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  • Writer's pictureGabriel San Roman

Slingshot: Disney Dominance in Anaheim--Then and Now

Three Anaheim City Council members took the oath of office last week after decisive victories in November's elections. Jose Diaz and Avelino Valencia arrived as newcomers; Steve Faessel returned for a second term. Disney spent lavishly on the trio to ensure they would help form a council supermajority friendly to the Mouse House. And so the beat goes on.

But just how long has Disney cast a mouse-eared shadow over Anaheim City Hall? It's useful to read Andrew Reovan's Theme Park in the City: Disneyland and the Aesthetic of the Anaheim Resort, a 2008 Stanford Urban Studies Honors Thesis to learn answers. Though it never delves into demographics, the study provides an overall good summation of Anaheim's transformations.

The first real dispute to arise between Disneyland and city hall, ironically, came in the form of a hotel project. In the early 1960s, a proposed Sheraton hotel drew the Mouse House's ire.

Poised to stand 258-feet tall, the Sheraton project would've been Orange County's tallest building, more than twice the height of the Matterhorn. The Planning Commission approved a permit for the $18 million, 750-room hotel, which drew howls from Disney.

Don Tatum, Disneyland's Vice President at the time, likened the Sheraton to a "visual intrusion," since it would be clearly seen by guests within the theme park. He warned that approval of the project would jeopardize future investment, a familiar tactic whenever Disney feels threatened.

Anaheim mayor Rex Coons invoked the $50 million investment that Disneyland represented in the city as one that "merits a certain amount of protection."

The first great Disney debate continued throughout 1964.

Virgil Pinkley, editor of the Anaheim Bulletin, weighed in with an op-ed that affirmed Disneyland's importance within limits. "It is neither a sacred shrine nor a natural resource," he wrote. "It is called a park in the sense of 'amusement park,' not 'national park.'"

Decades before Republican Anaheim mayor Tom Tait sparred with the Mouse, Pinkley felt imposing a height restriction represented an intrusion of another kind, by government into private property.

Walt Disney, himself, wrote a letter to council later that summer to shore up his company's position.

"While we believe in encouraging construction of hotels and motels for visitors," he wrote, "I find it hard to understand how anyone willing to make such an investment can fail to see or comprehend the importance of Disneyland's basic concept, to their own best interests as well as ours. Our main idea has always been to have a place where visitors could leave the everyday world behind them and enter our worlds of yesterday, tomorrow, adventure and fantasy."

A narrow council majority chopped the project down to 16-stories at first; Disney wanted no more than 11-stories. In September, the council invited planning commissioners to discuss new height restrictions for developments around Disneyland. Commissioner Melbourne Gauer (for whom the local Anaheim elementary school is named) described the theme park as "a work of art" and supported Disney's concerns.

Councilmembers ultimately passed a motion to direct the city attorney to prepare a 75-foot height limitation policy, acquiescing to Disney's demands in principle.

When developers sought approval for a 750-foot needle structure dubbed "Angel Spire" later that same month, the Planning Commission denied the project a permit without ever having to invoke Disneyland by name, though the company voiced protest once again. Instead, Angel Spire was labeled as an intrusion on Anaheim residents not named Mickey Mouse. Disney's interests quietly became the interests of the city's neighborhoods, not unlike the current narrative boosted by the AstroTurf pro-resort Anaheim First civic group and the council majority it supports.

Disneyland flexed its civic muscle--and Anaheim's never been the same since.

The Sheraton hotel still stands at the Anaheim Convention Center, in all its 13-stories, as a stunted testament to Disney's power at city hall--as does the current council supermajority.

Decades of Disney dominance, accentuated by the 1996 expansion deal and election spending enabled by Citizens United, has also left Anaheim with another definitive marker--an economy overly dependent on resort capitalism. The question of "for better or worse" sounded long before coronavirus ran amok.

"The lack of a diverse economy may prove to be a difficult conundrum for the city if a significant downtown in tourism reduces visitors to the Disneyland area," wrote Reovan back in 2008. "It remains to be seen whether the decision to favor this development has been more a benefit or a setback for the city."

- Gabriel San Román

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Naranja Notes

Alleging horrific conditions at homeless shelters, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a Dec. 10 lawsuit against both Orange County and Anaheim. The civil suit represents several plaintiffs who've stayed at La Mesa and Bridges at Kraemer in Anaheim as well as the Courtyard in Santa Ana.

It claims that women at the shelters faced sexual harassment and intrusive body searches. In addition, court documents spell out appalling conditions at the three OC shelters including rodent infestations and extreme temperatures.

"Unhoused residents of Orange County retain their civil rights when they enter homeless shelters, yet several of the largest shelters funded by the county and the City of Anaheim permit sexual harassment and substandard living conditions to flourish," said Minouche Kandel, senior staff attorney at the ACLU SoCal, in a press release. "The shelters and local government further violate residents’ freedom of movement by imposing lock-in/shut out policies in order to render shelter residents invisible to the communities in which they live."

Cyndi Utzman, a homeless woman, described multiple incidents of alleged sexual harassment at the Courtyard. She accused a staffer there of kicking her out in February 2019 after refusing a hug from him. When staying at La Mesa, Utzman claims staff routinely conducted invasive searches and told her to take off her bra or pull her pants away from her waist without any justification.

Jordynne Lancaster, another plaintiff in the suit, detailed numerous instances of harassment and groping by Courtyard staff. Like many others, she didn't immediately complain about such conduct for fear of being put back out on the streets.

"We are proud of our work to open shelters and for the role they have played helping people out of homelessness," city spokesman Mike Lyster tells the Slingshot on Anaheim's behalf. "Resident well-being and dignity are always priority, and we hold our operators to high standards with a process for concerns to be heard and addressed. We are reviewing what is being asserted here and defer any further comment for now."

In a statement to Spectrum News, County Supervisor Andrew Do cast doubts on the merits of the suit, saying "somebody is reaching here."

For its part, ACLU SoCal states that the rampant sexual harassment and squalid conditions detailed in court documents isn't just inhumane, but illegal.

Read the suit in its entirety here.

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