Playful Sociality

The RESOURCES page highlights books, articles, audio and video related to the research of playful places and sociality over time. I hope to point out resources that might be a bit  academic in nature, and hence overlooked, but still accessible, interesting and fun for a general audience. A capsule review is provided for each resource. Hope this is useful for you!

First published in 1989, sociologist Ray Oldenburg's "The Great Good Place" conceptualized the ongoing need in people's lives for a third place. That is a place that is neither home (first place), nor work (second place), but a third location of community and sociability. Oldenburg primarily identifies pubs and cafes as third places where good conversation with members of the  community uplift spirits as a domino effect into people's first and second places. Oldenburg identifies 17 characteristics of a third place, which makes for a difficult test if an establishment would like to be considered a third place. Oldenburg also has a somewhat glorified view of third places in the past (pre-World War II) that excluded women, children, and people of different races and/or ethnicities. I started my research thinking Disneyland could be a kind of third place, but soon realized the huge scope of Disneyland, which attracts an average of 40,000 to 50,000 guests per day, mitigated against the kind of cozy third place that Oldenburg had in mind.

 

Though seemingly dated as a publication from an era before the Internet was an everyday tool, the book's conceptualization of a third place and critique of modern society's zoning laws and car culture as alienating for many people still holds resonance. Who wouldn't like to have the bar from Cheers or the Central Perk cafe from Friends in their city or neighborhood? We long to connect with others but seen unable to find the place to engage and interact. This book had a wide release beyond academia and thus readily available at Amazon.com for new at the discounted rate of about $11, and used copies  as cheap as $1. Oldenburg's treatise despite some flaws, is still a worthwhile and brisk read almost three decades later.

Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe is the seminal text by Peter Burke covering the European period from 1500 to 1800. Burke notes the difficulty in discerning early popular culture since almost all the source material on the subject was written by outside visitors or elites, and not the common people. However, Burke wades through the copious travelogues, diaries, letters and official documents to present a case over a three hundred year period of elites at first disdaining the commoners but enjoying the same cultural texts to a split 300 yeas later of elites enjoying "high" culture, while commoners partook in "low" culture. The classes were divided not only by economic resources, but also by cultural affinities. The book features a superb chapter on early modern festivals and carnivals that were gradually commodified and tamed due to the rise of Protestantism. Carnivals, in particular, were singled out for debauchery and turning the world (i.e. societal norms) upside down.

 

Copies on Amazon are about $40, new or used. In addition, it is recommended to get the third edition for the most updated research. Most university libraries should have a copy, and is well worth seeking out even if just for the chapter on festivals and carnivals. Though written for academic historians, the language and style is accessible to anyone interested in the subject.

Disneyland and Culture is an edited book of essays looking at  Disneyland that was published in 2011. The good thing about an edited volume is the wide variety of topics, while the bad  is the quality can be uneven. For the most part, this book hits the mark if you're interested in Disneyland. Of particular note is Francaviglia's chapter on Frontierland as an allegorical map of the American West and Rahn's longitudinal breakdown of the evolving narrative strategies of the Snow White dark ride. Svonkin reflexively analyzes and places the Tiki room within the wider post World War II American fascination and popular perception of Polynesian culture. While the essays mostly concentrate on Disneyland, there are also looks at the use of feng shui at the Hong Kong park, the culture clash in Paris, and hyperreality in Disney's planned town of new urbanism in Celebration, Florida. The chapter on Rod Serling's fondness for Disneyland's Main Street that inspired classic episodes of the Twilight Zone including my personal favorite, 'A Stop at Willoughby', are bittersweet with the removal of the Tower of Terror attraction at DCA in 2017. King's essay on the nature of theme parks wryly observes that an amusement park without rides is "a parking lot with popcorn".

 

Copies on Amazon are about $16 and for the variety of essays well worth the price. The essays are accessibly written with little academic jargon.

American Experience (US public television documentary series) produced a 1991 film on Coney Island that is rich in archival imagery and video. Produced by Ric Burns (younger brother of Ken) in his debut documentary with colorful interviews of Eli Wallach, Al Lewis (Grandpa of the Munsters), and many others, the documentary conjures a sense of the magic and mystic of Coney Island and its three famed mechanical amusement parks - Steeplechase, Luna and Dreamland. Those parks set some of the standard practices still observed today including an enclosed park, dazzling nighttime light displays, adult play, and themed rides. The soundtrack is also mesmerizing and dreamy as the ride lights swirl into an abstract kaleidoscope. The stories of the park founders are compelling presented with highlights of their different visions and motivations. The film rewards repeat viewings to put one into a Coney Island state of mind at anytime.

