Magical Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture since 1940, 1992

What do Disneyland, Sun City, Arizona, Stanford Industrial Park and Seattle’s Space Needle have in common? According to John Findlay, author of Magical Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940, these planned Western spaces contributed to the formation of a distinct urban western identity both for cities and their inhabitants. Moreover, the development of each suggested critiques of Eastern cities, for example, Findlay summarizes “the West is understood to be the place that its inhabitants thought it was. This place of the mind was defined in large part by the efforts of Westerners to contrast their region to a pervasive but rather ill-defined perception of the East … The West’s reputation for virgin cities depended heavily upon negative images of cities elsewhere.” (11)

Like other postwar historians, Findlay focuses on the burgeoning West as represented by the nebulous term “the Sunbelt.” In the postwar period this region, defined by Findlay as “the urbanizing West and South”, greatly expanded, yet, Findlay notes distinctions as the West’s experience differed from its Southern Sunbelt peers, “the urban experience was quite different for the two sections. They differed in geography, racial and ethnic mixture, and cultural traditions. Equally important the West began with more large cities than the South, and it attracted more settlers from other regions.” (16) Magical Lands pays special attention to California as “no state pilfered more from World War II than did California … California demonstrated how military spending could prime the pump for civilian markets and manufactures. More than in most states defense dollars went to procurement.” (19) Subsequently, California and much of the Sunbelt west embraced a rabid pro-growth policy that made these magical lands possible while ensuring that the very urban ills they hoped to escape reemerged with their own economic expansion. By the mid-60s, slow growth movement’s had developed diminishing somewhat the region’s urbanization. As Lisa McGirr, Roger Lotchin, and others have pointed out, the new technologies of the West, often regarding defense industry interests, drove the regional economies and encouraged a particular vision or social imaginary of the Sunbelt (though no one would have referred to it as such at the time) among residents, “Intimate association with such fields as aviation and space, advanced weaponry, petrochemicals, computers and electronics reinforced among Westerners a long standing fascination with the technologies they required to master the resources, distances and extremes of a formidable environment.” (22) This economic dependence and mentality bred a dependence on corporate firms, futuristic visions of a technocratic future, while harkening back to more traditional domesticities almost as a counterweight to region’s rapid expansion. Disneyland illustrates both tendencies as its vision of the future rested on the promotion of corporations through what Findlay refers to as “Capital Realism” while reinforcing the traditional domesticities of suburban America.

The construction of magical lands also brought cultural cache and change to western metropolises. Each established a cultural aspect that attracted like minded, often white collar, middle and upper middle class suburbanites (though in the case of Disneyland consumerism plays a larger role so it might be less so than Standford Industrial Park and Sun City). Seattle’s Space Needle and Stanford’s Industrial Park emphasized a modern suburban scientific urbanity. Both gave burgeoning Western cities physical and mental identity that in turn reshaped the metropolis and people’s conceptions of it. For example, the construction of the Seattle Center in the former World’s Fair site brought “cultural dividends” to the city. Sports teams and further cultural development followed such that Findlay suggests the Seattle Center constituted a central place in “the identity of a city that, before the fair, had tended to be unsettled and provincial.” (263) Moreover, the cultural exchange between the growing tourist industry and city locals helped reconstruct the city’s social and economic mores as liquor laws changed, new entertainment and art emerged, while fast food and chain restaurants proliferated. Similarly, Disneyland’s success contributed significantly to Anaheim and Orange County’s rapid postwar growth. It also acted as a regional landmark and cultural influence, perfectly encapsulating many of the ideals of suburban Californians, notably those of the New Right.

Stanford Industrial Park represents the above processes well. Developed by Stanford University, the research park became a symbol and influence on similar facilities nationally. The agglomeration of scientists and technology experts led to a rapid proliferation of technology and science. Behind the leadership of Frederick E. Terman, SIP emerged as one of the premier research centers in one of the key technology regions in the world. According to Findlay, this success rested on four requirements, “a strong grasp of the new relationship between government and universities; knowledge of how a university could strengthen itself through performing research; appreciation of the benefits universities and industry could confer on one another; and commitment to region wide economic development.” (123) The park combined a suburban and campus aesthetic, filled with lawns and low rise buildings that promised not to obscure the surrounding foothills. SIP helped to establish a distinction between research and industrial parks, with the former consisting of professional, white collar, college educated employees. Housing this population in the developing communities surrounding SIP proved a different task than traditional blue collar industrial park employees. However, SIP like Disneyland before it, also brought negatives factors. By 1987, Santa Clara County, which emulated many aspects of development that SIP illustrated, reported 19 superfund sites. While the industries attracted to SIP may or may have not contributed to this development, the suburban expansion that arose around it surely did. Additionally, the spatial layout of cities created a European style economic division, with wealthier, more affluent workers living in the adjacent communities to SIP while the more service oriented support staff could not afford housing in nearby cities, thus must commute from farther and farther away. For Findlay and many Silicon Valley residents the lack of symmetry emerged as a problem “More highly publicized was the uneven distribution of jobs, and housing in Silicon Valley, which exacerbated ecological, aesthetic, and social imbalances.” (155)

