Little to Celebrate

Celebration, Florida, a town designed by Disney, just got a taste of big city life: its first homicide. People are happy to report the story for its obvious ironies, but here on Urban Nation, we consider if there is something truly sinister about places like Celebration.

Celebration’s small town AMC cinema. flickr user bobafred

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Celebration, Florida just might represent everything that used to be right with America, and everything that is currently wrong with America. Celebration, for those unaware, is a master planned community that was built by the Disney Corporation, and incorporates various Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND) features with a touch of Disney magic. Recently, though, Bad Things have been afoot in Celebration — murder, suicide, and foreclosure. Could real city problems be invading this fake city? What would that mean?

A few weeks back, Celebration experienced its first homicide. Also recently, there was a foreclosure-related standoff with local authorities — sheriff’s deputies, because Celebration is unincorporated — that ended in suicide, and, yes, Bloomberg reports that Celebration has a foreclosure rate higher than the state average, which is already high in Florida.

Building a new town is no small task. It’s troubling that, as a society, we wanted a town built by a massive entertainment corporation with features like fake snow fall during the wintertime, a fudge shoppe on it’s main street, and porches on most homes to encourage after-dinner chats with the neighbors. It turns out we paid too much. Bloomberg attributes the high foreclosure rate to the higher-than-average cost of homeownership in Celebration. Newspapers have been thrilled to cover this story. It is, after all, quite irony-laden.

But the irony only scratches the surface. For those of us concerned about America’s cities, there is something a bit more sinister about places like Celebration.

Is it any coincidence that The Truman Show — the Jim Carrey drama about a man whose entire life is a reality show, where everything that happens to him is planned — was filmed in a similar development: Seaside, Florida? These places evoke a grotesque version of pre-World War II small town life that mostly existed on the big screen, TV, and in our collective imagination. They have porches to encourage neighbors to hang out and chat. Their homeowner’s associations demand pastel paint jobs. The television producers in The Truman Show and planners who peddle TND are not, in some ways, all that different from one another — both share the false notion that they can make your life more like an old movie by planning, planning, planning. While the urban planning in these communities is certainly commendable for many reasons — they tend to be compact, walkable places with main streets, and good bicycle infrastructure — the community-minded design features are pure kitsch, and speak to our nation’s still-very-real anti-urban bias.

And despite its imagineered charm, Celebration has had its first taste of things that are not supposed to happen in TV-land, things that, for various reasons, we believe are only supposed to happen in the city: murder, foreclosure, vandalism. If we consider the entire suburban project — and the federal government’s subsidy thereof — to be created in opposition to the disorder, chaos, poverty, and crime that characterized city life in the latter half of the 20th century, then Celebration is the ultimate, most grotesque manifestation of the reality-denying aspects of this project, even if it embraces Smart Growth and TND.

I believe it was James Howard Kunstler who pointed out how truly ironic it is that Disneyland has the only Main Street you can visit in Orange County. People will pay large sums of money and wait in obscenely long lines just to experience this sort of charming “public” space, but in their day-to-day lives they have voted against having such a space for commerce, except for in certain shopping malls that simulate the same. Disney, like it or not, creates pleasant urban spaces for those who are not overcome with despair at the idea of a Disney-designed town.

But in spite of all this, Disney cannot deliver what they promise, because people occasionally kill one another, and default on home loans. This is worth considering, especially given that this is a new town with excellent — if not frequently hokey — urban design. Plenty of places already exist, and have the infrastructure that a place like Celebration can provide (except, of course, for the back road to Disney World). But our collective aversion to urban life, and yearning for a return to some mythical past makes places like Celebration surprisingly marketable.

It’s a shame to see sustainable planning and smart design wasted on such nonsense, and combined with cartoonish frivolity. It’s a reminder that sustainable design, which our current administration is working hard through the agencies to encourage, is not an inherently good thing per se; in fact, sustainable design in a new town might entirely defeat the purpose of sustainable design itself.

It’s important to remember, as we have an administration in office outwardly concerned about sustainability issues, that some places employ sustainable design, but still exist in opposition to our cities. A new development — sustainable or not — is capital that could have been invested in one of our many already-existing, but abandoned cities. Celebration is the ultimate in anti-urban urban design, and it is maybe falling apart.

On the town’s website — Celebration Front Porch — under Events/Notices, they have a small bit about vandalism and graffiti being “on the rise”. It seems a youngster vandalized their Veteran’s memorial (which is an excellent example of how tasteless this kitsch is — how many veterans could possibly hail from Celebration, founded in 1996?). Take a close look at that picture, and you see a Banksy-inspired spraypaint stencil of a rat — poor Mickey! Perhaps a younger generation is not buying into this Disney-fied version of small town life. I’d hate to celebrate, but this might be a good thing.

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