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

A crowd of tourists sit calmly on the top deck of the ferry like a flock of languid seagulls squatting on a rooftop. There are conversations here and there, but little movement as the ferry prepares to travel to Alcatraz. Yet at the instant the ferry’s engines roar to life, the tourists leap up and whip out their Nikons, Sonys and Canons as if they were clockwork toys that jerked to life with the flip of the “on” switch. Heads turn. Feet shuffle up and down the deck. Cameras click, click, click. As I witness the tourists’ almost mechanical reactions, I wonder if they actually have the emotional investment to immerse themselves in the stories Alcatraz. Or are their needs more superficial?

During our visit to Alcatraz, we focused on the emotional responses elicited by elements of the tour, specifically architecture, and information presented.

When we arrived at the island the first thing that caught our attention was the decaying state of the architecture: rusting stairwells, peeling paint, dilapidated buildings, crumbling walls. Once we stepped into the main prison we were immediately immersed in a somber atmosphere; the tourists’ disposition seemed to be a reflection of the decaying environment. The typically chattering tourists were quietly engrossed in the dark history of the prison that emanated from their audiotapes.

Ironically, the audiotapes tried to instill a sense of authenticity by introducing fake background sound effects that mimicked the actual sounds of the prison when it was in operation: banging on cell doors, ambient chatter, gunshots, plates clattering in the mess hall. The sound effects were emotionally poignant and made us feel as if we were reluctantly inching down Broadway (the main prison block).

Several cells had been “preserved.” Items we noticed in the cell included a Rules of Alcatraz book, towels, cups, paintings, a checkerboard, and a guitar, as if to make the prisoners seem more human. It was mentioned that prisoners often read works of literature and played bridge among other common pastimes; knowing this, the tourists could better identify with the prisoners themselves. However the colors of most props were too bright and colorful, contrasting with the pale hues of the jailhouse — as if a child had plastered an array of stickers onto a precious, old painting.

As we made our way up the slopes of Alcatraz, we were incredulous to spot a fake plastic seagull peeking through the barred jailhouse window.  The jailhouse props were there for a reason, the architecture helped establish the mood, the audiotape served its purpose – but why the seagull?

– Emily Cheng, Nic Dahlquist, Ronald Tang (Stanford University) PWR Session 1

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3 Responses to Visiting Alcatraz

  1. Jeffrey Delgado, Katherine Velasquez, and Flor Altamirano says:

    Visiting Alcatraz sounds like an amazing experience worthy of pictures and ones attention. As New Yorkers being told what to expect is foreign. Tour guides and audio tapes are a hit to the pocket; exploring is done on ones own. This has lead us to value our personal opinions and experiences derived from the place. We believe that the trip to Alcatraz would have had a different impact on each individual, if done with out the audio tapes.

    As a typical New Yorker we are always on a rush. It can either be on our way to school, work or home. Time is as valuable as gold. Stopping to admire a building or any other structure mean being late to your destination. However having the opportunity to explore our city as class work has been an amazing experience.
    We were shocked to learn the meaning behind every aspect of these places which we probably have visited before, or live near by, or pass by every day and not notice. On every field trip we were able to push our analytical skills further, providing us with life long experiences that perhaps we wouldn’t have had without this class.

  2. Emily Cheng says:

    I agree — without the audiotapes, the Alcatraz experience would surely have had a different impact on the tourists. Personally, during the audio tour I was so absorbed in the aural component that I was paying less and less attention to the actual buildings and architecture of Alcatraz, as if I were experiencing the island through fuzzy peripheral vision alone. Ironically, the clearest impression I have of Alcatraz is not of the visual components, but of the audio tour: the slamming of jailhouse doors, the gruff voices of the inmates, and the gunshots that emanated from my audiotape.

    My experience of Alcatraz seemed to parallel New York in that I constantly felt pressed for time. From time to time I wanted to have moment of respite and simply gaze at the rusting prisons, but the audio tape urged me on to the next location; the audiotape set the pace for the tour and at times it dictated my trip.

    Also you mentioned that “As New Yorkers being told what to expect is foreign. Tour guides and audio tapes are a hit to the pocket; exploring is done on ones own.” While I do agree that the freedom to explore is ideal, it seems that the tourist never has true “freedom” at a tourist site. Most tourist destinations at least subconsciously shape and constrain our experience there; even if there aren’t obvious red flags such as audiotapes or tour guides, the destination itself may have been originally designed to omit or hide certain elements from the tourists, thereby shaping our perception of the place. For example, Dubai promotes itself as a lavish vacation spot where a wealth of cultures intermingle, but it disguises the fact that there is a lot of socioeconomic segregation present. Though we, as tourists, have the freedom to explore the area, certain elements are cleverly hidden from our perception.

  3. Sally (Stanford) says:

    Tourists like to feel authentic. I think, through the audio tour, the National Park Service specifically targets the authentic emotions of what it would have been like to be a prisoner on Alcatraz. A majority of the facts were presented from a prisoner’s perspective, and the audience seemed placed into the prisoners’ shoes. The focus on the prison and prisoners created a dismal atmosphere, just as the NPS intends.

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