The 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair helped lead to Disneyland

Disneyland and Disney World are notable to urbanists for their opening spaces. Main Street is meant to evoke an American small town like the one in Missouri in which Walt Disney lived as a child.

I recently read that Main Street had an additional inspiration: the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair. From Wikipedia:

In addition to being the last great assembly of railroad equipment and technology by participating railroad companies, the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair holds a lesser known honor and connection to Disneyland. In 1948 Walt Disney and animator Ward Kimball attended the fair. To their enjoyment they not only got to see all of the equipment, but they were also allowed to operate some of the steam locomotives that were at the Fair. Upon their return to Los Angeles, Disney used the Fair, the House of David Amusement Park, and Greenfield Village, as inspiration for a “Mickey Mouse Park” that eventually became Disneyland. Walt also went on to build his own backyard railroads, building the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. Kimball already had his own, named Grizzly Flats Railroad.

And this fair was quite a gathering of American railroad leaders and equipment:

The fair was rapidly planned during the winter and spring of 1948, and originally scheduled to run between July and August of that summer. Erected on 50 acres (200,000 m2) of Burnham Park in Chicago between 21st and 31st Streets, the fair opened after only six months of planning. A grand opening for the fair commenced on July 20 with a parade that featured such spectacles as a military marching band and a replica of a troop train, a contingent of cowboys and Native Americans, a replica of the Tom Thumb, the first American locomotive, and the spry, octogenarian widow of Casey Jones, who served as honorary Grand Master of the parade. One dollar was the price of admission, and, except food, all the attractions, displays, exhibits and shows were free. Besides the thirty-nine railroads who participated in the fair, there were more than twenty equipment manufacturers, including General Motors. The Santa Fe also sponsored an Indian Village where Native Americans sold handicrafts, staged dances, and explained the different types of lodging that were on display.

A highlight of the fair was the presence of the Freedom Train.The Freedom Train travelled the country from September 17, 1947, through Jan 22, 1949, and was at the Railroad Fair from July 5 – 9. It held many documents and artifacts from the National Archives. Available for public viewing were the original United States Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Security of the documents was the responsibility of the Marine Corps…

38 railroads and more than 20 railroad equipment manufacturers participated in the Chicago Railroad Fair exhibiting equipment and interpretive displays around the fair’s theme of 100 years of railroad history. The majority of the participating railroads maintained a direct rail connection to Chicago…

The highlight of the Chicago Railroad Fair was the “Wheels A-Rolling” pageant. This was a dramatic and musical presentation intended to showcase the development of transportation and the railroads across the country beginning with trails and waterways. The pageant included a recreation of the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory, Utah, and various historic rolling stock and replicas of equipment in operation.

I wonder what Disneyland might begin with if Disney had been a child in the age of the automobile. Instead of Main Street, imagine a typical commercial stretch viewed at 35 mph with signs for fast food joints, strip malls, and gas stations. Would it induce the same sort of nostalgia for later generations? Or, as suburban critic James Howard Kunstler suggests, those suburban arterials are not worth places worth caring about.

Furthermore, this celebration of the railroad would be interesting to contrast with celebrations of the automobile. The largest auto show in the world, the Chicago Auto Show, starts this weekend. The displays are largely divorced from history or urban surroundings. While the automobile has been important for the development of the Chicago region (and all American metropolitan regions), it cannot claim the same influence in helping to kickstart the Chicago region in the mid-1800s. Yet, it is hard to imagine Chicago holding a massive celebration for railroads today, even as they continue to bring much freight to and through the Chicago region.

Shopping malls adapting with new purposes and targeted groups

Joel Kotkin argues shopping malls aren’t dead – they’re changing their purpose and targeting wealthier and ethnic consumers.

To be sure, there are hundreds of outmoded malls, long-in-the-tooth complexes most commonly found in working-class suburbs and inner-ring city neighborhoods. Some will never come back. By some estimates, something close to 10 to 15 percent of the country’s estimated 1,000 malls will go out of business over the next decade; many of them are located in areas where budgets have been very tight, with locals tending to shop at “power centers” built around low-end discounters such as Target or Walmart.

