The Shining Twins
Permanent outdoor recreation areas have been around at least as long as written history. Public areas are among the essential amenities any society develops, and their improvement is relatively cheap advertising for the local monarch (large statues make great decorations). But public resort areas with amusement facilities did not appear in Europe until the Renaissance. In England, they were called “pleasure gardens,” and they flourished from about 1550 to 1700. They first appeared in the form of resort grounds operated by inns and taverns. They quickly proved good for business, and became more elaborate. Vauxhall Gardens opened in London in 1661 covering 12 acres, and admission was free. Entertainment was provided: acrobatic acts, fireworks, music — Mozart performed there as an 8-year-old prodigy in 1764. Professional showmen saw the money-making potential of the concept, and began operating them for profit.
In early America, amusement parks began as picnic grounds. Some were built by local breweries (there’s much more profit when you can sell your beer directly, rather than through middlemen). These “beer gardens” offered the working man an inexpensive day’s relaxation for the family, including plenty of open space, concerts, sometimes bathing, and always beer and food. Attendance was promoted by streetcar companies and local railroad and excursion boat operators. Many parks were developed by trolley companies. They bought their electricity at a flat monthly rate — build amusement parks at the end of the line and you boosted weekend use at little added expense! Before long, hundreds of such parks were built all over the country.
Expositions, particularly the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, provided another model for American amusement parks. The Chicago event was the first to concentrate rides, shows and concessions in a separate “midway.” As discussed in a previous chapter, these expositions attracted teeming crowds with a multitude of lures: entertainment, education, recreation, and trade. Entrepreneurs soon learned that each attraction could boost its attendance by virtue of its proximity to every other popular feature, and that all of them together could turn profits that could never be realized by stand-alone attractions.
The story of amusement parks is largely the story of George C. Tilyou, a masterful entrepreneur whose vision created the amusement park in a form that remained unchanged until Disney created theme parks.
New York City had the money and the crowds: finances to build parks and a huge pool of working-class families looking for close and affordable relief from the grim realities of daily life. Coney Island, a five-mile stretch of beach at the entrance to New York Harbor where Brooklyn meets the sea, was already a popular seaside resort for the city and environs. A pleasant and largely undeveloped spot so close to a huge population in need of close and cheap recreation, it was destined to become home to a succession of wonderful parks.
The first attractions on Coney Island were racetracks built for wealthy vacationers in 1880. A collection of attractions suited to more moderate incomes followed. Amusement rides were popular. In 1884, Lamarcus Thompson built the first amusement railroad in the world, the “Switchback Railroad.” Its two wooden undulating tracks started ran down a 600-foot structure. It cost Thompson $1600 to build, but at 10¢ per ride, it took in $600-700 per day.
Young George Tilyou, owner of an array of single rides scattered around the island, saw the gigantic 250′ Ferris wheel at the 1893 Chicago exposition. Unable to buy it (it had already been sold), he had his own 125-foot version built. It was the most popular single attraction on Coney Island until Captain Paul Boyton came to town.
Hugely famous for daredevil swimming feats performed in an inflatable, rubberized suit of his own invention, Boyton had opened Chutes Park in Chicago the previous year to take advantage of the crowds visiting the World’s Columbian Exposition. On Coney Island, Boyton opened Sea Lion Park in 1895,enclosed by a fence and featuring a one-price admission that entitled the visitor to enjoy all the attractions, including the spectacular “Shoot-the-Chutes” (a water-flume ride) and the Captain’s own swimming exhibitions.
Once Tilyou understood the idea, he ran with it. He bought and improved an 1100-foot gravity-driven mechanical ride, the “Steeplechase Horses,” and opened Steeplechase Park on 15 ocean-front acres the next year. In 1902 he hired a huge illusion ride, Frederic Thompson’s “A Trip to the Moon,” that he had seen at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. The next year, Thompson took the ride away to open competing Luna Park with Elmer Dundy.
Boyton’s early success, without significant competition (at first), made him reluctant to tamper with a successful and imperfectly-understood formula. With his “it ain’t broke so don’t fix it” attitude, he failed to add or improve attractions. However, Tilyou’s changing array of attractions at Steeplechase Park, each more spectacular than the last, followed the public taste for the new and different, a taste that turned quickly into a distinct preference, then a demand. What pleased the paying public one year was old-hat the next. Sea Lion Park, hopelessly out of date, fell out of favor and closed. Its 22 acres were purchased by Thompson and Dundy, who retained only the “Chute the Chutes” from Sea Lion and opened Luna Park on the site in 1903.
Luna Park featured hundreds of thousands of electric lights (the technological sensation of the time), including nightly displays by huge searchlights mounted in its central tower, illuminating the dozens of other fanciful towers and minarets. The influence of the Chicago fair is reflected in the names of many of Luna’s attractions: “The Canals of Venice,” “Eskimo Village,” “A Trip to the North Pole.” There was a $1.95 one-price admission available, but most visitors opted to pay 10¢ for most attractions, 25¢ for the spectacular ones. Luna Park repaid its entire $700,000 cost in just six weeks.
