Disney's fair town: probing Celebration

August 29, 1999|By MARK RIBBING | MARK RIBBING,Sun Staff

"Celebration U.S.A.," by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins. Henry Holt. 342 pages. $25.

"The Celebration Chronicles," by Andrew Ross. Ballantine Books. 340 pages. $25.95.

Human beings have been organizing themselves into cities and towns for a few millennia now, and you'd think that by this time we'd have a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn't when it comes to building a community.

After all, the basic communal needs of our species have remained constant over the ages. We need places to chat, break bread and do business. We need protections against the occasionally violent and meanspirited ways of our neighbors. Perhaps most important of all, we need to feel that we belong, and that we matter.

These needs may be straightforward and eternal, but satisfying them is an elusive proposition in late-20th-century America. While our great cities have shown some signs of revival in recent years, they still contain vast swaths of desolation where one cannot so much as walk in safety after sunset.

Suburbs, for their part, often lack common spaces and cohesion, a condition worsened by the fact that one generally needs a car in order to run even the most mundane errand.

One of the most notable efforts to redefine and revive the American community has been undertaken by, of all people, the Walt Disney Co. In 1994, the entertainment colossus founded Celebration, Fla., a full-fledged town spooned out of the swampland south of Disney World.

Celebration embraces many of the principles of New Urbanism, a town-design concept that calls for densely-spaced homes, numerous parks and other public areas, and easy pedestrian access to stores, schools, restaurants and theaters. The city also represents a new kind of company town, a place where a corporation would dictate every public detail, down to the colors permitted on residents' curtains.

Despite its high housing costs, Celebration has had no trouble attracting residents. Its population now stands at more than 2,000, and is projected to grow to 15,000.

What is it like to live in the town of the future, as designed and directed by Mickey's minions? Fortunately, some sharp-eyed observers moved to Celebration in order to report back to the outside world. The result is a pair of fine new books on a strange and fascinating place.

As might be expected from two accounts of life in the same small town, the books have much in common. Both delve deeply into Celebration's education and home-construction problems, and into the not-always-noble motivations of the creators and inhabitants of the new settlement. Both ultimately decide that, in spite of it all, Celebration represents a worthwhile attempt to restore community life.

In some ways, though, these are very different stories. "Celebration U.S.A." is the work of New York Times reporter Douglas Frantz and his wife, free-lancer Catherine Collins. With two school-age children, Frantz and Collins fit nicely into family-oriented Celebration, and their focus is on the emotions and travails of their neighbors.

Their portraits of the town and its people are balanced, empathetic, and often quite keen: "[S]ome people had landed in Celebration in full retreat from chaos, hoping to find instant order and convinced that a new environment would heal their troubled marriages or straighten out their wayward kids."

Andrew Ross, author of "The Celebration Chronicles," examines the matter from a different perspective. An American studies professor at New York University, Ross uses Disney-dominated Celebration as a springboard for discussing how Americans are abandoning their civic freedoms and public realm in favor of uniformity and the dollar.

"The chance to build this community would effectively be limited to those willing to regulate their conduct, and perhaps curb their liberties, to safeguard their property values," he writes, illustrating at numerous points how life in Celebration demands and caters to a conformism that is entirely different from the healthy compromises and concessions of normal community living.

"Celebration U.S.A." touches the broader social meaning of Celebration; "The Celebration Chronicles" plunges into it with both hands. "Celebration U.S.A." is smooth and solid; "The Celebration Chronicles" is discursive, willfully provocative, and ultimately the more satisfying of the two.

Mark Ribbing has covered the telecommunications industry for The Sun since 1997. He was previously an attorney and staff writer for the newspapers of the Lehman Communications Corp. in Colorado.

Pub Date: 08/29/99

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