Back to the future: Disney reinvents the company town.
When I had last visited the town, early in April, construction was proceeding so rapidly that a time-lapse camera aimed at Celebration's down town had been installed atop a pole across the lake to record the town's creation on film. The lake itself was new. In fact, nothing much resembled the vacant pasture and sullen palmetto swamp I had first seen only a couple of years earlier. A short, high-banked canal had been gouged out of the loose Florida soil: on either side a vast acreage of trucked-in sand had been meshed with a lacework of newly asphalted streets and dotted with the concrete foundation pads for hundreds of future homes. No buildings had been completed yet, but houses on one block--Teal Avenue--were getting close. On other streets, lacking anything resembling an actual structure, small plaques mounted in empty lots announced that Steve and Liz with their Kensington Classical (Double Porch) lived next door to the Ashland Coastal of Mr. and Mrs. Girard, that the Barbath family in their Ashland Classical (Brick) looked across Mulberry Street at the Adams family's Fairmont Classical. Entire neighborhoods, filled with neighbors--all, as yet, imaginary. The school was up, though windowless, a crane towered over the steel skeleton of the medical center, and downtown there stood the shells of restaurants, stores, a courthouse, and a post office, all in a state of sudden and simultaneous erection. I had the sensation, that spring day, of being in a town that was undergoing a cataclysm in reverse, arising in a flash of dust, playing out backward the advent of the atomic age.
The spectacle of Celebration's birth was startling for more than its speed. In Florida, after all, subdivisions pop out of vacant real estate with the alacrity of mushrooms out of Florida cow pies. But Celebration was more than a development; it was the expression of an elaborate idea, a message for America that dated back to the 1960s, when Walt Disney still envisioned his EPCOT (or Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, whose domed pavilion now sits next to the Magic Kingdom) as an actual town, a living experiment in urban habitat housing 20,000 people in a showcase of social and technological futurism. In his last film appearance, made to assure the citizens and legislators of Florida of his homesteading intentions, Walt explained that in EPCOT, his company would be "starting from scratch on virgin land and building a special kind of new community," a community, he said, "that more people will talk about and come to look at than any other area in the world."
Now Walt's testimonial has been dusted off and is being used to promote Celebration. EPCOT may have devolved into a mere theme park, and Walt may be dead, but Celebration is still guided by his missionary zeal. "It will set up a system of how to develop communities," Michael Eisner, Disney's CEO, told me. "I hope in fifty years they say, `Thank God for Celebration.'"
But where Disney's EPCOT vision was decidedly futuristic--robots, monorails, and holograms--Celebration looks not forward but back. The town's sales brochure begins like a fable: "There once was a place where neighbors greeted neighbors in the quiet of summer twilight," it reads,
Where children chased fireflies. And
porch swings provided easy refuge
from the cares of the day. The movie
house showed cartoons on Saturday.
The grocery store delivered. And there
was one teacher who always knew you
had that special something. Remember
that place? Perhaps from your
childhood. Or maybe just from stories.
It held a magic all its own. The special
magic of an American home town.
What Celebration was promising was the restoration of the aesthetic and communal values of pre-World War 11 America. The town rising out of the palmetto swamp would be the Experimental Prototype Community of Yesterday.
For most of the last year, the only thing resembling a completed residence in America's new hometown was the Celebration Preview Center, a larger-than-life edifice stuck beside the entrance road, out of sight of the development itself. In reality a squat, square, single-story prefab building, the center has a high-gabled false facade punctuated by painted-on windows, giving it the appearance from the street of a French colonial villa. Inside is a windowless presentation hall decorated to suggest a construction site, its floors painted to resemble a giant blueprint and its walls an unplastered see-through framework of studs and sills. The town that was, when I visited, still invisible without was on elaborate display within, in idyllic watercolor renderings, interactive computer displays, and a detailed white cardboard miniature of the Celebration business district, which visitors circumnavigate as they pass through rooms that exhibit the town's amenities.
