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Recreation Comes of Age in Rhode Island
Approximately 5 pages
"For three centuries the American tradition had placed an emphasis on work which made it the chief purpose of existence. 'Business to the American,' an Englishman could write even in the 1920's, 'is life's great adventure; it is sport, work, pleasure, beauty and patriotism rolled into one.* Puritanism had imposed a religious sanction on this concept. Idleness could have no place in a world where labor was the greatest good. But with the depression the revolutionary transformation wrought by the machine could no longer be ignored. It had not only made leisure possible for the mass of people, but had imposed it upon them whether they wanted it or not....Leisure became, according to the dictates of our puritan inheritance, not so much an opportunity as a problem."
Dulles, Foster Rhea. p. 365-66 (*Footnote within quote: Joad, C.E.M. Diogenes; or the Future of Leisure. London, 1928. p. 65)

Faced with the Great Depression many people had more time than ever before. They could spend their days in dime movies or wander through parks for hours. Reading time increased and people found diversions. But they did not go to Rhode Island's recreational sites, the water resorts and the amusement parks. While they could afford to spend the day at the movies or at the park, they could not spare the money for admission or resources to travel to the other places that were so integral to Rhode Island's recreational landscape.

Most resorts and amusement parks nationwide were in decline by the end of the 1930's. The prohibition had marked an end for many of the seedier parks and resorts. Automobiles were drawing people away from the thrills of the amusement park and the quiet times of the resort. Bad summers all over America in the 1920's caused more significant drops and the end of trolley service to many of these places all but killed the parks and resorts. From 1920, when there were near 2000 amusement parks nationwide, and hundreds or thousands of shore resorts, the numbers dropped to less than 300 amusement parks in 1935, and a significantly lessened number of resorts. Television started to nibble at the profits of parks by the mid-twentieth century. Permanent residents created smaller and smaller summer tourist numbers at resorts. Overall it seemed as if the end was near for Rhode Island's recreation.

Movie houses provided cheap diversion for the masses. Radios, and later television would pull many more away from the shores and parks. The worst killer of mass recreation was the automobile. Although these three diversions are outside the scope of this investigation, a short foray into the social recreation of going to the movie houses, using automobiles, and is worth a moment's thought.

 

"...moving pictures, the pleasure use of automobiles, and the radio were to become by every criterion the principal amusements of the great majority of American people.

Their popularity was a result of the changing social and economic scene. A century earlier it would have not been possible. The increased leisure and generally higher standard of living of the laboring masses in the first instance made possible the role of these diversions in modern life, but equally important was the new attitude toward amusement which itself was born of this economic progress. By the opening of the twentieth century, recreation had become fully accepted in this country as a natural right of the people of whatever social status. The concept of democracy coalesced with the profitable economy of mass production to flood the land with moving pictures, automobiles, and radios..."

Dulles, Foster Rhea. p. 287-88

The recreational areas in Rhode Island could not compete with this new world. Amusement parks were designed for trolleys or steamships. Shore resorts dried up with the lack of arriving people, now turned on to their automobile. Sporting events were broadcast over the radio and television. Even parks and golf courses suffered, although not as greatly, for parks allowed for pleasurable motoring and golf courses were an easy way for businessmen to relax, without taking too much time away from work. Camping was probably the only institution not to take a major hit. Automobiles needed a destination, and the people were glad to oblige by riding to the far corners of Rhode Island to camp for a night or two.

"The social changes wrought by the automobile had affected every phase of national life. Transportation was revolutionized, the isolation of the country broken down. No single development ever had a more far-reaching effect in speeding up the tempo of modern living. The entire face of the country was criss-crossed with highways of macadam and cement, lined with filling-stations, lunch rooms, curio stores, antique shops, hot-dog stands, tourist camps, and signboards. It was the age of the automobile."
Dulles, Foster Rhea. p. 314

It appeared that recreation was doomed. Amusement parks closed. Vanity Fair, Boyden Heights, Oakland Beach, and Island Park all closed. Those that had not been wiped out by the Hurricane of 1938 were failing from falling attendance. Rocky Point and Crescent Park closed in the later parts of the twentieth century, but they did close and are now gone. Beach colonies became more residential. Residents felt that the shouldn't have to travel to the beach, when they could live there and travel to work. The Rhodes-on-the-Pawtucket facility suffered some damaging fires that set it back to just a shell of its former glory.

Golf courses soldiered on, but most started to allow a larger mass of people in to their ranks. The middle class was expanding, and the clubs saw them as a chance to make a dollar. Parks suffered, not only from lack of attendance, but from lack of interest from the local governments. The speedways and racetracks were closed because their business went to other sports. Baseball and football were broadcast on the radio and television, so there was little need to attend the games in person. Even when they were attended, many preferred to drive to Boston or New York to see the major league teams, rather than the smaller local teams. Rhode Island was poised to witness recreation's ruin.

But then came the saving grace, the environmental movement. Because of this movement, recreation in Rhode Island survived. It survived by using the parks and outdoor recreational places. Rhode Island recognized the importance of outdoor activities and began to develop them. The state took a more proactive role in the creation and maintenance of recreational sites in the state. One way they did this was to establish planning documents and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act.

