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How Disneyland's Main Street, USA, Changed the Design and Preservation of American Cities

Walt Disney didn't set out to revolutionize urban design when he created Disneyland – that's what his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, was for. But whereas EPCOT never became more than a sort of permanent world's fair, it was Disneyland and especially its Main Street, USA, that ultimately changed the way we think about the built environment.

It's hard to overstate how radical a constructed cityscape Main Street, USA, was when it opened in Anaheim in 1955. Across the U.S., cities and towns were tearing out their historic downtowns in favor of automobile-oriented cityscapes: sprawling parking lots, streets built to highway specifications, large insular buildings that spurned the city outside.

Among the tens of millions of Americans who strolled into Disneyland, this modern mode of city-making drew unfavorable comparisons with what they experienced on Main Street, USA. It felt good to walk through Disney's city, with its varied facades and approachable architecture. Pedestrians were even welcome in the roadway, which they shared with motorcars and horse-drawn railcars.

But could Disney's nostalgic reimagining of small-town America actually change the way architects and planners approached cities? That's the conclusion architectural historian Vincent Scully – an unforgiving critic who once wrote that Disney "so vulgarizes everything he touches that facts lose all force" – reaches in his foreword to Beth Dunlop's "Building a Dream: The Art of Disney Architecture" (1996):

Main Street, USA
Main Street, USA, circa 1960. Photo courtesy of flickr user Tom Simpson. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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Town Square, Main Street, USA, 1957
Town Square, Main Street, USA, 1957. Photo courtesy of flickr user Tom Simpson. Used under a Creative Commons license.

 But Main Street, USA, did more than provide a foil to modernist urban design. It also, Scully writes, inspired Americans to think more carefully about their architectural heritage:

Ironically, sadly, that great architectural achievement came too late for Anaheim's real downtown. In 1973 – just 18 years after Disneyland's opening – Anaheim enacted its imperiously named Redevelopment Project Alpha, erasing much of its historic core in the name of urban renewal, leaving Main Street, USA, as one of the city's few remaining pedestrian-oriented streetscapes.

A version of this article first appeared on Gizmodo's Southland subdomain on June 18, 2014.

Anaheim's Center Street, pre-redevelopment, circa 1955 (P10373)
Downtown Anaheim before redevelopment: Center Street circa 1955, the year Disneyland opened. Photo courtesy of the Anaheim Public Library photograph collection on Anaheim local history (accession number P10373).
Downtown Anaheim after redevelopment: Lincoln Avenue at Anaheim Boulevard, circa 1985
Downtown Anaheim after redevelopment: Lincoln Avenue at Anaheim Boulevard, circa 1985. Photo courtesy of the Anaheim Public Library photograph collection on Anaheim local history (accession number P16592).

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