The Book Club

Just Another Planned Community?

Dear Russ,

Since you mention reviews of the Celebration books, I thought that Kurt Andersen’s review in The New Yorker (Sept. 6, 1999) was on the money. It had a touch of skepticism regarding the subject (after all, this was The New Yorker), but took Disney’s town-building attempt seriously–except for the preposterous name, of course, although preposterous town names are hardly unknown in U.S. history–New Hope, for example, or New Harmony, which Andersen mentions, or my favorite, also in Florida, Panacea.

Andersen raises an interesting point regarding the town of Celebration: That is, it is not really such a novelty. Most of what the two books describe about their experience of living in Disney’s town (covenants, problems with house construction, issues of governance, questions of exclusivity, people’s motivations for “starting over,” and so on) is found in any of the thousands of master-planned communities that are built in this country every year. The experience of moving into a brand-new town is interesting, but neither Celebration, U.S.A. nor The Celebration Chronicles (pretentious title, no?) sufficiently acknowledges that it is an ordinary one. Every year, like clockwork, we build between 1 million and 2 million new houses, the majority of which are in master-planned communities, some of which, like Sun Cities, are much larger. (Incidentally, Frances Fitzgerald has written interestingly about the subject of contemporary new communities in Cities on a Hill. A much more thoughtful book than either of the ones we are considering.)

Of course, one suspects that neither Celebration, U.S.A. nor The Celebration Chronicles would have been written had not the Disney Co. been a part of the story. In that sense, there is a Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not quality to these books. One wishes for a Tracy Kidder to write about the same subject. Kidder’s gift is to draw people out, and to keep himself in the background. What mars both these books, in my opinion, is that one finds out altogether too much about the authors’ opinions, which are, frankly, neither original nor all that interesting. Frantz (full disclosure here, I correspond with him) and Collins tend to be earnest and well-meaning, hence sometimes a tad pompous. Ross, an academic, never lets us forget that he is from New York and not easily to be taken in. I tend to agree with Andersen, that Frantz/Collins are the better reporters, and have done their homework–and produced a better book.

I’m not sure I agree with your archeology-in-reverse analogy. As an architect, I have seen many buildings, building complexes, and planned communities completed but without inhabitants. It is spooky, I agree, but hardly unusual. Again, with Celebration there is the tendency to inflate the ordinary into the extraordinary, as if the presence of Disney raised the ante, somehow. Of course, Disney’s involvement did alter what happened (the school, the town center, homebuyers’ expectations). Maybe we can talk about that next time.