The Book Club

Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

Dear Witold,

And so, the last of our Book Raps, our chance encounters on this neotraditionalist cyber-street corner, a corner that suffers as an intellectual environment (as does Celebration, our authors inform us) from having too much traffic and no bar. It’s an apt forum, for all that: another attempt to manufacture community out of a community-alienating, sprawl-inducing product, in this case, the Internet. One wonders: Is Slate Microsoft’s Celebration? Is Celebration Disney’s Slate? Is our Book Club a sock hop, and you and I like the columns on Celebration’s city hall? I’ve wondered why that building was engineered to present such an elaborate display of democracy in a town where democracy has been supplanted by corporate control. But then, why are we being paid, by the medium that’s supplanting print, to prop up the illusion of print’s importance?

I’d like to end my side our conversation with a parable. I’m not sure what it means. While researching my last book, in which I devote a chapter to talking about Celebration, I lived in a town on the coast of Florida called Fernandina Beach. Fernandina is exactly the type of town that Celebration would emulate: close, old, quaintly Victorian, rife with sidewalks, history, and pedestrians, and all the forms of old-style American community. While Celebration promotes itself as a model for American innocence, hearkening back to the way we were pre-1940, before we were so corrupted by the highway and the suburb, Fernandina Beach was literally (and literarily) the model for another and more cautionary rendition of that same ‘40s ur-village. Grace Metalious lived there when she was writing Peyton Place (though her editor made her relocate her novel to New England) and I must say from my years residing there that in the vividness of its intrigues the town lives up to its billing.

As I took Celebration to task for its faux history and democracy, I reflected back on Fernandina, which was, whatever else might be “Peyton Place-ish,” at least a real community, the product of hundreds of years of conflicts bloodier by far than Parent vs. Disney school disputes. It was also a living temple of participatory democracy, and watching the American system work there on election nights and at meetings of Port Commissions and Mosquito Control Boards became my vision of what a corporate-confection like Celebration could not replicate.

Now along come Andrew Ross and Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz, and what they have to say about what they saw in Celebration troubles, or at least complicates, my formula. Because this is the problem: In the face of our postwar, retail, mobile, corporate culture, democracy is not only a seemingly ineffectual anodyne to social blight; it becomes a part of the problem. Yes, Orlando has become a hideous sprawl of ticky-tack in the years since Disney made it the largest tourist destination in the world. You could say that corporate commerce created the problem. But only the corporation can seemingly solve it, since the problem evidently thrives on the democratic turf, and not within the Disney World campus (whose Kremlinesque government, dominated by Disney’s apparatchik, levies its own taxes and polices its own zoning and safety regulations under Florida law) nor in Celebration. What are we to do with this? What exactly does it mean?

I returned to Fernandina last year to catch up with friends, and I found it changed. For a long while, now, as tourists discovered the town, sweatshirt and knick-knack shops have been replacing the general merchandise businesses of a working town, until now Centre Street is one long tourist mall. They even play melodies from loudspeakers just as Celebration did until the influence of Michael and Jane Eisner and Robert A.M. Stern put a stop to it. Since I left, all the institutions that made Fernandina the place that neotraditionalist America wants so desperately to return to have disappeared: The banks have moved out to the highway. The main post office has moved out to the highway. Even the county courthouse has left its century-old brick home with the clock tower and moved out to the highway. The citizens of the town objected, but the county voters didn’t care, and the big money (much of it developer money) was all on the side of turning Fernandina into a theme park. So that’s what happened. Democracy is destroying the town that was a temple of democracy.

But that is not the ultimate point of my parable. At the same time as all this, the Fernandina city and Nassau County governments have been enthralled by a new development that has been zoned and permitted and is now rising to Fernandina’s east. I’ve talked with some Fernandina residents who can’t wait to leave their hundred-year-old, history-laden homes and move in there. The development is a neotraditionalist, new urbanist “community” that promises to re-create the traditional American town, a town not unlike Fernandina. It’s a little Celebration, its mawkish marketing and sentimental architecture direct descendants of Celebration and Seaside, Fla. And what I want to know is: Where are we when America deserts its roots to race to a place that promises to return it to its roots? What happens when the economic interests that are destroying American society are pretending to reconstitute it right next door? This is why the books of Andrew Ross and Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins are needed. It’s why we have been corresponding, and why I’ve enjoyed the chance, even on so noisy a street corner, to chat with you.

Next time, let’s get a drink.

With regards and respect,
Russ Rymer