Forgive us our trespasses
During my not-relationship with he-who-must-not-be-named, I planned to do many fun, exciting things. One of those fun, exciting things was to FINALLY go and explore the abandoned Six Flags amusement park in New Orleans East. Sadly, this never eventuated (the perils of having a best friend/not-boyfriend who works super late and sleeps all day), and so months passed without my setting foot on the property (probably for the best, since they were filming the new Percy Jackson film there until late August).
For those not in the know, the Six Flags amusement park in New Orleans began life as a theme park known as ‘Jazzland’, which opened in 2000. It officially became a Six Flags park in 2003, the Six Flags people brought in a few character-based rides (like the Batman rollercoaster) and then eagerly awaited their swarms of guests (who, by all accounts, never really turned up – that’s the thing about having an amusement park a good thirty five minutes from the city center, in one of the poorest parts of town; who is going to go? That’s right. Basically nobody).
In 2005 the park closed for Hurricane Katrina. We see where this is going. Eastern New Orleans was badly flooded during the storm, and due to a failure in the park’s drainage system, the entire property was under 7 feet of water for close to a month. The damage sustained made the park almost impossible to reopen, and thus it has lain ever since, whilst the city argues with various people about leases, rent, contracts, blah blah blah. Various development plans have been in the works over the years, and the rumor is that finally a proposal has been accepted (I’ll be an outlet mall does REALLY well in East New Orleans! Oh wait…no, I’ll bet it doesn’t). In the mean time, it’s been a kind of mecca for photographers and other creative types, who risk arrest and extremely minimal (read: not really any) security measures to explore the park for themselves.
I’d been obsessed with Six Flags New Orleans ever since seeing this YouTube documentary in 2010. I even wrote a story set in the park, but it lacked the necessary detail to truly make it come alive. What I needed was to set foot on the property – to explore it and see it and understand its atmosphere with my own senses.
About two days after I got broken up with, I decided fuck it. If nobody would go to the park with me, then dammit, I’d go alone. Fortunately, an internet friend messaged me about twenty minutes before I left, and asked what I was doing that evening.
“I’m busy tonight.” I replied “….but I’m about to go to an abandoned amusement park. Wanna come?”
Twenty minutes later, Jeff-from-the-internet turned up on my doorstep, wearing appropriate urb ex clothing, and together we drove to the park. I had worried that it might be difficult to locate. It turned out if you type “Six Flags” into Google Maps on your smartphone, the first location to pop up is “ABANDONED SIX FLAGS NEW ORLEANS” – thanks, internet!
We arrived at about 3pm. As we parked the car just off the highway and walked towards the front gates, we noticed a minibus full of policemen drive past. This was disconcerting. It was more disconcerting to note that said policemen appeared to be parked at the front gates of the park. We beat a hasty retreat, and went around to the back entrance of the park (which I have seen been informed by an ex-Six Flags employee was at one time the employee entrance). This was a lot more overgrown and, strangely, had a much more functional set of fences – by which I mean that instead of being wide open, the fence sort of continued into the undergrowth for about a yard, and then stopped. Clearly the City of New Orleans thought that waist-high thorn bushes would be enough to deter adventurous thrill-seekers. Not so! I wore jeans, motherfuckers! Jeff and I bush-whacked our way in, shimmied under a subsequent gate, and came out somewhere near the back of the park, near what had once been the Batman ride.
Now, I’d done my homework about Six Flags before my visit. Reports varied; some said it was eerie, but not dangerous. Others reported alligators, crack heads, and swarms of security guards and/or police. One guy reported being arrested and ending up in jail overnight. Another said he was apprehended, but not charged – just asked to leave. Some seemed to think the police had more or less given up on patrolling the park, no doubt finding much better things to do in New Orleans than keep meddling kids away from the creepy fairground. Views on the risk factor were, to say the least, mixed.
Jeff and I encountered nobody in the park that day. We did almost a complete circuit before it began to get dark and we decided to leave. During that time we saw perhaps one unmarked white car in the distance – we couldn’t tell if it was security or police – but nobody bothered us. We didn’t encounter another living soul – scaled or otherwise. This definitely added to the creepiness – as did the fact that so much of the park seemed (comparatively) untouched. What you began to see was the slow reclamation of the park by nature; weeds engulfing the dirt pathways and iron fences that had once made up the queues for rides; a twitching, writhing nest of bugs strung out from sign-post to tree-branch near a rusted set of bumper cars. If you ventured into the many buildings (the glass-less shop-fronts of the main drag, or the prefabricated cabins that served as office buildings behind them) you found that you’d been stopped in time; a calendar stuck on the wall, the page turned to August 2005. Office chairs tilted and tipped. Files of accounts, security measures, staff manuals. The remnants of toys and prizes; Looney Tunes plushies, fur and stuffing stiff from dried-out stagnant water. Some things appeared to be just as they’d been left – those who had filmed here (or, indeed, illegally ventured onto the property) had been extremely respectful; little seemed to have been looted on cleared. Apart from the rides removed by Six Flags, things seemed to have been more or less left alone (I’m assuming it was Six Flags who removed the toilets from the toilet blocks…although I could be wrong about that. It does seem weird – leave rides that are probably worth millions of dollars, but take the porcelain…that’s important).
My first visit was so inspiring that, naturally, I had to return. Since I had friends visiting from out of town, I figured it would make a good tourist stop – and besides, it had been so safe! No crackheads, no gators, no cops. Jeff and I had spent a blissful afternoon respectfully photographing (and in my case, Instagramming) one of the most exciting urban exploration sites in America. Joy! Who WOULDN’T go again?
