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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.

Page Two (of two)

At Work in the Fields of the Mouse

Andrew Ross
Andrew Ross

Mark Dery: One thing that I found interesting about The Celebration Chronicles was your defense of suburbia.

Andrew Ross: One of the things that drew me to Celebration was what I see as an anti-suburban prejudice among urbanists, who've done very little work in suburbia in the past fifteen or twenty years. The tradition I considered myself part of -- the resident ethnographer in a new town or a suburban community -- was active for awhile in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, but there hasn't been a lot of that since then. Interesting new literature on suburbia is just about nonexistent. Mike Davis's City of Quartz is a rare example. I think Davis is essentially right when he says that the next class wars are going to take place in suburbia -- they already are taking place there -- but urbanists for the most part are still almost exclusively focused on center cities. In fact, if you're a social scientist it's very difficult to get funding to study up as opposed to studying down. It's relatively easy to get funding to study low-income or ghetto communities, but much more difficult to get grants to study high-income communities on the suburban fringe. I was attracted to the essentially middlebrow character of a place like Celebration, which was solidly middle- to upper-middle class. I'd never really lived in suburbia before. I learned a lot about the property-values system that is prevalent there, and a lot about the anxieties and concerns of solidly middle-class white people in this country.

In the book, you write, "I believed there might be some lessons to be learned from Celebration about the direction of public life at the end of the century." Which of Celebration's guiding principles will help us rebuild our fragmented communities and resuscitate our moribund civic life, and which are dead ends?

My chief interest in taking up residence in Celebration was to do an ethnography of the pioneer residents in the tradition of sociological studies of suburbia that began with Herbert Gans's The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community. Ethnographers don't aim primarily at delivering verdicts. In fact I found that people, even Celebrationites, had been doing little but issuing verdicts about the town from the outset. I comment at some length in the book on the high level of performance anxiety this generated among residents, who were ceaselessly assessing whether the community was a success or a failure in tandem with the journalists swarming all over town. Given this overdose of judgmentalism, it wouldn't help matters to simply add to it. So whether I myself enjoyed living in that town, or whether I judged the town a good or a bad thing, was not the point of the book.

Besides, Celebration was not developed with someone like myself in mind. I didn't fall into the market-research niche for that kind of housing development. In the course of my ethnographic research, however, it became clear to me that residents expected, and wanted, me to draw some lessons from the town in my book. They hoped I would dispel some of the media misconceptions about themselves and the town, and also point to things that could have been done much better. So that's why the last chapter of my book is devoted to "Learning from Celebration" (a reference to Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown). There, I describe at length the peculiar condition of private/public life that I found pervaded all aspects of life in town. I suggest that this is indeed symptomatic of an age when private corporations are increasingly sponsoring public life (to our detriment, I conclude). I also describe how Celebration illustrates the difficult challenge of regional planning for New Urbanism. The real story about Celebration lay outside of town, which is where I spend most of the penultimate chapter. I also summarize my experiences with the school and the controversy surrounding it. Difficult lessons, in other words, and no easy verdicts.

You mentioned Celebration School, whose dedication to nontraditional, Theodore Sizer-style teaching and grading made it a flashpoint of outrage among those parents committed to the three Rs, letter grades, and preparation for the workplace. In the book, you note that in the year you spent observing and assisting at the school, you "must have thought more about education than [you] had done in 15 years of college teaching." What conclusions did you come to? How will you apply those insights to your own teaching at NYU?

There is a huge gulf between elite sectors of higher education and frontline public school education, and so the time I spent in that school was a real revelation to me. In perpetuating the SAT system for college entrance, we in the higher sector continue to condemn K-12 education to a mindless regime of cramming and testing. It's an appalling and inhumane system and has little to do with real learning. One of the things I've learned about teaching is never to expect to see the impact of our teaching in the short term. It's often five or ten years down the line that teaching makes sense to students. How does that rule of thumb apply to the battery of grading and testing that high schoolers have to survive? Not at all. Which is why the debate about the school made so much sense to me. The nontraditional Celebration School was an invigorating place to be for an educator, and I watched students thrive in unorthodox ways, only to be forced back into a box when the changes were implemented.

