Detractors, both domestically and abroad, have long accused America of being devoid of culture. And while the United States certainly has a wealth of shortcomings, cultural emptiness is one problem it does not have.
Culture often revolves around leisure, and by that token it’s easy to identify one of the great mainstays of American culture: the amusement park. It’s a European invention, but it was perfected in America and it’s a staple of our nation’s entertainment. It serves up Coca-Cola, hot dogs and cheap thrills — hallmarks of the United States, for better or worse. It may not be classy or clean, but it’s undeniably American.
Sadly, the last few decades have seen a rash of small, independent park closings as the economic landscape has shifted and large corporate parks have grown in favor. Local parks like Wichita’s Joyland and Memphis’s Libertyland recently closed and their classic wooden roller coasters now stand on the brink of liquidation. But the situation turned much more tragic Sept. 7 when Astroland, at Brooklyn’s famed Coney Island, closed for good.
Thankfully, the renowned Coney Island Cyclone will continue to operate, as will nearby Deno’s Wonder Wheel. And Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand will still serve up their popular product daily and encourage gross overeating every 4th of July. But when the largest set of attractions on the boardwalk shut down before summer had even ended, the flagship of one of America’s great cultural creations dropped a massive sail.
Nobody has proven a greater megaphone for American culture than Woody Allen, so let Allen’s usage of amusement parks in his films serve as a reminder of the centrality of the amusement park to a healthy American life. When he wanted to invoke a happy nostalgia of childhood in “Annie Hall,” his character Alvy Singer reminisced and revisited his boyhood home beneath a running coaster. Conversely, when he wanted to communicate the gloomy reality of a humble adult life in “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” he had Mia Farrow attempt to live out her childish, impossible dream of running off with a movie character at the foot of a derelict, abandoned roller coaster.
Of course, the ride featured in “Annie Hall,” the Coney Island Thunderbolt (it really did have a house beneath it), eventually closed, too. It was finally demolished in the early part of this decade so that the land it occupied could be redeveloped. Therein lies the issue with amusement parks: Unlike most other elements of our culture, amusement parks occupy physical space — a scarce resource in many parts of the country. When they fail to produce financially, they’re scrapped.
Imagine if every copy of a seminal American album was destroyed so that nobody could hear it again. It would be a cultural loss equivalent to the closing of Astroland. Certainly Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, a classic American album if there ever was one (and coincidentally, it is steeped in the exact boardwalk-amusement-park world that Astroland embodies), no longer sells enough copies to justify the endless time and money that were poured into its conception over 30 years ago. But having once been a universal success, it’s virtually guaranteed to survive through its millions of copies no matter how unpopular it should someday become. Amusement parks will never enjoy such a luxury.
Amusement parks offer versions of the “American Dream” far more magical and inclusive than the suburban vision of the “Dream” usually propagated. Besides, status quo suburban life is unattainable for some and undesirable for others. Dreams of the first drop on the roller coaster, of walking the boardwalk on a windy summer night, of falling in love and sharing a first kiss at the top of the Ferris wheel, know no age or class boundaries. Anyone, rich or poor, young or old, can dream of them even if they’re impossible — after all, the best dreams rarely come true.
The beauty of American amusement parks is that their gifts are available to nearly everyone. They can make anyone with an open mind feel like a kid again and they’re a reminder of some of the best parts of being American. They will always endure in the memories of their patrons, but they’re most valuable when they create new memories.