The Book Club

You Can’t Go Home Again

Dear Russ,

I like your story about Fernandina. To me, it precisely illustrates the impossibility of starting over from scratch, which is what towns like Celebration promise.

I like many aspects of Celebration. The emphasis on sidewalks and walkability, the traditional design of the houses, the smaller lots that give a sense of place to the streets, the back alleys that put the cars in the background, and the planning that gives equal importance to the individual houses and the common shared spaces. What I am skeptical of is turning one’s back on so many aspects of everyday American life. For example, I happen to like Home Depot. If I lived in Celebration, I would have to drive some distance to find one. Nor do I remember seeing a service station. Nor a car wash. Nor a storage facility. There is no motel, but there is a bed and breakfast (I happen to prefer the former). So much of what is necessary to the way we live today is relegated to “out there.”

Celebration doesn’t tell us anything about how we could better arrange our present lives, how we could integrate and knit together convenience stores and Home Depots, for example, or neighborhoods and strip malls. Inexpensive strip malls, whatever their appearance, are where little business are born, since budding entrepreneurs can’t afford the rents that elegant town centers charge. Jane Jacobs long ago wrote that successful cities needed a variety of buildings, old as well as new, which could serve a variety of functions. The contradiction of a new town is that everything is new, hence expensive. That is one explanation for the lack of cheaper houses that both Ross and Frantz-Collins bemoan. There are no fixer-uppers in Celebration. This is obviously an unfair criticism, yet it underlines the real limitations of starting over.

There is another, final aspect to this conundrum. I teach a course about architecture and urban design to budding developers at the Wharton School. After a class on New Urbanism, where I showed them several projects and took them to see Kentlands, a large planned community in Maryland, I asked them to write a paper about the subject. One of the students wrote: “If there was one question I would like to ask the people who live in these neotraditional communities, it would be: What would it take to make you move?” It was a perceptive observation. Starting over always promises stability–“this time we are going to do it right”–but, of course, the world will not stop. Somebody will come up with a better idea. Or, at least, what seems to be a better idea at the time.

Celebration is in many ways a better idea. No doubt, it is destined to take its place among a long list of admirable experiments in visionary American town-making: Williamsburg, Annapolis, Savannah, Forest Hills Gardens, Radburn–and Seaside. But they are experiments, the mainstream will make its own way, as it always has done.

All the best,