Reviled, praised and mercilessly scrutinized, Celebration is a town that even its journalist residents don't understand.

Published September 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Billed as an antidote to suburban sprawl and a return to traditional small-town America, Celebration, Fla., a 5,000-acre experiment in town planning undertaken by the Walt Disney Co., has quite possibly received more scrutiny than the whole of American urbanism combined. Before even a single brick had been laid, journalists, architects, social scientists, urbanists and tourists were flying into town to ponder the meaning of the "town that Disney built."

And who could blame them? The angles seemed nearly infinite. By naming their model village in the venerable tradition of utopian American towns like New Hope, New Jerusalem and New Harmony, Disney was proffering a crystal ball in which our tribal seers could read the future of communal life in this country. But it was also painting a giant bull's-eye on its chest. Fully aware of this fact, the Mouse hired big-name planners and architects and embraced "new urbanism," a nearly 2-decade-old movement in town planning that embraces higher-density building and downtown centers as key ingredients of good living. Still, Disney was going into the idea business -- the traditional domain of academic urbanists, architects, intellectuals and religious visionaries -- and how could any self-respecting cultural pundit pass up the opportunity to simultaneously diagnose the soul of American town planning and crow over every Disney misstep?

In addition to having instant historical significance, Celebration tapped into the primeval American myths of the frontier. It promised to be a real-time saga of hope, sacrifice and redemption, and what could be more American than that? The cast of characters, when complete, would be unusually rich: a company equally feted and reviled for its unwavering dedication to maudlin sentiment and artifice; progressive urbanists looking for real alternatives to suburban sprawl; high-profile architects looking for high-profile projects; idealistic educators who saw an opportunity to realize their ideas. Finally, the true stars of the drama would be "real" people: families, couples starting anew, lost souls, Disneyphiles and retirees lured by the shining ideal of a community founded by the organization that built "The Happiest Place on Earth." What could have more narrative crackle, more human drama, more prescience for the future of our republic?

This archetypal stew of dreams and dollars has produced two book-length accounts. The first is by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, a husband-and-wife team of journalists. The second is by Andrew Ross, a professor of American studies at New York University, who spent his sabbatical year living in the town. Obviously seeking an "authentic" experience, the authors of both books also take great pains to declare their desire to be "fair" and sympathetic, particularly to Disney. Frantz and Collins actually purchased a moderate-sized home and enrolled their two youngest children in the school. For his part, Ross rented an apartment downtown, but coyly describes buying a Cadillac in order to better fit in.

Mostly, however, Ross seems to have played the flbneur. He did, however, volunteer
at the school, a position that gave him an inside view of what would become the most controversial part of life in Celebration -- the education of its children.

For reasons unique to each, neither book captures the epic dimensions of Celebration as a town and as an experiment in living, although Frantz and Collins make a brave attempt. And neither manages to successfully blend a sustained narrative with the elements that make Celebration newsworthy. It's one thing to write about the issues that cause a war; it's another thing to discuss those issues from the front line. Both books, for better and for worse, want to do both.

The big story that frames both accounts is that Disney marketed Celebration by appealing both to Americans' nostalgia for an idealized small-town lifestyle and their infatuation with high-tech perks, but in the end the company was unable to deliver the goods. When the first residents started arriving in 1996, not only were many homes still unfinished, but the school was not ready to receive its first students.

The houses that were completed, it turned out, often had serious flaws in design and construction. Frantz and Collins, for instance, arrived to find their neighbor's porch sitting on their property because it had been installed on the wrong side of the house. Others had similar problems. One person could only get scalding hot water. Another's second floor threatened to collapse because the porch columns were bowing and couldn't support the weight resting on them. One woman got so upset about the shoddy workmanship on her marble floors that she covered her Volvo with lemons and parked it in the middle of downtown with a sign that announced the name of the builder who'd done the work.

Despite such frustrations, many residents seem to have borne the construction delays and problems with the iron-clad faith of true believers. Those who didn't left quickly -- though a mini-scandal bubbled up when residents learned that Disney had pushed gag contracts on those who were dissatisfied and wanted out. Most residents, however, were ardent Disneyphiles and were so thrilled to be living in the town that they were willing to sacrifice a great deal for the experience. One English professor and media analyst from Pennsylvania took a big pay cut to take the $30,000-a-year job as the director of the media center, and told Collins that he had "faith in Disney." Like him, many of the residents were depending on Celebration to reinvent their lives and provide for their well-being.

In fact, in their drive to achieve picture-perfect happiness, many residents were willing not only to forgo higher pay but also to exchange a few of the traditional rights of democratic citizenship for the security and insularity offered by Celebration. They opted for Disney's "benevolent dictatorship," as some phrased it, over the mess and imperfection of traditional government. Not only didn't it bother them that Disney's "Celebration Pattern Book" micromanaged the smallest details of their homes and town -- down to the color of the curtains and the size of political posters displayed in their windows -- but they also didn't mind that Disney controlled the governance structures in the town. Many residents were even happy to trade their privacy for free computers: The hardware was embedded with a "Zeus box" -- a device that monitored everything they did on their computers so that AT&T could study usage patterns.

