On why it’s okay to turn a prison into a tourist attraction—and what we could do instead.
San Francisco’s Pier 39 is one of the more interesting tourist areas I’ve seen—because of its unique origin point, as the site of an annual (and now seemingly permanent) gathering of sea lions; because of the collection of stores and games and entertainments that has sprung up around that focal point, making the pier feel a bit like a combination of Coney Island and the Mall of America; and because it’s also the launching point for tours and explorations of Alcatraz, the island, national park, and former federal prison in San Francisco Bay. As a result of that latter connection to The Rock (the penitentiery, not the action film starring Connery and Cage), Pier 39 also houses the Alcatraz Gift Shop, a store where you can buy, among countless other things, baby clothes designed to look like inmates’ apparel (right down to the numbered nametags).
When I first encountered the gift shop, I found it in pretty poor taste, a crass commercialization of a site where over a thousand Americans were imprisoned, many for life and all in the most bleak maximum security conditions. I’d still say that’s part of the story, although the gift shop’s earnings do support the national park and thus (as I understand it) the very deserving National Park Service as a whole. But I would also say that the gift shop, like the national park, like the tours and explorations of the island, and perhaps even like the action film, although that would be a stretch at best, has the potential to connect tourists and visitors to the history of the prison—and that such a connection, like any burgeoning historical interest, could lead as well to further investigation and engagement with issues in the present, with the broader histories and stories of America’s prisons and prisoners. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that almost any method of engaging Americans with our histories, as long as it doesn’t blatantly misrepresent or falsify that past, is worthwhile, and certainly the Alcatraz tourism industry has the potential to produce such engagement.
On the other hand, there’s another Alcatraz history, one located after the prison’s 1963 closure and before its 1973 opening as a national park, that isn’t part of the gift shop at all, nor, I would argue, much present in the island’s tourist narratives more broadly. That’s the 1969 takeover of the island by a group of Native Americans affiliated with the American Indian Movement; this particular community called themselves “Indians of All Tribes” and hoped to turn the island into a cultural center. During the nearly two years of occupation, this activist effort certainly succeeded in raising awareness and changing national conversations, although (as was the case with each AIM endeavor) it also produced unintended acts of destruction and violence. The history of the occupation is thus a complex one, connected to longer-term and even more complex histories and obviously unable to be turned into a gift shop product; but why couldn’t Alcatraz become the site of a cultural center, one that could include not only Native American communities and stories but those of the many other cultures that have called and continued to call the Bay Area home? Not sure I can imagine a more inspiring future for a former prison.
Next site tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think?
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