Updated: Sep 10
A trend in examining the past through the lens of physically abandoned theme park spaces has been popularized over the last few years in series of documentaries and photo essays centered on themes of physical decay and remembrance. I recently had a moment to read Brigit Benestante’s essay, “What We've Lost — and What We've Found.” Benestante, an internal communications manager at NPR explores her favorite childhood destination Astroland, now a defunct theme park in Houston, Texas. Benestante observed, “There's something so fascinating about exploring the life and demise of theme parks — the familiar taste of nostalgia, the fact that everything has an end.” Abandoned structures of cement and steel exist throughout the US, from hulking Detroit auto manufacturing facilities, to Pittsburgh Steel plants, and of course theme parks. Each a temple of sorts to the pursuit of leisure, or industry; testaments to successful capitalism, and a hopeful society. For Americans in particular, abandoned theme parks are often part of either our personal, or communally claimed identities. I never went to Astroland, but Benestante’s piece provided an experience of that place, that in-turn triggered my memories of family visits to theme parks and seasonal fairs.
On a rainy late summer afternoon after my internship finished, I decided to further explore the genre and watched Action Park, a film highlighting the ventures of a generation of teenagers and employees at an incredibly dangerous water park circa 1970’s-80’s New Jersey. I also watched a part of the cult series, Defunctland. Both documentaries pulled me into viscerally evocative, deserted spaces, where I could almost hear the sounds of shrieking kids, and loud music. I felt like a voyeur passing through the wreckage. The films were filled with moments of thinking "I want to, but I just can’t turn away." I felt like there was something about memorializing what is gone, that ironically, allowed me to better integrate, and appreciate the present.
Benestante and Jake Williams, the Ontario filmmaker behind Astroland, both noted the transient aspects of physical objects, and how we remember things changes over time. In a sense, these physical structures are metaphoric scaffolds; the outward memory markers and preservationists of our inner worlds. Benestante’s recollection of the roller coasters at Astroland reminded me of my own roller coaster adventures. Echos of associative action frames from childhood fluttered to life; summer carnivals on the southeastern end of Long Island.
Every year these traveling fairs set up in empty, or loaned pastures, many along the Sunrise Highway. Driving by these abandoned fields in the winter still, never fails to reanimate the cacophony of sound, bright lights, of warm August nights filled with the too sweet smell of spun cotton candy, and buttered popcorn.
The domino effect of abandonment documentary serves as both history lesson, and reconnection for the viewer to their own rites of childhood passage. Benestante said “I can't say what draws me to these videos and discussions. I suspect that it's a way to properly say goodbye to something that so many people once loved.” Abandonment documentary is a useful portal to our own reminiscences, and life. We all appropriate places, even emotional experiences from sharing in each other’s memories. In many ways. These films are instigators of unplanned affiliation and remembrance; filled with adventure, melancholy, and a kind of urgency to make, and mark moments for ourselves and for others whom we love.
Each time I travel on the Grand Central Parkway I see the abandoned remnants of the 1964 World's Fair rising from the flats of the Queens Meadow. My father often recounted what an amazing and special day he had had a boy visiting that place with his mom. The hollowed and rusted structures, monuments to twentieth century ingenuity remain symbols; landmarks to a joyful time in my dad’s life. For me, they are an imparted remembrance; a gift from my dad, a family memory heirloom.
This past June I stood with my thirteen-year-and a half year old old brother Jagger at Pier 46 across from Perry Street. 167 Perry Street is a six-story building erected in the far West Village during the early nineties. Bordered on the southside by a cobblestone street laid during the mid 1800’s, 167 Perry is covered in light gray brick, interspersed with large pale blue framed windows, many featuring small outdoor terraces. This is where I lived for the first six years of my life. I pointed out my former bedroom window to Jagger, and told him that’s the terrace from where I looked downtown at the massive towers where both mom and dad worked.
We paused in that moment and turned back to watch the pier scene, it was filled with green grass and people young, and old engaged in moments of animated talk or laughter. Years before, my mom shared with me that when I was born, the pier was abandoned; a rusted maze of rebar, weeds, and cracked wood, a place where periodic rescues occurred of people who had fallen through the rotted planks, a place where prostitutes roamed at night. As a young child, I witnessed the reclamation and rebirth of that abandoned pier.
I told Jagger that when the park first opened, our parent's took me and our grandfather across the street to the new space. I can still see in my mind’s eye, my grandfather and I standing on the newly installed bright green grass, we're both smiling, as he throws a ball for me to catch.
Jagger and I walked to the far end of the pier looking south to the World Trade Center; gazing at a single tower, where two had stood before. The once abandoned site, is now a hopeful place, but will be forever be filled with an immutable collective grief. On 9/11/01 my dad was still at home with me, but my mom was already inside the North Tower when the first jet struck. She was catastrophically wounded.
I think of how that cycle of destruction and abandonment was compressed into hours on that single day. It took more than a decade, similar to my mother's own recovery to reclaim and reframe structures in the shadow of that abandoned place.
A violent act induces a different type of response, and nothing like the gradual decline of a theme park due to fading interest, or economic pressure. The Trade Center site remains scarred, the original slurry walls of the towers now clothed in granite, hiding the wounds and filled with falling water, like tears; the names of the murdered etched in the stone envelope surrounding the tower’s original footprints. Despite the reclamation, endless documentaries featuring the abandoned ruble, and marks of those gone, still render it a place calling out in a different kind of abandonment. All of these markers and memories instigators for viewers to re-examine their own encounters. The act of watching creates a type of parallel, somewhat universal memory center. Benestante comments on the transience “enjoyed by so many people," but that could “just decay away, “ it’s always hard to imagine places - generators of community, joy and laughter disappearing.
Humanity has a morbid fascination with the friction abandoned structures produce in our emotional response. Void of life, these places ironically, become signifiers of life. Benestante speaks of them as “something that so many people once loved." Often, when we encounter an abandoned space what we remember most are the people who animated the steel and stone; who brought it to life, and filled it with all matter of human emotions; joy, and pain, and most of all hope. I think of this happening as a kind of magical healing a byproduct of the reimagining.
Jagger and I leaned on the rail and looked intently at the Freedom Tower. I asked him what he was doing, he told me he was remembering.