Notwithstanding the rancor, all the hullabaloo around the school on the part of parents meant that people were actually talking, arguing about education with a passion that was quite heartening to me as an educator. A lot of the time they were really arguing about something else, but, as in the nation at large, the school became a convenient vehicle for sundry cargoes, and actually jumpstarted the engine of public opinion in town. I had wished that people would invest some of that same passion in reviling the sweatshop origins of their Disney clothing, but, unfortunately, that did not seem like a high priority. What I found at the root of the controversy were private-sector consumer demands being made on a public institution -- not an untypical scenario, increasingly, in our society, but destined to end in unhappiness. As it happens, there are some lessons here to be taken back to NYU, whose motto is "a private university in the public service."

In a review of your book in The New Yorker, Kurt Andersen asserts that you approve of Celebration "and the New Urbanist idea in general." I'm not so sure. To my mind, you seemed ambivalent about it -- sanguine about some of its guiding principles, but wary of the way they were applied on the ground. What is your verdict on New Urbanism as a blueprint for a kinder, gentler America at the turn of the millennium?

It's obviously a big question. I think I describe myself somewhere in the book as a fellow traveler of New Urbanism. There are a lot of different kinds of New Urbanism. Florida has been the epicenter of a certain kind of New Urbanism that doesn't have a lot to do with the West Coast New Urbanism associated with people like Peter Calthorpe [author of The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream], who comes from a left-wing environmentalist background. The West Coast forms of New Urbanism are much more about regional planning, a goal that would probably be a little closer to my own social beliefs.

How would you characterize New Urbanism, Florida-style?

Celebration is a pretty good example of it: a showcase town, lavishly built, with a very successful recruitment of all the right kinds of homeowners, but very little impact on regional planning. Probably the most forceful point I made in the book about Celebration as a New Urbanist example was to say, "Look at Disney's own regional plan in the area, look at how the company had two hands at work on the land: one was building the ecological showpiece, the other one was directly contributing to the kind of tourist or suburban sprawl to which New Urbanism is supposed to be an antidote." What I discovered in the course of the research was how the company had used the blueprint for Celebration to get environmental permits for twenty more years of development.

And to secure public funding for highways to its theme parks.

That's pretty much it. None of which is illegal, though of course it's a developer's dream to make that kind of sweetheart deal with the state. But if you look at it from the point of view of the New Urbanist ethics of regional planning, it runs directly counter to what New Urbanists believe in. So Celebration wasn't a terribly good example of New Urbanism in that regard.

But what precisely do New Urbanists believe in? New Urbanism seems to serve many masters. There's the neoconservative recoil from the horrors of suburban sprawl and the Boomer dream of time-traveling back to the bucolic, small-town fantasy of Disney's Main Street, U.S.A. Another is a more progressive vision of a vibrant main-street culture in which civic life and public space are revitalized.

I think they're both two sides of the cultural coin, but what's more interesting for me is how these cultural values are used to sell what New Urbanists are mostly interested in, which is breaking the stranglehold of the coding and zoning regulations that have been enshrined in almost every county in the U.S. They're completely insane, tied to a plan for the development of pristine land that is entirely unsustainable. Andres Duany, the charismatic, Miami-based figurehead of the New Urbanist movement, claims that the neotraditional architecture and other cultural values are a kind of Trojan Horse. People like them, they sell the places, but for him, at least, it's the coding and the zoning that really matter.

So could we imagine a New Urbanist experiment that would embrace, say, a modernist aesthetic, straight out of Wallpaper magazine, rather than a neotraditional one?

This is one of the questions that I asked pretty ritually in the interviews I did with folks in Celebration: could they imagine this as a modern town? Those who had very active imaginations could, but they were very much in the minority. I think, however, that making a leap from that to what is often assumed in the media -- namely, that these people were driven by a nostalgia for simpler, Rockwellian times -- wasn't warranted, at least among the people that I interviewed. Certainly the warm, fuzzy feelings were there; traditional architecture is very, very popular. But it's always been a very highly educated minority that has preferred modern or postmodern architecture.

Can you imagine a New Urbanist experiment for fans of mid-century modernism in which every house looks like, say, a scaled-down version of Eero Saarinen's gull-winged TWA terminal?