The next season, Luna was rivaled by Dreamland, whose policy seemed to be to do everything twice as big as its competitors. Attractions included a copy of the “Shoot the Chutes,” “Fighting the Flames,” a show in which firefighters demonstrated rescues from a six-story blazing building (two stories higher than the one premiered by Luna, and later expanded to an entire burning city block). Dreamland affected a higher tone than its competitors, presenting attractions with cultural and even biblical themes. Dr. Martin Couney’s “Infant Incubator” displayed premature infants and the scientific wonders developed to help them live (of the 8,000 babies brought to Dr. Couney during his residence at Dreamland, 7500 survived).
All three parks were built in the same style, white plaster fantasies similar to those already familiar to the public from the World’s Columbian Exposition.
See 1903 Edison film of Luna Park and Steeplechase Park
THESE LINKS DON’T WORK IN THE SAMPLE PAGE,
BUT ON THE DISK THEY LEAD TO 12 MINUTES OF RARE FILM
See a 1940 sound film of Coney Island
Samuel W. Gumpertz came to Dreamland to build “Lilliputia,” a midget city where he housed 300 midgets for the 1904 opening season. The background midi for this page is the sweet waltz “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland,” written for that inaugural season. Gumpertz scoured the world for freaks, visiting Egypt, Asia and Africa five times each (including two trips to Africa’s unexplored center) and dozens of trips to Europe. Besides freaks, he imported exotic humans: Filipino blowgun shooters, Algerian horsemen, Somali warriors, “Wild Men from Borneo” who really were from Borneo and plate-lipped Ubangi women. Never as popular as its competitors, Dreamland burned to the ground in 1911. Gumpertz’s Dreamland Circus Sideshow prospered for years thereafter in another location. Its success brought copiers, like the World Circus Freak Show opened in 1922, followed by Hubert’s Museum, the Palace of Wonders Freak Show and more. All had fat ladies, seal boys, pinheads, electric girls, dog-faced boys and on and on. Gumpertz left Coney Island in 1929 to manage the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Steeplechase, “The Funny Place,” was every bit as good as its nickname. With rides and attractions updated every year, the public could count on novelty, thrills, and the delight of seeing other people have fun. Involvement was the name of the game at Steeplechase. At every turn (beginning with the entrance) customers were tricked into pratfalls and comic indignities, then allowed to recover with a laugh as they viewed others suffering the same treatment. At the “Blowhole Theater,” you could watch as patrons exiting the Steeplechase ride passed a dwarf clown who would control air jets to blow men’s hats off and ladies’ dresses upward. The spills and the thrills were all designed to allow the odd moment of “I couldn’t help it” contact with one’s pretty date … a ride on the double-saddled Steeplechase Horses wasn’t safe without a firm hug, and a tumble on the Human Roulette Wheel often brought a flash of ankle and a friendly pile-up. Especially popular was the El Dorado carousel, restored from the Dreamland fire and restored to its full glory of 42 feet high and lit with 6000 lamps over three platforms in ascending tiers, each revolving at a different speed.
Built of wood and plaster, the grand old parks were like well-laid fires ready to burn. And burn they did, some repeatedly. Things were never quite the same after the beginning of the Great War (WWI). Faced with unprecedented horrors in real life, many patrons lost the taste for freaks, mock battles and burning blocks of buildings. Then the subway to the city opened, and paradoxically, it only hastened the decline in “business as usual.” It brought millions of people to the resort, but few of them had much money to spend. They crowded out the beaches, and their lower-class manners made former patrons, people with a little more couth and a little more money, uncomfortable. The people with enough money to go elsewhere went elsewhere and took their money with them. Attractions that had prospered when patronized by the middle class went bankrupt trying to lower prices and deliver the same services to the poor.
The Depression finished the job for most of the parks. The 1939-40 World’s Fair stole away many paying customers. The sideshows were hit hard by a late 1930s ban on outside ballys. New York’s notoriously hard-on-business regulations had not helped businesses weakened by years of falling attendance and neglect, followed by a “clean up the decaying area” campaign that was just a thinly-disguised attempt to make way for profitable redevelopment. Steeplechase, the first to prosper, was the last to close. Tilyou’s grand vision, by then only a shadow of its former grandeur, wheezed to a halt in 1964, a victim of changing times and urban decay. Its few remaining buildings were quickly bulldozed by the land’s new owner before the city could declare it a historic landmark.
Today, the island is still home to beach and boardwalk, but there is nothing as spectacular as the early amusement parks. The New York Aquarium now stands on Dreamland’s site. Steeplechase’s famed 250-foot Parachute Tower is the sole standing reminder of the glorious past. Ironically, the forces that killed the freak shows support one as a curiosity: “Coney Island USA” operates “Sideshows by the Seashore”, partially funded by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Atlantic City, New Jersey, was a seaside resort, the eastern terminus of a railroad which helped develop the resort. Its boardwalk dates from 1870. Starting in 1882, a series of piers were built out over the ocean, offering all types of entertainment for a single admission price. In 1898 the 2,000-foot Steel Pier was built, followed in 1902 by the Million Dollar Pier, from which Houdini dove shackled into the ocean, and on which Teddy Roosevelt campaigned for his Bull Moose party. Top bands and entertainers attracted visitors. In the summer, famous acts like Steel Pier’s Diving Horse and a high-wire motorcycle act swelled attendance. H.J. Heinz was so taken with the sheer numbers of people coming to Atlantic City, people on whom advertising impressions could be made, that in 1898 he opened Heinz Pier. The pier’s unusual premise was peace and quiet, a place to get away from the crowds. There was a sun parlor with reclining chairs and writing desks, free food samples (Heinz products, of course), and a Heinz pickle pin as a parting gift. Coney Island impresario George Tilyou built a branch of his Steeplechase Park here in Atlantic City in 1908, calling it Steeplechase Pier, where the amusements included the Sugar Bowl Slide, the Mexican Hat Bowl, and Flying Chairs that swung riders out over the ocean. Like Coney Island, Atlantic City enjoyed a sparkling heyday and a long decline, until legalized gambling revitalized at least part of its tourist trade.
