What Happened to Main Street USA?
“Wake up, you’re going to Disney World!”
I had been waiting ten years to hear those words. It was 4:09 in the morning and I was packed and ready to go to the happiest place in the world – or so I thought.
The same day we entered the Disney World exit. The four-lane road led us to a parking lot that paralleled the size of Rhode Island. After a golf cart, ferry, and monorail ride, our rental car felt worlds away. The overbearing sense of joy that was omnipresent throughout the park overwhelmed me. The feeling was most present in the park’s main street, appropriately named ‘Main Street USA.’ I remember keeping a constant eye out to catch a fault in the design- a signal that I was not actually transferred back into a 1950’s American utopia.
But I was unable to find a single imperfection. The buildings were architecturally unified, but individually various, out of an era when rooflines were interesting, windows were more than holes in a wall, and building ornament relied on pattern. Main Street’s focal point – Cinderella’s Castle – affords visitors a constant visual and a comforting sense of enclosure. I will admit, I had a decent time. However, there was something that made me okay with not going back. It was not until later that I could articulate the reason why my Disney World experience felt unsettling. Magic Kingdom reminded me of my hometown.
Hoboken, New Jersey is adjacent to the west side of Manhattan. However, its proximity to the largest city in America is all but an anecdote compared to its smart design and mid-century architectural treasures. Despite being a mile long and a mile wide, there are different neighborhoods with distinct characteristics, signaling where the place has been, where it is now, and where it is going. The one-lane roads make it difficult to drive and safe for pedestrians and bikers. The mixed-use plan of the town makes people want to be on foot to get to where they need to or want to go. It mirrors Main Street USA because it is what main streets throughout the United States ought to resemble.
The difference between Hoboken and Magic Kingdom is that Hoboken is a real place with real flaws. The Victorian styled toy and candy shops that line Main Street USA are false facades which extend into a back-retail space designed to sell cheap trinkets to consumers. The irony is that Disney’s Main Street fosters a built environment that people implicitly yearn for – not yet a city but certainly not sprawling suburbia. People spend a fortune to visit, just to return to the spiritually depleted hometowns.
While I did not receive a car upon turning sixteen or experience the epic highs and lows of high school football, I grew up in a place that, due to smart civic design, did not deconstruct into a car-centric hellscape. My hometown shaped my eye for design, and my (arguably) harsh critique for the broader American landscape, and for that, I am forever grateful.