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Fantasy City: Pleasure and profit in the postmodern metropolis

John Hannigan
Routledge: London
0415150981 (pb)
£14.99 (pb)

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This fascinating account of predominantly American cities takes the reader on a journey spanning almost a century, from the drive-ins of New Jersey and the casinos of Las Vegas, to beyond the Pacific Rim. He charts the rise of the "fantasy city" and its place in the new urban economy rooted in tourism, sports, culture and entertainment. Hannigan's 'behind the scenes' revelation of contemporary changes in primarily North American cities is made all the more compelling by its grounding in the numerous examples of 'fantasy' developments, from 'themed' parks and restaurants to the 'palaces of consumption' which contemporary shopping malls and city centre 'designer quarters' have become.

The first part of the book is largely descriptive, consisting of three chapters that comprise a chronological account of US cities over the last century. This is useful as it provides the reader with a historical backdrop in which to situate the theoretical positions discussed in later chapters. Hannigan begins by describing early twentieth century American cities as sites of cultural consumption and production. He observes the rise of commercial or popular culture in urban areas, a shift influenced by increased leisure time, rising incomes, technological advances and the appearance of new forms of capital. During this era, which he terms 'the golden age', it appeared that the working and middle classes were harmoniously sharing public space. However, as Hannigan indicates, the 'good natured' working class crowd did not have a role in 'democracy's theater' for long, as entrepreneurs began to set out their stalls in more convivial surroundings, relocating from the downtown storefront nickleodeons to elaborate middle class vaudeville theaters (p 18-20). In short, social exclusion became evident as soon as was financially feasible. The glamour and excitement of this era was short-lived, as the rise of the suburbs resulted in the city being increasingly viewed as a place of danger. Those residing in the suburbs wanted clean and safe environments in which to spend their leisure time and disposable income, resulting in the rise of ex-urban theme parks. In chapter three Hannigan notes that the city learnt its lessons, and with the help of the planners made a comeback in the early 1980s as a fun place to be, by placing culture at its core. He observes, quite rightly, that this regeneration was aimed at attracting a certain type of person - young adults who were educated and affluent. The public/private nature of the city is also discussed with regard to the economy and the increasing appeal of cities for private global corporations such as Disney. What is important here is that Hannigan is arguing that the notion of the city as a centre of consumption is not new, but the way we consume is.

In part two of the book (chapters four and five) Hannigan develops this argument, stating that consumption is increasingly 'sanitized', a declaration that rings true with risk being so prevalent in today's society, as Beck (1992) and Giddens (1990) have also commented. Technology plays a major part in this process, with virtual experiences reducing the risk involved. Experiences also become packaged with little attention paid to the actual place which is being regenerated, a process more commonly known as 'Disneyfication' (Sorkin 1992):the history of a setting is displaced as large corporations remake public space, and therefore public culture. The tried and tested Disney formula needs no adaptation to location, it works everywhere and best of all has little or no risk associated with it in the eyes of developers. Chapter five concentrates on what Hannigan terms 'shopertainment, eatertainment and edutainment'. All of these are present in the 'theme park city', which is increasingly rationalized and controlled, as is indicated with reference to Ritzer (1993) and the 'McDonaldization' of society. Hannigan also explores business strategies outside the world of Disney, and discusses how large corporations are not only extending their range of products and services in a move towards 'flexible accumulation' (Harvey 1990), but also producing 'synergies' involving brand extension. These synergies result in a seemingly never-ending stream of merchandise evolving from one original product, such as a box office hit, or a restaurant such as the Hard Rock Café. The central tenet of this section of the book is that leisure activities such as shopping, eating and education now have an extra component embodied in them - entertainment, an activity associated with fun, leisure and optimism.

The final section (chapters six to ten) opens with an explanation of the economies of postmodern cities, which concentrates on the private players who are rapidly gaining dominance and power. Hannigan argues that the notion of risk is recognised here, and corporations develop strategies designed to counter failure: this supports his earlier theory that the city is increasingly rationalized. Chapter seven concentrates on the dynamics of public/private relations in urban areas, the emphasis here being diverse approaches, aims and intentions in the urban revitalization process. It is clear the Hannigan is quite rightly concerned about the effects of these projects on local residents and landscapes, a view also expressed by Zukin (1995). Whilst Hannigan does acknowledge that in some activities, such as sport, increased commodification has achieved some success in uniting individuals regardless of class, he is also aware that when considering urban regeneration as a whole the process is highly problematic. He advocates the development of controls that will ensure that the public as well as the private sector benefit both economically and socially in revitalization projects. Chapter eight concentrates on gambling and the city, and Hannigan employs the case study of Las Vegas as a methodological tool to illustrate the success of gambling in regulated 'theme park' city environments. It is clear here, however, that Vegas is an exception rather than the rule, as is illustrated by those who have attempted to imitate it and failed. In chapter nine, Hannigan widens the revitalization debate, giving a commentary on developments in the Asia-Pacific rim, a refreshing change in a world where America is often the most quoted example. Whilst this geographical area may have been inspired by America, it is argued quite rightly that cultural difference plays a part in the regeneration process.

In the final chapter, Hannigan states that the economic losers in many revitalization projects are those in local communities (the winners being the large corporations), that safe, random encounters are more difficult due to the restrictive nature of areas such as theme parks, and finally that distinctiveness is difficult to retain in the postmodern city. He concludes that "Fantasy City lacks the social and aesthetic unity of the descript community" (p. 199), and poses important questions. What is more important, cultural diversity or pre-packaged urban entertainment destinations? Do we want our cities to be overrun with tourists? More importantly, he asks in a similar vein to Zukin (1995) "are we willing to give up the attempt to create a descript city in which the "dream of public culture" (Zukin 1995: 294) flourishes?" (p. 200). In other words, when regenerating urban space, which in turn leads to the remaking of public culture, it is essential to identify whose 'dreams' are being realised, and whose 'dreams' should be placed highest on the agenda. Whilst Hannigan is clear that the current state of affairs has resulted in his rather pessimistic view of postmodernity, it has also led him (and in turn leads the reader) to ask important questions about the hierarchy of power in urban revitalization. Hannigan offers no ready solutions to the problems posed, though this approach has its benefits, as there is certainly plenty to contemplate. As with most good books on this subject, one is left a little dejected, yet simultaneously inspired by the quest for answers.

Joanne Massey
Manchester Metropolitan University


BECK (1992) Risk Society - Sage.

GIDDENS (1990) The Consequences of Modernity – Polity Press.

HARVEY (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity – Blackwell.

RITZER (1993) The McDonaldization of Society – Pine Forge Press.

SORKIN (1992) Variations on a Theme Park – Hill and Wang.

ZUKIN (1995) The Cultures of Cities - Blackwell.

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