Alcatraz: authenticity vs. commercial interests

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

Alcatraz, a military prison off the coast of San Francisco, held those considered to be the “most dangerous” prisoners until its closing in 1963. Today, visitors to the prison are able to see the site known as “The Rock.” During our tour, we encountered contradictory statements regarding the island’s history. We were given the impression that the National Park Service wanted to strike a balance between authenticity and commercial interests while informing the tourists of the island’s history. Although there were many components to the island, it was clear that the main attraction was the prison. As soon as we entered it was apparent that everyone was expected to take the audio tour, so we made a uniform procession to the beginning of the tour.

The tour began with a series of typical prison-like sounds such as the slamming of cell doors and orders from the guards to the prisoners. The audio tour was led by actual guards and prisoners from the island. Hearing accounts of the prison from those involved gave us a feeling of authenticity and made visitors feel as if they were getting the real story. As we were led to different wings of the prison, guards described their personal experiences in Alcatraz. They spoke of their fears and the impact that Alcatraz had on their lives. We got the impression that Alcatraz was not just an everyday prison but a prison that provided a unique experience to everyone within it. Prisoners described the dreary lives they lead at the beginning of their stays at Alcatraz. However, they also stated that cells later on became their homes. The prisoners informed us that they felt as if they weren’t humans and that doing everyday activities like going outside and receiving letters were special privileges.

When reflecting on our experience we noticed that the audio tour affected our interaction with the space. We were given a set path to take and we followed this path without question. There was no room for interpretation since the background of every location was given to us directly from someone who we were made to believe truly knew the prison. Although this made the tour seem more authentic, it also created a distance between us and the prison space. This was countered then by personal accounts that made us feel sympathetic towards the guards and prisoners.

– Christina Bax, Rosalva Gonzalez, and Brenda Benavides

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6 Responses to Alcatraz: authenticity vs. commercial interests

  1. ccrvisitor says:

    From the whole article we were able to conclude that authenticity did outweigh the false impression of it (Alcatraz) being used as a commercial interest. The vivid description of the tour and the impact of it, highlights how the authentic feeling of the place is the priority of this establishment.
    But we were also faced with the question of how commercial interests would have affected your experience of Alcatraz differently?
    With our experience New York is a major commercial interest society but on the other hand, it also keeps its authenticity of places such as the Lincoln center.

    –Brian Harris, Naa Adokaley Pappoe, Ehab Abdel-Naby, City College of New York

    • Brenda Benavides says:

      We felt the commercial interests may have affected the authenticity of Alcatraz because the tours are geared towards the prison, and the experience is largely about the prison rather than the island as a whole. As other classmates mentioned in their blog, the presence of Native Americans on Alcatraz and other historical aspects of the island are glazed over becuase tourists (those who pay to go to Alcatraz) are probably more interested in the prison. It may be more exciting to hear about the lives of prisoners and attempted escapes from Alcatraz and such, but this leads to the exclusion of a lot of the island’s history – which we felt was a bit inauthentic.

  2. Laura Pospisil says:

    In your blog comment, you described the audio tour as “…a set path…with no room for interpretation.” I couldn’t help but be reminded of the little to no autonomy the prisoners had every day of their lives in Alcatraz. Do you think the format of the audio tour was meant to mirror the limited freedom the prisoners had, and by doing so make the experience more authentic for the visitor?

    • Peter and Eric says:

      In response to Laura Poospili’s comment, we, Peter and Eric, believe that the parallel between the limited freedom of the tour and of the prisoners was an unintentional consequence. The creators of the tour probably made it that way so that the tourists could better navigate through the space… this way there would be less congestion. However, it is interesting that this rigid structure is probably the same structure the prisoners experienced while they were at Alcatraz.

      • Christina and Rosalva says:

        We, Christina and Rosalva, believe that you, Peter and Eric, have a skewed impression of the audio tour. We, Rosalva and Christina, believe this was done to give us an authentic prison-like experience. It made us empathize with the prisoners, which would not have been possible with another type of tour.

  3. Christina and Rosalva says:

    Laura, your suggestion that the audio tour was specifically formatted in order to “mirror the limited freedom the prisoners had” is a very interesting and insightful idea. Reflecting on our experience, we did feel at many times as if we were being ordered around the prison. We think that this definitely may have been the purpose of the audio tour. However, at the same time, the very idea of having an audio tour (instead of a personal guided tour) may have taken away from the authentic experience. There was a balance between a personal and impersonal experience. Even though we were not able to speak and interact with a person directly, our tour guides were people who had experienced the prison first-hand.

    -Christina B. and Rosalva G.

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