It was a warm day in May, 1974. I was 8 years old and just found out my parents were divorcing. To cheer me up, my best friend’s dad took us to Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio. Never having ridden a rollercoaster, I was nervous but my friend assured me that it would be great. The drop from the first hill drove my heart into my throat and then we were slung around mercilessly by the forces of nature. My bones were rattled, jarred and hammered by the vibrations of the steel wheels on the steel track. There were no seat belts and I was repeatedly lifted from my seat, threatened with being tossed from the ride at high speed. When we finally came to a stop I was actually speechless. I could barely get out of the car and had a hard time walking. I just stood there awestruck. That day, the Wild Cat became a marker in my life. I understood that something profound had happend to me. As my parents divorce unfolded and my life changed as a result, the ride on the Wildcat became symbolic for all the stress, drama and ups and downs that life would bring me.
By 1988 Idora park had been abandoned and had I moved to Youngstown to attend college. The city was in shambles at that time, with vicious gang and mafia activity out in broad daylight. People were fleeing the city because of the violence and poverty. I was dating a girl from Youngstown and she loved to sneak into the park and run around. These excursion rekindled old memories and I found myself falling in love with the her and Idora. Those emotions were all mixed up in my addled young mind, and this grew into a passion for the park, particularly the Wildcat.
I visited the Idora at all times of the year, even in snow storms. It was such and erie, melancholy place with the abandoned midway, the moaning wind in the massive old pine trees and the Wild cat rising up out of the tangled undergrowth like the skeleton of a long dead dinosaur. Millcreek park, a 3,000 acre refuge of old growth forest within the city, was adjacent to Idora. Deer, wild turkey and coyotes were my companions on the silent midway.
Every time I stepped into that old amusement park I knew I was risking my life. Nefarious people frequented the old Ballroom and various buildings. Some of them were criminals hiding out and gang members on business. At that time law and order were luxuries in Youngstown to which few had access. If a person was victimized or injured in a place like Idora, there was little help or mercy. The Wildcat was also in a severe state of decay. Massive beams and steel track dangled menacingly overhead and on occasion they crashed down around me. There were deep holes to fall into and hundreds of boards with protruding nails hidden in the tall grass. Several times I took my camera to get shots of the coaster. My camera moved me from the realm of vagrant to that of target. My worse fear was of being badly injured, then being found by a gang, robbed and beaten; a fate experienced by many unfortunate people in the city at that time.
Film and processing were expensive, especially on my art student budget. I managed to shoot 4 rolls of film in the park and have them processed. It was financially painful at the time but in hindsight was one of the best investments I’ve made in my life. Now photos and memories are about all we have of this amazing, magical place.
-Jason Van Hoose