Disney pervades. The Celebration town seal, emblazoned on everything from coffee cups to manhole covers, is a cameo of a little girl with a ponyrail riding a bicycle past a picket fence under a spreading oak tree as her little dog chases along behind. It is an icon of innocence and freedom, and it bears a Disney copyright. The areas of the Preview Center that are off-limits to visitors are marked with the taxonomer Disney gives to all its nonexecutive employees: "Cast Members Only."
The cast members who guided me through the center were identified by their name tags as Joel and Marlene. (As the Walt Disney World employee manual, "The Disney Look," instructs: "Disney is a first-name operation.") Joel and Marlene were veteran Disney employees: he had been a jungle-cruise skipper in the Magic Kingdom; she had worked as a self-described "eternal greeter." ("You know," Marlene explained, "answering all those people with questions like `What time is the three o'clock parade?'") She wore pearl Mickey Mouse earrings and a five-year pin.
Together they described for me Celebration's distinguishing features. There would be no entrance gate or guard, they said (prompting one eavesdropping visitor to grumble, "Well, if just anybody can come in, what's the concept?"). The street plan is engineered to empower the pedestrian and restrain the car, with narrow roads laid out on a grid instead of in swooping suburban curves and culs-de-sac. Garages are hidden behind the homes and reached by alleyways, and houses are set closely enough together to make walking distances manageable. There would even be things worth walking to: a downtown with markets and cafes and a town hall and post office, and a school placed centrally enough to have a ceremonial role in the community, instead of being shunted off, as schools are in many towns, to cheaper land on some industrial fringe.
In all, Celebration's surface attributes are those that characterized the more livable American cities before World War II. And no accident: Celebration exemplifies a growing architectural movement called neo-traditionalism, or neo-urbanism, or, in Disney's lexicon, Family Friendly Planning. Disney could have gone with the current default model of housing development--a gated community of near-identical houses surrounding a golf course, a model known within Disney as the "Arvida pattern," after one of Florida's most successful developers of such plans the Arvida Company. Disney is quite familiar with this pattern: the company has owned Arvida since 1984. But when the time came to develop Celebration, Eisner didn't want to do things the Arvida way, what he calls "Palm Springs kibbutz." Instead, he turned the project over to a group of planners in revolt against modern subdivisions, who see in the recent progress of urban design a conspiracy for civic emptiness: Robert A. M. Stern, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (designers of the beachhead of neo-traditionalism--Seaside, Florida), and Jaquelin Taylor Robertson among them. Nothing in the way of neo-traditionalism has previously been tried on the scale of Celebration, but then no previous project has enjoyed the imprimatur or pocketbook of the Walt Disney Company, or Disney's unique aptitude for mixing high-minded ideals with mass-market sentimentality to clothe a commercial project with a sense of mission.
Joel and Marlene spelled out the conceptual "cornerstones" of Celebration for me. Two central ones, Community and Place, seemed hard to define; hard to define, that is, without resorting to a frequent reiteration of the phrase "a sense of."
"There's a great need in America for a great community," Marlene told me. "A place where we can get back to family values. A sense of knowing your neighbors."
"A sense of interaction," Joel added, "of participation in their community."
"It's the kind of feeling you get when you go to your grandmother's house," Marlene said. "Just because of the way the house looks, the architecture."
"Some of us might not even like our grandmother's house," Joel said. "But I think most of us love our grandmother's house because of the love in it. We feel like a special person there."
"You can't synthetically manufacture love and kindness," Marlene admitted.
"But you can create an environment where love is fostered," Joel said. "The idea behind Celebration is: people count, as individuals and as part of a community."
Marlene and Joel invited me to sit on a couch in the Preview Center's foyer with a small clutch of prospective homebuyers to watch a five-minute film loop on a television monitor. "It starts you mentally on your journey," Eileen, another cast member, said of the endlessly recurring presentation. "It gets you in the mind-set that carries you all the way through."