But the notion that Americans don’t like malls anymore is misleading. The roughly 400 malls that service more-affluent communities—like those typically anchored by a Bloomingdale’s or Nordstrom—recovered most quickly from the recession, and now appear to be doing quite well.

To suggest malls are dead based on failure in failed places would be like suggesting that the manifest shortcomings of Baltimore or Buffalo means urban centers are not doing well. Like cities, not all malls are alike.

Looking across the entire landscape, it’s clear the mall is transforming itself to meet the needs of a changing society but is hardly in its death throes. Last year, vacancy rates in malls flattened for the first time since the recession. The gains from e-commerce—6.5 percent of sales last year, up from 3.5 percent in 2010—has had an effect, but bricks and mortar still constitutes upwards of 90 percent of sales. There’s still little new construction, roughly one-seventh what it was in 2006, but that’s roughly twice that in 2010.

In other words, shopping malls today can’t afford to try to target everyone at once. Rather, the retail market has both exploded with opportunities and fragmented, meaning that malls and other retailers have to target particular groups. This is going to be easier in areas that have money or lack other retailers or have growing populations.

Of course, Kotkin isn’t particularly worried that shopping malls are taking over the Main Street function for suburbs and other communities. There are issues with this: this is privatized space that often requires a car to get to and its primary activity is consumerism. Indeed, if people focused on activities other than shopping (which remains a very popular activity), our version of  capitalism might ground to a halt:

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Still, many communities will be happy if shopping malls continue as they are economic boons through sales taxes and jobs.

The difficulties of giving an old shopping mall a new Main Street

Randhurst Mall, the first enclosed mall in the Chicago area, has received a facelift in recent years but it hasn’t gone perfectly:

By the time Casto bought Randhurst in 2007, the shopping center had long ago ceded primacy to larger, highwayside competition such as Schaumburg’s Woodfield Mall. Casto’s revamp, designed by the Beame Architectural Partnership of Coral Gables, Fla. and 505 Design of Boulder, Colo., removed the dome and the rest of the original mall’s core and replaced them with a traditional Main Street lined by an AMC movie theater, a Hampton Inn hotel, shops, restaurants and offices. A similar street leads in from the perimeter, creating a roughly T-shaped intersection with Main Street.The Main Street area — which Conroy said accounts for all the mall’s unleased space — gets the design basics right. Buildings, two to four stories high, frame both sides of the streets, creating the equivalent of an outdoor room. Benches, trellises and plant boxes add human scale. There’s synergy between the uses, and a link to the outdoors that some shoppers enjoy despite the obligatory piped-in music…

The many minuses begin with confusing internal roads, a predicament partly caused by big-box stores that don’t want their vast parking lots interrupted. In contrast to the modernist unity of Gruen’s design, the center’s outer buildings are an architectural mishmash. The postmodern Main Street buildings, clad in brick and metal, strain to achieve a sense of variety but offer little enticing detail. The street’s directory signs look cheap. The absence of apartments, either above the stores or in free-standing buildings, denies the merchants built-in customers who would drive activity 24/7…

Here’s hoping the signs breathe more life into Main Street and lead Randhurst to a future of greater density, a richer mix of uses and better connections to nearby neighborhoods. For now, its Main Street is essentially a lifestyle center in the middle of a mall — an urban fragment surrounded by the same old suburbia.

It sounds like the issue may be that the mall is trying to mix two styles that don’t necessarily go together: keeping big box anchors while also trying to create denser areas (that still are highly dependent on people driving to). Would it have been better to get rid of most or all of the old mall and start over with the lifestyle center rather than trying to mix the two? While this assessment focuses mainly on the design, there are also costs to keep in mind including keeping some parts of the mall open during renovation.

Perhaps things will change once the new Main Street area is leased. Perhaps there is a longer-term plan in the works that will better combine the two areas. But, I would suggest that even that carrying out the design of the new section perfectly doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good outcome for a suburban shopping mall.

