When Ross Brodt moved to Chicago’s Roscoe Village he heard about an old theme park called Riverview. A bar near his house sported a mural of the park’s roller coasters. That got him thinking about the park, and he later sent Curious City a long list of things he’d like to know about Riverview. We compressed that list into this modest question:
What are the origins of Riverview park and why was it torn down?
Remnants of Riverview Amusement Park are still visible near Ross’s own neighborhood, around Belmont and Western. For one, the cement foundation of the park’s ticket booth still peeks out from the ground, though today it’s not clear visitors know the concrete’s origins. Bicyclists, for example, use the area for dirt jumps. Apparently, the land can’t help but attract thrill seekers — decades after the park closed in 1967.
You can hear Marshall Brodien — known for his appearance as Wizzo on the Bozo the Clown TV show — talk about work as an announcer for the Riverview’s Freakshow. Or, you can hear about an odd collection of earrings that the manager of the Bobs Roller Coaster kept. After that, take a ride on the tunnel of love, hear about the sadistic operators of the Pair-o-Chutes ride, or learn about the chilling accidental deaths that occurred on some rides.
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Listen to the feature story broadcast during All Things Considered:
Listen to our hour-long Riverview special on The Afternoon Shift:
A snippet from a Chicago Amplified taping, featuring David Mamet and Rick Kogan:
Why would such a popular park close?
The nostalgia surrounding Riverview Park made the first part of the question (again, about the park’s origins) easy to answer: There was a market for amusement, and the park fit the bill. But that same nostalgia actually makes answering the second question, why the park closed, that much harder. Had the demand for fun simply dried up?
There are rumors that Riverview closed because of racial tension and rising crime. To tease out this claim, we called Victoria Wolcott, who wrote about Riverview and other amusement parks in her 2012 book Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters.
Her research relied, instead, on archival articles from black publications such as The Chicago Defender. The park was ostensibly integrated, but publications describe minorities who felt unwelcome, as they were the targets of slurs, heckling and threats.
Tazama Sun, an African-American who provided us with memories of his trips to the park as a teenager, loved visiting Riverview with his friends. But Sun recalls being called the n-word, and said it was generally understood that when blacks left the park, they could not linger in the surrounding neighborhoods. African-Americans, he told us, got on the bus and went straight home.
One of the clearest signs of racism at the park was an attraction called “Dunk the N*gg*r,” which was later named “The African Dip.”
The attraction was similar to dunk tanks you can still see at carnivals. Someone sits on a bench that’s suspended above a pool of water, all while people throw balls at a target that — when hit — drops the person into the drink. What’s notable about the Riverview version, though, is that the person being dunked was always African-American. (Several people describe this attraction in the annotated map above, or you can listen below).
The NAACP eventually succeeded in closing the African Dip in the late 1950’s, but the park remained a perceived flashpoint when it came to race. In 1966 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Chicago during the “fire hydrant riots.” Wolcott says Mayor Richard J. Daley marked the occasion by shutting down Riverview for days, out of fear the park would be a site of trouble.
But Chuck Wlodarczyk, author of Riverview Gone But Not Forgotten, says money — not race — was responsible. The park stood on precious land, he says, and eventually was sold to a development company. William B. Schmidt (grandson of the original owner, William Schmidt) negotiated the final sale. Although the cost was not divulged, Schmidt told the Times News newspaper that its published estimate of $6.8 million was too low.
Similarly, A Chicago Tribune article from Oct. 3, 1967, blamed violence for the park’s closure, and Schmidt said crime was one of his motivations for selling the park.
But Wolcott said “there is little evidence that there was any increased violence.”
“You see this thing a lot, when African Americans begin going in large numbers [to amusement parks], the parks are increasingly associated with danger and criminality,” said Wolcott.
These assumptions, about safety after integration, led to a trend, seen across the country, of “white flight” at amusement parks.