Pleasantville

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – September 6, 1999

 

Pleasantville

Can Disney reinvent the burbs?

AT THE END OF HIS LIFE,Walt Disney decided he wanted to create a perfect
late-twentieth-century town from scratch in the middle of Florida—a
real town with real citizens which he called, in mid-sixties Strangelovian
fashion, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT. After
Disney died, in 1966, his company, in its tapped-out post-visionary slough,
did build something called EPCOT, as part of Disney World, but when it finally
appeared, in the early eighties, it turned out to be nothing like Walt’s
utopian dream. It’s not experimental, not a prototype, not a community.
Rather, it’s just another theme park, an unending world’s fair
even thicker with product placement and more depressingly ersatz than the
Magic Kingdom. EPCOT is the apotheosis of middle-period Bad Disney.

Not long after EPCOT opened, new management took
over the company, and revived Disney’s old sense of giddy expansiveness.
The new Smart Disney commissioned famous architects to build interesting
buildings, produced animated features that were as good as the ones the
studio used to make, acquired the film company Miramax, and helped redevelop
Times Square.

Smart Disney has also created Celebration, a three-year-old
town near Disney World that has been in development for nearly fourteen
years. Celebration is the real EPCOT—the quasi-democratic, postmodern fulfillment of Walt’s
totalitarian, late-modern vision. Instead of monorails and a transparent
dome, Celebration is being built according to the folk wisdom of American
towns from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. Instead
of an acronym, the new town has a real name, absurdly upbeat and hyper-American.
(“Celebration” is different from New Hope, Pennsylvania, or Magic
City, Texas, or Niceville, Florida, only in the sense that those older place-names
weren’t trademarked.)

According to high-end conventional wisdom, still
committed to the idea of Bad Disney, nearly anything that the company concocts
is inherently suspect— sure
to be just another shiny, treacly, relentlessly mass-marketed piece of dreck,
part of a commercial culture that is already so Disneyfied that it makes
you feel short of breath. So when, on top of its movies and theme parks and
home videos and toys and sitcoms and books and magazines and TV news programs
and Web sites and cruise ships, the company dares to fabricate a whole new
town, the thinking person’s unthinking instinct has been to fear and
loathe.

And yet Celebration (pop. 2,500) is vastly superior, aesthetically and probably
spiritually, to ninety-nine per cent of the new housing developments in America.
It has an architecturally ambitious town center, which Disney built long
before there were enough residents to justify the shops. The old-fashionedlooking
clapboard houses, available in a sensibly limited number of pattern-book
styles and colors, have simple, classic exteriors; most have porches. Even
the largest lots are less than a third of an acre, so houses are close together
and a tendency to neighborliness is built in.

These are the basics of the New Urbanism, an influential
architectural and town-planning movement of the past decade, which looks
to the vernacular forms of old American towns as a guide for contemporary
development. Of course, a place like Savannah (one of the models for Celebration
and other New Urbanist places even before John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of
Good and Evil” made it an icon) wasn’t designed to be charming
and funky; it just ended up that way. A pair of new books with an identical
premise—babyboomer New York authors move to Celebration for a year
in order to write about it—bear the same relation to “Midnight
in the Garden” that Celebration itself does to Savannah: whereas Berendt
stumbled onto his rich Savannah characters and stories, and took most of
a decade to write his book about them, both “The Celebration Chronicles” (Ballantine;
$25.95), by the New York University professor Andrew Ross, and “Celebration,
U.S.A.” (Holt; $25), by the Times reporter Douglas Frantz and his wife,
Catherine Collins, have a deadline-driven determination to simulate the languid,
accidental beauty of the real thing.

