By John Owens, Tribune reporter
June 22, 2011
When Russ Hencinski looks out of his classroom window at Lane Tech High School, the science and astronomy teacher sees a strip mall with a Jewel-Osco grocery store and other smaller shops.
But in his mind's eye, Hencinski can conjure up an image of the location 45 years ago, when the same land in Chicago's North Center neighborhood was occupied by the legendary Riverview Amusement Park.
"I can see where all the roller coasters were, like the Bobs and the (Silver) Flash," said Hencinski, who has taught at Lane Tech for 30 years, after attending school there from 1963 to 1967. "I'd go there a couple of times a year with my mom and two brothers. It was a family event."
Thinking back, Hencinski is amazed that an amusement park could have occupied 74 acres of city land, right next to Lane Tech. "It was in the heart of a neighborhood," he said. "That's incomprehensible to me now, and fascinating to our students."
"It just seems like a cool thing," said Jelaila Gonzalez, a senior at Lane Tech. "I can't imagine going to school next to an amusement park. No one would be in class — everyone would be at the park."
This fascination isn't limited to Lane Tech students and teachers.
Even though Riverview closed its doors to the public for good back in September 1967, the place once heralded in ads as the "World's Largest Amusement Park" is still a hot topic to many Chicagoans, even those under 50 who never had a chance to visit Riverview. It was bordered by Belmont Avenue on the south, Lane Tech to the north, Western Avenue on the east and the North Branch of the Chicago River to the west.
Ralph Lopez, who worked at Riverview from 1957 until its closing and is a caretaker for its history, gets questions from people who were too young to have experienced Riverview.
They'll ask him about the Bobs, the fear-inducing wooden roller coaster that was almost 90 feet high and reached speeds of 50 miles an hour. They'll ask him about the Pair-O-Chutes, a free-fall parachute ride, where participants were dropped more than 100 feet from an imposing observation tower. And they'll ask about the dozens of other rides and attractions like Aladdin's Castle (the mammoth fun house that patrons encountered when they entered the park), the Tunnel of Love, the Wild Mouse (another roller coaster) and the ride Lopez worked on — the Shoot the Chutes, where boats were dropped 65 feet into a large splash pond.
"There's nothing like it today," said Lopez, 70, who lives only a few blocks from where the park used to be. "People who weren't there really missed something."
Lopez stores memorabilia in his home — old tickets to rides, posters and billboards promoting the park, and rare pictures of Riverview's grounds. He also operates a website about the park (riverviewparkchicago.com), where he sells a DVD about Riverview's history.
Lopez said Riverview was the best working experience he ever had.
"I was clearing over $300 a week working there, with overtime and everything," Lopez said. "Everyone who worked there loved the rides and working in an amusement park. We were closed on Mondays, and on our days off, we would go to other amusement parks, just because we loved the amusement park experience."
Lopez conducts tours of the site. In addition to the Riverview Plaza strip mall, the old Riverview location includes the Chicago Police Belmont Area station, DeVry University and Richard Clark Park.
In the south end of Clark Park, there is a wooded area near the river where Lopez shows off some of the few remnants left of old Riverview, such as a huge concrete foundation that was once part of the tower where the Shoot the Chutes boats were dropped.
"It's like walking through the ruins of something great," said playwright Aaron Carter, who recently took a tour of the site with Lopez.
Carter, born in Ohio and a recent Chicago transplant, was so infatuated with stories about the park that he wrote a short play about the location called "Belmont & Western: Riverview Amusement Park."
That production is part of the Chicago Landmark Project, a series of short plays about well-known intersections in the city that is running at the Greenhouse Theater Center (the former Victory Gardens Theater space) in Lincoln Park through July 10.
Carter said he was intrigued by both the park's history, and the fact that the location adopted an entirely different look and character after the park was demolished. "It's a place where historical things happened," Carter said. "But even though Riverview isn't around now, the location still has connections to the amusement park."
Carter's play involves three modern-day Lane Tech students who explore the Riverview grounds and encounter a ghost from the amusement park's past. The play touches on the rumors of racial tensions at the park, which some have cited as the reason behind Riverview's closing in 1967.
Those tensions were symbolized by one of the controversial attractions at the park — the African Dip, where patrons threw balls at a target in order to dunk an African-American man in a tank of water. The exhibit was closed in the late 1950s amid pressure from leaders in the black community.
It's one of the many theories about why the park closed. Others have speculated that Riverview closed for purely financial reasons — although still profitable at the end (it attracted more than 1.7 million people in its last year), the land had become more valuable than the amusement park.
Others have cited the changing North Center neighborhood — once dominated by German, Italians and other European ethnic groups — which saw an influx of Hispanics and other minorities by the 1960s.
And Riverview owner Bill Schmidt told reporters in 1967 that increased violence and disorder in the park — primarily from bands of teenagers — contributed to its closing.
"I think the owner of the park just got tired of running it," Lopez said of Schmidt, whose family had owned Riverview from the beginning, when it opened it 1904 as Riverview Sharpshooters Park.
But racial issues were what stuck with the playwright.
"I got really interested in how strongly people felt about that," Carter said. "I realized we were reading our own views of racial history into our own views of the park."
Only a few blocks from Belmont and Western, Greg Lamacki celebrates the amusement park's memory with his Riverview Tavern, on Roscoe Street near Damen Avenue.
Lamacki, who opened the tavern in 2002, has filled it with memorabilia from the old park — things like Kewpie dolls handed out from games of skill on the midway more than 50 years ago, the door of one of the Bobs cars hanging over a dining booth, and a huge mural of the park grounds on a wall.
He describes the tavern as an "homage" to the place where, as its unofficial slogan said, you could "Laugh Your Troubles Away." His patrons, many of whom live in the now-gentrified Roscoe Village neighborhood and increasingly gentrified North Center community, appreciate these visual reminders of the area's past.
"Riverview is a part of Chicago lore," Lamacki said. "We have a clientele that's primarily 35 and younger, but they all get the appeal of Riverview. They think it's neat that we had something like Coney Island here in the neighborhood not too long ago."
The memorabilia owned by people like Lopez and Lamacki and the on-site foundations in Clark Park aren't the only examples of physical legacies from Riverview. One of the most memorable is out of state: an ornate, 103-year-old carousel that was a major attraction at Riverview for decades and is now a feature at Six Flags Over Georgia.
Perhaps the most noticeable Riverview remnant in Chicago is the Western Avenue overpass. Constructed around 1960 over the intersecting streets of Belmont, Western and Clybourn avenues, it was expressly built for Riverview, according to Chicago Department of Transportation officials.
The overpass was intended to funnel non-Riverview traffic over the park's entrance and onto northbound Western Avenue. But the overpass became obsolete once the park closed.
Now the Chicago Department of Transportation has a goal of demolishing the viaduct by 2013 — a $20 million plan hinging on federal, state and city funding. The idea is to rebuild the intersection by adding a third traffic lane in each direction on Western.
Lopez said Riverview's owners didn't like the overpass, even though it was built for the park.
"It made it harder for people on foot coming on public transportation to cross Western to get through to the main gates," Lopez said. "Even though there was parking for cars, Riverview was easy to get to by public transportation — there were three streetcar lines alone going by the park.
"That was another thing that made it special."
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