Other parks all over the country went through charming beginnings and fantastic developments. Some have prospered continuously, others flickered and died.
Starting in 1915, new diversions (motion pictures) and new mobility (the automobile) made their mark. Many parks closed, and the Depression that began in 1929 forced the closing of many others. 2000 parks had flourished in the U.S. in 1910, but by 1934 there were fewer than 500. The same economic changes that forced circuses to adapt or die caused the park business to decline throughout World War II. Some parks failed because they did not learn what George Tilyou had always understood, and Captain Paul Boyton did not: no matter what wonders you have created, the public demands something better every year. Other parks had no room to change — the automobile would bring a vast influx of customers from greater distances, but only if they could get there on good roads and only if they found room to park. The rising value of real estate demanded more intensely profitable use of every acre in developing areas, a factor that also hit drive-in movie theaters. The postwar prosperity and the “Baby Boom” injected a little new life into a moribund industry, helped by the introduction of children’s areas, “Kiddielands,” spearheaded by Kennywood near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,
Disneyland and after
In 1955, Walt Disney, already a wildly successful maker of family movies and television, marshalled his already-considerable resources: universal brand name recognition, an established stable of instantly recognizable characters, a weekly nationwide television audience, and a large parcel of unused land in Anaheim, California. He invented the “theme park,” though the term was not used then: Disneyland, an environment completely under control with every element approved by the family-friendly and trusted Disney, designed for the whole family. And it was designed to be more than just a local attraction; it was meant as a destination for vacationers nationwide.
Disney was always a canny businessman. He had no need to pay for advertising … his hour-long promotional “documentaries” on Disneyland’s opening aired as profitable program material!
Disneyland’s image, like the rest of the Disney image, was squeaky-clean. Everything was guaranteed to be safe, spotless, entertaining and profitable. All was made in the Disney image, owned and operated without middlemen. Gone were the carnival’s tawdry games, the questionable food stands, the itinerant performers. In their place were the very same hard-to-win games run by the company and staffed by earnest teenagers on summer break, and food stands run by the company. The shows were all family-friendly, with well-scrubbed college-age performers working for low wages on the premise that this experience would be good training for their future entertainment careers. The hot-to-trot girl shows remained only as a sanitized pastiche, as fresh-faced college girls performed hourly musical revues in Disney-studio costumes. The sole reminder of the ten-in-one talker was the scripted “hurry, hurry, hurry” of the youthful trained announcer twirling his fake mustache and calling everyone to his attraction — not a “Museum of Oddities” or a “Gallery of Freaks,” but a barbershop quartet or a banjo band. There were no more freaks … well, there was this really big mouse. Disneyland, and later Disney World in Orlando, Florida, still attract families on the strength of an image the rest of the Disney operation seems to have abandoned (that sound you hear is Walt spinning in his grave as the next episode of Disney-distributedEllen or one of its successors airs).
Several companies tried to copy Disneyland’s success, but none had Disney’s pre-sold combination of name recognition and (essentially free) nationwide advertising on the weekly Disney television show. In 1961, Six Flags Over Texas opened, followed by several other Six Flags parks across the nation, successfully establishing themselves as regional, not national, destination parks.
Walt Disney World, which opened in 1971, is still the largest theme park ever built. The park turned into a multi-attraction complex with the (self-styled) “visionary” EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) Center, recalling the corporate advertising of a world’s fair, in 1982. Subsequent additions to the complex include the world’s biggest water park, interconnecting but still self-contained getaways for grownups, and one more amazing innovation. Taking as a model Universal Studios Hollywood, where studio tours added a new profit center to an existing movie/tv production facility, Disney and MGM created Disney/MGM Studios, a combined theme-park/studio. It was a stroke of show business genius! Florida’s motion picture industry was already well known as the home of low-budget productions, drive-in movies and the like. Some producers, like Ivan Tors of Flipper fame, had made national entertainment careers based in Florida instead of Hollywood. The area had an established craft, technical and talent base, and was a right-to-work haven for producers looking to make shows on budgets uninflated by Hollywood and New York craft unions. The result: two big-money businesses for the price of one!Less than the price of one, if you figure in the development perks and tax breaks local governments often offer to those who bring thousands of jobs to any community.
