Freedomland

By Molly Rosner

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For the first four years of the 1960s, the Bronx was home to what the New York Times called “an animated history book in which cowboys will soon fret, stagecoaches will be robbed, and Chicago will burn—every twenty minutes.”[1] Here, on what had previously been empty marshland from a birdseye view you would see an 85-acre amusement park shaped like a miniature continental United States – buffered by a 120-acre parking lot. This was the site of Freedomland, U.S.A., ostensibly an East Coast answer to California’s Disneyland.

The park was built to reflect a mission to re-tell the history of the United States geographically, using its huge land mass as a literal a model of the country, visitors (now, immigrants or citizens) entered through the “port” near “Little Old New York,” on the eastern edge of the park and made their way across to the Great Lakes, to Chicago, and to west, conquering and “taming” the wild frontier. A visitor could also travel “south” to the cotton fields of Alabama and Mississippi or visit America’s agricultural past filled with buffalo and cows. Freedomland also offered a chance to visit cities and often conquer and survive violent disasters such as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Streetcars, steamboats, rail road trains, horse drawn carriages, canoes, and tug boats crisscrossed the space.

On opening day, June 20, 1960, throngs of people clogged two highways in the Bronx that led to the park. A crowd of 61,500 people jammed both highways, the parking lot and the park itself, “with as many as 40,000 on the grounds at one time.” The park’s popularity “caught the management unprepared and forced the suspension of ticket sales for nearly an hour early Sunday afternoon.”[2] Within hours, “the parking lot was also filled to overflowing and caused police to close all roads leading to the park for hours. It also caused congestion on the Hutchinson River Parkway.”[3]

The dedication ceremony included notable politicians like Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Senator Jacob K. Javits, and Senator Kenneth B. Keating. In his statement during the park’s dedication, the park’s president, Milton T. Raynor, distinguished Freedomland from the established and more famous Coney Island. He pointed out that unlike Coney Island (but like Disneyland), this park “would have a policy of ‘cleanliness and wholesomeness for the whole family.’” Freedomland made “‘obsolete’ conventional amusement parks, freak shows and games of chance.”[4]

But it was New York City Mayor Robert Wagner who explained Freedomland’s broader meaning: “Our millions of residents, and the additional millions of visitors, are living proof of the democracy and freedom enjoyed in our land, which is symbolized by the Statue of Liberty guarding our harbor,” he said the day it opened. [5]

Freedomland was intended to tell the story that its name announced -– the story of American freedom as that story was constructed in the 1950s. Embodying the era’s consensus history Freedomland’s story may have seemed infallible during it’s planning –- it’s a story told in schools, churches, movies, and homes nationwide. Simply put, it was the story of progress, of an industrious, freedom-loving white people who had come to a primitive, undeveloped nation and settled it, expanding ever westward, bringing with them the spunk, hard work, and individualistic values that ultimately made it a prosperous, successful country.

Mayor Wagner continued: “as the home of the United Nations, New York City is the capital of the world, the host to diplomats and visitors from every corner of the globe.” Given the prominence of the city, “We feel, therefore, that the creators of Freedomland have chosen wisely in selecting New York City for the home of this great park.”[6]

Yet Freedomland’s location would prove anathema to its survival -– stranded too far from New York City’s center as well as unable to compete with suburban parks like Rye Playland and the Palisades theme park Freedomland’s initial crowds dwindled each year until it’s closing. Declaring bankruptcy in 1964 -– citing the World’s Fair as one reason for it’s failure -– Freedomland admitted defeat. Its ideology failed to entice crowds, its overhead costs were unsustainable, and the Bronx itself would soon be burning. Today it is a largely forgotten piece of New York City history.

Long Island Star Journal, June 16, 1960, pg. 23. From above, Freedomland appeared in the shape of the continental United States.

Long Island Star Journal, June 16, 1960, pg. 23. From above, Freedomland appeared in the shape of the continental United States.

Within one season, Freedomland began to abandon its historical focus, moving towards spectacle and thrills that were proving popular elsewhere. Downplaying the history, the park’s second advertising firm employed a generic tagline, “A World of Fun for Everyone.”

Famous musicians became a main selling point for the park. Many popular musicians including Bobby Rydell, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong performed on the main stage, the Moon Bowl. Coverage of the park no longer described riding in stagecoaches or on the railroad but instead announced popular performers. “A talent budget of 1,200,000 had been set aside for Freedomland when the entertainment center opened its fourth season, April 13. Record[sic] talent already booked at the park includes Nat King Cole, Bobby Darin, Patti Page, Paul Anka, Tony Bennett, Xavier Cugat and Abbe Lane, Della Rees and Count Basie. Chubby Checker was the opening attraction.”[7]

Freedomland made citizenship consumer driven in a literal way –- to physically access the so-called land of “freedom” you had to pay for a ticket. Freedomland focused on well-worn stories of American history, cowboys and Indians, wars and battles, and the settlement of the country through agriculture and industrial progress. Themes of technological progress, masculine individualism, and the conquest of a wild land filled with uncivilized peoples dominated this landscape. This Cold War narrative was so taken for granted in 1960 that, other than to explain the theme, the historical themes go largely unexamined by journalists and visitors alike. In this way, it was never an historical theme park but a nostalgia themed park.