Both books take the struggle over the Celebration
School as their narrative focus, since their authors were all living in
the town during the 1997-98 school year, when a founding group of hippie-progressive
teachers and administrators were besieged by an uprising of dissatisfied
parents. Both books read like oversized news-magazine stories, larded with
historical and sociological clichés; sometimes the perceptions and the language are almost indistinguishably
trite. “Route 192,” Ross writes of the highway just outside Celebration, “plays
host to every species of franchise eatery, T-shirt shack, and factory discount
outlet known to the modern consumer.” Frantz and Collins write of the
same strip, “The bad-tempered congestion on the four-lane road passes
multiple outlets of every fast-food chain known to mankind [and] countless
T-shirt shops.” (The authors, it seems, hardly met during the year
that both spent there doing the same things in the same little town in the
middle of Florida. According to Ross, when he tried to hook up with Frantz
and Collins, they told him that their editor at Henry Holt had forbidden
them to fraternize with their rival. And, unless I missed it, they don’t
mention him at all in “Celebration, U.S.A.”)

INSTALLING Andrew Ross in Celebration was the more
arresting of the authorial concepts, given his personal and professional
profile. He is an unmarried, dark, dashing, irreverent Scottish hipster
who runs the American Studies Program at N.Y.U. He has published strenuously
cutting-edge books such as “No
Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture” and “Real Love: In
Pursuit of Cultural Justice.” He wears earrings. Surely Ross’s
publisher—and maybe even Ross himself—expected a cosmopolite’s
entertaining, sharply observed fish-out-of-water story. Immediately upon
arriving in Florida, he buys a 1985 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, which seems
like a sign of ironic high spirits to come—when in Middle America he
will do as the Middle Americans do, but with a big, knowing wink. After one
page of fun at the expense of some fauxsophisticated interior decorators,
however, the culture clash disappears. Ross plunges into the whole-wheat
Wonder Bread communitarianism of the place— befriending retired military
men, ministering to (and smoking cigarettes with) alienated local teen-agers,
and becoming a volunteer fixture at the school. Instead of “The Truman
Show,” we get “Dangerous Minds.”

Ross is a likable and an intermittently entertaining
observer of the social ecology. Among the many homosexual employees of
Disney World, he discovers, the butch gays tend to be stationed in Tomorrowland
and the swishier ones at Space Mountain. He plausibly asserts (but unfortunately
doesn’t
depict) the existence of a sort of Hawthorne effect in Celebration: in an
experimental prototype community of tomorrow, children feel undue pressure
to perform well in school, and adults “had perfected the art of soundbiting” for
visiting reporters.

For someone who spent a whole year living in Celebration,
and conducted “six
or seven hundred hours of interviews,” Ross has produced a book surprisingly
devoid of vivid scenes. He quotes people, sometimes acutely (“What
we need are a few drunks around this town,” one man remarks), but the
lines are almost all free-floating, cited in isolation to illustrate some
point. He mentions a mixer for Celebration’s gay residents, for instance,
but then, astonishingly, barely describes it. His architectural history is
muddled, both in the details and in the big picture. He refers to the conical
section of Robert A. M. Stern’s building for the Disney animation department
in Burbank as a giant “Mad Hatter’s hat”; the model, of
course, was Mickey Mouse’s cap from “Fantasia.” “If
the postmodernists set out to return the profession of design to a more democratic
plane,” Ross writes, “the doors they intended to open were not
exactly rushed by the masses. Their populist aims were largely thwarted by
the 1970s recession.” In fact, the rise of postmodern architecture
came during the ten years after the 1973-75 recession, and iterations of
the style dominated architecture—from downtown skyscrapers to suburban
shopping malls—for much of the last two decades.

According to Frantz and Collins, who bought a house
in Celebration (Ross, the bohemian, rented an apartment), a majority of
the families there had school-age children, and the promise of an excellent
education had been a major draw. What most of those parents evidently didn’t realize before
they arrived was that the school that Disney and its Harvard and Johns Hopkins
consultants invented was “alternative” in the extreme. There
were no course grades and virtually no books.Ten-yearolds shared classrooms
with five-yearolds. Each child was essentially responsible for his or her
own curriculum. Students and teachers were called “learners” and “learning
leaders,” a classroom was a “nurturing neighborhood,” and
a student assembly a “grand kiva.” In lieu of grades, children
received gloppy P.C. assessments—“knows the rewards of giving
one’s energies for a larger good” and “respects human diversity
as part of our multicultural society and world.” Frantz and Collins’s
twelveyear- old son even felt obliged to slowdown his reading to the level
of his classmates.

