Walt in the City

I thought, at a young age, that I knew what Disneyfication meant. A precocious reader, I early on learned the words “abridged” and “adapted for young readers” and decided I wanted none of it. I would take on the original text or nothing at all. My mother said, that was fine, I should just count how many words I didn’t understand per page, and if it was more than ten, I should try something easier. As it was, I didn’t get very far, and eventually sulked back to my children’s classics.

But I still held a certain literary snobbishness in my child’s heart, and I learned to despise the faithlessness of Disney to the original fairy tales. Happy endings! Even at 8 I was able to see that stories were, by rights, more complex and darker than what Disney offered me. So as a teenager when I heard the term Disneyfication applied to Times Square, I thought I knew what New York was in for. A happy face on everything, no more dark corners, clean streets for tourists. Hell, hadn’t they even built a literal Disney store? Yeah, that was Disneyfication, a sucker’s New York! In my deeply felt teenaged cynicism, I added, And wasn’t it a world of suckers?

It was years later, when childhood snobbishness and teenaged cynicism had given way to the sheer, gut-wrenching misery of young adulthood, that I learned what Disneyfication meant when applied to cities. To understand what is happening to New York, you must understand what Walt Disney achieved in his theme parks. Disney World and Disneyland are marvels of historical revisionism, children’s entertainment, ride design, intellectual property enforcement, and yes, urban planning. Never was a space so meticulously planned; from the sights and sounds on display, to the perfectly spaced garbage cans from the snack vendors, Disney attempted to predict every eventuality, every interpretation of his parks.

This is what is happening to New York. It’s not just a sanitation campaign, a crusade against crime, an increase in property values and rents, although in a way, it is motivated by all that while also using all those as tools. Rather, New York is being Disneyfied. It is being meticulously reworked to provide only certain experiences, only certain freedoms, for only certain people.

This is not just the ultimate logic of Giuliani and Bloomberg, the mayors of the tough on crime era. It is not even simply the logic of Walt Disney, a showman who decided to make appearances tangible. It is the logic of the settler colonial and white supremacist project of the United States. What is the difference between a law protecting a slave-owner’s rights and a rule making sure we all have fun here? What is an overseer with his whip but a security guard, genially beaming at you as you enter the ride? What is a slave plantation for the white planters but Disney World, where every need is met, the Happiest Place on Earth?

Published by Mordecai Martin

A luftmensch, a Jew, a way with words, all in one.

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