My second visit to Six Flags was on a weekend, which was probably a mistake. When we arrived (four of us, this time) we bumped into several other groups of visitors almost straight away. One couple, a duo of extremely talented artists from out of state, who were in town photographing locals sitting on abandoned furniture. You can see some of their work here though their New Orleans photographs aren’t up yet – in any case, they took a picture of me sitting in a moldy office chair looking soulful, with the skeleton of a roller coaster in the background. Cool, right?
This time we’d entered the park from the front, but we didn’t have much of a chance to explore the store fronts, as our photographer friends relocated us for the shoot. They did, however, lead us to a gigantic warehouse of basically untouched Six Flags merchandise. Although I imagine this shed would have been underwater during the storm, the whole thing had dried out and there were boxes and boxes of stuffed animals, plastic cups, key chains, wallets and so on – all with the Six Flags logo and all in, essentially, pristine condition. It was extremely surreal picking our way through this place – someone had helpfully graffitied “FREE STUFF – ONE PER PERSON” on the outside of the building, just to keep the looters honest. Nicely done, anonymous do-gooder! Though it would take a whole heck of a lot of looters to clear that place out, one per person or not. These two rooms (warehouses, really) gave a pretty good indication of how much money Six Flags probably lost to this venture, after the storm. Taking into account the expense of the infrastructure, plus the boxes and boxes of merchandise…yeah.
I totally didn’t walk out with a plastic Six Flags bag full of stuffed animals and plastic skull cups. Nope. Not at all. Not me. Nuh uh (pro-tip: salvaged goodies from an abandoned amusement park will probably be the coolest Christmas present you can ever give anyone, ever – don’t delay! ‘Shop’ at Six Flags New Orleans, today!).
After our sojourn in the giant warehouse-o-crap, we began picking our way through the rest of the park. During this time we encountered at least one other group (a lovely lady with a hula hoop, and her photographer), and there was a general sense of artistic camaraderie going on. Sure, I felt a bit like a twat taking pictures with my smartphone, but hey, I got to capture delightful moments like this:
So all was not lost. (Amusingly, another friend, upon viewing this picture, informed me that her prom photos had been taken in this exact location, back in 2005 – prior to Katrina, obviously – makes you think).
It was during our exploration of the upper storey of what had once been some kind of theatre (now littered with sign posts and cardboard and broken class, with the odd remnant of beads, feathers, and sequins from, presumably, Mardi Gras themed costumes) that someone down below (the hula hoop girl, perhaps?) cried out “OH SHIT, THE COPS!”
Let me tell you something. “Oh shit, the cops!” is not something you want to hear when you are trespassing on private property with a bunch of tourists and/or other holders of foreign ID. I’m here on a visa, people! It was hard enough getting into the country – I’m almost certain they’ll find some reason to deport me at some stage, and traipsing blithely around the dried out husk of a previously waterlogged theme park seemed as good a reason as any.
We descended the stairs rapidly, then dithered on the main drag. Should we exit the park around the back, the way Jeff and I had come in on our first visit (it was quite a walk, and less easy to ‘escape’), or should we follow the hula hooper and our photographer friends, and walk to the main entrance?
For reasons I’m still unsure of, we decided to go with the herd. When we crossed the car park and got to the gates, the police were there to greet us. OH GOOD! And they did not seem amused. They did not seem amused at all.
This was the point where we realised that our friends had actually driven their vehicles into the Six Flags parking lot. Pro-tip: don’t do this. It’s not very subtle.
What seems to have happened is this; a team of welders (yes, welders) had turned up at the park to weld shut the front gates (probably a wise move – wide open gates with “Hey, don’t trespass!” signs on them aren’t, as it turns out, much of a deterrent). Upon arriving, the welders obviously realised there were cars parked inside the gates. Dilemma! And given said welders probably knew that nobody currently had legal reason to be on the property, they called the police.
Our attempts to sidle nonchalantly out of the gates and back to our car were, sadly, thwarted.
The popo took all our IDs and made a very long and arduous song and dance about taking them back to their motor vehicle and reviewing them. I’m not sure where hoop girl and her chum were from, but I know for a fact that everyone else was, at the very least, out of state, if not from overseas. The police were treated to two Australian passports, an Australian drivers license and what I believe may have been an American passport, but bemusingly, in the possession of an Australian lady. I’m not sure they knew quite what to do about this. Doubtless it would have involved and exhausting amount of paperwork, not to mention the fact that there were not enough seats in their car for eight disobedient citizens/legal-aliens. They gave us all a stern talking to (“You know you’re breaking the law. We don’t need to tell you that. Don’t do it again. Go away.”) and let us go.
Naturally I was pretty much shitting myself during this ordeal, although a small part of me thought it would have been slightly amusing to be deported for trespassing on the grounds of an abandoned amusement park. Still. I’m thankful for small mercies. We drove back to New Orleans proper in high spirits, though a little disappointed that we hadn’t been able to see more of the park this time. Still, I had a trunk full of crusty swag (ew) and some beautiful pictures, and yet another encounter with what is, truly, one of my favorite places on earth to visit. Six Flags is hauntingly beautiful – the kind of rusted, decrepit aesthetic that makes you feel sad rather than spooked. It’s one of the most startling visual representations of what Katrina did to the City of New Orleans – not only because of its appearance, but because, after seven years, it still stands – crippled, certainly, but there; skeletal, moldy, vandalised but somehow still alive.
And those of us who’ve visited her have left our marks, respectfully, sometimes not awfully eloquently, but with a sense of community – of passing something on to the people who have yet to set foot there – a message, a talisman, something to hold onto.
On a wall inside what had once been, perhaps, a basket-ball dunk or a rifle-shoot game stall, someone had scrawled, hastily, I get by with a little help from my friends.
And so it was.