When my son was 5, my family made a pilgrimage to Disney World in Orlando, Fla. He was a huge fan of all things make-believe and so a trip to Disney's dream park and resort seemed like a good idea. We were there for several days and found the place suitably exhausting. We were thrilled by the Pirates of the Caribbean and delighted by our encounters with giant, ambling incarnations of Donald Duck and Goofy. It was colorful fun. But the part I remember best was our visit to Disney's version of foreign lands - the London street scene, the North African bazaar, our dinner at the foot of a volcano in Mexico.
We seem to love authentic replicas. An authentic replica is something that looks like the real thing only it's different. It has no history, it is easily reproduced and it is almost certainly very clean.
Although these interpretations of different lands and cultures were, in fact, no less cartoonish than the Pirates of the Caribbean, their seeming desire to literally transport us to other continents created a kind of confusion of consciousness. Where the other Disney attractions relied on outlandish costumes and odd takes on historical periods for their effects, the international sites exploited an unexpected realism. It was one thing to pretend you were escaping buccaneers or living in an impossibly elaborate tree house. But here we were being asked to pretend that ... we were in England.
The difference was that the only way to lay eyes on a pirate was to buy a ticket on Disney's ride. But for roughly the cost of a trip to Disney World, you could actually travel to England and see the real thing.
What made the experience even stranger was the sneaking feeling that, as far as many of the people around me were concerned, the Disney versions of these foreign lands were preferable to the places themselves.
I was reminded of our trip to Disney World by the news last week that Simon Property Group wants to build a $100 million project with a hotel, offices, housing, what they call "Main Street shopping," restaurants and a movie theater in Noblesville. The name of this development is Hamilton Town Center.
The funny thing, of course, is that Noblesville already has a town center - it's called the Town Square. Up until now, Noblesville has worked hard to preserve its historic, Midwestern character. In addition to its square, it has a fair share of nicely maintained older houses located on tree-lined streets. It's the kind of place where you might expect to see Mom or Dad out for a walk on Saturday afternoon, pulling the kids in a red wagon. Noblesville is the very definition of the "Main Street experience" Simon wants to build - in Noblesville.
Hamilton Town Center will be built on 97 acres. An article about the project in The Indianapolis Star quotes Patrice Duker, a spokeswoman for something called the International Council of Shopping Centers, saying that she didn't think Hamilton Town Center would threaten existing enclosed malls and shopping centers in the area, so we can all breathe a hearty sigh of relief. Practically all of these places are already owned by Simon anyway, but never mind. The question really should be: What's it going to do to the real, live town that Noblesville is - or, at least, has been?
In the Star story, Noblesville city officials say they expect the project to give a new identity to the town. That seems assured. What also seems likely is that it will succeed for the same reasons that have made Disney World such a success. We seem to love what you might call authentic replicas. An authentic replica is something that looks like the real thing only it's different. It has no history, it is easily reproduced and it is almost certainly very clean. Authentic replicas have not grown over time or had to respond to changing circumstances. They are sentimental, which is to say they suggest a world from which everything complicated, including honesty, has been thoroughly scrubbed.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of the authentic replica is its predictability. While Simon officials are being coy about exactly what stores will be located in Hamilton Town Center, a walk around Circle Centre or the Fashion Mall is probably instructive. One thing's almost certain: Mom and Pop or family-owned businesses (unless you count the Simon Property Group, that is) will be hard to come by. But, of course, whose problem is that?
According to The Star: "Simon officials say this village concept appeals to today's busy shoppers, who are nostalgic for a Main Street experience and appreciate the ease of storefront parking."
All this and 2,700 jobs to boot. What could be better?
Nothing, unless you're one of those people who want to know what a real Main Street experience is like. Those people have been able to go to the real Noblesville, enjoy its town square and leafy streets. I'm sure Noblesville's elected officials are saying it can always be this way. Unfortunately, the business districts in other Indiana small and medium-sized towns haven't done well when faced with parallel developments like this one. People, it seems, are only nostalgic to a point.
And today in Noblesville, the point is this: Construction begins next spring; Hamilton Town Center will be open by fall 2007.