 

Used DVD copies on Amazon are only about $5 and well worth picking up.

Victor Gruen's The Heart of Our Cities was one of Walt Disney's go-to books when conceptualizing EPCOT as the city of tomorrow. Though first published in 1964, Gruen's ideas and concepts are still relevant today. Dubbed the father of the enclosed shopping mall, a moniker he detested, Gruen wanted shopping areas to have aspects for community building and not only a mass of stores surrounded by an asphalt car parking lot. He bemoaned the difficulty of convincing merchants and banks to allocate funds for design and decorative elements, and features and functions unrelated to the sale of merchandise. Businesses feared flower beds would be targeted by thieves, kids would fall or swim in fountains, outdoor eateries would lead to litter, sculptures would get dirty or defaced, bright colors for paint would get dirty (therefore better to use grayish green paint which already looked dirty), tree roots would crack the pavement, planters would make snow removal cumbersome and maintenance and cleaning costs would be high. Gruen believed people enjoyed sharing life experiences in crowds such as at parades, baseball games, concerts and other gatherings for work or leisure. He particularly praised the cellular planning concept of Disneyland’s layout and mix of accompanying transportation systems within the park, but lamented (as Walt Disney did) the laissez-faire mess of billboards, motels, gas stations, bars, nightclubs and office buildings outside the gate that created disorder.

 

Featured throughout are photographs, designs, layouts and maps that demonstrate Gruen's acumen and forethought as a community designer. The book is written lucidly and cogently. Amazon has used copies for a minimum of $50, which bespeaks the continuing high value of the book for urban planners and stuents. However, university and local libraries should have a copy. Highly recommend this book if you're interested in the new urbanism movement and the genesis of Walt Disney's ideas for EPCOT.

A must read for fans of Disneyland's Main Street USA is Richard V. Francaviglia's Main Street Revisited: Time, Space, and Image-Building in Small Town America. Francaviglia, a history professor at the University of Texas: Arlington, traces the historical roots of Main Street up to the new urbanism and downtown revival movement that was, in large part, inspired by Walt Disney's Main Street (in addition to the Andy Hardy and It's a Wonderful Life films). Main Street for Americans is both a real place and a cherished myth. Main Street is an American symbol of the honest merchant, diligent townsfolk and accessible community government. The architectural line between Sleeping Beauty Castle and Victorian railroad station anchor the guest between fantasy and history while providing orientation to the park as landmarks that define and terminate vistas. Francaviglia counts Disneyland's merits while taking to task those academics who reflexively dismiss the park.

 

Featured throughout are period photographs and maps that richly demonstrate the genesis of community design into the industrial age. Francaviglia writes lucidly and cogently, and at  a little less than 200 pages, the book can be read briskly. Amazon  has used copies for about $5. Highly recommend this book if you're interested in the history and background of the iconic American Main Street and Walt Disney's idealized version at Disneyland.

First up is John F. Kasson's Amusing the Million, which is titled for the famous response given by Frederic Thompson (the co-founder and designer of the original Luna Park at Coney Island, New York City) when asked about the business of early 1900s Coney Island. Kasson, a historian at University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, fluently wrote this book for general audiences (there's not even an index, let alone chapters) and obviously with a lot of love for the subject. The book concentrates on Coney Island's heyday of beach and attractions (including the three great early amusement parks) that shaped American mass culture in the early 20th century. The debate over what constituted appropriate entertainment for the masses in the early 20th century makes for interesting reading. For example, roller coasters were considered by some as a corrupting influence on youth, and the parks were criticized for promoting an artificial life of illusory pleasure. Kasson ends the Coney Island story in the 1920s after the area's peak, but there are other books to be reviewed later to cover Coney to the present day.

 

Featured throughout are great period photographs and pictures. The cover photo is a great example of young women flouting the strict conventions of the Victorian time period to have some playful fun at the Coney beach. At only a little over 100 pages, the book can be read one sitting, but is well worth the time and even repeat visits. Amazon has used copies for about $5. Highly recommend this book if you're interested in the antecedents of modern theme parks.