EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the past few months, AllEars.Net has been highlighting exclusive excerpts from Sam Gennawey’s book, Walt and the Promise of Progress City. The book explores the process through which meaningful and functional spaces were created by Walt Disney and his artists, as well as how guests understand and experience those spaces. It also takes a look at how Walt wanted to change the public’s expectations about city life in the same way his earlier work had redefined what it meant to watch an animated film or visit an amusement park. In this month’s excerpt, we learn about how Walt redefined the public’s expectations for a clean and cared for environment.
A New Standard for Clean
by Sam Gennawey
Before Disneyland, most amusement parks were rather seedy places. The operators thought of the customers as “marks” and were not above a little bit of shady play if it would earn a little more money. If somebody left with a dime in his pocket, the operator was not doing his job well enough. Trash was tossed anywhere and little attention was paid to the landscaping or architecture.
“By 1952, amusement parks were often identified with the tarnished world of film noir, of scandal beneath the big top, and carnies,” according to Norman Klein. Patrons felt unsafe in many areas of a traditional amusement park. Walt said that he wanted Disneyland to be different from the “dirty, phony places, run by tough-looking people.” When Walt described the idea for the park to his wife, she asked, “Why would you want to build an amusement park? Amusement parks are dirty. They don’t make any money.” Walt’s reply was, “That’s the whole point. I want a clean one that will.”
Walt sensed there was a change happening in the American culture. Families in the 1950s had begun to reset their expectations for what was meant by progress. There was a growing national consensus that proclaimed that cleanliness and uniformity was a sign of progress. With the spread of freeways, people preferred to patronize modern, familiar motel chains and eat in clean coffee shops housed in space-age Googie23-style buildings. Walt assumed correctly that they would want to visit a different type of family amusement park as well. Karal Ann Marling noted, “If Disneyland was a place of amusement and escape, it was also, in its own way, a kind of pre-EPCOT utopia, a better, cleaner, more pleasant and resonant American place than 1955 afforded the average urbanite who drove to Anaheim on the Santa Ana Freeway.” When Walt gave a tour of the park, a journalist commented that everything would soon be covered in litter. Walt curtly replied, “It’ll never happen.” “Why not?” asked the reporter. “Because, we’re going to make it so clean people are going to be embarrassed to throw anything on the ground,” was Walt’s reply. Walt was right. Disneyland had validated people’s expectations for cleanliness of public spaces, and the park would in time redefine the standard.
Disney Legend Marty Sklar said, “In the Disney theme parks, a dirty floor or an out-of-order facility may individually be of minor significance, but in the long run, they will diminish visitors’ expectations of everything we do.” Historian Judith Adams noticed, “Everything about the park, including the behavior of the ‘guests,’ is engineered to promote a spirit of optimism, a belief in progressive improvement toward perfection.” Walt’s drive toward a spotless environment became legendary. Architect Charles Moore noted, “No raw edges spoil the picture at Disneyland; everything is as immaculate as in the musical comedy villages that Hollywood has provided for our viewing pleasure for the last three generations. Nice looking, handsomely costumed young people sweep away the gum wrappers almost before they fall to the spotless pavement.”
Imagineer Bruce Gordon said, “At the time Walt was thinking about building a park, most amusement parks were not in a place you’d want to let your kids go on their own. The parks were kind of dirty, in seedy neighborhoods. You wouldn’t want to drop off your kids there and meet them three or four hours later, the way you can in a Disney park today.”
Today, virtually every commercial business district in every city goes out of its way to be as clean as Disneyland. This was not always so. Cultural historian Richard Francaviglia took a look at Marceline’s Main Street during the time that Walt lived there as a young boy. “It was unpaved, rutted and rilled and horse manure helped turn it into a soupy quagmire.” Walt did not accept his childhood experience as a given; he recreated the image of a traditional central business district and raised our expectations for quality, variety, and surprise.
The level of cleanliness was not the only change in the traditional central business district. By the early 1950s, many historic Main Streets in the United States had been threatened by shopping malls followed by suburban housing tracts to the suburbs. Downtowns had become run down and were considered irrelevant. New regional shopping malls — like Victor Gruen’s Northland Center in a Detroit suburb and his enclosed Southdale Center near Edina, Minneapolis — were the new center of commerce. To compete, many cities reinvented their historic central business districts by prohibiting automobile traffic and creating downtown pedestrian malls. Most of these conversions failed, furthering the decline of many downtowns.
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