Before And After: Arizona’s Disappearing Coin-Operated Rides

It’s the end of an era of coin-operated grocery store rides and one photographer documents the disappearance.

There was a time when outside many American storefronts, 25 cents could buy a child a two-minute ride on a stallion, an Indy racecar, or a giant rabbit. Though most did nothing more than jerk back and forth, mechanical coin-operated rides made boring errands suddenly thrilling for kids. As photographer Ernie Button documents in his series “Back and Forth,” these beloved rides may now be an endangered species.


About 15 years ago, inspired by Walker Evans’s photographs of early 20th-century storefronts, Button took black and white photos of a mechanical horse in front of his local grocery store in Phoenix, Arizona. Then he snapped a rocketship next to a payphone, a chariot outside a cellphone store, a racecar near Pete’s Fish and Chips. “The project started out as a way to document as many of the rides as I could,” Button tells Co.Design. After shooting about 40 rides, he figured the portfolio was complete.

Five years after the project’s start, though, the mechanical horse outside Button’s grocery store was removed. “I returned to the sites of my original photographs, and many of the rides were gone,” he says. “That mechanical horse or spaceship ride that made a trip to the grocery store bearable as a child now seemed hard to find.”

He started shooting these now ride-less spaces in color, documenting the subtle changes in his cityscape. “Black and white film came to represent the past, whether it was a decade ago or a day ago,” he says. “Color came to represent today, maybe even a glimpse into the future.”

Why are these rides disappearing? “I think children today gravitate more toward computer games or virtual games so something like this isn’t as appealing,” Button says. “And as the financial crisis worsened in the late 2000s, many more businesses closed, taking the stores, the jobs, as well as the rides along with them.” So go grab one last ride on that paint-chipped bronco outside your bodega before it’s gone forever.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.