As the year proceeded, the pedagogical conservatives finally could not contain
their unhappiness; they organized grievance committees and threatened to
withdraw their children from Celebration School. A sense of crisis settled
in, like the late sixties in reverse. Although Ross approves of the town
and the New Urbanist idea in general, it was the school in which he invested
his most passionate utopian hopes. As an academic avant-gardist from Greenwich
Village, he was a defender of the touchy-feely Disney progressives to the
end. The popular uprising against them amounted in his view to an ignorant
reactionary spasm.

Unlike Ross, Frantz and Collins were sympathetic
to the conservative backlash. They see the year of fights over the school,
and over the shoddy construction of many of the houses, as a hopeful process
of grassroots democracy in action. The angry meetings of parents were proof
that Celebration was evolving from a cozy, corporate nanny state peopled
by starry-eyed, infantilized Disney true believers into a real community
of engaged citizens, which defines its own ideals and copes with its own
problems.When popular will finally triumphed over top-down corporate tyranny,
however, the result was a conservative remaking of the school. Last fall,
according to Ross, “an air of mute discipline
prevailed.” In Celebration, progress occurred, but the “progressives” lost.

Frantz and Collins’s assessment of the town’s democratic dialectic
seems correct, but their clunky yuppie earnestness can make your teeth hurt. “Like
many in our generation,” they write, “we were always on the lookout
for the next great place to live.” And while the official philosophical “cornerstones” of
Celebration “were developed as marketing devices . . . that does not
make the ideas any less valid as a blueprint for a civil society akin to
the imagined prescriptions of Thomas More.”

One would probably rather hang out with Andrew Ross,
but Frantz and Collins, both professional journalists, have produced the
more useful book. They sketch the backgrounds of residents in illuminating
detail, and report lucidly on the nuts and bolts of the place—giving a rundown of Celebration’s
wife-beaters, for instance, and explaining how county and state officials
allowed Disney, for just three hundred thousand dollars, to buy its way out
of a statutory obligation to build subsidized housing. Frantz and Collins
are also bracingly candid, always naming names. They describe their falling
out with a new neighbor who suggested that their daughter “deserves
to be smacked,” and their fallings out with old friends who visit Celebration
but fail to love it. They diss Frantz’s Times colleague Maureen Dowd
as an élitist for dissing the town as “just too creepy.”

AMERICA started as a string of commercial enterprises
(from Columbus to the Dutch in New Netherland) and utopian ventures (from
Plymouth Bay to Philadelphia) with variously strict behavioral and aesthetic
codes (Puritanism, Quakerism), and it has ever since produced lots of simultaneously
creepy and admirable ideological enclaves (the Shakers, Brook Farm, Oneida,
New Harmony, Reston) that combine elements of both. Celebration is just
the latest bloom of a venerable hybrid strain, both odd and familiar: a
free-market experiment in enforced niceness, a radical modern reproduction
of conservative styles—and,
moreover, a case study in the ongoing American contradictions between community
and freedom. How much order and consistency are necessary for civility, and
when do they become cultish and stifling? Both Disney and the Celebration
pioneers, it’s clear, have been confused about all these questions
as they’ve created their new town. Private corporate entities, which
prize efficiency and predictability above all, tend to be a little fascistic.
Disney’s success in entertainment—especially the theme parks—has
been derived from a relentless and unapologetically micromanaged pursuit
of its cheerful vision. Before it created Disney World, the company set up
an autonomous governmental jurisdiction, Reedy Creek Improvement District,
so that it could escape the exasperating inefficiencies of local democracy.
But as Disney began developing Celebration, in the mideighties, it decided
to loosen its grip. Osceola County was granted authority over land-use questions.
In the summer of 1997, a year after the first residents settled in, the company
removed itself from above the title—Disney’s Town of Celebration
became simply Celebration. Perhaps most significantly, Disney had decided
not to build or sell Celebration’s houses itself and instead to subcontract
that job to companies in Texas and Illinois. Yet, when porches were misplaced
and cabinetry cracked and roofs leaked, it was Disney that the residents
of the town blamed, because Disney’s had been the glorious brand reputation
that had persuaded them to pay a large premium to live there.

