The Book Club

Starting Over

Dear Russ,

I’m glad you mentioned the Send Key Syndrome. Writing these “reviews,” in quick succession without the benefit of endless editing and rewriting, which is how I normally work (yes, Virginia, those “readable” books are the result of great effort), has brought home to me one quality of this sort of communication–it is really more like a street-corner conversation than anything else. Certainly not a debate, let alone an essay–or a considered book review for that matter. In fact, it is more like gossiping than anything else. So, perhaps Slate should rename this section Book Chat, or Book Rap, or something like that.

Getting back to Celebration. I agree entirely that communities are cemented by adversity, although I don’t think that absolves Disney from a royal screw-up with respect to the school. I can’t think what they imagined when they marketed an “old-fashioned town” and then put in place an experimental school that would be considered radical even in communities such as Berkeley and Cambridge. Incidentally, Ross offers the interesting insight that it was Eisner himself, who is a supporter of nontraditional education, who had a lot to do with the revolutionary curriculum.

Still, the question you ask is exactly right: How can a corporation that markets escapism make a real place? The answer, I suspect, is “with great difficulty.” Which is the reason there will not be other Disney towns. Nor should there be, in my view. That is why the fears expressed by Ross and to a lesser extent by Frantz and Collins about corporate urbanism are misplaced. There won’t be any towns built by mega-corporations like AT&T, Microsoft, or Pepsico. Of course, all master-planned communities are built by corporations, but they are relatively small organizations that specialize in “creating community.” I’m thinking of the companies that build places like Irvine, Cal., or Vail, or Sun Cities. And they are much more skillful at their business than Disney proved to be in Celebration.

Which is why, despite the excellent town planning and generally high quality of the architecture, I don’t think Celebration is a model. I’ve talked to many people in the real estate industry, and the consensus is that a) no one but Disney could have built Celebration, and b) even Disney can’t be making money. No doubt we do need to find new urban models for the millions of new houses that will be built over the next decades. In that regard, Celebration offers lessons, rather than a prototype.

Or perhaps Celebration is really another manifestation of a (uniquely?) American phenomenon: the visionary community. Referring to the Castro district in San Francisco, Sun City, Florida, and a guru-inspired commune in Oregon, Frances Fitzgerald wrote that their inhabitants were all inspired by “the extraordinary notion that they could start all over again from scratch.” In many ways, that is the theme of the two books we have been chatting about: people trying to start over.