John Hannigan. Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern
London and New York: Routledge, 1998, 239 pp. $ 31.99 paper.

It is appropriate that the latest book about the “theming of America” should be written by a Canadian sociologist. Canada’s specific brand of dependent development, as well as its self-understanding as a place straddling the gap between the European tradition and its Americanized economic, political and mass-culture reality, allow both for a serious interest in all things American and for a necessary distance to evaluate them.

This does not mean that the importance of themed entertainment for the culture and economy of cities is limited to the USA. The importance of Hanningan’s book lies - among other things - in his understanding that the model of relationships between public and private, urban and suburban, under-class and middle-class, which underlie Urban Entertainment Developments, spreads together with their gaudy aesthetics. While this understanding is a staple of globalisation theory, it is not as prominent in the popular field of urban cultural studies. Hannigan himself explains one of the reasons for this lack of interest in the political economy that underlies culture: aesthetically-based criticism of theming concentrates on liberties taken with historical space and time, and it does not look at social reasons for accepting these comfortable inaccuracies. The book accords higher merit to critics who insist that marginalisation of the powerless, rather than plain bad taste, is the cardinal sin of theming. They point out that entertainment excludes conflict and transforms oppressed minorities into happy and picturesque “noble savages”. Hannigan does not discuss the fact that many of these critics are as guilty of cultural and ethnic essentialism as their openly snobbish colleagues.

Hannigan traces the development of “Fantasy City,” the collection of fictional or manipulated (“themed”) entertainment spaces in North American cities, back to the turn of the century. He shows that the “golden age of entertainment” had numerous mechanisms for controlling and preventing contact between working-class and middle-class patrons in entertainment venues. After the era of suburban and exurban theme parks in the 70s and 80s, where the dangerous social mix was prevented by the sheer distance from poor neighbourhoods, the the entertainment industry turned to Urban Entertainment Development: the allocation of retail and entertainment facilities for middle-class patrons downtown. UEDs are seen as a means to economically revive deindustrialized cities, while giving their patrons a suburban sense of security. This is done by effectively isolating them from contacts with the often distressed surroundings, while maintaining an illusion of experiencing the vitality and adventure of city life.

Fantasy City draws on a two-fold theoretical heritage. On one hand, it uses cultural elements of Ritzer’s theory of McDonaldization. A useful conceptualisation of this aspect of MacDonaldization has appeared since the publication of Hannigan’s book. Alan Bryman has proposed “Disneyfication” as a complementary notion to McDonaldisation, consisting of four trends: theming, dedifferentiation of consumption (which Hannigan discusses under the name of “synergy”), merchandising and emotional labour. Bryman adds consumer culture to rationality as a separate causal factor in the process. Judging by his critique of Ritzer, Hannigan would agree.

The book also contains a pertinent criticism of its other theoretical source: cultural studies of changing urban semiotics, as exemplified in Gottdiener’s work on “theming of America”. Hannigan notes that Gottdiener has unjustifiably labeled more than a century of urban development as “hyposignificant”, denying that modernism had a symbolic component. This is indeed a precarious position: nobody writing after Mumford should so flatly dismiss the notion that “myth” and “machine” are intertwined. Hannigan’s other point against Gottdiener’s explanation of theming is that his historical and semiotic approach does not tell us much about the political economy of Fantasy City.

Hannigan approaches this problem in the spirit of the “growth machine” theory and provides an insightful account of changes in the private-public partnership in the last thirty years. The competition among impoverished cities for allocation of seemingly lucrative entertainment facilities has led to ever-increasing concessions from the public partner. Land, tax credits, environmental deregulation and direct financing are all offered in hope of spill-overs, which are seen as a panacea for the distressed inner city. The book provides evidence that spill-overs are often negligible, that local unemployment remains largely unchanged, and that tax revenue is tied down by agreements with developers, so that it can be used only for reinvestment in the project itself, and not for needy educational, health or welfare coffers. This is compelling evidence that Logan and Molotch got hold of a wrong dependent variable. A successful “growth machine” does not necessarily bring growth to the city. What it does is displace from the public agenda issues of inequality and conflict - indeed anything but the undisputed necessity of economic growth. Hannigan’s evidence is the more important because it comes from an area of economy which is still neglected by urban economists.

This book is an attempt at what Sharon Zukin has also professed as her goal: to transcend the partitioning of objective and subjective in the discursive analysis of images, social practices and space. Hannigan sees space and the semiotics of entertainment in the city as phenomenological dimensions of class, race, consumerism, populism, neoliberalism and other structural forces in North American capitalism. However, he prefers to concentrate on case histories of urban development and not to add his own conceptualisation of the process to the existing ones. This also means that his understanding of the political economy of space is often implied, and that meticulous description sometimes obscures his critical attitude to Disneyfication, which is both a tool and a manifestation of a “dual city”.

Readers must be extremely attentive in order not to miss passing remarks which connect the seemingly over-detailed description with Hannigan’s main interest: the fact that thematized, commercialized and privatized urban renewal reinforces spatial segregation and control in North American cities. If readers are not sufficiently attentive, Hannigan himself must assume some responsibility: the style of the book makes it very easy to read at a purely descriptive level. The superb twenty-page chapter on the changes in public-private partnership in urban entertainment development is a brilliant exception to this rule.

Ivanka Knezevic
University of Toronto

May 1999
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