Riverview

The ceremony had just ended. I was now a high school graduate, Mather 1963. The graduation took place at Lane Tech, since Mather’s auditorium could not accommodate the five hundred graduates and their families and friends. Lane was located at Addison and Western, next door to Riverview, Chicago’s premier amusement park. So after we received congratulations and hugs and kisses from our family members, a bunch of us guys and gals headed over to Riverview to have some fun.

Called Riverview, because the western end of the amusement park fronted the north branch of the Chicago River, it had some of the fastest and most zigzagging roller coasters around, especially the much feared Bobs. My vertigo and weak stomach did not make me a prime candidate for the coasters. What I loved most about Riverview was its carnival-like atmosphere.

The park had an attraction called Aladdin’s Castle, with all kinds of strange mirrors that distorted the shape of your face and body every which way. The Freak Show always seemed to highlight a bearded lady or an armless guy who could deal a deck of cards with his toes. It was all hokey shtick but I was fascinated by it. My favorite carnie game at Riverview was the one where you could throw balls at rapidly moving cardboard ducks. If you knocked down a certain number of these ducks you won a prize, usually something like a stuffed animal or a live parakeet.

Riverview opened in 1904 in a community that was heavily German American. One of its most popular places was the beer garden. The American Nazis, the Bund, had its annual picnics at Riverview in the late 1930s. My Uncle Abe told me that he and some other Jewish teenagers from his Humboldt Park neighborhood would travel up to Riverview and interrupt their picnic by throwing rocks at the Nazis.

By the time that I started coming to Riverview with my family in the early 1950s, it seemed to be frequented mostly by parents and their children and young couples on dates. It was pretty much good clean fun, with the notable exception of the Dunk Tank.  At that particular so-called amusement, white guys were really getting off by hurling fastballs through an opening in a cage, aiming to hit a target that would eject a black guy sitting on a perch into the cold water below.

In the 1960s, with Chicago’s racial tensions mounting, black and white teenagers and sometimes adults had periodic skirmishes at Riverview. Families of all races started to stay away and found other places to spend their entertainment dollars. Riverview began to lose money, and the owner could no longer resist selling it to a developer who wanted to put a shopping center on the site and Riverview closed its gates in 1967.

A decade or so later, Great America opened in Gurnee, a slick corporate version of an amusement park. I only went there twice when my kids were young, and it seemed somewhat sterile and contrived. The times had changed, and the freaks and wonders that had fascinated me at Riverview were now nowhere to be seen.

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