Town Criers


Just as prisons exist to convince us that the rest of society is free, so Disneyland exists to convince us that the rest of America is real. That’s what Jean Baudrillard says, anyway. Or said once, back when we were all Maoists and people still got the willies when the line between real life and spectacle got blurred.

I haven’t kept up with French theory well enough to tell you what, if anything, Baudrillard makes of Cops, Jerry Springer, Jennicam, and the other hundred semi-realities that blur the line for us these days. But I’ll tell you this much: if he hasn’t
updated his Disneyland thesis to account for Celebration, Florida–the tightly planned and brightly hyped community Disney erected in the swamps outside Orlando three years ago–just give him time.

Celebration, it seems, exists not to convince us that the rest of society is real (why bother anymore?) but to convince us that the rest of society would be better off stage-
managed like the spectacle it is becoming.
Celebration is the ultimate encroachment of the artificial upon what remains for many of us the last, best definition of the authentic: the streets and homes we live in. Or so we’ve been told, in effect, by every institution of higher opinion from academia to The New York Times.

What, then, to expect from two new books–one by an academic and one by a New York Timesreporter and his wife–that recount their authors’experiences living in Celebration for a year?
Certainly not what they deliver. These are critical works, well-stocked with left/liberal brooding on what it means for a corporate behemoth to take up the imagineering of civic life. But postmodern jeremiads (or even Midnight in the Garden of Goofy and Tinkerbell) they are not. Both The Celebration Chronicles, by New York University’s best-known tenured radical, American studies chair Andrew Ross, and Celebration, U.S.A., by prizewinning Times investigative reporter Douglas Frantz and his longtime freelance collaborator, Catherine Collins, swim hard against the intellectual current to bring us the news that Disney’s town is not just a movie set or a cultural danger sign or even, entirely, Disney’s. It’s a place where real people live, and where real people happen to be eking out something resembling a real community.

Real people are wont to do this, of course, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise here. That it does testifies to the need for these books, either of which could easily have pandered to expectations and portrayed its subjects as the Trumans and Stepford Wives we suspect them to be.

Instead, we get anxious, articulate middle- and upper-middle-class white people living beyond their means in hopes of grabbing a piece of Disney’s neotraditionalist vision of neighborhood. And that’s no pathetic hope. Loosely informed by the design principles of the New Urbanism (denser neighborhoods with more public spaces and mixing of incomes;narrow streets of pro-pedestrian intent), Celebration is a test case for the movement’s promises of sustainable development and richer public life.

It’s in the venerable American tradition of cities on a hill, that is, of letting outsiders ponder the utopian possibilities while leaving the locals to grapple with the less-than-utopian realities. In
Celebration’s case, these include slapdash construction work, claustrophobicrules about home decor, bitter debate over the town school’s experimental curriculum, and alligators wandering onto backyard lawns. Also, though many residents came to Celebration drawn by the tidy, well-
orchestrated “magic” of the Disney theme parks, most are now mordantly aware of its limits as a dream to live by. “I’ve got pixie dust comingout of my ass,”growls one of Ross’s subjects in the midst of a heated confrontation with town officials;
another, eyeing picturesque streets, confides that “what we need are a few drunks around town.”

These portraits of a struggling, self-aware Celebration might not be as much fun, frankly, as satire or excoriation could have been. But these are better books for it–more honest, more empathetic, and better news for the general state of cultural debate.

I’m partial to Ross’s, myself, and not just because (caveat lector) he kindly blurbed my own book-length look at an online community last year. His cultural references, whether he’s mapping the history of late-20th-century urbanism or finding the secret connection between Celebration and Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, have more range and flair than Frantz and Collins’s. His sociopolitical takes, too, have a healthier dose of Marx and Gompers in them. And perhaps more to the point, his perspective as a dedicated downtown New Yorker–one who finds lower Manhattan “a step closer to utopia than just aboutanywhere else”–makes him the more simpatico tour guide for the likes of me and, I imagine, you.

But the more solidly bourgeois Frantz and Collins, as homeowners and parents of school-age children, come closer to living the typical Celebrationite’s experience than Ross (who rents a bachelor pad downtown). As seasoned journalists, too, they tend to do a better job of shaping a story, whether it’s Celebration’s long corporate evolution from its origins in Walt Disney’s Experimental Planned Community of Tomorrow or the subplot of the scary next-door neighbors who eventually gave Celebration its first domestic-abuse scandal. And Frantz and Collins match most of Ross’s social criticism (antidemocratic town management, high-handedness with local government, cheesy shenanigans with environmental rules), coming down hardest on what they call “an opportunity tragically lost”: Disney’s dodging of its obligation to include truly affordable housing in the Celebration mix.

If you’re on an urban-studies jag, or something, read both. At the very least, they’re an interesting study in synoptic narrative. As it happens, Ross’sstint in Celebration overlapped in its entirety with Frantz and Collins’s. The books share enough common scenes to give the discerning reader a clear picture of the numerous awkward encounters the authors must have had. The richest was surely at the Red Rose Ball, a townwide charity event that Frantz and Collins attended as guests and Ross attended as volunteer staff. Did the moment ever arrive when the formally attired couple were obliged to accept a canapé from their pierced rival’s proffered tray? We can only hope. But now, imagine it from the perspective of the other Celebrationites in the room, pinned, as they were throughout the year, in the parallax gaze of these two sympathetic, intelligent, but nonetheless
voraciously surveillant research projects. Talk about your willies. The scenes that lie between these books may ultimately portray the current commingling of real life and spectacle more vividly than anything written down in them.

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