What seems most remarkable about memories of the park is how unremarkable it seems. The park fell far short of the high hopes of its visionaries and financiers, who included C.V. Wood one of Disneyland’s visionaries and William Zeckendorf a famed New York relator. Recollections are often accompanied by shrugged shoulders and statements about the park’s distance from New York City and the generic appeal of Cowboys and shoot-outs, not of learning about history. Of course, there were people who adored their trips there. Today, there is a dedicated group of people who continue to research and remember the park fondly.[8] But what “history” meant inside and outside of the park was changing dramatically by the mid-1960s. The narrative of the Wild West was thoroughly embedded in the youth of the nation’s consciousness -– but as myth and entertainment, not as history. It had already become thoroughly disconnected from historical fact.

Employees dressed in period costumes to lend an air of “authenticity” to the park’s historical narrative. Here, a group of white visitors raise their hands in surrender to an employee dressed as a gun-toting Indian. NY Daily news Sunday Color Magazine, July 16 1961, pg. 27.

Employees dressed in period costumes to lend an air of “authenticity” to the park’s historical narrative. Here, a group of white visitors raise their hands in surrender to an employee dressed as a gun-toting Indian. NY Daily news Sunday Color Magazine, July 16 1961, pg. 27.

Unlike 1964 World’s Fair in Queens -– which was built to be temporary –- Freedomland, with its big budget and large scale, was home to “permanent structures… built to last fifty years...”[9] Ironically, though, while today you can still see the giant Unisphere that marked the site of the World’s Fair, until just a few years ago (when a small plaque was dedicated to its memory) there was no physical record marking Freedomland’s existence in the Bronx. Its most important legacy may lie in its swift and complete erasure. It was Freedomland that changed the physical landscape of the Bronx, drew attention to it as a site for development, and made it profitable to sell. The park drained swamps, spurred roads and stores, leveled land, and proved to developers that it could hold large structures. When it closed, it was quickly razed to make room for something new: Co-Op city, the massive Mitchell-Lama housing complex.

William Zeckendorf, who was head of the company Webb & Knapp, which financed Freedomland, snarkily compared to his involvement with the park to the very story that undid the myth of American righteousness brought on by the victory in World War II, the war in Vietnam. He describes in his autobiography, “We got into Freedomland the way the United States got into Vietnam, back-sideways, without really intending to, and only to clean up the mess somebody else had left behind.” One might not agree with his analysis that America didn’t intend to enter Viet Nam, but Zeckendorf’s comparison highlights the fact that Freedomland’s investors saw it as an incoherent disaster.

It seems that Freedomland’s emphasis on American history was both its appeal and its demise. It wasn’t quite real enough -– campy without humility –- and the tumult of 1960s highlighted the simplicity and hypocrisy of the park’s narrative. It failed to bring repeat visitors or appeal to the now-teenaged baby boomer population. Sitting just far enough to be inconvenient for everyone, straddling the conformity of the 1950s and the revolutions of the 1960s, Freedomland now lives on only in the memories of those who visited during the four brief seasons of its existence.


Molly Rosner is a PhD Candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. She has worked at cultural institutions around New York City and her writing has appeared in LARB, Huffington Post, Salon.com, and the BLDG92 blog. Her blog, Brooklyn in Love and At War, traces the history of World War II and Brooklyn through her grandparents’ letters.


[1] “Animated History In East Bronx's Freedomland Is Revealed In A Preview,” New York Times; Apr 29, 1960; Pg. 64

[2] “Freedom Land Jam Is Eased On 2nd Day,” New York Times, Jun 21, 1960; Pg. 20.

[3] “Freedom Land Jam Is Eased On 2nd Day,” New York Times, Jun 21, 1960; Pg. 20.

[4] “25,000 See Freedomland Dedicated In The Bronx: Preview Heralds New Bronx Park,” By Thomas Buckley. New York Times, Jun 19, 1960, p. 1.

[5] Robert F. Wagner Documents Collection, Speeches Series, Box # 060087w, Folder #8, Text Of Speech –Dedication Ceremony Of Freedomland, June 18, 1960. LaGuardia and Wagner Archives.

[6] Robert F. Wagner Documents Collection, Speeches Series, Box # 060087w, Folder #8, Text Of Speech –Dedication Ceremony Of Freedomland, June 18, 1960. LaGuardia and Wagner Archives.

[7] “Freedomland's Budget Big One” New Journal And Guide,Apr 20, 1963, Pg. 14

[8] “Freedomland U.S.A.” Facebook Group, https://www.facebook.com/Freedomland-USA-The-Worlds-Largest-Entertainment-Center. Accessed December 2016,

[9] “Freedomland In The Bronx: Biggest Disneyland-Type Playground…” By Morris Gilbert. New York Times, Jun 12, 1960, p. 139.