The film begins with a woman's soothing voice speaking over the new-agey tinkling of a piano. "Our memories of childhood are as varied and vivid as colors in a paint box," she says. "And while these recollections began at home, for most of us they encompassed that whole other world outside the front door: the neighborhood."
A man's voice interrupts. "I remember playing baseball in the yard," he says. "I was the littlest kid in the neighborhood, so I was only counted half an out."
"There is a place that takes you back to that time of innocence," the woman's voice continues. "A place where the biggest decision is whether to play kick the can or king of the hill. A place of caramel apples and cotton candy, secret forts and hopscotch on the streets. That place is here again, in a new town called Celebration."
Images of children flicker across the screen--playing ball, scampering under a hose, stepping off a yellow schoolbus on a rainy day in a bright yellow mackintosh straight into mother's arms, practicing cheerleading routines with a smile full of braces, staffing a lemonade stand behind a sign with backward letters. "I don't think I'm asking for much when I say I want a neighborhood where my kids feel at home," the man's voice says as the film winds down. "A place kind of like the town I grew up in. Big shady trees and front porches. You know, where playtime doesn't end until mama calls you in."
"Celebration," the woman concludes. "A new American town of block parties and Fourth of July parades. Of spaghetti dinners and school bake sales, lollipops and fireflies in a jar. And while we can't return to those times, we can arrive at a place that embraces all of those things. Someday 20,000 people will live in Celebration. And for each and every one of them, it will be home."
She pronounces "home" with an orotund reverence worthy of E.T.
The video left no doubt about the direction of Celebration's temporal compass: it pointed to the past. But whose past? It didn't seem to invoke America's innocence so much as it did a personal innocence, the dream of a world where a sin was only half a sin and life's cares as cute and insubstantial as the little dog chasing after the blithe little girl on the town seal. My guess was that for most of the people sitting with me before the video monitor, an idyllic childhood was as mythical a memory as the idyllic American small town--a past more likely recalled from The Wonderful World of Disney than from personal experience. But the pitch has nevertheless struck a chord. In November of last year, a drawing was held behind the Preview Center to determine who would be lucky enough to have the first chance to buy a Celebration home. There was nothing tangible to look at yet, except the Disney models and literature and videos. But 5,000 people attended and 1,200 put down a deposit to qualify for a chance to move into one of 470 homes and apartments being built in Celebration's first stage. Demand outstripped supply nearly three to one.
For many of the homebuyers spoke with, there is a strong conviction that a rosy past, such as Celebration would re-create, has been betrayed by a brutal present. At forty-three, Debbie Jones is petite and ingenue pretty; we spoke on the April day that construction began on the Water Street home she will share with her husband, Rodney, an abstract painter and State Farm agent, and their nine-year-old daughter, Tiffany. Water Street is a straight central boulevard divided by a flowing canal fed by a water pump and clarified of Florida silt by regular infusions of alum. Sales agents call it the Champs Elysees of Celebration. The Joneses' house was the first in town to close.
The Joneses are moving from across the county--they live in a gated development twenty miles away called Regal Bay--but Debbie's journey to Celebration began four decades ago, in Miami Shores, Florida. "When I was growing up it was an ideal community," Debbie said of the town where Arnold did her mother's hair, Mr. Simon ran the five-and-dime, and Mr. Black had the drugstore on the corner where the kids got sodas after school. "We had our clubhouse with our golf and we had the community center and we had the sidewalks and the alleyways. You know, so much of what Celebration will be having. You felt safe letting your children be on their hikes." Even in Regal Bay, Tiffany is not allowed to ride her bicycle past the end of the block.
A few years ago, Debbie said, she went back to Miami Shores for her twentieth high school reunion. Downtown, burglar bars had appeared on the store windows. Street barriers had been put up blocking access to Biscayne Boulevard to deny any criminal a convenient getaway. When Debbie and Rodney were leaving town, they stopped at a 7Eleven alongside the interstate to get some food. A man opened the car door and dragged Debbie halfway across the parking lot by her purse strap before it broke and he made off with her money.