If it was designed around social interaction of people rather than access for automobiles, yes. That's what it boils down to: traffic reduction.

What's your take on the New Urbanist argument, articulated by James Howard Kunstler in The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscapes, that it is the automobile that has given us the discount-outlet, fast-food franchise, chain-store nightmare that stretches from coast to coast? And how optimistic are you about New Urbanism as a remedy to that?

I'm certainly at one with any diatribe against planning around automobiles. But the real challenge of traffic reduction, again, is this idea of a regional plan. Pockets like Celebration don't do it. Celebration is not a good example because it's a little island marooned in the midst of a sea of tourist highways. It's really only with proper regional planning, where you are able to coordinate peoples' journeys to work and recreation and their homes, that you're going to find appreciable traffic reduction.

That's very, very difficult to do, especially when you have a situation where there's maybe a hundred landowners who are part of your regional plan and you have to somehow persuade them all to agree to a uniform plan. The county planners that I talked to in central Florida all told me that it was the most difficult thing they could imagine. In the city, it's a little bit easier because the planners have a little more power; there's more public domain. But once you get out on the suburban fringe, where most of the building is, the ability to mount a regional plan is usually available only to a very large landowner. In the case that I was looking at, that landowner was Disney, and Disney didn't produce a very benevolent regional plan.

How large does a New Urbanist experiment have to be before it's not marooned? How much region does regional planning have to encompass?

That's one of the big challenges. People are continually saying that New Urbanists have to do more urban infill, that they have to retrofit existing suburbs rather than simply develop greenfield areas. There is more urban infill going on: there's a public housing program called Hope Six, which involves tearing down public housing projects, large towers, and building suburban-type public housing. Cabrini Green, in Chicago, is a good example; it's being torn down and replaced by single-family housing, a mixture of public and private.

You talk at one point in The Celebration Chronicles about the unintended consequences of the well-intentioned efforts of preservationists like Jane Jacobs, whose Death and Life of Great Cities "convinced an entire generation," you argue, "of the environmental sanity of preserving the high-density urban neighborhoods that planners were itching to condemn as slums." Ironically, the gentrification encouraged by the preservation movement -- a movement "forged to combat the planners' uprooting of poor populations," you note -- "ended up displacing almost as many residents, unable to afford to live any longer in their old neighborhood." What's to prevent the same thing from happening if New Urbanists do the sort of urban infilling you're talking about?

It depends how you do it. The big plan that was given the go-ahead in Orlando, for example, was for the naval training center, which is in the city, just a mile and a half from downtown Orlando. The center was decommissioned and they decided to do residential development, New Urbanist style. It's probably the biggest urban infill project that will be undertaken in the country in the next few years. By building an urban village in the middle of the city, they're obviously not destroying any pristine land out in the fringe. That's the kind of thing more socially conscious critics would like to see New Urbanists put their minds to, and I would certainly be one of their number.

What would Celebration have looked like if the public housing units that were part of the original proposal had been installed? How would that have reshaped not only the complexion but also the community consciousness of Celebration?

Well, the public housing needn't look any different from the rest of the Celebration housing. In fact, in Prince Charles's and Leon Krier's town of Poundbury, which is the English medievalist analogue of the American neotraditionalist town, there is public housing and it looks no different from any of the other housing stock.

The original planning team talked about public housing, and although one or two of the executives claimed to me that they were all for it, the final decision was on the side of caution as it usually is in the private housing industry. There were certainly town residents who might have welcomed public housing, but whether it would have affected price points or housing sales, I don't know.

The specter of plummeting property values looms long and dark over town politics in The Celebration Chronicles.

It certainly does. On the other hand, I would underline the fact that such a housing landscape, where you have million-dollar mansions just a spit away from multi-family apartment buildings, is virtually impossible to find anywhere else in this country. It's unique. And the degree of mixed income and high density that Celebration and towns like it set out as a social and physical goal is unprecedented. That's not the way Americans live. There was more of a possibility of mixed-income communities in the early part of this century; postwar American communities, especially in suburbia, have been rigorously separated into podlike clusters where even small gradations of income are categorized. So places like Celebration are really quite unique in that regard. Of course, the more successful Celebration becomes as a real-estate venture, the less able low-income folks will be to move there.

