The Book Club

In the World and of the World

Dear Russ,

Well, OK, OK, so you liked Ross’ book.

While I don’t share your enthusiasm, I agree that Ross—and you—make an important point: Celebration is not a world apart. It is—like all real estate development—part of local politics, for example. It exists in a place where people have options where they want to live (which is also why it is unfair to expect Celebration to be all things to all people).

You point out that Disney was “uniquely burdened.” I think that’s very well put. One of the parts of both books that most surprised me was the extent to which the homebuyers themselves saw Celebration as a utopia … chiefly because Disney was involved. On the other hand, especially in the early days, Disney aggressively marketed the town as a solution-to-just-about-everything. So it was disingenuous of them to withdraw from the town at a later stage. Another aspect of Disney’s involvement that struck me was that while they were very good at the architectural/scenographic aspects of creating Celebration—as one would expect, and it is a beautiful place—when it came to education, they seemed out of their depth. In hindsight, this, too, was to be expected. Why should an entertainment corporation understand anything about education? The Celebration school is the one part of the town, it seems to me, where Disney slipped up, and slipped up badly. Both books tell that part of the story well.

The burdens that Disney carries also mean that it would have been almost impossible for Celebration to be, for example, a social experiment. Both books bemoan the lack of affordable housing, for example. But almost no new private residential developments, including New Urbanism, have succeeded at mixing incomes to any considerable degree (the exception are Hope VI projects, which do achieve income mixing, although they are still too new to draw categorical conclusions from). Could Disney really have done better in this area? It is not an issue of money—they could certainly afford it—it is one of risk. Corporations have money, and a certain degree of power—at the same time they are vulnerable to public opinion. Look at what happened when the school failed. An article immediately appeared in the Wall Street Journal quoting disgruntled parents. More recently, a crime in Celebration was prominently reported in the New York Times. Which raises an interesting point: Does the occurrence of crime make Celebration a failure—as the story implied—or prove that it is a real place after all?