Faced with just such dangers, Americans have, famously and en masse, escaped to vast, anonymous suburbs where ranch homes are isolated among acres of grass that line long, fast streets leading to little or nothing in the way of local services or jobs. More recently and extremely, they've locked themselves into gated monocultural enclaves. Celebration's planners offer the promise of another way. They hold that a national community disrupted by modern pressures and benighted urban design can be reconvened in a place of traditional town planning and traditional forms of architecture. As Eisner jokingly reduces it, "Form follows parking." Community, by extension, is fostered by curb heights, window dimensions, sidewalk placement, and a thousand other design elements.
Not surprisingly, a certain architectural conformity (or, as the Disney people would have it, "cultural consensus") is at the heart of this formula. The Joneses' house is an "estate home," which means that it will be custom designed by an architect whom the Joneses have commissioned, and will be far more costly and glamorous than Celebration's standard pre-designed homes, which are priced from $130,000. There are three levels of pre-designed homes, as well as apartments that will rent for as little as $600 a month; together they are intended to foster a community that is diverse in age and income.
But diversity doesn't mean license, and even with the estate homes Disney exercises a tight control over the exterior appearance of house and lot by enforcing the style standards in what is known as the Celebration Pattern Book. The Pattern Book militates against a multitude of sins--mortal and venial--to which modern builders are prone. It stipulates, for instance, that the capital at the top of a column should extend past the entablature that rests on it, so that the side of the entablature lines up with the side of the column, not its capital. It also stipulates that the houses on Veranda Place be two-story and have full front porches, preferably upstairs as well as down, so as to complement the cityscape of the Savannah-style square they face.
"If you're building a house at Celebration, you're building more than just an individual house on an individual lot; you're creating community," Joe Barnes told me. Barnes is the Disney architect in charge of developing and enforcing the Pattern Book. He explained that Disney was concerned primarily with the outside of the homes--what could be seen from the street. "Our major concern," he said, "was developing that streetscape or public realm. What happens back beyond it wasn't that important."
I was eager to know, though, what happens back beyond, and so I tagged along one afternoon with two soon-to-be residents, Mike and Veronica Strobel. Their house will have a downstairs porch: it's on Veranda Place, facing Veranda Park. On this April day the square was still a motley thicket of scrub-oak saplings, and the only thing vertical at their home site was a Porta-John, but for the first time they at least had something to look at--a model home on Teal Avenue built in a style similar to theirs.
Moving to Celebration was Veronica's idea; a young and resolutely cheerful housewife, she was drawn by the Disney reputation and delighted by the possibility that their son, to be born in August, might be the first native Celebratian. Mike is an instinctive disbeliever, his jaw firmed by a watchful skepticism. As they walked around the model with a sales agent and contractor in tow, Veronica admired the kitchen's built-in vacuum system--just sweep the crumbs into the baseboard--and Mike groused about the amperage of the sink disposal.
As we examined each room, there was, I thought, plenty to complain about; behind its traditional facade, the interior of the house partook of the celestial gimcrackery of a time-share condo--flying banisters and second-story galleries overlooking cathedral-ceilinged dining pits. Disney had searched the nation for builders they could enlist into their classical approach for their pre-designed homes, and they found two, David Weekley Homes (the Strobels' builder) and Town & Country. But for all Disney's control over Celebration's exteriors, the company's traditionalist aesthetic seems to disappear once the threshold is crossed. Indoors, the builders hold sway, and they are driven by a different tradition--the rambling ranch-style floor plans and casino-lobby verticality that are endemic to recent Sun Belt developments. The layouts make for great expanses of awkward space and such dubious innovations as downstairs master bedrooms off the dining areas of two-story homes. Robert A. M. Stern, the New York architect who is one of Celebration's master planners, described the interiors to me as "horrendous."
