The “inescapable experience” of visiting Alcatraz

This blog is part of an exchange between students at Stanford and CCNY, for their studies in the rhetoric of architecture, space, and tourism.

During the 20-minute ferry ride to Alcatraz, a defunct prison in the San Francisco bay, we were skeptical that we would have any emotional response. As expected, the pier was commercialized and built for tourism. The ferry acted only as a means of transportation, not of information or of entertainment, unless you count the captain telling jokes about seagulls. Once on the island, the list of rules we received and the tourists that surrounded us added to the seemingly artificial experience. As we started walking, we saw worn-down buildings with no explanation of their purpose and consequently, no meaning to us. The first historical-looking building we stumbled into was, in fact, a gift shop. We felt completely like tourists.

However, once we started the audio tour in the main prison, we began to feel like prisoners. After walking through the prison gates leading to the cell house, we began to feel the effects of the advertised, “inescapable experience.” During the actual tour, we were led by the commanding voice of a past guard, barking orders into our headphones. We were told where to go, had only a few seconds to get to the next stop, and were not given freedom to explore the prison on our own. This, along with the harsh sound effects of prison gates slamming shut contributed to our feeling of imprisonment. Additionally, after the guard mentioned that the prisoners of Alcatraz were only addressed by number and never by name, we became aware of how impersonal the tour was. Unexpectedly, we began to sympathize with the prisoners. At one point, the guard ordered us to walk into the smallest of the cells on the island, close our eyes, and imagine ourselves as prisoners. Due to the tour’s effective use of pathos, we pitied those who actually lived there. Upon leaving the main prison, we couldn’t stop talking about what we had just seen, heard, and felt. The emotional appeal of the audio tour should be extended to the island in its entirety. While going back to San Francisco, we felt that our Alcatraz experience was, for the most part, genuine and invoked emotions we didn’t think we would feel as well as a new knowledge of an important part of history.

By: Kelly Schindler, Carolyn Sinow, Andrea Goldstein, and Patton Jones

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This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Stanford-CCNY, Fall 2010: Interrogating Architecture ||. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The “inescapable experience” of visiting Alcatraz

  1. Holly Kallman says:

    There is a unique culture to an island, but that can vary greatly. Alcatraz is an island and so is Manhattan! Manhattan seems like the center of culture, commerce and traffic jams. Alcatraz you describe as set in time, like a living museum. They are both terrific tourist sites!

  2. Fatema AlGharbi says:

    I agree that “There is a unique culture to an island, but that can very greatly”, but I still think that attraction differs from an island to another. I don’t really agree with “They are both terrific tourist sites”. Well, I could say Alcatraz is an important tourist site but not TERRIFIC. You should one time consider visiting it. It is very historical and died, you are not allowed to get food or drink on the island, which kind of warns you that if yiu get stuck there, you are probably die just like the other prisoners. The atmosphere was not active, no activities to do except walking, watching, and listening to audio. I guess that is not how Manhattan is, well Manhattan would be totaly the opposite right? So if we want to analyze both islands and compare them to each other, we will find that they sit on opposite directions.

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