Parks of all sorts have felt one overwhelming pressure that affects all businesses and all traditions: the public’s easy boredom and demand for change. Some have successfully given the people what they want, others have not tried, or have tried and failed to find an innovation that intrigues the public.
“Things aren’t the way they used to be,” one old-timer has been heard to say; “and, you know what? They never were the way they used to be.”
If Steeplechase and Luna and Dreamland seem to us like wonders that should never have been allowed to fade, recall the plea on the marquee of a run-down pre-renewal Times Square porn theater: “It’s new until you’ve seen it.”
Large theme parks continue to innovate, with bigger (or at least different) shows, newer rides, wilder roller coasters, and ever-higher prices, even though some are operating on a scale not much bigger than the average former local park. Many older, smaller amusement parks, like Pennsylvania’s Kennywood, still find new and different ways to entertain, their charms only enhanced by their modest, comfortable size and careful preservation as reminders of bygone days.
History Section Index
1 – Early Fairs & Carnivals 2 – Expositions 3 – Freak Shows & Museums
4 – Circuses 4a – Circus Acts 4b – Clowns
5a – Wild West Shows 5b – Medicine Shows
6 – Carnivals 7 – Amusement & Theme Parks 8 – Vaudeville
|Design a Roller CoasterTry your hand at designing your own roller coaster. You will be building a conceptual coaster using the physics concepts that are used to design real coasters. You won’t need to compute any formulas.|
You will decide the following – the height of the first hill, the shape of the first hill, the exit path, the height of the second hill, and the loop.
When you’re done, your coaster will need to pass an inspection for both safety and fun.
Here we go!
First you need to determine theheight of the first hill. Start building your coaster by clicking on the “Begin” button.
Note: We’ll assume that your coaster is a single-car coaster running on a frictionless track. It has a mass of 800 kg (1760 lbs). The acceleration due to gravity is 32 ft/s/s. Back to Roller Coaster“Amusement Park Physics” is inspired by programs from The Mechanical Universe…and Beyond.
History of Amusement & Theme Parks
Amusement park is the more generic term for a collection of amusement rides and other entertainment attractions assembled for the purpose of entertaining a fairly large group of people. An amusement park is more elaborate than a simple city park or playground, as an amusement park is meant to cater to adults, teenagers, and small children.
An amusement park may be permanent or temporary, usually periodic, such as a few days or weeks per year. The temporary (often annual) amusement park with mobile rides etc. is called a funfair or carnival.
The original amusement parks were the historical precursors to the modern theme parks as well as the more traditional midway arcades and rides at county and state fairs (in the United States). Today, amusement parks have largely been replaced by theme parks, and the two terms are often used interchangeably.
For a remarkable example of a European park, dating from 1843 and still existing, see Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen. Even older is the Oktoberfest which is not only a beer festival but also provides a lot of amusement park features, dating back to 1810, when the first event was held in Munich, Germany.
History of American amusement parks
The first American amusement park, in the modern sense, was at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago, Illinois. The 1893 World’s fair was the first to have a Ferris wheel and an arcade midway, as well as various concessions. This conglomeration of attractions was the template used for amusement parks for the next half-century, including those known as trolley parks.
In 1897, Steeplechase Park, the first of three significant amusement parks opened at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. Often, it is Steeplechase Park that comes to mind when one generically thinks of the heyday of Coney Island. Steeplechase Park was a huge success and by the late 1910s, there were hundreds of amusement parks in operation around the world. The introduction of the world-famous Cyclone roller coaster at Steeplechase Park in 1927 marked the beginning of the roller coaster as one of the most popular attractions for amusement parks as well as the later modern theme parks of today.
During the peak of the “golden age” of amusement parks from roughly the turn of the 20th century through the late 1920s, Coney Island at one point had three distinct amusement parks: Steeplechase Park, Luna Park (opened in 1903), and Dreamland (opened in 1904). However, the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II during the 1940s saw the decline of the amusement park industry. Furthermore, fire was a constant threat in those days, as much of the construction within the amusement parks of the era was wooden. In 1911, Dreamland was the first Coney Island amusement park to completely burn down; in 1944, Luna Park also burned to the ground.
By the 1950s, factors such as urban decay, crime, and even desegregation led to changing patterns in how people chose to spend their free time. Many of the older, traditional amusement parks had closed or burned to the ground. Many would be taken out by the wrecking ball to make way for suburban development. In 1964, Steeplechase Park, once the king of all amusement parks, closed down for the last time.
In 1955, Disneyland in Anaheim, California revived the amusement industry with its themed lands and matching attractions instead of using the older formula with traditional rides in one area and a midway, concessions, and sideshow attractions in another. The idea of theme parks caught on and, by the 1980s, became a billion dollar-a-year industry in the United States and around the world.
BARFLY 1987 -my favorite movie about Charles Bukowski (my idol!)
BONNIE AND CLYDE-DINER SCENE
MOMMY DEAREST 1981
Actress Faye Dunaway was born on January 14, 1941, in Bascom, Florida. She worked onstage before moving to the big screen and starring in the pioneering film Bonnie and Clyde, for which she received an Oscar nomination. She’s appeared in several iconic films throughout her career, including The Thomas Crown Affair and Chinatown. She won an Academy Award in 1976 for her role in Network.
