The Common Good
May-June 2001

Keeping it 'Real'

by Danny Duncan Collum | May-June 2001

Disney's 'urban' experience is cleaned-up, dumbed-down, and smoothed-over.

In February 2001, the Disney company opened its newest theme park, California Adventure, back in the company's old home base of Anaheim, California. All through the 1990s, the Corp. That Walt Built was busy branching out. It moved beyond the United States with the failed Euro Disney theme park. At the movies, the company moved beyond its traditional families-with-kids niche marketing. And, at decade's end, Disney also owned ABC-TV and a good share of the channels on your basic cable.

In the process, the old and immensely lucrative Disney image got blurred. The company came to be viewed as just another faceless transnational conglomerate. The only things left from the Age of Walt were a crack animation department and a corporate culture ruled by control freaks.

Maybe the move back to the Anaheim roots was a response to a corporate identity crisis. Whatever the motivation, the result is a fake California—with ersatz mountains, beaches, vineyards, and a "Bay Area"—all designed to keep out-of-state visitors moored in Anaheim instead of rushing off to sample the real things.

Right next door to Disney's California Adventure is Downtown Disney, the Mouse-ified version of a hip and edgy urban experience. Of course it's a Disney "downtown," not a real one, so the "urban" experience is cleaned-up, dumbed-down, and smoothed-over. It's just like the Disney "history" in Davy Crockett, the Disney "Africa" of The Lion King, or the Disney "globalism" of "It's a Small World After All."

Apparently Disney sent researchers hither and yon to find out what makes the world's great urban spaces tick. And the answer seems to have been upscale retailing and chain nightspots. Disney imported some "local" stores from other real, non-California downtowns. But most of the tenants at Downtown Disney are the same ones you'll now find at every high-end mall in the known world.

In other cities these kinds of "urban mall" experiences have been plopped into historic sites, such as Boston's Faneuil Hall or Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, where the manufactured street bazaar ambiance at least has some connection to a real place. But this downtown is at the center of nothing, and there's nothing at its center.

That "center," of course, is what makes a real urban experience. Whether it's a government center, an industry, or a shared set of traditions, every great urban space has a core that attracts all kinds of people. And the greatest ones—like New York or New Orleans—attract a disproportionate share of outcasts and oddballs.

In most downtowns, there is a place where everyone, rich or poor, has to go to renew their driver's license or pay their parking tickets. Most downtowns also have office buildings where professional-types rule over a servant class of clerks and janitors and take deliveries from blue-collar truckers. All day, people from all of these classes are coming and going and rubbing elbows. On the street, they all encounter panhandlers, homeless people, and the occasional overwrought street preacher.

None of this will ever happen at Downtown Disney. It's not public space. Nobody works there, except an invisible servant class. There are no pawnshops, or churches. There is no First Amendment. It's private property, policed as such, and with all commercial activity geared toward a single moneyed, but not too moneyed, demographic. Downtown Disney will probably succeed. An ersatz experience of communal, face-to-face street life will no doubt be appealing to people who have no experience of, or taste for, the real thing.

But the Disney folks badly want Downtown Disney to be perceived as a "real" place, and they are going to extraordinary lengths to snag authenticity. The nightlife in Mouse City is anchored by a House of Blues outlet (a chain that also has sites in Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach, and the Orlando Downtown Disney). The first act booked at the Anaheim House of Blues was the venerable L.A. roots-punk outfit, Social Distortion. They're a great American band, and I'm glad they got the gig. I'm hoping now they can tell us all exactly how it felt to be put into quotation marks. I've heard that you barely feel them once they're attached. n

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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