The panel doors into each room of the Strobels' model were imitation wood, as was the exterior clapboard, which is made of a synthetic concrete called Hardiboard, a material the builders promote as being termite-proof, and therefore desirable in Florida. The window mullions were also termite-proof; they were flat metal strips. "Are these glued on?" Mike asked. They were. For the contractor, the Strobels listed infractions of their own personal pattern book--the awkward walls in the bathroom, the enormous windows aimed to catch the summer sun like a lens, the door to the water closet you wouldn't have room to close once you were inside--and then everyone left to pay a visit to Veranda Place, looking a mite grim under their hard hats. Mike knocked on a front-porch column as the agent locked the door. The side of the entablature above him was lined up precisely with the flank of the column, which was the spangled orange of unpainted fiberglass. "Let's go," he said.
In its disparate interior and exterior, its porch and parlor out of different decades, the house on Teal Avenue reminded me of the outwardly rustic, inwardly corporate Preview Center, with a twist: the town and its reigning ethic that were on display inside the Preview Center were invisible in the house. That dissonance of surface and depth, I would find, haunted more in Celebration than just the houses.
Disney s efforts at creating a neo-traditional community extend beyond buildings and streets--what the designers call Celebration's hardware--to take in its "software" as well. Establishing Place and Community, it turns out, requires attention to intangibles.
"I've been around enough places to know that unless a community has some kind of heart to it, there's just not much to it," Peter Rummel, president of Disney Design and Development, explained to me. "Some point of view. Some--I don't want to say soul or heart, but something more than tee-off times every Saturday morning to hold people together."
In search of that soul, Disney executives studied older towns that had such glue, like Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston and Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, and discovered that the qualities those towns shared centered on something Celebration didn't have at all: roots. To Disney, this was a problem that seemed solvable. "One of the things we do, particularly in imagineering, is we often create a story, a backstory," Rummel told me. "You write a whole mythology about something, and it helps you stay true to your design of a show or a ride or whatever you're doing."
Meetings were held to discuss how to provide Celebration with an appropriate backstory. Names were suggested that implied a mythical history, that implied, for instance, that the town might have risen from the flames after being sacked by Sherman. Those ideas were turned down. "It just didn't feel right," Rummel explained.
Disney's planners opted to imply those missing roots rather than resort to an ersatz history. "Hopefully," Rummel said, "someday you'll be able to walk down a street or sit someplace and kind of close your eyes and get some comfort that there are people who have been here before you, that this feels like a place that has a tradition, even though it doesn't."
The cultivation of Celebration's sense of tradition has not been left to chance. It will be the mission of the Celebration Foundation, an organization overseen by Charles Adams, the Celebration V.P. in charge of the town's cultural side. It is Adams's job to coordinate the creation of such things as Rotary clubs and Boy Scout troops, as well as to oversee the transformation of the Celebration Chronicle, the town's periodic promotional broadsheet, into a quarterly newspaper that will give the sense of a thriving fourth estate (though it will still be edited by the company).
"We're putting together a program called Celebration Traditions," Adams told me. "One of the things that most communities have today is a heritage. You know, it's been there for a while, there's a history to it. Celebration is starting from scratch, so it doesn't have the advantage of having families that can really embrace people as they move in," he admitted. "But we do have some history, really going back to the original vision from Walt. And then all the research and planning that we've done over the last several years."
Celebration Traditions will offer new arrivals to town a course that explains the thinking behind Celebration. "this is very similar to what we do when we bring in a new cast member to work for the Walt Disney Company," Adams said. "We take them through something called Disney Traditions. We immerse them in the heritage of Disney and what sets us apart from other companies." In Celebration, he said, "we might be offering similar types of things."