American actress Dorothy Faye Dunaway was born on January 14, 1941, in Bascom, Florida, to career Army officer John MacDowell Dunaway and homemaker Grace April Dunaway. After graduating from high school in 1958, Dunaway entered the University of Florida in Gainesville to pursue a career in education, but later transferred to Boston University’s School of Fine and Applied Arts.
After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1962, Dunaway declined further opportunities to study and, instead, accepted a role in the American National Theater and Academy’s production of A Man for All Seasons(1962). Three years later, she found off-Broadway success with a critically acclaimed role in William Alfred’s Hogan’s Goat, which led to her television debut in the 1965 series Seaway, as well as appearances in several small films.
In 1967, Dunaway landed the lead role of bank robber Bonnie Parker inBonnie and Clyde, launching her into Hollywood stardom. A year later, she starred alongside Steve McQueen as a determined investigator in The Thomas Crown Affair. She continued her career throughout the 1970s, with such films as Little Big Man (1970) and The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds (1973).
As her career progressed, Dunaway took on more complex roles, including the troubled wife Evelyn Mulwray in Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown; a civilian who is abducted by a CIA researcher in Three Days of the Condor, a 1975 film directed by Sydney Pollack; and Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981), based on the best-selling memoir by Christina Crawford. Dunaway won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1976, for her role as an intimidating television executive in Network, a film about a TV network that exploits an ex-employee for its own profit. In 1987, she was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama for her performance in Barfly (1987), alongside Mickey Rourke.
The 1990s saw Dunaway perform in several films, including The Handmaid’s Tale (1991); Arizona Dreams (1993); The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1998); The Yards (1998), a crime-thriller; and The Rules of Attraction(2001), a dark comedy. One of Dunaway’s most acclaimed performances of the decade came in 1993, with her guest role as Laura Staton in the TV series Columbo; she won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her performance in the series in 1994.
Additionally, from 1966 to 1967, Dunaway starred as opera diva Maria Callas in the American tour of Terrence McNally’s Master Class. Since then, she has made several TV appearances, including on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in 2006 and Grey’s Anatomy in 2009.
A DUST BOWL IN CALIFORNIA As a drought unfolds slowly and devastatingly, California farmers feel desperate and abandoned
CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: A sign alongside barren farmland outside Mendota, Calif. (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Bob Taylor was barely 2 years old when his parents packed as many belongings as they could into their rickety old car and headed west from New Mexico toward California.
It was 1936, the height of the Dust Bowl, when the worst drought the country had ever seen forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their parched farmlands and head west in the hope of finding jobs and a more stable life.
Taylor’s parents were farm laborers, cotton pickers from Oklahoma and Texas who had slowly inched their way west chasing the crops that had somehow managed to survive the lack of rain. But then came the terrible dust storms, choking black blizzards of dirt fueled by the loose soil of eroded farmlands that swept across the plains, turning the days as dark as night. They were monsters that suffocated the life out of anything the drought hadn’t managed to kill — crops, animals and even people, who began to die from the dust that filled their lungs.
Taylor was too young to remember how bad it was. But he grew up hearing the stories from his parents, of how the land that had once been so rich and lush and healthy had slowly turned cracked and brittle and unwelcoming of life. How a drought that initially seemed like nothing more than a passing dry spell gradually unfolded into a disaster that destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people and deeply scarred the land in ways that never really healed.
“The time was hard,” Taylor said. “People were tough, my parents were tough… But the drought didn’t let up. It had no mercy at all on anything or anyone.”
CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: (Dorothea Lange/Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photo Collection/Library …
The terrible struggle of Dust Bowl refugees was later immortalized by John Steinbeck, who based “The Grapes of Wrath” on the experiences of people like Taylor’s parents. Photographers like Dorothea Lange documented the heartbreaking plight of migrant farm families, as they escaped the drought only to suffer extreme poverty and discrimination as they tried to rebuild their lives out west.
But the most important testimony of that era may rest with Taylor and other children of the Dust Bowl, the last generation of Americans who understand in a way many never will the quiet danger of a sustained drought and how devastating it can be to the land, its industry and people.
Destitute pea pickers in California, 1936. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. (Dorothea …
It’s those stories he heard as a child that Taylor has been thinking about lately as he’s driven the back roads of Kern County, the heart of California’s central farming valley, where his family resettled and he’s spent his entire life working in agriculture.
Taylor, who is now 80, has watched as some of the most viable farmland in the country has slowly withered away in recent months. In its place is the same kind of cracked, fallowed ground that his parents spoke of so long ago, perpetuated by a drought so catastrophic that many here have wondered if the dry spell that drove their ancestors toward California decades ago may be repeating itself here in a way that could be even more devastating.
An unprecedented 82 percent of California is in an “extreme drought,” according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report released last week. Of that, 58 percent of the state is in an “exceptional drought” — the driest conditions possible — an increase of more than 20 percent in a single week. Record-low rainfall has sent rivers, lakes and water reservoirs to their lowest levels in decades — threatening the water supply of many cities. The unusually dry conditions have increased the risk of wildfires, which have already ravaged parts of the state — most recently an area near Yosemite National Park.