The small-town America they sought to recover, it turns out, was lacking one key feature: small-town politics and its messy, often corrupt ways. Though clearly aware of this paradox, Frantz and Collins merely refer to it offhandedly. It feels like they're pointing out exotic fauna on the side of the road, rather than capturing the drama unfolding in front of them.

Ross, on the other hand, seems alternately outraged by the Celebrationites' disdain for electoral politics and seduced by their emphasis on community. He tiresomely bemoans Celebration's corporate underpinnings, but has little to say about the fact that every action in town is also scrutinized not only by the media and the so-called "porch police" (who enforced aesthetic regulations in town) but also by the aggressive "neighborliness" of the very people who had come looking for community. The focus on "community" that Ross finds so laudable encourages a kind of conformity that isn't always ideal.

Thankfully, both books note the near total absence of African-Americans in the town, although Disney made conscious efforts to recruit them. Perhaps African-Americans harbor neither the nostalgia for small-town life nor the nagging craving for community that drives so many Celebrationites.

Frantz and Collins are excellent reporters, and they do a great job of recounting the corporate history leading up to Celebration's development, but their portrait of the town itself never fully comes into focus. Their account, a seemingly endless series of Celebrationite cameos, lacks a sense of the whole. A starker, perhaps truer, picture of Celebration gets lost in the details of a dizzying number of personal histories and, all too often, trite truisms: "At times there seemed to be a make-believe quality, an artificiality to the whole enterprise." No kidding. The boundaries of Frantz and Collins' upper-middle-class life in Celebration -- an endless series of play dates, barbecues, coffee klatches and dinner parties -- also bounds the scope of their book. As part of the community, they share many of its ideals. As a result, they lack the perspective needed to write incisively about the place. Their book is closer to memoir than it should be.

The tension underlying the ideals of community becomes most apparent in the conflict that erupted over the school, the one story in town that bears on all the contradictory ideals and desires that Celebration represents. On one hand, Celebration School embodied the progressive idealism of Celebration's planners. Disney commissioned a high-tech facility with a progressive curriculum designed by Ivy League education theorists -- partly to burnish its image in the press and partly to attract baby boomers looking for high-quality public education for their children. On the other hand, the school became a hot-button issue that divided the community along ideological and social lines. When the parents realized that "progressive" schooling meant no grades, no books, little testing and multi-age classrooms, many demanded more traditional schooling with greater attention to college preparation.

And so, politics entered Disney's paradise. Cabals developed, organizations of parents for and against the school formed, e-mails started flying back and forth. Petitions were circulated, accusations were made and resignations were tendered. The result was almost a textbook purge, a bloodletting meant to reassert the unity of the tribe and its values.

Unfortunately, neither book seems to capture the full scope of the conflict and what it meant to the community. At first, all three writers were thrilled. Here, finally, was authentic, vibrant community life unfolding in front of their eyes -- direct democracy at work. Frantz and Collins' account reads like a series of community board transcripts. They take great pains to dutifully recount just about everyone's point of view, and they agree with almost everyone, seeing merit on all sides.

Ross, on the other hand, finds his cause cilhbre in the struggle over the school, and he is eager to enter the fray. He is truly disheartened by the fact that Celebration's parents demanded traditional testing and college preparation, and seems utterly incapable of understanding why they might worry so much about their children's access to higher education (to professors, in fact, like himself). He interprets their rejection of the school's progressivism as an example of conservative economic interests riding roughshod over an idealistic curriculum and student-centered teaching methods. It doesn't occur to him that part of the concept of community that he finds so commendable includes the desire of most parents to provide security for their children. He is disappointed when the Celebrationites turn out to be as pragmatic as most other Americans -- and too "real" for his tastes.

Celebration, in fact, puts a sharply ironic twist on the aftermath of the Cold War: Like thousands of private communities just like it across the country, it turns out to be a place where Americans are forgoing electoral democracy and opting for a kind of corporate communism. The resident scribes note the details of this Kafkaesque atmosphere, but fail to take its full human measure. Frantz and Collins cleave too closely to everyday life, while Ross condemns Celebration for betraying its utopian promise. There is one thing, though, about Celebration that is perfect: It's a textbook example of the unique blend of starry-eyed idealism and bare-knuckle pragmatism that defines America and all of its -- perhaps unresolvable -- contradictions. But in that, isn't it like every other town in the nation?

By Saul Anton

Saul Anton has written for Feed, Art/Text, Artforum and other magazines.

MORE FROM Saul Anton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Disney