John Slattery, Walt Disney, and Jane Jacobs

March
6
2011

Catching up on movies I missed is one of the best parts of frequent business travel. I had the chance to watch Iron Man 2 on the way back from Heathrow last week — a decent follow up to a surprisingly good original (or maybe I’m just a sucker for Robert Downey Jr.’s suave cool guy act). Either way, I really enjoyed a cameo by John Slattery (a.k.a. Roger Sterling), appearing in the role of Howard Stark, Tony’s industrialist father. Here’s a still from an archival film (a.k.a. plot device) that Tony watches:

Howard Stark, from Iron Man 2

Although it’s not critical that you catch the reference, the film was a carefully staged reenactment of Walt Disney’s October 1966 film announcing the Disney World and Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) projects.

Walt Disney announcing Disney World and EPCOT

I’ve always been a big Walt fan, mostly out of awe of his creative and imagineering capabilities. It takes a certain chutzpah to buy up 47  square miles of central Florida swamp land and turn it into the world’s largest amusement park. Sadly, Walt’s original vision extended much beyond what currently occupies the site, including EPCOT, a fully functional city of some 20,000 inhabitants. Walt died of lung cancer in December 1966, five years before Disney World opened to the public.

There’s a certain romantic nostalgia in watching the videos — a hopeful look to a peaceful future built on progress and technology. His vision for EPCOT was heavily changed and watered down, moving from an out-of-the-box vision of tomorrow’s cities to the third largest theme park in the US. Epcot Center, as it’s now known, opened on October 1st, 1982.

Time hasn’t been entirely kind to Walt’s plans, with hindsight making a number of the central tenets seem somewhat questionable. FOr example, the concept presented in the film calls for a strict segregation of the central business district, the industrial complex, and the outer-lying, low-density, suburban residential areas. Walt’s original film came out five years after Jane Jacob’s seminal urban planning work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which argued (I would say correctly) for mixed-use development. Jacob’s work is a critique of the modernist urban planning movement heralded by people like Disney and New York City’s Robert Moses (who we can indirectly thank for the birth of hip hop, though that’s another story entirely). The original plan for EPCOT would have resulted in a vibrant daytime core and a virtual ghost town at night, inevitably breeding the dangerous downtown residents of Detroit are all too familiar with.

The prominence of the industrial complex as a major employer also stands out as a herald of a very different time. The Knowledge Revolution wouldn’t come until the 80s, a good twenty years after Walt and team planned EPCOT. The idea of a prominent industrial zone as the major employer seems almost anachronistic somehow, as though they couldn’t possibly have envisioned so much correctly and yet missed that fundamental shift. It’s the antithesis of the idea of ‘teleworkers’ jacked into broadband, which is so deeply implanted in our modern life and world. It’s also a good reminder of how quickly things change — our society has been totally transformed in less than a life time. It also makes me wonder what my two year old daughter will look back on fifty years from now and consider almost unbelievable.

I’m proud to say that she is the direct beneficiary of one of the other things I noted: there were apparently no women involved in the design, planning, or eventual construction of EPCOT. Even this 1982 grand opening video, hosted by Danny Kaye, reveals no women in sight (other than the fabulously dressed ‘cheerleaders’ at the opening ceremonies):

I can’t entirely fault Disney for not having included them — he was, after all, a creature of his time — but I can’t help wondering how different the plans would have been had he done so. I also can’t help wondering how the men who oversaw the sad transformation of the grandiose EPCOT into the tourist-centric Epcot Center might have fared differently had the first female Fortune 500 CEO been earlier than 1972 (props to Katherine Graham of The Washington Post). I’m glad my daughter is growing up in a world in which it would be ridiculous to plan the Community Of Tomorrow without the involvement of women.

What stands out for you?

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  1. [...] television personality we all have grown to know and embrace (and occasionally pastiche, cf. John Slattery in “Iron Man 2″) was a cultivated persona that echoed the most accessible version of himself. In the autumn of his [...]


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