“Those who seemed to be most disappointed that everything was not
perfect,” Frantz and Collins write, “were the ones who had believed
most strongly in Disney.” When the halfbaked progressive school failed
to deliver a first-class education, Ross writes, “many parents expected
brisk consumer satisfaction.” But Celebration School is a public institution:
for better or worse, Disney doesn’t run it. As for the shoddy construction,
the Disney company got the blame, yet, as the result of management decisions
made years earlier, it had no legal obligation or real authority to fix the
problems. And, regarding the school, there was wild disagreement about what
the fixes should be.

The great question posed by Celebration— one for which neither Disney
nor the residents had an easy answer— was how “real” the
town should be. The company considered but then decided against creating
a make-believe inspirational local history—one back story would have
pretended that survivors of a Spanish shipwreck founded Celebration, and
another had it that the town was built on the rubble of Sherman’s March.
Disney managers originally installed loudspeakers in the streets through
which Christmas carols and Disney songs were played, but Michael Eisner,
Disney’s chairman and C.E.O., and Robert Stern, who was one of the
town’s master planners and a Disney board member, ordered the canned
music stopped after Collins and other residents objected to it. Even so,
during the most recent Christmas season in Celebration, according to Andrew
Ross, a crowd gathered downtown each night to watch fake Disney snow fall.During
the town’s Founders’ Day ceremony last November, according to
Frantz and Collins, Disney officials stupidly and scarily had the local Presbyterian
minister remove one sentence from the invocation he delivered: “We
pray,” the Reverend Patrick Wrisley had wanted to say, “we are
not remembered as being a town living in Disney’s Tomorrowland nor
a town that’s all façade and no depth.” On the other hand,
when one reads about a dispute between Celebration’s Presbyterians
(who wanted to build an eleven-million-dollar multipurpose religious compound
of four modern buildings) and the Disney town planners (who had in mind a
nice little oldfashioned church, of white clapboard, and with a steeple and
pews for two hundred), the picturesque fakery seems preferable, even if the
clapboards in Celebration are of fibre-reinforced concrete.

After all, isn’t the obligatory American lawn a form of fakery? Isn’t
airconditioning a fake? Aren’t the crazy architectural mongrels built
every day in every city in America—all the tarty Mediterranean-Colonial-Norman-
Palladian raised ranches—thoroughly (and wretchedly) fake? And don’t
tens of thousands of suburban homeowner associations enforce conformity to
much stricter stylistic rules than Celebration’s? When intellectuals
disparage New Urbanist developments like Celebration as “fake,” what
really seems to bother them is that talented, energetic members of their
taste and educational caste are no longer abstaining from taking their part
in the great postwar American architectural project, the building of suburbs,
and have instead created a movement to reform suburbs, to make them more
like old American towns where people walk and mingle. Celebration’s “fakery”— its
small scale, its density, its hidden garages, its pre-mall commercial core—is
in the service of a coherent vision, as opposed to the accumulation of developers’ cost-efficient
shortcuts and aesthetic bad habits that produce the random, sprawling, ghastly “real” suburbs
of the late twentieth century.

The architect and planner Andrés Duany, who, with his wife, Elizabeth
Plater-Zyberk, is responsible for many of the New Urbanist developments under
construction across the country, believes that Celebration will prove to
be a more important prototype than Seaside, the pretty Florida resort town
that he and Plater-Zyberk designed almost two decades ago. “Celebration
is so damn visible,” Duany said when I called to ask him about references
to him and to Seaside which appear in the two new books. “I see its
effect on developers. It’s affecting the vernacular.” In the
same way that “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” helped make feminists
out of millions of girls and women who don’t call themselves feminists,
Disney’s new town may incline people who would never call themselves
New Urbanists to build and buy houses and settle in neighborhoods that resemble
Celebration’s. It’s possible that Disney’s town, a century
from now, will have earned its preposterous name. ©