The Book Club

The Cultural Contradictions of Celebration

Dear Witold,

I hear what you’re saying about being skeptical while also taking Celebration seriously. I’ve tried to do the same in writing about the place, for while I think Celebration is a flawed experiment with insidious implications, I also think that Disney was adventurous to try it, and that the architects and planners Disney employed to make it a reality are in thrall to a worthy ideal. I might accuse them of being pernicious tools of Satan (well, OK, Disney), but I wouldn’t be so disrespectful as to dismiss them lightly or discredit (all of) their motives. Now, the same for books: I give just about anyone high marks for writing one, and I hate to see any author misread cavalierly, as so regularly happens.

Living in a town so as to write about it can be a soul-twisting commitment for a writer, requiring a simultaneous existence as neighbor and spy, friend and infidel. For taking on that task, all three of these writers deserve kudos. All the more reason why I hate to see Ross dismissed, when to my mind his book is not only more fun to read, it is also more ambitious and, Kurt Andersen notwithstanding, better reported.

Ross’ book is not parallel to Celebration, U.S.A. It is a complement to it. It takes the same year, same town, same questions, and many of the same events, and hunts for their meaning in a very different direction. Frantz and Collins, with their solid (if seemingly cut-and-paste) history and assiduous diary of whose kid beat up whose, etc., stay within the perimeter of Celebration, within what Ross calls the White Vinyl Fence. Ross, to the apparent consternation of some reviewers but to my relief, strays beyond it. You say Frantz and Collins have done the relevant homework, but their interviews with Michael Eisner, Robert A.M. Stern, and others among the seminal thinkers, funders, and power brokers who brought Celebration to pass, didn’t seem to draw those thinkers very deep into the matters that make Celebration an experiment worth writing about. Ross seems to have engaged them a bit more in that regard.

The advantage of Ross’ exploration is that he doesn’t buy the conceit that Celebration is a world apart. He makes it a part of the world, an actor in a larger ecology. This can be through the natural incursions of alligators into the town’s artificial lake and encephalitis-bearing mosquitoes onto its iconic porches. Or more significant, it can involve the human machinery behind the building of the town. Ross notes how the ransom that Disney paid to Osceola County for the favor of being exempt from providing low-income housing assistance within Celebration was eaten up by theme-park employees who could not afford to live in Celebration on a Disney wage. He notes that, in local real estate terms, Celebration was not the anti-sprawl incentive that the New Urbanists imagined but rather a beachhead for an expansion of suburban tract development. And more than Frantz and Collins, Ross explores the significance that makes Celebration not just another Columbia or Reston or Hershey or Pullman: its corporate sponsorship of a community in an age when corporations and governments are shuffling and re-dealing the cards of civic responsibility, in what Ross calls “a consumer society’s rendition of the concerns of the founding fathers.”

This is where Disney is more than just an irresistible candle to the moths of snarky social critique. Disney was uniquely positioned to foster the preeminent attempt at a neotraditional town–no one else had the pocketbook, interest, and reputation. But Disney was also uniquely burdened–because its parks were magnets for the Orlando sprawl that Celebration is meant to correct and because the Disney company is a historically anti-democratic institution whose imposition of civic virtue in Celebration relies to some extent on authoritarian principles, principles at odds with the American charter its traditional house façades are calculated to evoke. This is extraordinary. The people at Disney find it extraordinary, the people in love with Disney who flocked to buy houses in Celebration find it extraordinary, and thankfully, Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins and Andrew Ross find it extraordinary, too, enough so to warrant spending a year of their lives there. Do you truly find Celebration unexceptional, except in its halo of Disney-engendered expectations?