Thursday, April 30

Remembering "Busytown"

Herein, your humble author engages in an amateur childhood psychology self-diagnosis ...

While drinking my morning cup of coffee today, I suddenly had a flashback of all sorts of different animals dressed in human clothing bustling around a cartoon town, some carrying ladders and others dressed in lab coats with stethoscopes dangling from their necks. They were all rushing back and forth throughout the dense, mixed-use streetscape in buses, cars, bikes, and walking in all directions. Every shopfront window in every building had some crazy scene on display, and the whole town seemed to be pulsating with life. Then (I have no idea how I did this) the name Richard Scarry just popped into my head. This was a Richard Scarry drawing.

I spent hours as a child pouring over Richard Scarry books, focusing in on every little detail and how it all seemed to hold together in one town. I wanted to be that construction worker on the scaffolding waving to the police officer walking by. In many ways this was an ideal vision of life in community and a well-functioning economy, and millions of children in my generation were captivated by these images. Sure the vibrant colors and fuzzy animals didn't hurt, but I can't help but think we saw something good about human society all thrown together in the jumbled diversity of "busytown."

For many years, I completely forgot about Scarry's utopian (but so normal) urban vision, but I suppose these crazy illustrations, that had tapped into my childhood pysche, may have left a lasting impression. Perhaps Scarry's world is not so unattainable after all. Except for the anthropomorphic mammals, of course.


Sean Tubbs said...

I also grew up on these stories, and think that their vision is attainable. I had thought for some reason that Richard Scarry was English, but a quick trip to Wikipedia shows he was from New England. The form of development there has always been more urban, similar to how it is in England.

Benjamin Hemric said...

I'm not that familiar with the Richard Scarry books. (I suspect they weren't around when I was a kid.) But I thought you might be interested in seeing this (slightly revised) excerpt from a recent e-mail I wrote about children's books and urbanism.

- - - - - -

When my cousins' kids were young, I tried to give them books, toys, videos, etc. that I felt counteracted what seemed to me to be the mostly pro-suburbia, pro-auto, pro-planning (yes, pro-planning) propaganda that it seems to me kids have been routinely fed since at least the end of WWII (with anti-urban Disney cartoons, suburban Dick and Jane readers, etc.).

Here's a tentative list of favorable / unfavorable (and ambivalent) mentions:

- - - - - - - -

"The Little House," by Virginia Lee Burton --

Highest on the list, perhaps, is this anti-city, pro-planning "propaganda" that I, as a pre-schooler who was fascinated by cities, nevertheless found oddly pro-city too (with the "horrors" of urbanization being rather attractive, and the "salvation" of the countryside not being all that wonderful). Pro-market, but anti-city, Walt Disney (whom I still admire nevertheless) also produced a short animated cartoon version of the book too, I believe.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I also had a special liking for Virginia Lee Burton's other books, which, for some reason (and despite the anti-city, pro-planning philosophy underlying "The Little House") seemed more city-oriented than most other kids' picture books. (Maybe it was because of the illustrator and the illustrations?)

"Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel," by Virginia Lee Burton

Steam shovel gets stuck in basement while building skyscraper.

- - - - - - -

"Choo Choo," by Virginia Lee Burton

Great illustrations in the end-covers that seem to be a loose, panoramic view of the NYC metro area.

- - - - - - - -

"Little Toot," by Hardie Gramatky

The story of a little boy tug boat in what seems to be the big, busy harbor of NYC.

- - - - - -

"The Little Red Lighthouse," by Hildegarde Swift
(About a lighthouse made obsolete by the George Washington Bridge)

I think I might have missed this one when I was exactly the right age for it, but I believe I was nevertheless riveted by the the idea of a kids' book about a certifiably real place -- one that one might actually visit -- with a real (if slightly anthropomorphised) story.

- - - - - - - -

Ludwig Bemelmen's Madeline series, which I believe I only caught a glimpse of when I was a kid. But, if I remember correctly, they really capture the glory of Paris.

- - - - - - - - - .

The cartoons of the Fleischer Studios -- which for a good portion of their history were located in NYC -- were more urban oriented than Disney's and were favorites of mine.

For instance, there is a great (and somewhat nightmarish) short cartoon of Betty Boop getting lost in the subway.

They did a great feature-length cartoon which I vaguely recall as being delightfully urban: Mr. Bug Goes to Town (a/k/a Hoppity Goes to Town (1941).

- - - - -

Two of Disney's cartoons that I remember as being fun for their look at city life (i.e., London) were Peter Pan and The Lady and the Tramp.

For older kids, a definitely anti-city live-action film is Disney's original "Parent Trap" (which makes living in car-oriented suburban Arizona look much more fun than living in pedestrian oriented Beacon Hill, Boston).

- - - - - -

Toy trains -- When I was a kid, toy trains were still big, but all the accessories seemed to be about a small (but nevertheless charming) suburban town named "Pleasantville."

- - - - -

All in all, though, it seems to me that kids have been (and are) fed the rural / planned suburban ideal. No wonder "Market Urbanism" is such a hard sell -- it's gotten there at least 10 or 15 years too late!

# # #

Eric Orozco said...

I repeatedly read Richard Scarry's Find your ABC's countless and countless times as a kid. It was that and also the Bernstein Bears' Almanac, very similarly spirited. I didn't return to many other kid's books.

Something about animals semi-dressed as humans describe and relate lessons to kids about our humanity better...Maybe there is something in there about why I became an urbanist. These books described our world...introducing us to the immense variety of life around us, changing through life cycles, rituals, in different contexts, and granting us a desire to relate better to all of it. To this day, my image of the year progresses in my head like the Bears' Alamanac.

Anonymous said...

You are so right! I think Scarry's books left their mark on me, too.

I remember wishing that my town was more like that of the book--my autocentric Midwestern suburb was much the opposite, even though as a kid I couldn't explain why. We had none of the close community ties that the book had.

Now you've got me thinking about the pro/anti-urban slants of the other books I enjoyed reading as a kid...

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