminence of the automobile in the early sixties, the overpass like the expressways of this city, was built without any consideration of its surroundings. It obscured the main entrance to Riverview on Western Avenue, visually cutting it off from the other side of the street. Visitors arriving on foot from the east had to walk under the overpass whose diminishing ceiling under the north ramp had to have been a nuisance, especially for tall people:

The main entrance to Riverview on Western Avenue before the overpass was built.
The presence of the "Green Hornet" streetcar dates this historic photo (photographer unknown)
 to sometime before 1958.
The structure of the Silver Flash roller coaster is in the background.
This was shot from roughly the same spot as the photograph above,
showing how the overpass would have obscured the view of the entrance from the street.

For an eight year old like me however, walking under the overpass was a prelude to the fun house with its rooms of distorted proportions. But for grownups on foot, the cramped, unwelcoming, somewhat threatening confines of the space underneath the overpass certainly had to diminish the experience of entering the park:

My daughter demonstrating the experience I had at her age while under the overpass, feeling very tall.

I also wanted to show my kids the site of one of the happiest places of my childhood. Unless you have a thing for irony, you'd be hard pressed to apply Riverview's old slogan. "Laugh your troubles away" to the site today. The closest thing that resembles lost Riverview is the huge police radio tower that was built on almost the exact site of the Pair-O-Chutes ride. With a bit of squinting and a whole lot of imagination, you can almost see the old contraption that thrilled and terrified Riverview patrons at the same time:

A rendering of the Pair-O-Chutes at night (artist unknown)
If you use your imagination and squint really hard,
you may be able to conjure up this; but open them...

...and this is what you see, the police tower which sits upon the site of Riverview's Parachute ride.

Of course the functions of the two structures couldn't be more different, and opening your eyes to the reality of the place is like waking from a fantastic dream and finding yourself back within the confines of your old, bleak, hum drum world. If you recall the story of my mother's two delinquent classmates who ditched class one day only to find themselves stuck on top of the parachute ride back in the forties, how appropriate, or ironic it should be that the ride would be replaced by the ultimate symbol of authority. Perhaps that tower should be named for the two boys. Perhaps it already is.

It only gets stranger. As if it were a twisted joke, the police headquarters/courthouse proper sits upon the site of Aladdin's Castle, Riverview's fun house. Your sense of fun would really be tested here, especially if you found yourself checked in as a guest of the police station's iron hotel.

I'm only speculating but I suppose that given Riverview's dubious reputation in its later years for being crime ridden, a lot of folks applauded the fact that the first thing to be built on the old site would be a police headquarters. It was the late sixties after all, a time when the tension between those who loved authority and the police, and those that hated them was even stronger than it is today. That a facility representing the state's authority would be built upon a site that once represented joy, freedom,  and a little bit of controlled mayhem, is very powerful symbol indeed.

As a token effort to pay lip service the old amusement park as well as add a touch of color and levity to an otherwise dour environment, artist Jerry Peart was commissioned in 1980 to create a sculpture, titled, appropriately enough, "Riverview", intended to evoke the feeling of the long lost park. Did he succeed? Well, you be the judge...

Before (photographer unknown)


It may be a pleasant work of art of sorts, but there's no question where I'd rather hang out.

For many years, the vast majority of the old site of Riverview was taken up by acre upon acre of concrete, which served as parking spaces for the staff and students of DeVry University. Most of the time the parking spots were empty, making the area great for student drivers, skateboarders and roller bladers but not much else. Recently a few other schools replaced much of the concrete and now there is a little campus of schools that is an improvement:

A new campus has brought some more life to the site.
I shot the photograph above while standing near the site of the famous Bobs roller coaster which would have been to my left, just out of the picture frame. Here you're looking north, in the direction of the Shoot-the-Chutes and the Tunnel of Love, a ride I didn't get the point of until about eight years after Riverview closed. By the time I understood, it was too late...

Riverview Tunnel of Love, 1943 (photographer unknown)
Fortunately there is a small section of the Riverview site that retains some of the atmosphere of the old park. It fronts the river and could legitimately be called Riverview Park, even though that's not really its name. It's called Richard Clark Park and comprises a sliver of the west end of the old Riverview site. Now that the overpass is no more, Clark Park contains the only relics from Riverview that you will find on the site. For starters, I'm told there are cottonwood trees that were around at the time of the amusement park. I spent a good time photographing them about fifteen years ago while working on a photographic project documenting the Chicago River. If you look hard enough, you'll also find some remnants such as footings from the old Shoot-the-Chutes ride:

The Shoot-the-Chutes, the first ride ever built at Riverview,
and the cable railway called the Sky-Ride, the last, (photographer unknown)

My son standing upon what remains of the Shoot-the-Chutes.
Clark Park has a lovely river walk that is perfect for a stroll day or night. Even better, some of the devil-may-care spirit has returned to Riverview in the form of a bike dirt jump and pump track. Without any bikes, my kids still had a blast running up and down this crude but effective obstacle course that takes advantage of some of the remnants and topography of the old picnic grounds that surrounded the Shoot-the-Chutes:

A little bit of the spirit of Riverview lives on...

This looks like fun. If I were about ten years younger I'd try it out myself.
The bike course pictured above, maintained by an independent group, Chicago Area Mountain Bikers, has brought back a little of the fun and mayhem to the north side of Chicago, something it sorely needs.

Last Saturday we went for a final ride on the Western Avenue Overpass, the last ride at Riverview. I asked my children, one on the passenger side, the other on the driver side, to document the ride. Strap yourself in folks for a hair-raising, spine tingling, ride. Hold on for dear life...

Photographs by Rose and Theo Iska

Ok so maybe it wasn't  the Silver Flash, the Comet the Jetstream, the Flying Cars, Hades, the Rotor, the Chute-the-Chutes or even the Wild Mouse. It certainly didn't have the cache of the Bobs, or the Pair-O-Chutes. More than likely, most of the people who used the overpass everyday didn't think much about or even notice it, or the great views of Chicago it provided.

Like the old amusement park it was built around, it had its dark side to go along with the thrills (yes I mean thrills). Eventually the realities of economics, safety and practicality deemed it had to go. So be it. We've been through this before and will again and again. The city, ever growing, ever changing, stops for nothing, least of all memories of a long gone, but very sweet past.

The overpass on its last day of service, February 29,2016.

Goodbye old friend.


Michael said...

I have never seen the "Riverview" sculpture in person. The first time I even knew it existed was when I saw it in your photo of the Police Headquarters. I thought to myself that it must have been something the CPD commissioned because it immediately reminded me of a Roman Centurion's helmet which, thinking of Joseph Wambaugh's novel of the LAPD titled The New Centurions, seemed apropos for a Police HQ. It wasn't until I read further and saw the other photograph of it that I learned of its title. It still looks like a Roman helmet to me though.

James Iska said...

That's a very good point, I hadn't noticed that. It could explain why from another angle it looks like a leather boot, and yet another, a truncheon.