Perhaps the most unique example in Magical Lands comes from Arizona. In mid-century America, the problems of the elderly and the process/lifestyle of retirement had only just become coherent. The rise of age-segregated communities began before the creation of Sun City, Arizona, but few municipalities exhibited the success and community based identity of the state’s most famous retirement community. Like its counterparts in the book, Sun City reimagined urban spaces such that Westerners could express a “special spatial relationship to the metropolis that conformed to the orientations of both regional and national culture … It provided a model for a spotless, pace setting, thematically organized cityscape that surpassed eastern conventions and fulfilled some Westerners’ expectations of enriched urban environment.” (161) In such a manner, Sun City “did for residential housing what Stanford Industrial Park did for high-tech industry and what Disney did for family recreation.” (161) Still, its influence spread further than residential spatial pattern, rather Sun City helped to bring the nation to a wider understanding and conceptualization to “a stage of life that had remained nebulous for most people.” (174) Like Disneyland, Sun City sold residents a promising vision of the future, even the best years of their lives as they pursued their individual interests, “All this happiness could be purchased at a reasonable price … “ (176) Though Sun City lacked the familiar public spaces of older Eastern cities, golf courses operated to provide “the green belts, open spaces, and exercise paths [residents] desired.” (203)

As the postwar economy celebrated prosperity and growth, do did Sun City. Early advertisements had stressed Sun City’s affordability, presenting a classless community. However by the mid-1960s, all references to low costs disappeared replaced by the presentation of the town as luxurious and exclusive, a permanent vacation in affluence. Private developer DEVCO gave residents an active voice as market research and resident referrals allowed citizens to voice their concerns while shaping the city’s development. However, as with Findlay’s other examples, problems arose. For example, Sun City’s inward looking culture led local municipalities to view them as hostilely aloof. Residents repeatedly vetoed efforts to incorporate the municipality, while promoting a Republican sensibility that many saw as disproportionate with the rest of the state. That most residents of Sun City migrated to Arizona in old age, bringing with them such beliefs angered many native born Arizonians. Sun City residents sometimes incurred the wrath of local populations when they questioned or refused to pay school taxes and other public expenditures arguing as senior citizens they did not access such aspects of the public system, most notably schools. Moreover, despite its proximity to Phoenix, Sun City remained ambivalent, though Phoenix eventually incorporated the retirement community into its regional plan, designating the retirement village as one of several multi-nodal centers around the metropolitan area.

Of course, Findlay’s most famous example, Disneyland also casts the largest shadow. Started in the mid 1950s, Disneyland’s pervasiveness as a neologism has become ubiquitous such that, as John Findlay notes, by 1956, the public had brightlined Disneyland’s cultural meaning so that “it had come to mean “any fantastic of fanciful land or place; a never never land.” (52) Employed in numerous settings, phrases like “’Disneyland for adults’ was invoked to publicize (and sanitize the images of both Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs and the gambling resort of Las Vegas.”) (52) However, beyond language, Disneyland cast a towering shadow that helped re-imagine popular culture, the urban-suburban divide, and landscapes across the country. In addition, Disneyland perpetuated patriarchal suburban domesticities while reifying racial inequality. All of the magical lands that follow his chapter on Disneyland either incorporate its ideas, spatialization, or environmental control. Disneyland even provided labor as Disney veterans could be found working on SIP, Seattle’s World Fair exhibit, and Sun City.

Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right explored Orange County’s middle and upper class residents’ contributions to the construction of the conservative ideology that fueled the Reagan Revolution. Eric Avila credits Disneyland for cradling this “racialized conservatism that informed the nascent political struggles of the New Right,” providing a popular culture touchstone for a burgeoning social movement. Findlay points to similar developments suggesting Disneyland contributed to the O.C.’s “distinctive suburban identity” but paradoxically also helped to “transform Anaheim, a small and subordinate town on the fringes of Los Angeles, into the equivalent of a central business district for urbanizing Orange County.” (54) Thus, Disneyland though serving as a symbol of postwar suburban planning, also drove local urbanization.

Undoubtedly, Los Angeles’ role as cultural producer influenced such developments. L.A’s suburban decentralized nature, when portrayed in movies, television, and via Disneyland reinforced such conceptions of post war America. In many ways, Disneyland served as a manifestation of film. Movie studio art directors supported by a slew of “architects, writers, special effects artists and other motion picture” trades emerged as the park’s chief designers. These film experts employed techniques such as “forced perspective” (tricking the eye into viewing buildings as taller than in reality) and “scaling down” (the parks features were not life size, for example the trains traversing the parks are built at “approximately five eights scale”) while threading narratives through “the rides, the several lands, and the general park” that reflected those of Disney movies. Employing both “Disney Realism” (in which positives are emphasized and negatives removed”) and “Capitalist Realism” (many of the rides and lands were sponsored by corporations such as Monsanto, G.E. and other large corporate entities), Disneyland broadcast faith in suburban corporate living. These themes then echoed through Sun City, the Seattle Center, and SIP.

