Abandoned amusement parks and the haunting of the cultural past

Curator's Note

Popular ruin porn photography often focuses on modern urban decay: these photographs are evocative because they transform our known and familiar spaces into ruins. Perhaps even more evocative are photographs of abandoned amusement parks, which comprise a somewhat substantial portion of the genre. These images draw on a different set of emotional responses than do some other genres of ruins photography: in addition to pointing to urban decay these photos also call attention to the lost pleasures of childhood and a kind of nostalgia that resonates strongly and personally with many viewers. While abandoned amusement parks need not be connected to disaster in order to function as evocative sites, the photographs of Six Flags New Orleans and the Pripyat amusement park in the Ukraine are especially poignant. The Pripyat amusement park was one of the wonders of an idealized community, scheduled to open among great fanfare to celebrate May Day in 1986. Instead of a celebration, Pripyat became the center of a human disaster, in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster on April 28. The park never opened and remains one of the most contaminated areas in the radioactive Zone of Alienation. Although there are no remembrances of pleasures enjoyed at the park to sustain its place in cultural memory, the iconic Ferris wheel offers an appropriate stand-in for an array of childhood memories. Just ten miles from downtown, Six Flags New Orleans is a perpetual reminder of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The crumbling carousel and roller coaster speak to the reality that some pleasures of the past cannot be recovered. Over the past decade, there have been several attempts to rebuild and revitalize the amusement park, but each has failed. As parks typically represent the pleasures and dreamlands of childhood, photographs of abandoned parks powerfully represent a nostalgia for the wonders of a naïve and hopeful worldview. The abandoned site can represent the abandoned dreams of childhood. Yet if the amusement park is now a ruin, there is an inverted pleasure in knowing that others do not get to enjoy that which we lack; we are not missing out because the experience is no longer possible. Finally, amusement parks differ from other abandoned places because they are largely outdoor attractions. The decay of the rollercoasters, Ferris wheels, and bumper cars is visually different from other buildings. In abandoned amusement parks, nature swallows the built environment, offering a slight respite from the fear of annihilation that ruins often represent.

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