But the drought’s biggest victim could be California’s Central Valley, the source of fully half the nation’s fruits and vegetables, where panicked farmers are taking extraordinary steps to survive a drought that could drive them out of business. In Kern County, one farmer recently drilled five new wells at 2,500-feet deep apiece — twice the height of the Empire State Building — in a desperate attempt to tap into new water sources below.
“You look around, and you feel sick. It’s hard to believe we are so dry out here when other parts of the country are so damn wet,” Taylor said. “I think about what my mother and dad went through, how hard that time was… You see what’s happening to the land [now], and you can’t help but worry. How bad is this beating going to be?”
A recent University of California, Davis, study found the state’s agriculture industry stands to lose at least $1.5 billion this year alone due to the drought — losses that threaten to devastate a region where virtually everything is tied to farming. Already, small towns, like Mendota, Calif., where the population is made up primarily of farm laborers, are warning unemployment rates could hit 50 percent in coming months because there will be no crops to harvest.
That’s terrible news for an area already stricken by some of the highest poverty rates in the nation and where many cities still haven’t fully recovered from the Great Recession.
“What we’re dealing with is a multiplier effect: No crops means people can’t work. Prices for produce go up, and people can’t afford to eat,” said Cindy Pollard, president of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce. “People here are tough, they are problem solvers. They don’t sit around saying ‘woe is me.’ They work to rise above the obstacles, but there’s only so much you can deal with.”
Irrigation water runs along a dried-up ditch between rice farms in Richvale, California on May 1. 2014. (AP Photo/Jae …
On a windy afternoon this past March, Shawn Stevenson drove his truck out to one of his family’s orange groves along Highway 168 in Clovis, Calif., east of Fresno. It had been an unusually warm winter, and though the hundreds of acres of trees on his land had already lost their blooms, the air still faintly smelled of the sweet orange blossoms that magically perfume this part of the Central Valley every spring as millions of citrus trees come to life.
It’s that unmistakable fragrance, the literal smell of trees flowering anew, that usually makes spring a happy time on the farm. But Stevenson, the third generation of his family to work the land, could feel only anguish.
Like many farmers in the Central Valley this year, he was running out of water. And in coming weeks, he would be forced to do the unthinkable: bulldoze hundreds of acres of thirsty but still relatively healthy orange trees because he didn’t have the moisture to keep them alive through the worst drought people here have ever seen.
But Stevenson wasn’t sure what was worse: issuing a premature death sentence to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of trees that still had years of life in them or the sick feeling of abandonment he felt. Like others here, he had a growing sense that nobody outside the Central Valley really understood the far-reaching implications of the drought, how it was putting a main source of the nation’s food supply at serious risk, threatened to disrupt an entire industry and ruin people’s lives. Even worse, he worried people simply did not care.
It was the anguish that compelled him to the orange grove that day, the frustration he felt that led him to scale a water tank on the far edge of his property closest to the road and, in the blustery wind, unfurl a plastic banner he’d had made that summed up the crisis in the most concise way he knew how. “NO WATER. NO TREES. NO JOBS. NO FOOD,” the sign read, a basic message that he hoped, in its simplicity, would communicate exactly what the drought was putting at stake.
A sign calling attention to the drought next to Shawn Stevenson’s recently bulldozed orange grove in Clovis, Calif. …
By then, the region had already become a pit stop for politicians claiming to feel the Central Valley’s pain. California Gov. Jerry Brown, House Speaker John Boehner and even President Barack Obama had made high-profile visits to the valley in the weeks prior, each making his own separate trek through the shockingly arid farmland and offering vague promises of help before moving on to seemingly more urgent crises.
“The truth of the matter is that this is going to be a very challenging situation this year, and frankly, the trend lines are such where it’s going to be a challenging situation for some time to come,” Obama declared during a three-hour visit in February, a side trip to a West Coast fundraising swing.
So, too, came media attention from all over the world, reporters and photographers chronicling the desperate times of struggling farmers before they, too, moved on.
To Stevenson and others, nothing seemed to change. There was no sense of anxiety or alarm — not even in California, where Brown had issued a drought emergency in January and urged residents across the state to voluntarily conserve water. But a recent study found that some parts of the state — including many cities in Southern California — have been using more water than they did a year ago. That recently prompted the state to issue mandatory water restrictions across California — increasing fines for those caught wasting water by watering their lawns or washing their cars. But some wonder if it will even make a difference at this point.
In some ways, the lack of urgency isn’t surprising. A drought does not have the immediacy or frenzied excitement of tornadoes, hurricanes or other natural disasters. But a prolonged lack of rain has the potential to be every bit as destructive, if not more so, as devastating storms. In many ways, a drought is a disaster in slow motion, with an impact so gradual that the true scope of its devastation often goes undetected until it’s too late.
“What is happening right now has the potential to be our Hurricane Katrina or our Hurricane Sandy or the wildfire that destroys everything. It’s just going to take a lot longer to unfold,” Stevenson said.
His plastic sign is still hanging along Highway 168 — an even starker message now against the backdrop of a dusty moonscape of a field on a farm where the drought is claiming more victims by the day. A few days ago, Stevenson bulldozed another few hundred acres of trees — Valencia orange specimens that should have lived years more, dead because there isn’t enough water. His daughter Caroline, home from college, blinked back tears, but Stevenson could only steel himself and move on, knowing in the back of his mind that things are likely to get much worse before they get better.
