6HWbNHN-show-poster2x3-c7tgE2Y.png

Artbound

Start watching
MJ250sC-show-poster2x3-Bflky7i.png

Tending Nature

Start watching
Southland Sessions

Southland Sessions

Start watching
HvlSxHY-show-poster2x3-4ik43uV.png

Earth Focus

Start watching
5LQmQJY-show-poster2x3-MRWBpAK.jpg

Reporter Roundup

Start watching
City Rising

City Rising

Start watching
Lost LA

Lost LA

Start watching
Member
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams.

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

Main Street, USA
Support Provided By

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):

In the period of the 1950s and 1960s when Disney came up with Main Street, it and indeed all traditional urbanism was despised by modern architects and planners alike. Disney, with whatever hokum, revived it, and in doing so brought into being a public awareness of architecture's fundamental dimension, which has to be that of the town, the city, the human settlement entire. So the visitors to Main Street, pedestrians all, and looking for all the world like actors in a play—how affecting that was, because the city is, after all, a theater for human acts—took back home with them the unshakable conviction that their own Main Streets might be saved from the automobiles and the shopping malls and all the horrors of Redevelopment that were destroying them everywhere.
Main Street, USA
Main Street, USA, circa 1960. Photo courtesy of flickr user Tom Simpson. Used under a Creative Commons license.
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:

...for whatever complicated reasons, Historic Preservation grew stronger every year from the opening of Disneyland onward, and the incomparably popular mass movement it represents is beginning to bring to fruition everywhere those revivals of the vernacular and classical traditions of architecture, and of traditional urbanism, which Disneyland, as perceived by Charles Moore long ago, so effectively suggested. This has been the great architectural achievement of the past generation, and Disneyland plays an honorable part in it.
Ironically, sadly, that great architectural achievement came too late for Anaheim's real downtown.

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).

Support Provided By
Read More
A black and white postcard photo of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union Home in Eagle Rock probably taken a few years after the home opened in 1928. The four-story main building is in the shape of a Maltese cross with Churrigueresque ornamentation over the main door, an the elevator in the center and four wings reaching out.

A Haven for Early Feminists: Eagle Rock's Home of Woman's Christian Temperance Union

Founded by middle-and-upper-class women to push for abstinence and prohibition laws, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union at Eagle Rock became a major force for societal change and a hub for feminist activity in Los Angeles.
chutes park distant.jpg

When the Los Angeles Angels Played Ball Inside an Amusement Park

Discover the Angels' humble beginnings as a then-minor-league club playing out of Chutes Park, an all-dirt stadium part of a larger family entertainment center that included attractions like bowling alleys and an 85-foot-tall water ride.
A crowd of locals held back by rope try to view the situation as police continue to search the well for three-year-old Kathy Fiscus.

The Kathy Fiscus Tragedy Transfixed the World. Seven Decades Later, I Can’t Let It Go

A California historian can't shake his obsession with the 1949 death of 3-year-old Kathy Fiscus. Her death marked the first live, breaking-news television spectacle in history.