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The Boston Phoenix Mickey Marx

Disney's planned community doesn't work as planned

By Robert David Sullivan

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999: 

The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Values in Disney's New Town, by Andrew Ross (Ballantine Books), 352 pages, $25.95.

It's a sign of good taste to hate the Walt Disney Company, and so the selling point of The Celebration Chronicles is that America's most successful fantasy factory has stumbled badly in trying to control real life. This is such an unsurprising conclusion that one may wonder why author Andrew Ross, a professor of American studies at New York University, had to live an entire year in the Disney-designed town of Celebration, Florida, in order to tote up the problems there.

Ross throws some red meat to the Disneyphobes early in his book. Most vividly, he exposes the shoddy construction of the homes in Celebration, which took in its first residents in 1997 and is slowly working toward a population of 20,000. The leaky roofs and sloping floors are blamed on Disney's use of low-wage labor, which is at least consistent with the way the company makes T-shirts. And the new homeowners' reluctance to run to the press with their problems is symptomatic of their paralyzing fears about property values. (Bad publicity would mean that the homeowners would take a bath financially if they tried to flee paradise.) But Ross doesn't gloat over these developments, nor does he turn The Celebration Chronicles into a horror story about the town's popular "aesthetic" laws that prevent residents from putting signs in their windows or ragged houseplants on their balconies. Some of the more bizarre features here, such as "the Muzak piped into the street from speakers buried in the base of the palm trees," are mentioned without comment. You'll be disappointed if you expect something like the recent X-Files episode in which the president of a gated community conjured up a demon to eat the stubborn owners of unauthorized lawn ornaments.

Despite its remote location, surrounded by swampland and highways, Celebration is designed to be the opposite of a gated community. Ross describes it as an ambitious experiment in New Urbanism, a movement that has "declared war on auto-driven development and vowed to reintroduce suburban Americans to the civic virtues of active community involvement." New Urbanist features include high density; short blocks; the mixing of residential, retail, and entertainment uses on the same street; and a population of diverse incomes and professions. Among the best-known neighborhoods to incorporate these features are Boston's North End and New York's Greenwich Village, but Ross points out that "the proving ground of New Urbanism has been in suburbia," where there are more opportunities to build from scratch.

Ross concludes that Celebration is generally a good-faith effort to put New Urbanism into practice. The town is completely open to visitors (and a lot of them are there simply to gawk at the residents), the main streets are bustling with pedestrians, and there are enough potluck dinners and block parties to satisfy anyone's craving for potato salad. The residents bond with each other through jokes about living in a fishbowl, and Ross discovers a rich vein of urban legends in this town without a history (most of them, like the surveillance cameras in the streets that apparently don't exist, can be traced to the infamous methods of crowd control at Disney World).

Not that everything is going as planned. Housing prices and apartment rents in Celebration are so high that its population isn't so different from that of a gated community after all. African-Americans and single people are rare in Celebration, and because they are so rare, others like them are reluctant to move in. The retail businesses cater mostly to tourists, and the residents drive to malls for their basic goods, making the town as "auto-driven" as any other in Florida. The citizens of Celebration also turn up their noses at the more avant-garde architecture downtown, and they've rallied to fight the relatively unstructured teaching methods in the local high school. (Ross, who has been an educator for his entire adult life, devotes a large chunk of the book to this battle over pedagogy, but its connection to New Urbanism is tenuous at best.)

These unintended consequences make it easy to sneer at Celebration, but Ross doesn't let city dwellers off that easily. He attacks a double standard that says it's good for "gentrifying urbanites" to restore townhouses but vulgar for suburbanites to buy Disney-manufactured replicas of those townhouses. More ominous for back-to-the-city cheerleaders such as myself, Ross toys with the conclusion that only a benevolent dictatorship such as Disney could come this far in implementing New Urbanism. He quotes Andres Duany, a leader of the New Urbanist movement who seems to view democracy as a terrible inconvenience: "When given the chance to make decisions, more often than not, citizens will make palpably wrong ones. They are usually against mixed use. They are always against higher density; they love five-acre zoning. . . . "

Duany is not wrong in this assessment, as anyone familiar with neighborhood groups in Boston can attest. The Celebration Chronicles lowered my already sinking expectations about the emerging South Boston Waterfront -- once called the Seaport and still touted by some as the most promising experiment in New Urbanism on the East Coast (the inner-city counterpart to Celebration, if you will). I cannot bring myself to believe that condo owners in the new South Boston will behave any differently than homeowners in Celebration or in the most exclusive gated communities: once they're in, they'll be more concerned with property values than with New Urbanism, and they will strenuously oppose any attempts to make the area more "mixed" and vibrant. In Celebration, however, the Disney Company is keeping such attempts at landowners' democracy on a short leash.

By the end of the book, Ross expresses doubts about the viability of New Urbanism, and I began to think of the movement as similar to Marxism: laudable in spirit but impossible to put into practice. Disney's Celebration started to look a lot like Castro's Cuba, a holdout against the American way of restrictive zoning and electronic security fences.

Viva la revolución de Mickey Mouse!


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