Magic Lands

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John M. Findlay. Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940. Berkely: University of California Press. 1992. Pp. xiv, 394. $35.00. Paper: ISBN 0520077032


Lisa Harry, Spring 2007

With this book Findlay analyzes four "magic lands": Disneyland; the Stanford Industrial Park; Sun City, a retirement community near Phoenix; and the Seattle's World Fair of 1962. These “thematic” places are magical because they provided “spatial coherence,” which made western cities more legible to the white, middle-class families, tourists, engineers, or retirees they sought to attract, and “thereby helped to transform the surrounding urban landscape as well as the nation’s metropolitan areas.”(5) Each, he argues, “was consciously created as a highly controlled, exhaustively planned enclave whose design and symbolic values brought to focus what was most original and important in the amorphous landscape of the urban West.”(8)

Findlay argues, “More perhaps than any other factor, rapid demographic and economic expansion unified the postwar West.”(11) He examines how this rapid growth of the West “led to both a sense of fulfillment and a perception of chaos.”(11) Westerners “initially planned for and celebrated expansion because it seemed to imply he realization of long-standing hopes for their cities and region.”(17) Ultimately, however, this growth, according to Findlay, “became so explosive that the city appeared out of control: populations increased dramatically: municipal boundaries changed incessantly; people and autos moved about ceaselessly.”(22) In such a milieu, “many doubted that a shared sense of community and culture could be achieved.”(22) However, the success of these four magic lands “suggested that, for many, culture and community in western cities were not as elusive as the critics had feared.”(23)

The majority of the book is devoted to giving detailed histories of the development of these magic lands. Findlay is greatly concerned with the “genesis of each design and the way each was used and perceived by those that lived, worked, or visited there.” All four locations "are innovating efforts to reconceptualize urban spaces as contraste to replicating the crowded downtown, borrowed from European models."(47) Each is a case study of "how western urban planners came upon unique solutions." By building an amusement park Walt Disney was able to not just replace aging Ocean Park or the Pike at Long Beach. He created a sepearte universe "with its own dimensions, whcih became an oasis in the local urban sprawl."(101) In the case of Stanford, its greenbelt land, a legacy from the old Stanford Farm of the senator, was developed in the 1950s with the purpose of being the home of another new concept: the garden industrial park. Findlay asserts, "It was an ideal demonstrated by idyllic factories such as Hewlett-Packard and Varian."(136) Stanford Industrial Park soon became a model for what would later become parts of Silicon valley and numerous other industrial parks across the nation. In 1960 Del Webb, a Phoenix contractor, decided to build a moderate-income retirement community in the desert wasteland of northwest Phoenix. Sun City soon "developed its own momentum as the prototypical community restricted to senior citizens and providing them with a new, active life style."(189) It became a specialized and self-contained niche and like the other magic lands, "became a model for a new kind of urban space that spread across the nation."(205)With Seattle, the 1964 World's Fair and the Space Needle were used as ways to rejuvenate downtow. Both were very successful in doing so.

These four magic lands not only served as models for other development throughout the West and the entire United States, but they also “became pivotal fixtures on the western scene by serving to bring a sense of order, community, and refinement to a highly fluid society.”(302)


Fall 2007, Pat Kelly

In his thoughtful and well-researched book, John Findlay has given a valuable analysis of four planned, yet different, environments: Disneyland, the Stanford Industrial Park, Sun City and the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962. Findlay uses these four “Magic Lands,” as he calls them, to show how the Western part of the United States helped redefine what a city or cityscape should or could be. To Findlay these magic lands brought a sense of order to the rapidly mobile society of post war America. In the book Findlay criticizes anyone who viewed western cities with contempt simply because their urban cores were spread out and didn’t follow traditional East Coast patterns. Yet, many western cities started with traditional downtowns and they slowly shifted outwards over time. There are those who might argue against Findlay’s belief that the growth away from a defined city center gave people of sense of belonging. As communities grew, as in the case of Orange County and Irvine Ranch, people were known for their housing developments and not their city. The question of which gives a greater sense of belonging could be argued a great deal.

People have always gone to the western part of the United States to reinvent themselves. So, it’s not surprising that these four different developments came from the West. Findlay argues that it was the open land that helped start and nurture the developments. But, in the case of Disneyland or the Stanford Industrial Park, the argument could be made that the open cultural atmosphere of the area may have played just as important a role. Until he ties everything up in the conclusion, Findlay makes little mention of the importance of the automobile to all of the aforementioned magic lands. Could Disneyland have succeeded without the California freeway system? Could Sun City have survived without the cars to get people to it in the beginning?

All of the four magic lands were designed to attract primarily the white middle class. In the case of Disneyland the park was targeted for a white audience. Disneyland had racial stereotypes of both blacks and Native Americans for years. Although Findlay does mention minorities, it would have helped if he had examined more closely how minorities viewed the magic lands. Also in his view of the growth of the undefined city, he mentions very little about what happened to the inner city areas from which the white middle class moved. Of the four, Findlay’s look at Disneyland is the best section It is the best example of what he’s trying to explain about how it changed not only the city of Anaheim, but influenced everything from speech to how developers would look at building controlled environments such as malls and housing developments in the future. Disney even tried to extend its kingdom when it built and controlled the city of Celebration in Florida.

Given all the changes that have come since Findlay wrote the book in 1992, the reader must give him credit for seeing and discussing problems that the areas are facing now: among them, air and water pollution and overpopulation. However, the one thing the reader cannot ignore is Findlay’s argument of the influence of these magic lands. Whether in the Midwest, East or West, their influence can be seen in amusement parks, retirement communities, and office parks.

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