IMAGINE IF YOU WERE given the opportunity to live in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Your house: the fairytale castle to end ‘em all. Your neighbors: life-sized versions of animated animals. Your dinner: a healthy serving of hopes and dreams.
But would you feel at home? Knowing that it’s all an artificial facade meant to trick the mind, if only briefly, that such a place evolved naturally–could you live your life as if it were The Truman Show and you were in on the experiment?
Calling the following cities “fake” is not to undermine their uniqueness. And many of them are equally entitled and equipped to call themselves legitimate communities. They are not artificial in the theme-park way that EPCOT pretends to be the Experimental Community Prototype of Tomorrow, but neither are they “real” cities, like New York or London. They exist somewhere in between the real and the artificial, and if you can get past the initial faux-culture-shock, you might realize that your own hometown is no more real than the meaning you’ve endowed it with.
The fake Afghan villages in California
In a combination of the War on Terror and Hollywood superficiality, there currently exist around 15 fully-functioning fake Afghan and Iraqi villages in California’s Mojave Desert, designed to look like probable conflict zones in the Middle East.
But this place – Fort Irwin – is not just a training park. Hundreds of Arabic-speaking civilian actors fill the set-villages pretending to be anyone from fruit vendors to local police, including amputee actors whose role it is to mimic an injured or dying victim of an attack — simulated, of course, by an onslaught of pyrotechnics.
The military town’s total population is a little over 8,000, and for just about anyone in the US or Canadian military preparing to enter the Middle Eastern theater, they’ll likely stop here to train before setting out. So where does that leave Fort Irwin? Can we consider it anything more than a training base, or at best a Census Designated Place? Is it less of a town and community than, say, Mt. Vernon, Indiana, population 6,700?
The fake Ukranian town used as a movie set…for 6 years
On the outskirts of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkov, there exists a fake town constructed as a movie set for a film called Dau that is home to over 210,000 cast and crewmembers. They all live and pretend to dress according to Stalin-era lifestyles. Few have ever left the project, and it’s been going on since 2006 and isn’t planned to end until at least 2012.
Michael Idov wrote about it for GQ in “The Movie Set That Ate Itself“:
“The set, seen from the outside, is an enormous wooden box jutting directly out of a three-story brick building that houses the film’s vast offices, workshops, and prop warehouses. The wardrobe department alone takes up the entire basement. Here, a pair of twins order me out of my clothes and into a 1950s three-piece suit complete with sock garters, pants that go up to the navel, a fedora, two bricklike brown shoes, an undershirt, and boxers. Black, itchy, and unspeakably ugly, the underwear is enough to trigger Proustian recall of the worst kind in anyone who’s spent any time in the USSR. (I lived in Latvia through high school.) Seventy years of quotidian misery held with one waistband.
Most everyone reporting the story compares it to the movie Synecdoche, New York, in which a megalomaniacal director starts building a massive, fake town within a massive warehouse where everyone plays someone else’s character. But this one is real. This teeters somewhere between a performance art film and a cult, and I’m inclined to lean on the cultish side of things.
And while I expected a massive, gruff, long-white-haired madman for the director, I was surprised to see he looks like a normal, nerdy film major.
The fake Mars colony in Utah
Mars. Probably the best-known planet after our own, people have always become fixated upon it for as a place of promising potential — partly due to its proximity (only about 55 million kilometers), but perhaps also due to some famous Martians throughout history.
Spearheading the exploration and colonization effort of Mars is the Mars Society, whose purpose is “to explore and settle the planet Mars.” But since they can’t yet find a viable ride to Mars, they’re settling for the next best place: just outside nowhere, Utah, where the Mars Desert Research Station is home to a collective of aspiring Martianauts living in small, space-minded dorms in the desert, running test simulations on how they will one day explore the red rock.
Certainly this isn’t a town or even a village, you say, much less a city. But every city must begin somewhere, as a colony, as an outpost–and in the future, maybe every colony and outpost will need to begin as a simulation. I don’t know. But what I do know is this: Utah is not Mars.
The fake Atlantic City Boardwalk
Near the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn, the forces behind HBO’s Boardwalk Empire constructed a 300-foot-long boardwalk designed to look exactly like the old-timey Atlantic City Boardwalk from which the series gains its name. It cost over $5 million to construct, and although HBO was skeptical about investing so much into the project, the show’s creator, Terrence Winter, said, “I kept thinking ‘We can’t call it ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and not see a boardwalk.” Agreed.