"...an ever-increasing awareness of the importance of planning has led to the development of planning-oriented agencies at all levels of government...Throughout this development, recreation has remained an important element in the overall planning effort. Because of the need to ensure that there is no duplication of effort at the state and local level, establish a general framework within which the needs of all citizens can be met by either state or local level facilities, and provide for orderly development by establishing priorities to meet regional needs as well as the basic everyday recreation needs required at the community and neighborhood level, a coordinating mechanism is necessary. This mechanism, a comprehensive outdoor plan, was mandated by the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965."
Rhode Island Office of State Planning and RI DEM. Plan for Recreation, Conservation and Open Space. Providence, RI; RIOSP, 1981

Goals were set out by these planning documents for recreational sites. These goals included recognizing "that Narragansett Bay is the state's most important natural feature and recreational resource," recognizing that there was a need to "preserve and protect open space so as to enhance the total quality of the environment," and also seeing that there was a need to "provide for adequate and diverse recreational opportunities and facilities primarily to meet the needs of the state's residents while also attracting and serving visitors."

The state found that by 1981 there were nearly fifteen hundred game fields, six hundred tennis courts, one hundred and forty seven thousand acres of beach front (salt and fresh water), over five thousand campsites, and nine hundred golf holes. This did not take into account any areas that may have included amusement parks or sports facilities of various sorts. Of these resources, the state also found that most people traveled to the closest possible recreation area.

McCoy Stadium was upgraded through the years, and within last decade of the twentieth century benefited from a multi-million dollar expansion and redevelopment. The Pawtucket Paw Sox are one of the more popular destinations for a daytrip today. Baseball, and sports in general, have made it through the rough weather, even if much of the other amusements have not fared so well.

Recreation has survived in Rhode Island, but not with out a loss of historical resources. All the amusement parks are closed. Most of the major beach resorts and colonies are gone. Speedways and racetracks failed years ago. Only sports, such as baseball parks, football stadiums, and golf courses, and outdoor activities, such as parks and camps, survive through the environmental movement. Even movie theaters and automobile destinations are faced with closure.

What is there to do with the resources that have survived? Historic preservation has always been a strong asset in Rhode Island. Much of the research that has been quoted in this report has come from the Statewide Historic Preservation reports of the past twenty years. These recreational sites can be cared for through historic preservation.

"In instances where large areas suitable for, or presently being used as, active recreation facilities also have historical importance, it will be necessary to establish a comprehensive coordinating mechanism to ensure that the interests of both historic preservation and outdoor recreation are balanced..."
Rhode Island Office of State Planning and RI DEM. Plan for Recreation, Conservation and Open Space. Providence, RI; RIOSP, 1981

After this short bit on historic preservation's needs, in 1992 the state released a newer version of the recreational needs. In this document, the state outlined how historic preservation was integral to recreation. They showed how nearly $5.9 million dollars was used for the restoration of historically valuable recreational areas. A fund, the Roger Williams Reserve Fund, provided "funding for the acquisition of the...Narragansett Pier Towers in Narragansett and the Looff Carousel in East Providence" among others.

In addition to the historic preservation of resources, there has also been a measure to use environmental conservation to save many of the recreational places in Rhode Island that depended on the environment for their fun. Places like seaside resorts, state parks, golf courses, and campgrounds all fall under the area of environmental conservation areas. The Department of Environmental Management has begun to protect many of these places with their work.

The Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission has worked to catalog many of the recreational resources and help to maintain them when possible. The places, like movie theaters and roadside amusements, that destroyed many of the other recreational areas are being saved. Bits of amusement parks are being saved like the Looff Carousel. Parts of beach colonies are being recorded as still existing. Summer colony hotels are encouraged to survive through economic tax breaks. Even McCoy Stadium and a small baseball stadium in Newport are being helped with economic incentives.

Rhode Island, like much of the rest of the country, made it through the recreation boom and bust. This report has not documented all of them. There are many more places for exploration that can be researched. Some of these places include research into Rhode Island's movie houses, theaters, hippodromes, and other indoor recreational facilities. Research into Rhode Island's many circuses could also provide the basis for an in depth study.

More work could be done into the history of the water recreational sites, for only the seaside amusements have been discussed. An entire world of yachting, boating, and sailing could be documented. The structures that were designed for these activities could be just as important, if any survive.

More work in each of the specific areas could be also done. Though as much research as possible has been done, there are still primary sources that could be researched. This thesis is not a complete document by any means, but it provides basic understanding of the concepts in social recreational development. The reader should have achieved a better understanding to the undercurrents to recreation, not only in the United States, but in Rhode Island as well. To begin further research into this area, one should begin with the annotated bibliography that follows. This provides a starting point to understanding how recreation cultivated a deeper social environment.

The reader should leave with the understanding, taken from Foster Rhea Dulles major work on the history of recreation in the United States, that America, and Rhode Island in particular, were, and are, blessed by the recreational resources that have graced its land, and continue to delight pleasure seekers of all types.

"No other country, and no other age, had ever had a wider choice of amusements open to the mass of people. It was overwhelming. Science and the machine had reshaped the traditional patterns of recreation into hundreds of new forms. Working men and working women--factory operatives, plumbers, waitresses, bank clerks, telephone operators, farm-hands, stenographers, storekeepers, nurse-maids, subway guards, mill-hands, garment-workers, office-boys, truck drivers--found countless pleasures once limited to the privileged few were now theirs for the seeking. The democracy had come into its heritage. It had achieved both leisure and the facilities for its enjoyment."
Dulles, Foster Rhea. p. 373

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