Type “Main Street Disneyland” into a web browser and the Google results are quick and stunning – four and a half million instant electronic reports. "Hollywood" is often used as a dismissive catchall of the improbably fantastic, but it is – Disney: The American Mecca – that is the more persistently insidious purveyor of cultural myth, the narrative engine driving exurban fantasy and the hypocrisy of the anti-urban “New Urbanism”. Hollywood, after all, is just a section of Los Angeles, and not even a particularly glamorous one at that.
LA catches flak in comparison to New York, San Francisco, London, Paris. But Main Street, the concentrated articulation of What America Is Missing – and the New Urbanist Seaside it spawned – are far more artificial. Real people live in LA. Tourists go to Disney World, and, at least according to the web site, people mostly sit and pose in Seaside.
Most people like Disneyland because it’s fun. I had a great time when I went to Disney World as a kid. But as an urban template, it’s dangerous. To truly regard EPCOT as an “experimental prototype,” as its name requests you do, to buy into the underlying notion of Main Street, is to reject the realities of life – traffic and diversity and ugliness and progress. Nostalgia can be appropriate and fun, but lived, it is an artifice far creepier than anything out of Hollywood. Life isn’t Main Street. It never really was. As a means of promoting community Main Street fails in that its ideology is demographically constrained; ethnically strangled. Black people didn’t live in the Happiest Place On Earth during the pre-60s era after which the street is styled; neither did Hispanics, Asians, the working-class, the impoverished. It’s a narrow dream that propagates a sprawl-inducing ideology – life was better back then (subtext: without them). The subtext must be – it is – inherent; else, if people really believed community could be found in pedestrian access and public transportation, why aren’t they in the cities? Why do we have to build Seaside, to engineer community? When our cultural consciousness subsists on dreams of Main Street, it’s no wonder. Wrapped in nostalgia we resist, or miss altogether, the organic development of a real community out of a group of people linked by proximity. We don’t need to escape, to continue to build and drain resources as the building trades are so wont to do. We don’t need to create the Next Best Thing. It already exists, in a thousand different permutations, with names like New York and Boston and Chicago and DC and Seattle, Beijing and Moscow and Caracas and Johannesburg and Cairo, and even Los Angeles. Main Street isn’t the American Dream, something to which we should aspire. It’s the American Past, and a false past at that, a shiny veneer over times of state-supported racism and women bound to the home, higher infant mortality and limited access to education. The good ol’ days, when you never knew if Mickey Mouse would drop by to say hi. I am a Cuban-American; Main Street is not my dream.
The truth is these are selfish projects, selfish dreams. They don’t expand our knowledge base, and they don’t make the world a better place. Five Africans die every minute of AIDS and Seaside tells us that our only obligation is to sit on the porch and breathe. To escape. We are a nation of escapists. Maybe we escape too much. Maybe Seaside, Main Street – maybe these are the problems, not the solutions. We don’t participate in the world when we’re sequestered in a tiny community along the pristine Florida coast. Seaside is Martha Stewart Does Zen, nothing out of place and a shallow revaluation of age-old values, and underneath it all it has the same hypocritical stink as an insider trading scandal. Seaside is an exercise; to live there is to purchase the right to disengagement. New Urbanists make a claim towards Jane Jacobs (who doesn’t, now) but it is precisely her dynamic, accidental diversity, premised on proximity and serendipity, from which New Urbanism promises a well-engineered escape.
A community isn’t designed; it happens. It’s probably more difficult than life at Seaside, and it’s certainly more difficult than Life (TM Disney). It addresses problems, it doesn’t escape. A community is learning and struggle and friends and violence and celebration, and at times it can even be pleasant. Real community does not feature homes named “Panasea.” Real community is not a reprieve. It is life, and it is not escaped from; it is lived.