When Main Street features multi-million dollar houses

Main Street evokes a particular image that is certainly challenged by the expensive homes on some of these Main Streets featured on Curbed. Here is one example:

Nantucket’s historic Main Street has been home to impeccably-maintained million-dollar mansions for decades, so it surprised the Times to find 141 Main in a shoddy state in 2001. That very house has since been fully renovated and listed for $7.9M. The historic columned manse, known as the George C. Gardner House, dates to 1835 and sits on a half-acre lot, but lacks any view of the ocean. There is, however, a private swimming pool, which, according to the listing, could no longer be installed under Historic District regulations.

As suggested by the Wall Street versus Main Street political rhetoric in recent years, Main Street is a powerful idea. Or look at the entry area in Walt Disney’s theme parks: a recreated version of the Main Street of the town in which he grew up.

In reality, real Main Streets don’t really matter as much today. Most Americans don’t live in small towns (with a majority of Americans now living in suburbs), many post-World War II communities don’t really have Main Streets, and businesses are now spread out all over the place in strip malls, shopping malls, business parks, and lifestyle centers. Americans are not as interested in running into neighbors and acquaintances on Main Street; we’d rather do so on Facebook.

These expensive listings suggest a transformation of Main Street away from the ideals of community life to the best private residences money can buy. Main Street, like many other things, can become commodified and can become exclusive by being priced out of the reach of many Americans. Additionally, these listings remind us of the variability across Main Streets. As we might guess, the Main Street of Santa Monica, California is going to be quite different than the Main Street of small town Kansas.

Potential solutions to fixing high streets in England

While Americans have worried about Main Streets for decades, a similar concern has arisen in England about their high streets. A recent panel, including sociologist Richard Sennett, proposed some solutions – of which one journalist was quite skeptical:

In Tuesday’s Guardian, a panel comprising a politician, an academic, a policy wonk and two campaigners offered the high street a range of solutions. The politician, Labour’s Chuka Umunna, said almost nothing at all: “Shopping can become an experience where conventional retailers can complement the success of online retailing.” Sociologist Richard Sennett favoured a mixture of pop-up art venues and pop-in medical centres and government bureaux: “A vibrant high street must be more than a place in which to shop.” Others wanted cheaper rates to attract young entrepreneurs and, in the words of Anna Minton, “a new genuinely productive economy based on making, caring and exchanging goods and services”.

A lot is to be hoped for. None of it seems likely. A new ironmonger’s in a prosperous north London high street is one thing, but think of the dead shopping streets in almost any old industrial town: what a fusillade of pop-ups would be needed there! The future of these streets is surely the fate of the village I grew up in, where every shop but two was demolished or became the ground floor of a dwelling. It would be hard now to imagine that commerce (“That’s a penny for your liquorice and tuppence for your sherbet”) ever existed in these TV-lit rooms.

This is a pessimistic take and doesn’t really engage with what the panel said. Here is what Richard Sennett said:

The high streets of 50 years ago were all about retail commerce. Small manufacturers and craftsmen had gone elsewhere in the post-war city; planners – those bureaucratic bogeymen – thought to make the centre of the city tidy. But the high street inevitably then became vulnerable to an even more efficient, mono-functional retail space, the shopping mall. High streets “fought back” by imitating these out-of-town competitors; Oxford Street became a poor cousin to Bluewater. Of course the law of the capitalist jungle ruled: chains like HMV paid bigger rents than little shops, but the character and environmental quality of the central city eroded.

I am convinced we can reverse this trend, first by making high streets more truly mixed in use. They should house elder-care centres and medical clinics, government bureaus helping the public and pop-up music or art venues. A vibrant high street must be more than a place in which to shop. But, equally, the capitalistic beast must be fed. Horrific to our Conservative masters as it may be, the state should pay commercial rents to locate its own activities on high streets, and it should give small businesses tax breaks, even special loans, to allow them to return and survive as high street enterprises.

If we think of high streets as a “commons”, which like the old agricultural commons knit the entire community together, we’d think about them as places, in sum, which the community should support. Which means subsidy.

