Friday, September 27, 2013

Back then...

I was in Prague for the first time in early 1993, barely three years after the end of Soviet hegemony in the country at the time known as Czechoslovakia. The city was filled with life and as such, packed with tourists. Since I never experienced Prague before the Velvet Revolution, I had nothing to compare it to. Suffice it to say, when I returned home there were many people who told me how visiting the city was much better back in Communist times: fewer tourists and tourist traps, more locals and businesses catering to them meant that back then the place had more charm and was "more honest and real." Of course those folks didn't have to live in a country in the grips of a totalitarian regime; the locals I spoke to didn't exactly share the sentiment that things were better in Prague in the good ol' days.

Likewise I've never been to Havana, but people suggest I go there before it is "ruined", presumably by the imminent but as yet  unfulfilled fall of Communism in Cuba, accompanied by the relaxing of tensions between the island nation and the United States, and the inevitable crush of tourism that would bring.

It doesn't take a genius to understand that tourists are attracted to interesting, readily accessible places. It's also clear that being a boon to the local coffers, local governments do whatever they can to encourage tourism. There is a tipping point however once a place becomes saturated with tourists. Often times, so much energy is devoted toward catering to tourists at the expense of the local population, that a place loses its soul. There's even a word for this phenomenon: Disneyfication. The word, obviously derived from the highly successful theme parks owned and operated by the Disney Corporation, is defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary as follows:
the transformation (as of something real or unsettling) into carefully controlled and safe entertainment or an environment with similar qualities.
The comments section at the bottom of this piece reflects the public's ambivalence about the transformation of the mother of all Disneyfication projects, which transformed the familiar New York City landmark, Times Square. Here's another piece on new Times Square. Historically the center of the city's entertainment district, the "Great White Way" began its steady decline after the Depression as gambling, prostitution and other nefarious activities gained a strong foothold in the neighborhood. Reaching its nadir in the 1970s and early 80s, Times Square became well known for its low life, as strip joints and sex shops sat cheek by jowl alongside the area's iconic theaters and restaurants. Because of its high profile as a tourist destination, the seediness of Times Square galvanized the general public's perception of the overall decline of New York City.  

As the city's boom of the mid-eighties took shape, the reformation of Times Square found itself high in the sights of local government and by the nineties, much of the area was gutted. The sex industry was banished as were residents deemed less than desirable. Old, private businesses were taken over by national chains, and the State of New York took possession of several of the venerable theaters, either demolishing them, or renovating them beyond recognition.  To preserve the frenetic atmosphere of the area, zoning laws were put in place requiring a minimum amount of density of illuminated signs. Other "improvements" to Times Square included the elimination of vehicular traffic on the once busy thoroughfares that define the area, and perhaps the ultimate symbol of a PC, born-again Times Square, a recent law making the neighborhood officially smoke free.

Today Times Square is so squeaky clean you could practically eat off the streets.

Yes you can now even bring your kids to the new Times Square, although it wouldn't rate very high in my book of Big Apple attractions I'd like to show my own children. To me without any edge whatsoever, it's more like a Las Vegas re-creation than the place I first visited with my mother back in the mid-sixties that captivated me with its no-holds-barred vitality, highlighted for me by the half block long billboard of a bottle of Gordon's Gin pouring its contents into into a glass. Today like the ban on smoking, signs such as these advertising anything that could be perceived bad for you would be strictly forbidden.

The old Times Square was incomparable.

If I had to rate new Times Square with similar entertainment districts around the world that I've visited, I'd rank it just slightly above Hamburg's Reeperbahn, which underwent its own Disneyfication several years ago, but light years behind London's West End, which did not. Even Time Square's bombastic light show pales in comparison to the jaw dropping experience of Tokyo's Ginza District.

Back home although not quite so dramatic, Chicago underwent its own Disneyfication process over the last four decades or so. When I was a child I owned a copy of a USA picture book intended primarily for European tourists. I distinctly remember fifteen to twenty pages of the book were dedicated to New York City, containing images of the usual suspects such as St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Statue of  Liberty, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, Central Park, and of course old Times Square. There were several photographs of Washington DC and San Francisco, of the National Parks and other famous tourist destinations in this country. And there were exactly three photographs of Chicago, the obligatory shot of the Grant Park skyline, a passenger train arriving presumably at Union Station, and one picture of the Stockyards. The lack of attention to the Windy City shouldn't come as much surprise considering that with the exception of conventioneers, Chicago wasn't much of a tourist destination back in the day.

Between that time and now, much has changed as the old reliable industries once the backbone of this city's economy pulled up stakes and moved away one by one. Tourism in recent years has become an important cog in Chicago's economy and the city has been transformed by it, for better or worse. I was reminded of this the other day while reading a thread on a Facebook page I belong to devoted to Chicago's past. The gentleman (I'd guess in his mid-sixties) who began the thread, wrote about how he enjoyed fishing off the docks at old Navy Pier back in the day when it was all but deserted. Today Navy Pier is Chicago's number one tourist destination and this particular individual won't set foot in the joint. He also lamented the Disneyfied nature of Millennium Park and other popular sites about town. This set off a maelstrom of rants that were divided between folks who see new Navy Pier as a vast improvement, and folks who tenaciously cling to the past. One woman used the opportunity to voice her opinion about the bygone, distinctive upscale shopping on the Gold Coast (presumably Michigan Avenue) which has now become in her words, a "tourist trap."

Even I got into the act. Here verbatim is my somewhat officious comment:
I sympathize with the good ol' days argument up to a point. Yes in many ways I too liked this city a lot more forty years ago. The problem is that once upon a time, rail was king and we were the crossroads of the nation. We were the hog butcher of the world, we made cars, steel and all kinds of other stuff that are now made someplace else. Unglamorous as those things were, the lifestyles of most of the folks shopping in those unique "upscale" Gold Coast shops were in one way or other made possible by those industries. We may not like all the Disneyesque tourist attractions that seem to be everywhere these days but the bottom line is that tourism today is one of the engines of our economy and as bad as things may be, trust me, without the tourists and the money they bring into this city, things would be much worse.
Well that's my story and I'm sticking to it. As longtime readers of this blog have come to expect form me, I'm not going to put myself on the line by saying the "Disneyfication" of our cities is a good or a bad thing. Let the truth be known, I'm just as ambivalent as the mix of folks who commented on the Times Square post.

You see, despite the fact that I consider old Times Square, (including its sleaziness), old North Michigan Avenue (including its snootiness), and old Navy Pier (including its emptiness), all to be infinitely more interesting places than their contemporary counterparts, the fact remains that all three are insanely successful as far as attracting people and money back into their respective cities.

There is an old adage that suggests you can't argue with success. That's not at all true, you can argue with success.

Winning the argument on the other hand, is an entirely different matter.

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