In terms of class, Disneyland obviously supported middle class domesticities. As noted before, this demographic served as the back bone for Findlay’s magical lands. However, as is usually the case with consumerism, it proved difficult to limit Disneyland’s appeal. Certainly, Disney felt little connection to the nation’s poorer residents. Even in its conceptualization Walt Disney “did not necessarily intend even to admit the lower classes. [Disneyland] aimed instead to harmonize and refine the respectable middle classes with middlebrow culture.” (87) Despite its racialized use of the “other”, Disneyland attracted Southern California’s working classes, many of whom were non-white. Eric Avila recounts Theresa Hernandez’s trip to Disneyland, where despite the parks “othering” of non-whites, it appealed to Theresa and her family, “for a working class families of color who labored to reap the fruits of the American Way” writes Avila “an annual trip to Disneyland may have signaled a rite of passage into the materially abundant universe of the middle class … “ (143)

Ironically, as John Findlay suggests Disneyland represented an awkward balance of modernity and tradition as it privileged “Main Street America” in its design and format but certainly benefited from the Santa Monica Freeway that led patrons to its gates. In addition, Disneyland mirrored the structural changes unfolding in the broader American economy. While it promoted traditional American individualism and the aesthetics of small town America, the park and its masters also employed the tools of modern economics and the developing mass media. Organized “along industrial lines for a type of mass production”, Disneyland manufactured “happiness” rather than “durable goods”, meanwhile the park’s workers illustrated the shift from “extractive and industrial jobs toward the service sector.” (94) Though Walt Disney’s creation harkened back to the days of small business entrepreneurialism, the methods it used required the employment of “organization men and women” and alliances with multinational corporations. As John Findlay suggests, “Disneyland conveyed mores that were associated with America’s preindustrial and industrializing past by using techniques specific to America’s postindustrial present and future.” (94)

In Magical Lands, John Findlay clearly illustrate the processes and mentalities that contributed to the urban growth the of the Sunbelt West. Postwar suburbanization in these regions unfolded with the simultaneous migration of people from the Midwest, South, and to a lesser extent the East. Magical lands, like Disneyland or the Seattle Center, provided residents and cities with identifiable landmarks and personalities. As Findlay points out, “a different kind of metropolis was emerging”, one not based on a central downtown business district, rather a mix or suburban and urban, organized by shopping centers, business parks, and planned communities. The division between suburban and urban regions further distinguished western and eastern cities, “In eastern urban centers, city boundaries frequently demarcated a significant difference in land use; districts outside the border could fairly predictably be characterized as having a lower density and a more pronounced residential character. In cities of the mid-twentieth century West the distinction seldom held so firmly.” (280) Of course, this lack of a centralized downtown meant residents had to form their own personal social world cognitive maps “in terms of individual’s particular orbits rather than in terms of fixed places or a single political entity.” (283) While this enabled people to make their cities personally meaningful, it also encouraged segregation between people whose social worlds failed to intersect, “in this sense, Westerners’ urban images did isolate the – often intentionally – from others in society.” (283) Likewise, these “mental maps” help to explain why planners and others exhibited greater distress over such issues than most residents.

The public-private orientation of development in western urban areas served as another factor differentiating such cities from their eastern counterparts. They challenged the importance of downtowns, built larger projects, and brought new motifs into planning. Agglomerations of “urban villages”, western cities promoted a multi-nodal formation, however this same process penalized working class and minority populations, as private sector development often shunted them aside. Moreover, critics point out that magic lands, though timeless, had no sense of place, they had been removed from the particular circumstances and conditions that created them, though Findlay cautions such opponents, “for most users, experiencing magic kingdoms was less a matter of the authentic versus the inauthentic than one of making interaction with the built environment – and hence with the larger culture – less “difficult and demanding.” (303)

Ultimately, magical lands like Sun City, Disneyland, SIP, and the Seattle’s World Fair simplified “social realities” while simultaneously oversimplifying “its physical nature.” All remained constructed to appeal to middle and upper class sensibilities. Visitors to Disneyland and the Seattle’s World Fair expected to behave by the standards embedded in each setting’s design. In contrast, Sun City and SIP did the same but more exclusively as they “distanced their occupants from other groups,” often those who were poorer, younger, and non-white. Though exclusive, most Westerners viewed their magical kingdoms as legitimate cultural contributions. Each setting celebrated different themes, from American leisure time (Disneyland and Sun City) to the promise of science and corporate research (Seattle’s World Fair and SIP). In the end, one did not have to agree to acknowledge that these four magical lands “exemplified spatial patterns reshaping Western metropolitan areas. Each appeared relatively early in the remaking of the urban West and each proved particularly influential.” (295)

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