Sennett’s ideas sound like a mix of New Urbanism, Jane Jacobs, and plans in many American communities where civic buildings and residential units were located in downtowns to try to boost foot traffic and help bring about a 24/7 culture rather than a 9-5 culture. And why can’t there be a little art to try to bring in “the creative class” and others? But, even if Sennett’s plan is generally good for communities, it is likely to be a little (or a lot) different in each unique place which faces different current conditions, different histories, and different visions for the future.

Facebook’s company town gets a new Main Street

Disneyland has its own Main Street, Walt Disney’s vision of idyllic small-town American life, and now Facebook’s campus is getting its own version:

Unlike the days of Henry Ford and George Pullman, when industrialists built towns surrounding manufacturing operations, Facebook is bringing retail shops onto its sprawling private campus on the outskirts of Menlo Park where there are few commercial establishments other than fast-food joints.

The company is subsidizing the construction; handpicked merchants will offer discounted prices to employees.

“It is the 21st century company town,” said Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo, managing director of foresight at investment research firm Discern Analytics…

But Facebook had to come up with new carrots when it moved its headquarters a few months ago to a suburban outpost at the edge of tidal mud flats and salt marshes cut off from the rest of Menlo Park by a six-lane highway. It’s so isolated that when former tenant Sun Microsystems occupied it, the campus was nicknamed “Sun Quentin.”…

“It’s just a great perk: ‘My company has created a little city for me,’ ” said Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, coauthor of “The Progress Principle,” who studies how everyday life inside organizations can influence people and their performance.

The comparison to company towns is fascinating: as I remember it, these towns didn’t last long. Pullman, for example, might have been viewed as efficient but workers ended up seeing it as paternalistic. So why exactly is this “21st century company town” strictly a perk – because Facebook is cool? Because the jobs don’t include manual labor manufacturing work and are creative class jobs that pay well? Because Facebook is reclaiming this brownfield of sprawl? Couldn’t the Main Street be viewed as controlling and an inducement to ask people to work even longer hours?

Two other quick questions:

1. What would happen if employees didn’t like the Main Street, stopped going, or started protesting? It is company property so I assume activities are somewhat restricted though a company like this doesn’t want to alienate all of their workers.

2. It is interesting that Americans like to hearken back to small town life even when we as a country have rapidly moved to an urban (and often decentralized) landscape. Is this Main Street more like a theme park, akin to Disneyland? Perhaps Facebook should start including some dormitories so that Main Street could have more activity around the clock.

The shopping malls that track your shopping patterns

Two shopping malls are starting a new program where they track the shopping patterns through shopper’s cell phone signals:

From Black Friday though to the end of the December, two malls in southern California and Richmond, Va., will be following shoppers by tracking their cell phone signals. When somebody walks out of the Gap, into the Starbucks, out through the Nordstrom and on to the Auntie Annes pretzel stand, the mall will be monitoring.

Creepy? Maybe. But the information is anonymous and won’t be used to target individual shoppers. Instead, it’s part of a quiet information revolution among retailers to figure out how crowds move, where they cluster, and what stores they ignore. Tracking crowds isn’t new. Tracking crowds through their cell phones is.

If you’ve got a problem with malls paying attention to your smart phone, you might want to stay away from the mall for, say, the rest of your life. The future of shopping, according to retail analysts I spoke with for a recent special report, is malls and phones talking to each other.

When I saw this story last week, my first thought was “what took so long?” This doesn’t sound too different than what is going on while you surf the Internet: there are a number of people very interested in the data generated by your browsing and shopping patterns. You the shopper/browser are in a closed system and you are a very valuable data point. This is also a reminder that shopping malls are not public spaces: just like large stores, retailers and mall operators want to funnel you in certain ways such as past the food court (good smells can be positive for spending money) and past a number of attractive displays, advertisements, and storefronts (all meant to get you to open your wallet and act upon unrecognized desires).

One other thought: I wonder how shoppers at a mall might fight back. How about turning off one’s cell phone while inside? How about walking in “unusual patterns,” whatever that might look like? How about boycotting malls that practice this? How about using this as another rallying point for shopping local – they can’t (or at least shouldn’t) track you while shopping on Main Street. How about forcing malls that do this to post signs about what exactly they are doing? If the shopper does indeed have valuable information and money, why not get some concessions from the mall operators who would like to have this data?