During my conversation with Joe Barnes, the author of the Celebration Pattern Book, he often described the beauty of classical architectural elements in terms of necessity or purpose, a quality he called "rigor," but which I might call "authenticity." He spoke with a freshman's enthusiasm as he described how Florida homes were traditionally built out of wood because Florida didn't have the mud for bricks, how chimneys were placed outside houses in the South but in' side, for warmth, in the North. He noted that the dimensions of classical homes, such as those Celebration would emulate, were predicated on the length of a wooden truss that could be lifted into place by several men.
Of course, now, he added, "we have steel trusses and cranes that can set the trusses in place, and we can span anything we want." I asked him if that didn't mean that classical home designs had lost rigor and become fashion. "There's a potential for that," he said. "We're not doing things because we have to, we're doing things because we want to. It's an aesthetic."
That term--"an aesthetic"--comes to mind often in Celebration, and not just in discussions of architecture. The entire awkward struggle to manufacture a tradition for the town revealed, to my mind, a hollowness at its core, the absence of a bona fide purpose such as inspired the creation of most towns.
Of course, "bona fide," like "authenticity" and "rigor," is a complicated concept in Celebration. What do such terms mean in a town whose history is retroactive, whose tradition is that of the entertainment company that founded it, whose lake is dammed and whose creek is pumped, whose creators say "lifestyle" for "life" and insert the phrase "a sense of" before every vital principle? Celebration is billed as being in the great American tradition of town building, but it is a town whose mission isn't the pursuit of commercial advantage, or religious or political freedom, or any idea more compelling than a sense of comfortable community. Its ambition is, in the end, no greater than to be like a town.
One clear-skied Sunday I left my car near the corner of Market Street and Celebration Avenue and took a walk through town. No one was around. The business district was littered with the residue of a week's construction labors--piles of sand, stacks of shingles and bricks, assembled roof trusses, a reposing front-end loader, the cast-off bandoliers of nail guns. In the shell of a future restaurant, a sawhorse table held a banquet of fast-food wrappers, scurrying slightly in the warm eddies of a breeze that ran unhindered through the open honeycomb of offices and stores and apartments and up the empty street. The only human figure in the entire town was the little girl riding a bicycle past a picket fence under a spreading oak, chased by her dog, cast in the iron of manhole coves like some coded clue in a time capsule. Over it all, Celebration's town hall stared empty-eyed through a bewildering forest of columns, like some classical ruin over a forgotten Acropolis.
The Celebration Town Hall, designed by Philip Johnson, sits in a prominent location in the town center. Inside will be offices for the county sheriff's department, the community association, and the Community Development District, as well as public meeting rooms. What there won't be, though, is a real town government. Celebration is unincorporated, and its services are provided by, and authority delegated to, Osceola County. The closest thing to a representative body in Celebration will be the community association. "It's not governance, in that it has no law-enforcement powers," one of the association members, a Disney V.P., told me. "But it sets rules. Like a condominium association." Considering that subdivisions generally are not self-ruled, the arrangement would not seem notable, except that other subdivisions don't claim descent from the American charter--and they don't sport town halls.
When Joe Barnes and I had our conversation about architectural rigor, I mentioned that the columns so popular with Celebration architects had been used by Thomas Jefferson as a direct American homage to the Greek ideal of--He didn't even let me finish the sentence. "Democracy," Barnes said. "Yeah. But I don't think ours is a political reference, though we do use the classical column."
Why erect the temple, I wondered, why commission one of the nation's most celebrated architects to design it, when its central democratic function is, in Barnes's word, an aesthetic? Why invoke the sibling aesthetics of history and tradition when those very things, truly expressed, are so often antagonistic to the goals of commerce? The purpose of tradition is to hold fast; the role of history, to provoke and to trouble; the aim of democracy, to deliberately establish the popular will. From a commercial standpoint, those are all thorny properties, which makes them inconvenient guests at any corporate picnic. So why were their ghosts--the "sense of" those things--invited?
