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Previously in American Graffiti:

"At Lunch With Ernest Hemingway," by Sven Birkerts (July 21, 1999)
The exclusive Atlantic Unbound interview with the author of In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, and now True at First Light.

More American Graffiti in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

Related features:

"Home From Nowhere," by James Howard Kunstler (The Atlantic, September 1996)
Can the momentum of sprawl be halted? America's zoning laws, intended to control the baneful effects of industry, have mutated, in the view of one architecture critic, into a system that corrodes civic life, outlaws the human scale, defeats tradition and authenticity, and confounds our yearning for an everyday environment worthy of our affection.

Flashback: "The Godfather of Sprawl" (Atlantic Unbound, May 26, 1999)
On the seventieth anniversary of Jones Beach, the legacy of Robert Moses is as controversial as ever. Atlantic articles by Moses from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s offer a glimpse into the mind of this father of the postmodern American landscape.

Interview: "Landscape Artist" (Atlantic Unbound, July 14, 1999)
Witold Rybczynski, the author of A Clearing in the Distance, talks about Frederick Law Olmsted, the importance of Central Park, and the shape of our urban and suburban landscapes.

At Work in the Fields of the Mouse

What do you get when a postmodernist ethnographer from New York City decides to live and work among the natives of Disney's neo-utopian Florida town?

by Mark Dery

September 15, 1999

At last year's annual Founder's Day ceremony in Celebration, the planned community Disney built in the swamps near Orlando, Florida, the local Presbyterian minister wanted to say, "We pray we are not remembered as being a town living in Disney's Tomorrowland nor a town that's all façade and no depth." Officials from the Celebration Company (the organization created by Disney to manage the town's governance) demanded that he strike the offending line from his sermon.

The Celebration Chronicles Andrew Ross's new book, The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney's New Town, is the answer to the good reverend's unspoken prayer -- a droll, deadpan exposé of the real lives behind the town's false fronts. A cultural-critical memoir written in the belly of the Mouse, The Celebration Chronicles is an account of the year Ross lived in an apartment in downtown Celebration, weaving himself into the fabric of town life even as he teased out its tangled meanings, conducting "six or seven hundred hours of interviews" with everyone from Disney's Michael Eisner to my favorite Celebrationite, the mad-as-Hell-and-I'm- not-gonna-take-it-anymore guy who snarls, "I've had enough of this, I've got pixie dust coming out of my ass!"

Celebration, whose first residents arrived in 1996, is an updated gloss on Uncle Walt's 1966 vision of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). As originally conceived, EPCOT was to be an experiment in better living through urban planning, social engineering, and Jetsonian geewhizzery -- with a strong dose of the Father-Knows-Best totalitarianism of its corporate parent. Since the company would own the homes, renting them to the town's residents, there would be no landowners "and therefore no voting control," declared the man who once described himself as the "benevolent dictator of Disney enterprises." Of course, the future didn't arrive on schedule. The EPCOT we know is a science fair-cum-infomercial in Disney World -- a riot of product placement and corporate-image burnishing whose visions of things to come are as cool and cutting-edge as a short-sleeved suit.

As sketched into being by Robert A. M. Stern, an auteur of neotraditional architecture, Celebration is a far cry from Disney's original vision for EPCOT. It's Main Street, U.S.A. to EPCOT's Tomorrowland -- a back-to-the-future version of Walt's Space-Age daydream of a real-life "Progress City," GE's city of the future at the 1964 World's Fair. As in Walt's imagined technopolis, "the pedestrian is king" in Celebration, but there the resemblance ends. EPCOT's inhabitants would live inside a giant, climate-controlled bubble, riding to work in people-movers or via subterranean roadways under the city. Celebration's 2,500 residents live in Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival, and other neotraditional houses based on prototypes in what a promotional brochure calls America's "best and best-loved small towns," from Charleston, South Carolina, to East Hampton, New York.

The town's genetic code incorporates cultural DNA from several American traditions: the utopian experiment (Oneida), the company town (Pullman, Illinois), the planned community (Reston, Virginia), and the theme-parked public space (New York City's South Street Seaport). Most notably, it's a showcase for New Urbanism, the neotraditional movement in community planning and architecture dedicated to the revival of the mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, turn-of-the-century town that has been displaced by suburban sprawl. New Urbanism preaches the virtues of close-set homes within walking distance of the town center and public space over private lots. Vernacular architecture, steeped in tradition, is intended to evoke the sense of place missing from most developments; front porches within hello-ing distance of the sidewalk are supposed to foster social life and a sense of community. New Urbanism speaks seductively to Boomers who long for the lost community enshrined in comfort shows like The Wonderful World of Disney and undermined, after the Second World War, by the automobile and the blight it begot: mass-produced developments without sidewalks, centers, or civic life. Seaside, the upscale planned community in the Florida panhandle that served as the painfully quaint town of Seahaven in The Truman Show, is an early New Urbanist showcase.

Ross takes us behind Celebration's painted-on dormers and fiber-reinforced concrete clapboards into the horrors of the houses' shoddy construction -- the handiwork of the unskilled, underpaid, and undocumented Mexican agricultural workers employed by cost-cutting "butcher builders." He offers a pained educator's-eye view of the revolt of the masses that wracked Celebration School, whose vanguard educational philosophies ran afoul of the back-to-basics, bottom-line orientation of many Celebration parents. He exposes the town's ironic role in Disney's hidden designs for the region, which have little to do with walkable towns and everything to do with upgrading auto access to the company's theme parks. He sets Celebration's whitebread idyll in stark relief against the strip-mall-and-subdivision landscape -- populated by low-wage theme-park workers and illegal-immigrant laborers -- beyond its white-picket perimeter.

The mediagenic director of the American Studies Program at New York University and author of postmodern polemics like The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature's Debt to Society, Ross is an unlikely intellectual tourist to take up residence in Celebration. A swinging young socialist-postmodernist with pierced ears and a decidedly unsuburban indifference to the validity of his credentials as a breeder ("Now, you're a heterosexual man, aren't you?," Ross was asked; "I guess so," he replied), he seems, in the book's opening pages, like a Martian anthropologist in Middle America.

As he warms to his subject, however, Ross mounts a spirited defense of the virtues of suburbia, playing devil's advocate to generations of elite critics who have sneered at the crabgrass frontier as a cultural desert -- creepily conformist, intellectually barren, and ticky-tacky beyond redemption. A self-described "fellow traveler" of the New Urbanists, he allows himself a sip of their heady optimism: "Who knows? The restoration of civic spirit in tightly knit new traditional neighborhoods might help to breathe new life into a moribund democracy."

In a sense, Ross went to Celebration in search of America at the turn of the millennium -- the last gleamings of its utopian futurism, the lowering clouds of its apocalyptic premonitions, the dreams and nightmares of middle-class white people like the woman who looked at the technicolor sunset on the day she and her husband bought their Celebration home and exclaimed, "Look, Jorge, Walt is even providing clouds for our enjoyment! This is a real Disney sky!"

Next page: A conversation with Andrew Ross

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More American Graffiti features in Atlantic Unbound.

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Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He wrote Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century and edited Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. His collection of essays, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, was published by Grove Press in February.

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