Our town 

First came the suburbs: clipped lawns, set-back houses, drawn curtains. After World War II, the suburb became the symbol of relative affluence in America. Cars got everyone everywhere, to the point that sidewalks were often empty, or never even built.

In reaction came "new urbanist" developments, emphasizing town centers, on-street parking and stores snuggled side-by-side with housing. Gone would be the suburbs' class segregation, social isolation and messy traffic. In other words, no more dreaded, ugly sprawl. Currently, new urbanism's most-watched test case sits down the road from Orlando: Disney's town of Celebration.

"We've been interested in the new-urbanist movement, and we've always looked for a good place to go live," says Catherine Collins, who with her husband, Douglas Frantz, wrote Celebration U.S.A.: Living in Disney's Brave New Town. They purchased a home, brought their children and lived in the town for two years. "It was an adventure in which we could include our children and really immerse ourselves," she says.

Frantz, a national correspondent for the New York Times, and Collins, a freelance writer, weren't the only ones with this idea. Andrew Ross, professor and director of the American studies program at New York University, rented an apartment for a year and wrote The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney's New Town. "My chief interest in going was the residents themselves," says Ross, who initially considered just flying in and out for study visits. "I quickly figured out there was no substitute for living on site," he says.

Both books will be in stores shortly, complementary examinations of the hopes and problems of trying to purchase "community values" by way of Disney's manufactured town.

"Buying the house was a way to be part of the community, part of the town, and not just be an observer," agrees Frantz. "We went through everything that everybody else went through here. It made our experience much more authentic." Likewise, Ross had to negotiate the split between watching and participating, and he was deliberate in aiming his book to people beyond the town's limits. "There are relatively few post-occupancy studies of towns that are taken seriously by planners, architects, developers and other experts in the housing business," says Ross. "Because of the relentless scrutiny of Celebration, I knew, or hoped at least, that any such study might actually have some impact."

But he tried to keep a faithful eye on the concerns of his neighbors. "I worried about being accountable to the community," he says. "That also kept me honest."

Celebration has attracted nationwide attention in part because of its size, its use of new-urbanist principles and, most important, its association with Disney. Indeed, the mass media derided the fledgling community for having a film-set atmosphere populated by audio-animatronic citizens. Yet the authors all experienced palpable community-bonding among their flesh-and-blood neighbors. And ironically, despite Disney's attempt to plan the town to run flawlessly, the strongest sense of community grew from what Ross describes as "people's responses to perceived hardships: battles with the builders, battles around the school, persecution by the media, by Osceola locals, struggles with Disney, etc."

Certainly, the careful planning did create some of its desired effects. Within the city limits car culture has diminished, and, as Collins notes, the town "handles some aspects well, like children. We don't drive them anywhere."

Ross adds: "Because of its physical location -- an island marooned in a sea of tourist-development sprawl -- Celebration is probably not the best test of the new urbanist promise. That said, there was little need for a car in town, though people drove much more than they needed to. I was a resolute pedestrian while there, and regularly turned down rides to other parts of town. I found it was easier to detect auto guilt than auto-free pride."

In contrast to the suburbs, new urbanism stresses proximity to neighbors and work, and single-family homeowners' willingness to live near multifamily apartment buildings. Celebration achieves a certain degree of mixed-class make-up, though the second phase of development concentrates on larger houses further from the town center. Ross says that "the pioneers in town were actually quite proud of these patterns and resented it when the company produced Phase Two plans that allowed for more income segregation."

Which isn't to say that residents come in all income levels: Celebrationites are protected from any contact with low-income families. In lamenting the absence of affordable housing, Frantz and Collins suggest that Disney could have come up with some innovative ideas. "It would have been part of what made this a better place to live for everybody," says Frantz. The couple's home, a midrange model, cost $302,000. Compare that to the median price of $80,000 for a new home in Osceola County. "It didn't seem pricey to us, coming from New York," says Collins. "Then we realized, my goodness, this represents the sum total of people's life savings. People have made some pretty big sacrifices."

In addition, although Disney actively sought people of color through advertising efforts and promotional materials, few came. Collins and Frantz suggest that Disney has never appealed to African-Americans, based upon their visits to the theme parks. "The dreamers who moved here first were people who grew up watching "The Wonderful World of Disney," which didn't have any black characters," says Frantz. And the couple observed that for many blacks, small-town America carries associations with racism and segregation. Celebration, adds Ross, "established its whiteness, but this was not foreordained or, for the most part, desired."

Ross says the possibility of a black middle-class presence in Celebration "occupied a good part of my research there, since there were a variety of theories offered by residents. The most prevalent was an assumption about who, in our society, can afford to make the sacrifices necessary to live in new-urbanist style. Many of my informants, both black and white, perceived that black middle-class folks were less 'able' to do this, because there is not the privilege of economic security upon which to make such sacrifices."

Problems that the media latched onto and that drew residents together were the sometimes-shabby housing construction and the struggles over the experimental educational practices at the K-12 school. The three writers all noticed that residents expected Disney to remedy these situations -- an unfulfilled hope. For example, Disney lacked direct supervision of the construction. "I think it was pennywise and pound foolish," says Frantz of Disney's absence, "because they set themselves up for at the very least a psychic liability for poor quality of construction. I think that's a temporary problem. Long term, I don't think the town is going to fall down." But by subcontracting the construction, Frantz says, Disney "allowed someone else to control a big part of the way people perceived the community."

Dissatisfaction with education revolved around parents' misunderstandings about who, exactly, would operate Celebration School. "When you're sitting in the sales office in the preview center," says Frantz, "and they're telling you we're going to have a world-class school, I think that's all people heard." But for all the unique approach, Celebration School is still a part of the Osceola School District. Says Ross: Residents "pretty much assumed that Disney would call the shots with the school and would be able to provide all the value-added programs featured in the promo material. It was a genuine shock for them to discover that this was going to be an Osceola school, albeit one with a difference."

Such "differences" distinguishing Celebration aren't merely of interest to town residents. At its best, the process of understanding the defining values of a single community reflects something about our larger society. In the 1960s sociologist Herbert Gans embarked on a similar project: He moved to the archetypal suburb of Levittown, N.Y., to examine that community, and in his book The Levittowners he reported that distinctions made between suburban and urban living were more imaginary than real. Gans found that new friendships were easily made in "patio culture," and the suburbanite was not the "isolated dullard" critics claimed.

But things have changed since Gans. Economic demands created a more fluid population. People pick up and move more often. Today, how many people can name the neighbors living on their street? New urbanism wants to correct the social shortcomings of suburban culture. In Celebration, says Ross, "The test was to see whether residents developed anything stronger than the vague 'sense of community' sold as part of the packaging."

More by Michael Hoover


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