But you’ve got to wonder: what will become of the Boardwalk once the series has run its course? Will it be dismantled and removed, abandoned and left for squatters, or taken over by a group of anachronism-inclined hipsters who dress in Depression-era clothing? Given the recent speakeasy revival scene, it doesn’t seem implausible.
The fake version of Paris used to distract the Germans
Perhaps this fake city never was able to truly live up to its artificial potential, but it’s an interesting story nonetheless. In Paris during World War I, the Germans were coming by air to bomb the hell out of the city and the French didn’t know what to do. So they decided to build a fake city — a fake Paris, in fact — hoping that the German planes wouldn’t know the difference and would destroy the false cityscape.
But the city was never finished before the last air raid by the Germans, so it was never tested and was dismantled after the war. Even stranger to consider is the idea of the city being finished, left to stand, and then subsequently inhabited by a group of nouveau-Parisians.
The Other Fake Paris and Fake European Towns in China
In a country known for its fake bags, fake cell phones, and fake Apple stores, it may not come as a surprise to you that the Chinese have begun building their own artificial versions of scenic European villages as a way for less wealthy (or more artificially-inclined) tourists to travel abroad without leaving home.
One of the best known examples of this is Thames Town, named after the River Thames in England. The builder notes that “the architecture both imitates and is influenced by classic English market town styles. There are cobbled streets, Victorian terraces, corner shops—empty as in an abandoned film set.”
In addition to a fake Foggy London Town, Chinese substitutes for Paris, Vienna, New York, and Zurich among others have sprouted up around the Chinese district of Songjiang. But despite their Hollywood-esque artificiality, they don’t come cheap: Thames Town alone cost $785 million to accomodate 10,000 people.
The fake North Korean border town
Slightly within the DMZ between North and South Korea, there’s a little North Korean settlement known as Kijŏngdong–or as the South Koreans like to call it, “Propaganda Village.”
The North Koreans claim that 200 families call the “city” home, and that it includes a childcare center, kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, and a hospital. But through an ironic plot twist in the ideological war between the two Koreas, although no visitors are allowed, Kijŏngdong is the only place in North Korea that can be seen from anywhere across the border–which means that the South Koreans can see that the city is completely deserted all of the time. The buildings also don’t have any windows or subdivided rooms, and the biggest event of the day occurs when some lights flicker on and off at set times to create the illusion of people living there.
Probably my favorite part about this story is the so-called “War of the Flagpole.” In the 1980s, the South built a 323-foot flagpole in their border town across from the fake propaganda village. In response, the North built an even taller one–525 feet–with an even more massive flag, currently the third tallest flag in the world.
The $200 million fake city in New Mexico
A company called Pegasus Global (already sounds fake, eh?)–apparently an “international technology development firm”–recently announced plans to build what they’re calling “The Center for Innovation,” which will resemble a mid-sized American city with “urban canyons, suburban neighborhoods, rural communities and distant localities.”
It will also lighten their wallet to the tune of about $200 million.
It’s basically a fake city being built for companies to test new technologies (green energy, wireless tech, robot overlords, so on and so forth). “The idea for The Center was born out of our own company’s challenges in trying to test new and emerging technologies beyond the confines of a sterile lab environment,” said Robert H. Brumley, Pegasus Global’s CEO. “As entrepreneurs, we saw a global need and stepped up to address it.” So essentially, companies will pay rent to use the city as a maze for themselves, the lab rats. And although it could accommodate a population of 35,000, not a single person will be a Center for Innovationite.
Who said the housing market was dead?
The Fake Syrian Cities Being Used to Stage a Revolution
Okay, so these probably don’t exist. But a few Syrian news outlets have claimed that the Al Jazeera news network has actually been building fake cities in the desert and filming artificial scenes of unrest, protest, and revolution in an effort to make people think that the uprising they’re seeing on TV and online is actually a big sham.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that those cities we are seeing demonstrating against the Syrian regime are not fake. It does, however, pose an interesting question about what a city really is, what they mean for people and what they enable us to do.
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Jason Wire graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2010 and spent the year after writing and teaching English in Spain. He's back in the states now, but doesn't know where. Follow him @wirejr.
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