Disney does, after all, have a real history and real experience with democracy. Disney World is, before anything else, a governmental entity. Walt's greatest feat of imagineering was his vaulting of a theme park into a polity. In 1967 the Florida legislature granted his holdings the privileges of an autonomous county, with the power to do things like levy taxes and enforce its own building codes. Because those powers are allowed only to popularly elected bodies, Disney instituted a "government" that stayed firmly in company control; voting "citizens" were a handful of loyal Disney managers. Walt's own enmity for democratic forms was legendary.
For an American town, Celebration is a highly controlled environment, one where political activity such as the posting of signs is strictly regulated, where even the actions of the community association can be unilaterally overruled by the corporation. (The company will lose its veto after forty years, or after three fourths of the master-plan residences are occupied, whichever comes first.) These conditions offended none of the residents I spoke with; they seemed in no rush to seize the governance of their town. In fact, they had been attracted to Celebration because they knew they could rely on Disney's presence to ensure certain community standards--and, to that extent, the quality of their lives. "If it was anyone other than Disney, we would have never done this," Debbie Jones told me. "We just feel that they represent first class all the way. Anything they do is quality."
Early on a Monday morning, soon after my return to Los Angeles, I met with Robert Stern, the Celebration architect. Stern, in his sixties, has the air of a gentlemanly sage. He entered the linen and crystal preserve of the dining room of the Bel-Air hotel with a newspaper under his arm and his suit coat buttoned over a purple Mickey Mouse tie. He was in town for a board meeting of the Walt Disney Company. When I recalled for him my conversations with Celebration residents whose willingness to take a chance seemed predicated on the good name of the master builder, Stem nodded.
"In order to get your point across, you sometimes need to have a strong management," he said, dipping into a $12 bowl of granola. "People will succumb to a single management in a resort setting. In fact, they almost glory in the fact that someone runs the show. People love to come to Disney because the very word Disney means a certain authoritative standard that they will succumb to.
"We're not saying anybody has to live in Celebration," he continued. "This isn't some sort of gulag. It's a place you want to live in. And to live in a community, you have to give up some of your freedoms. You cannot pile all your automobiles in the front yard. This is what being in a community is."
Stern gave me an important double clue to my own reactions to Celebration when he said, "This is a place you want to live in." The first part of the clue was this: I didn't. The second part was: others--many others--did. Clearly my own instinctive evaluation had badly missed the point.
The images of Celebration I had seen over the years, and that had drawn other people to buy there, combined two nostalgias: one for a bygone America, and another for a bygone time of life. But the two "bygones" that fit together so seamlessly in video and brochure were in reality at odds. The yearning for a bygone America is a yearning for civic maturity, when informed citizens reigned from every front porch over the structure of their community, and the messy responsibility of democracy held sway, and society worked. If the mythic American town had such a thing as a soul, it lay in that machinery. It wasn't a machinery meant for pretty calm, because a town had reasons for being and people had reasons for being in the town, and with those serious purposes came conflict. That was the strange secret of America's "innocence"--that its people regularly conspired to engage in government, not out of a consensus but in contention over their differences.
I had seen that process work in towns large and small, but I couldn't envision it being played out amid the glamorized comity of Celebration. That comity came from the other of Celebration's prevailing nostalgias, for a bygone time of life, the life of a carefree child, a civic infant, when the corporation could make the rules and keep the peace, and the biggest decision left to the citizen was whether to play kick the can or king of the hill.
It was tempting to judge the project as a true prewar American city, and thus to fault it for the intrusion of corporate control and for its lack of essential processes: the processes of building tradition, accumulating history, accruing neighborhoods house by idiosyncratic house and services store by store, and governing by codified public debate. But maybe Celebration really isn't neo-1940s or neo-traditional or, for that matter, neo-anything; maybe it is instead proto-corporate and quintessentially contemporary, a town off the shelf, meant not to be built but to be consumed by its residents, residents who understood perfectly the equation that had eluded me: that in this new corporate city, history and tradition were needed as aesthetics to permit their absence in fact, that democracy was the disruptive god honored in elaborate ceremony precisely to keep him at bay.