“I guess that’s why farmers are unique, being faced with a bad situation and continuing to press on somehow,” he said afterward. “It’s all you can do.”
In all, Stevenson has lost about 500 acres of citrus trees this year — nearly half of his crop — and more are at risk, kept alive with just the bare minimum of water in the prayer they can make it until next season.
The same story is happening all over the Central Valley. Thousands of acres of citrus and nut trees — legacy crops that normally would be expected to live years if not decades — are drying up or are dead already. Fields that would normally be dark green and flourishing with plants sprouting tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, strawberries, melons or the countless other varieties of fruits and vegetables grown in the region are nothing but barren plots of earth.
The scene repeats itself again and again from south of Bakersfield heading up north toward Modesto, as an estimated 500,000 acres (about 10 percent of the farmland) have gone unplanted this season — left empty by drought-stricken farmers who didn’t have enough water to sustain a crop this year. The setting is eerily reminiscent of the ravaged land depicted in some of Lange’s most iconic images of Texas and Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl era.
A melon field left empty in Firebaugh, Calif. (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
People here had been hopeful about predictions of a possible El Nino weather pattern this fall — rains fueled by warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures. But the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center recently downplayed the impact, suggesting the El Nino effect would be moderate to weak, at best, and not provide the moisture the state desperately needs.
It was more bad news for a region that has struggled with the question of whether what they are going through is simply bad luck or, as Obama and others have suggested, a symptom of warming temperatures brought on by climate change.
Stevenson, who is 54, has spent his entire life on the farm, learning the trade from his father and his grandfather before him. He hopes to pass on the farm to his daughter and nephew, who have been learning the family business so they can carry forward the legacy. But there are days when Stevenson wonders what the future will hold.
He has never seen his land so dry. The pond where he swam as a kid is empty, and the pasture, where he also raises cattle, has so little grass you can see the cracked earth below. All last winter, Stevenson knew things were going to be bad, and the thought of the hard decisions he knew he would have to make in order for the farm to survive kept him up at night, even as he held out hope that maybe it might rain and there could be some reprieve.
But there was no miracle, and according to Stevenson, he’s experienced some of the darkest days of his life trying to keep the farm going. It wasn’t just the gut-wrenching decision to sacrifice his trees, a devastating economic loss that will take years to recover from. The “worst day” so far, he says, was when he had to lay off four of his full-time workers — 40 percent of his regular staff. Some were men who had been with the farm for more than 30 years, people he’d grown up working with and was as close to as family. And the situation is only growing more dire. While he’ll make it through this season, Stevenson’s not sure about the next — which is a scenario facing many farmers in the Central Valley.
“If this goes on longer, you are talking about unimaginable economic devastation, farms going out of business, people losing their jobs, and a blight on the land that could take years to repair,” Stevenson said. “But sometimes you feel like no one cares. You drive through neighborhoods and see people watering their lawns, and you see that extra water running down into the gutter… When you are someone that knows pretty much down to the gallon how much you need to keep your crop alive, you wonder how some people can have their heads so deep in the sand.”
An empty lemon grove field in Lemon Cove, Calif. (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
The delta smelt is a tiny sliver of a fish that resembles a sardine and, at barely two inches long, is no bigger than a guppy. It used to be just another obscure species in the vast catalog of California’s ecosystem, a bluish-silver native of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, east of San Francisco, a key source of water for the Central Valley cropland.
But it’s this minuscule fish, an endangered species in California, that has become an unlikely symbol of outrage among drought-stricken farmers, who point to it as proof that it’s not just Mother Nature responsible for the unfolding nightmare here.
Environmental regulations aimed at protecting the endangered smelt and fish habitats upstate years ago curbed the flow of river water through the delta from Northern California south into the parched Central Valley. But when some of that excess water was allowed to run into the Pacific Ocean earlier this year, farmers who have struggled to survive were stunned — infuriated at the idea of even one drop of water being wasted as their crops shrivel and die.
“They are fighting to save an endangered fish, but in the process, they are endangering us, the people that grow the food that is on your dinner plate,” said Greg Wegis, a citrus and nut farmer in Kern County. “How does that make any sense?”
The angst over the protection of a fish most people had never even heard of until recently is rooted deep in the complicated politics of water in California, a bitter debate that spans decades and has grown even more intense as the latest drought has slowly burned up the land.
A stream of water trickles on the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir near San Jose, California January 21, 2014. (REUTERS/Robert …
California has been through dry times before — including a major drought in the 1970s that wiped out millions of dollars in crops. But it was “nothing like this,” recalled Bob Taylor, the Dust Bowl survivor who was farming back then.
A major difference was that farms in peril were able to rely on at least some help from the elaborate series of dams, canals and water reservoirs that are the lifeline of the agricultural industry here, rerouting water from rivers upstate and capturing runoff from the Sierra Nevada snowpack to feed the crops below.
But earlier this year, the state’s two largest water systems — the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, which is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — announced for the first time in their history they would allocate no water to farmers in the Central Valley.
