Walt Disney, Stephen Miller and the Future of Jersey City

2 Nov

Buildings … are not discrete objects. They are building blocks of a democratic society. W. H. Auden once proposed that a civilization could be judged by “the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity attained.” In the spirit of service, architecture can contribute to both. Without the spirit of service, architecture can be a highly destructive force.

– Herbert Muschamp, Visions of Utopia

No doubt you are familiar with Walt Disney, the guy who made cartoons and nature documentaries, created the world’s first theme park, and gave his name to what is now the world’s largest entertainment company. But it’s been years since Disney himself appeared in the media – he died in 1966 – and his life story isn’t well-known, though there must be at least a dozen biographies of him (I’ve read four of them).

But what does Uncle Walt have to do with Stephen Miller and what do either of them have to do with the future of Jersey City?

And, by the way, WHO is Stephen Miller?

I don’t know how many laser cutters there are in Jersey City – 10, 20, 100, 763? I have no idea – but one of them is in his atelier off Harrison Street between Monticello and Bergen.

What’s a laser cutter?

It’s a high tech device used for cutting materials such as wood, plastic, leather, metal perhaps.

And what the h___ is an atelier?

It’s a workshop and design studio.

OK, gotcha, but what does that have to do with Walt Disney and what do they have to do with the future of Jersey City?

Let’s start with Walt Disney. Disney was an entertainer; he made movies and went on to build a theme park. Miller is an entertainer too, though of a different kind. He’s musician and a very good MC – he tells me he used to front a band. And he’s a slammin’ djembe player.

And I know a little about djembe players. When I lived in upstate New York I performed with Eddie “Ade” Knowles, a percussionist who toured as a percussionist with Gil Scott-Heron early in his career. I hear and feel the same power and nuance in Miller’s djembe playing that Ade has in his.

OK, so he’s an entertainer, there are lots of entertainers in the world…

Just cool your jets. Don’t go getting testy on me. I’m gettin’ there.

Take a look at this video (embedded below). It’s a promotional video that Disney prepared for Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) and it shows a small city that’s very different from and far more interesting than what the Disney Company eventually built in central Florida.

About 16 minutes in you’ll see an architectural model for the central building and transportation hub that Disney had planned (but that never got built). Well, those models don’t grow on trees – though such models often feature model trees. Someone has to build them. That’s how Miller makes his living; he makes architectural models.

An architect, say Norman Foster, has a client who’s about to sink $100,000,000 into a project. The client wants to see what he’s getting for all those spondulicks, and I don’t just mean plans and pretty 2D renderings. What the client really wants, of course, is to walk around and through the finished structure before it’s actually built and paid for. That’s not possible. But it is possible to build a scale model.

That’s Miller’s job. Foster shoots over the plans in Autocad format, Miller feeds them into the laser cutter, and the cutter spits out the parts. Miller assembles the parts into a model, sprinkles some artificial grass on the ground, plants artificial trees and shazayum! finished model, ready for client viewing.

Now, long before he even thought of Disneyland, much less Epcot, Walt Disney built models. As I put it in Walt Disney: A Career in Three Acts:

In the late 1940s Walt turned his attention to model railroads. Not only did he give them as gifts to himself, and his nieces and nephews, he also learned to construct them. He was already a respectable carpenter – skills he had learned from his father. Now he learned how to fabricate the metal parts necessary for a 1/8 scale railroad which was constructed in the yard at his new house. This railroad was his pride and joy; he loved operating the engine – which was a real steam engine, though not full-sized – and giving people rides on the train…

At the same time – the late 1940s – Disney began thinking about creating a “Mickey Mouse Park” on sixteen acres of land near the studio. The original purpose was to have a place where studio employees and visitors could park their children. But, as Disney thought about the park, and investigated amusement parks here and there, his aspirations became ever more elaborate, and ever different from standard amusement parks of the Coney Island type.

And thus Disneyland was born, a theme park that James Rouse – the real estate developer perhaps best-known for creating Columbia, Maryland – called “the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today” in a 1963 speech at Harvard University.

So you’re saying this Stephen Miller dude should be designing theme parks?

Well, not exactly. For one thing, I’m not at all sure he’d be interested in doing that. I’ve got something else in mind.


Jersey City.

Jersey City? What do you mean, Jersey City?

Jersey City’s got to plan for the future, right?


At some point that planning’s going to require models…

And you’re saying Miller should get the gig…

Well, maybe, if he wants it. But I’ve got something subtler in mind.

Miller’s a world-class model-builder and he’s living right here in Jersey City. He’s got young daughters. He cares about them, and he cares the city. He’s been involved with UMMI’s Living Village Community Garden, which is right up the street from his atelier, and with the Good Vibes Music Collective. I’ll bet he has ideas, good ideas, about where the city should go. What’s he going to do with those ideas? Yeah, he can vote, but politicians are dominated by short-term thinking. So how’s he going to shape the long-term future of the city?

I don’t know.

Well I don’t know either. But I figured I’d put it out there as an issue.

How many Stephen Miller’s are there in this city, and how are they going to shape the city’s future? There are some amazing people in this city, and if the city doesn’t figure out how tap into their passion and creativity, the city’s going to go down the tubes.

* * * * *

If you want to think about the future of Jersey City, here are some resources I’d recommend. These aren’t about urban planning. You need to start from outside that box before you venture inside. You need to consider human possibility.

First, watch that video about Disney’s original vision for Epcot. It’s available on DVD too as part of the Walt Disney Treasures series, Tomorrow Land: Disney in Space and Beyond (though you might have to get a used copy). You might also want to read about Disney himself. I recommend Michael Barrier’s The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney; the last three chapters cover Disneyland and Epcot. To put Disneyland in perspective, take a look at Gary Cross and John Walton, The Playful Crowd: Pleasure Places in the Twentieth Century. They start with Coney Island and Blackpool (in England) at the beginning of the 20th Century and devote a chapter to Disneyland and its successors and imitators.

And then there’s Expo: Magic of the White City, a documentary about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. That fair saw the world’s first Ferris Wheel, Kellog’s Corn Flakes, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, Little Egypt dancing the hoochie coochie on the midway, Phoenix Hall – the stunning Japanese Pavilion, the first moving walkway, and the first large-scale demonstration of alternating current, which powered the fair. Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City weaves the story of the architect who designed the fair, Daniel Burnham – who also designed New York City’s Flatiron Building, with the story of a serial killer working Chicago at the time of the fair. It’s a fascinating book.

World Island, a Global Commons by Bill Benzon

I’ve uploaded a set of World Island documents to Scribd, HERE. World Island was conceived by my friend, Zeal Greenberg, as a combination of the United Nations, Disney World, a kid’s rumpus room, the trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and the Taj Mahal. The plan was originally submitted in a 2006 competition GIPEC (Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation) held for the development of Governors Island in New York Harbor. None of the entries were accepted. The document set includes the executive summary from that submission, a 133 page briefing book, and an 88 slide presentation.

Jersey City itself has developed a number of planning documents over the years. The Hudson Reality Group has a number of them ready for download HERE. You will find the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation’s 2010 strategic plan HERE (PDF).


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