The genius of Walt Disney was his use of an aesthetic of history to defeat the more troublesome reality of history, just as he created the Magic Kingdom's Main Street as an idyllic replica of the Missouri town where he had endured a dreadful childhood. As one imagineer explained in a Disney publication, "What we create is a `Disney Realism,' sort of utopian in nature, where we carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements."
Walt Disney was the Louis Pasteur of history, who perfected ways to protect people from the viral effects of memory by injecting it back into them in a denatured form. As long as the technique was used in the service of amusement, it could be very amusing. Applied to public life, as it is in Celebration, it becomes something more grave. "We are a silly company," Michael Eisner informed me. "But at the same time, we are a very serious company trying to be silly." His voice grew more intent. "And this is not a silly adventure we're engaged in here."
Of course, Disney had no obligation to confront the question of civic renewal. It could have built yet another golf course with yet another halo of high-end residential ticky-tack, and made lots of money without doing anything interesting enough to attract inspection or critique. But by harnessing its spun-sugar imagineering to serious neo-traditional urban planning, it has inserted itself prominently, and knowingly, into the struggle over America's municipal fate.
What Celebration celebrates, oddly, is an American community that existed precisely in that time before corporations made it their business to build communities--an era before neighborhoods became subdivisions and business districts became malls and culture in all its sources and manifestations became supplanted by the cathode-ray tube and the theme park. In that bygone America, businesses served a community built by citizens who were enveloped in a society. Celebration wants to see if the chain can be reversed--if a true society can be fostered among people living in a community built by a business.
Perhaps Celebration will not be able to escape becoming an actual place. Twenty thousand people have a way of getting out of hand, even 20,000 people in search of order in a town with a registered trademark for a seal. Perhaps, someday, the little girl on the bicycle will be caught by her little dog, and Celebration's residents will be apprehended by the individual responsibilities that a society imposes upon its true citizens, and Celebration will become, despite itself, a town.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps it will remain as advertised, a place where neighbors greet neighbors in the quiet of summer twilight and live out a precious approximation of community till mama calls them in. Either way, it's easy to imagine why this town bills itself as a harbinger of America's future. It may be.
October Index Sources
1,2 Exhibitor Relations Co., Inc. (Los Angeles); 3 United States Capitol Police (Washington); 4 Empire Autograph Auctions Ltd. (Rockville Center, N.Y.)/Universal Autograph Collectors Club (Washington); 5,6 Harper's research; 7,8 Office of Tipper Gore (Washington); 9 Perot Reform Committee (Dallas); 10 National Tax Payers Union (Alexandria, Va.); 11,12 Social Security Administration/U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 13 Office of Representative Edward Whitfield (Washington); 14 Centers for Disease Control (Atlanta)/National Center for Health Statistics (Hyattsville, Md.); 15 Xinhua News Agency (N.Y.C.); 16 United Nations World Food Program (Nairobi) 17,18 The Embassy of the Republic of Korea, 19 The Embassy of the Republic of Croatia; 20,21 Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (London), 22 Kip Keino Sports House (Eldoret, Kenya); 23 Gold Fields Mineral Services Ltd. (London); 24 Institute for Policy Studies (Washington), 25 Baen Books (Riverdale, N.Y.); 26 Dole-Kemp '96 (Washington); 27 Clinton/ Gore '96 (Washington); 28 Harper's research; 29 Professor Garrison Nelson, University of Vermont (Burlington); 30 The Center for Public Integrity (Washington); 31 U.S. Department of Commerce/Census Bureau; 32,33 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; 34 Criminal Justice Institute (South Salem, N.Y.), 35 American Bar Association (Chicago); 36 International Society of Cryptozoology (Tucson); 37,38 Rat Paradise (Encinitas, Calif.); 39 New York Times/CBS News poll.
Russ Rymer is the author of Genie A Scientific Tragedy. He is at work on American Beach, a book about three towns in Florida, which will be published next year by HarperCollins.