Those in charge blamed the extreme drought conditions — including record-low snow levels in the mountains, which depleted aquifers below. But shell-shocked farmers blamed onerous government regulations—seizing on the puny delta smelt as a symbol of misplaced priorities.
But it’s not just the fish. People are mad at Brown and other California lawmakers, who pledged $700 million in drought aid but have shown little appetite to tackle long-term problems like upgrading the state’s antiquated water system to improve storage facilities and develop technology that would encourage water recycling. Another sore point is the state’s reluctance to rethink outdated water rights rules, some inked more than 100 years ago, that gives some corporations, farmers and cities unlimited and unregulated access to water, even as others dry up.
“What we are dealing with is a natural drought, but it is also a political drought, complicated by this maze of rules . . . and an infrastructure that was not designed to serve a [state] population of 40 million people,” said Tom Wollenman, a longtime citrus farmer who manages LoBue Citrus in Lindsay, Calif., a tiny farming town in Tulare County.
In Lindsay, the main road into town — Highway 65 — is lined with barren fields and groves of orange trees that are dead or dying, some from the other natural disaster that hit the region this year: a major freeze. But the situation is even worse for cities to the south and to the east. Along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in western Tulare County, it’s not just farmers who have run out of water, but residents, too, as wells have dried up and groundwater supplies have dwindled. Food banks in the region have reported record requests for help — mostly from temporary laborers who have lost their jobs and others who can’t afford to buy bottled water or food to eat.
Lately farms have raced to dig deeper wells that pump water from aquifers deep below—costly journeys to unprecedented depths in hopes of finding moisture to survive. Since the state does not put limits on groundwater pumping, the new wells have fueled concerns about what could happen when that source is drained. “It’s like having a glass of water with 15 straws in it,” Wollenman said. “It’s just not sustainable.”
In Terra Bella, where the main water source has been the Central Valley Project, desperate farmers have scrambled to save an estimated 7,000 acres in orange trees valued at more than $100 million from drying up. Some there have anted up big money to buy water from farmers who decided it was more valuable to sell the water they had stockpiled last year to guard against the drought than to raise a crop. And that’s set off a wild frenzy in the valley, where water is being auctioned off at the cost $1,200 to $2,500 an acre-foot (the amount it takes to cover one acre of ground the depth of one foot). That’s at least six times the price of what water was going for last year, fueling charges of price gouging. But many desperate farmers just trying to keep their crops alive feel they have no choice — an economic hit some fear could send the region into further financial peril.
Young citrus trees next to a dried up orange grove in Lindsay, Calif. (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
“It’s just not profitable to pay that much for water, but when you’ve already invested so much, the thought of watching something die is unbearable,” said Ryan Jacobsen, head of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “The instinct is to beg and borrow and do anything you can to survive.”
But for the farmers of the Central Valley, the trauma of the drought is about so much more than economics. It’s about identity, heritage and a powerful connection to the land.
Some of the happiest moments of Joe Del Bosque’s life have been the days he’s spent simply wandering through his fields, getting lost for hours admiring the incremental changes in his crops that might not be so obvious to other people — the colors of the leaves, the size of the fruit, the texture of its skin. Nothing ever looks or feels the same.
At 65, Del Bosque, who has been working the land all of his life, is still amazed by essential miracle of farming — the idea that a tiny seed smaller than a fingertip can, with the right love and care, birth a cantaloupe larger than the human head. But it is the love and care that matters — a lesson instilled in him as a child by his father, a Mexican immigrant who came to the Central Valley during the Dust Bowl and spent his life tending cantaloupe fields.
“You don’t just plant things,” said Del Bosque, who farms 2,000 acres of melons, asparagus and almond trees in western Fresno County. “You water it and nurture it and manage it… I was always taught that you treat the land with love and respect, and it responds.”
Joe and Maria Del Bosque, right, of Empresas Del Bosque farm walk with President Barack Obama and Governor Jerry …
And that’s what has made the last few months so hard. In the spring, Del Bosque was forced to allow roughly 600 acres — about 25 percent of his farm — to go barren, fields that would have normally been flush with several hundred thousand cantaloupes this summer. But even though he’d stockpiled extra water last year, in anticipation that the drought would only get worse, it wasn’t enough to keep the entire farm alive. While he knew it was the right thing to do to survive, there has never been a moment when Del Bosque didn’t see those fallow fields — not on his walks through the farm, not even when he gave a tour to Obama, who used his barren land as a backdrop to his visit to the Central Valley in February — that he didn’t feel as though some part of himself had been lost.
“You put so much of yourself into the land, understanding the soil and how crops respond to the most sensitive things, like moisture and the air… It’s very intense. [The land] becomes a part of you, and to see it fallow, it just kills you,” Del Bosque said.
Del Bosque and so many other California farmers have had to succumb to extreme measures to survive the drought. Now as they await the coming season they can only hope — or pray — for the return of the bounty that until now had always sustained a nation. But in a way the deeper question, as it was during the time of the Dust Bowl, is whether through all of the adversity and hardship they will be able to sustain their spirit or if that’s one more thing the drought will take, too.
Originally posted on Loud Alien Noize:
“Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really…
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