As a teenager in the 1970s, I worked in a ghost town that bustled with people and activity. For someone who hadn’t yet been out in the world, the town hummed with an excitement that I hoped would mirror my future life in cities around the globe.
On Main Street, the restaurants were packed, and families wandered in and out of shops selling candy, beeswax candles, jams and Stetsons. At the Calico saloon, can-can dancers performed several shows daily, and kids ordered sarsaparilla beer, pretending to get tipsy.
There was a post office, a jail, a fire department, a train depot and even a euphemistically named “boarding house.” Sparks flew in the blacksmith’s barn, where grizzled men pounded out red-hot horseshoes, and a sheriff with a shiny badge strutted through town, keeping the peace — and mostly succeeding.
A boysenberry farmer named Walter Knott created this quirky, buzzing town in 1940. A history buff, Knott acquired buildings from Calico, a silver-mining ghost town in San Bernardino, Calif., and reassembled them next to his berry fields in Buena Park, less than two miles from where I grew up. His wife, Cordelia, opened a restaurant serving fried chicken and pie to those who wanted a meal after stocking up on her husband’s berries.
I worked at a souvenir shop where artists sketched drawings of tourists who passed through ghost town. On breaks I sometimes ate at the diner or listened to country-and-western bands in a camp of covered wagons. I could watch melodramas at the Bird Cage Theatre and sip a soft drink at the saloon, getting drunk on fantasies about moving to a modern city far, far away. Next door to my shop, ghost-town visitors panned for real gold in a sluice filled with bracingly cold water and river sand.
“ Ghost-town mythology has spun an unfortunate fallacy — a tale of total abandonment and permanent decay. ”
As COVID-19 began to shut down most of New York, I started to see in my boarded-up neighborhood — Hell’s Kitchen — the vestiges of the abandoned desert town from which Walter Knott salvaged buildings in service to his vision.
The week before most businesses had closed indefinitely, I took an evening walk down Ninth Avenue. The restaurants were empty. The sidewalks were nearly empty, too, and few cars were on the street. Most of the bars, though, were still busy with people drinking, talking and laughing. As I gazed in through the windows, the bar patrons, huddled in small groups, looked like specters of an oblivious normalcy. But I could not help thinking they seemed suspended in a time fraught with unspoken fear.
Until recently I could enter a bar called Flaming Saddles, where young men in western getups danced to country tunes on the long wooden bar. On the occasions I went to see these urban cowboys, the vibrant ghost town of my teenage years seemed not so far away.
Now I stopped outside Flaming Saddles and listened for cowboys — or can-can girls — stomping away to music. I heard nothing at all.
Afterward, I went home and sat on my couch looking at the lights of midtown. For 18 years, this view from my 30th-floor apartment brought solace at the end of each day. In the brightly lit offices of the corporate high-rise next door, a woman from the janitorial night shift went about her usual duties, dusting off surfaces and vacuuming floors. Daytime employees had been absent from the office for more than a week, sent home for an indefinite stretch of remoteness.
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Though there was some unexpected comfort, on this night, in seeing another human across the way — I wanted to wave at her — I wondered what exactly she was cleaning. Working at home was obviously not an option for her, just as it wasn’t for legions of individuals, many on the lower end of the pay scale, who have kept the core engines of society running for all.
During the pandemic, I’ve heard some citizens refer to their shuttered main streets and silenced city centers as ghost towns. But ghost-town mythology has spun an unfortunate fallacy — a tale of total abandonment and permanent decay.
Ghost towns, I learned long ago, are not done living. They merely await their next incarnations. Their prospects depend on individual imagination and, as New Yorkers themselves are proving, on our collective fortitude.
New York’s next version of itself — and America’s — will not depend on a reassembly of old buildings in a new place but on dismantling assumptions and rearranging priorities. Like Walter Knott, New Yorkers will tap into their tireless ingenuity and resolve. We already have, and despite moments of despair and long isolation, we can begin to see our Calico, dusted-off and shimmering anew.
“ I started to see in my boarded-up neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen, the vestiges of the abandoned desert town. ”
Walter Knott’s mid-20th-century enterprise eventually grew into an amusement park. He and Walt Disney, who built his Magic Kingdom a few miles away in Anaheim, were reportedly friends and visited each other’s parks.
But even after Knott’s Berry Farm began charging admission, its ghost town retained an appealing illusion of Old West authenticity. The blacksmith’s forge was kept blazing hot long after thrill rides were introduced in the 1960s.
There were always reminders, too, of Wild West perils. Bandits regularly appeared and rumbled with the law, skirmishes that ended in shootouts with the sheriff. After one such showdown — emphasis on show — a young boy holding a pink cloud of cotton candy asked his mother, “Mommy, is that man really dead?”
“No, honey,” she said. “Those gunshots were make-believe.”
Moments later, the professional stuntman lying on the dirt road got up and waved at the crowd.
For a teenager raised in an unremarkable Southern California suburb, Walter Knott’s creation held a romantic mystique, melding past and future. I had dreamed about going everywhere, but, until my wanderlust could be fulfilled, his ghost town offered me an exotic taste of city life amidst Orange County’s citrus groves and berry farms, which were rapidly ceding to endless sprawls of tract homes and shopping malls.
Eventually I went off to college in Los Angeles and then spent a year abroad in London. While those two cities seemed to occupy opposite ends of an urban spectrum, they both put me on a path that led to living and working in Tokyo, Boston, San Francisco and, now, in Midtown West, surrounded by a slew of Birdcage Theatres and steeped in its own wild, often perilous history.
It seemed I had come full circle, a journey made possible, in part, by working for years inside Walter Knott’s charmingly odd brainchild. New York, for me, is a superamplified, scaled-up version of his ghost town, a city that seems erected from pieces of all the cities I had ever visited or lived in — a spectacular reconstituted dream.
It even has the same type of tourists I saw every day in Knott’s ghost town: people who stepped slowly into the spectacle before them, except here they marvel at a reality that can seem, at every turn, make-believe.
David Rompf is a writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidrompf.
This essay is part of a MarketWatch series, ‘Dispatches from a pandemic.’