You seem to be suggesting that there's a radicalism to Celebration's experiment in plunking upscale and downmarket homes side by side. In The Celebration Chronicles, however, you mention the pervasive belief, among Celebrationites, that "everyone has made a sacrifice to be here" -- an article of town faith that you suggest is an unconscious denial of income disparities and class differences in the name of social harmony.

These things were pretty much downplayed, at least among the town's pioneers. But again, this was a very self-selecting group of people who had a fairly strong esprit de corps, which overrode some of the differences one might have expected. As the town gets bigger (which was already happening by the time I left), some of these class differences will become more exacerbated.

By the aggregation of lower income groups in the cheaper housing on Celebration's outskirts, out toward the freeways?

Exactly. If the town is built out according to its Phase One plan, there will be one section that will be at least four miles from the center of town.

Which obviously challenges the New Urbanist imperative that the downtown area be conveniently walkable for every resident. On that note, it's ironic that in a town consecrated to the pedestrian so many residents still drive everywhere. You also note that despite New Urbanist claims for the renascence of community life through the revival of front-porch culture, "there was little porch activity and use" in Celebration. In their book Celebration, U.S.A.: Living in Disney's Brave New Town, Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins refer to porches that are "invariably empty," decorated with wicker rockers that one Celebrationite calls "porch props," while "from almost every family room visible from the street or the alley came the glow of a television set."

Well, the question really is the New Urbanist one about physical determinism: does the physical design generate a certain kind of behavior, or doesn't it? The fact that the town was walkable -- I walked all the time, I never used my car in town -- and the fact that the porches were there meant that you at least had the option of walking or sitting on porches. That people chose not to, for one reason or another, wasn't because the physical design was an obstacle. It's because of sociological behavior, and that's where sociologists will say that the New Urbanists overstate their thesis. Urban planners are like any professional fraternity; literary critics think that language determines the world, biologists think that biology determines the world, and urban planners obviously think that their design determines the world. It doesn't, and what you've pointed out is a very good example of that. People don't use the porches, they don't walk as much as they could. But the option is there, and I think at least that's an advance.

But how does an advance in urban design profit us if it isn't utilized?

Well, I think there are certain reasons these advances weren't utilized, which have to do with the Florida climate. People have got so used to their air-conditioning, with good reason, that having a porch in central Florida means something a little different from having a porch in, say, North Carolina, where some of the architectural designs originated. The same goes for traveling around town in a car. People chose to do so a lot of the time, I'm sure, because it was more comfortable, climate-wise.

That said, I didn't find people inside, watching TV. There was a fairly high level of community activity, so much so that a lot of the folks I knew got burned out by constant meetings. There were some folks who served on just about every committee you can imagine. I don't know how they found time to earn a living!

Given the fetishization of the term "community" these days, it bears pointing out that there's such a thing as too much civic life.

That's certainly something that I experienced among Celebrationites.

Ironically, some of the liveliest social life that you describe takes place not in public spaces but in people's homes, such as the dinner parties organized by the Honeysuckle potluckers. This suggests to me that it's the dinner table, not the town square, that is the atom of civic life.

I'm not sure about that. The block parties involved a lot of activity, and I certainly had a lot of street-corner interaction. Whenever I took a walk, there was always some gossip to pick up from folks I'd run into. I had to barter information in order to get it sometimes, but that's what ethnographers do.

I'm interested in the tension between your desire, as an ethnographer, to become a "participant-observer" in the community and your inescapable status as a stranger in a strange land. In this light, I was tempted to read your defense of Celebration against "elite urban critics" as overcompensation -- an attempt to get down with the homies.

Well, first of all, let me say that while I used ethnographic methodologies, the book is also rather personal. It's by far the most personal writing I've done -- my friends were shocked by it! One of the most personal struggles I had in writing the book was in figuring out how to be accountable to the people I was living with. That's why I wrote the bulk of the book while living there, because I really was thinking about how my neighbors were going to receive it. The reception of the book among Celebrationites has been very important to me, and I'm pleased that people there have found its assessments to be fair. Part of that sense of accountability meant protecting the privacy of many of my informants in a way that academics tend to do, and journalists don't. On the other hand, I was writing a mainstream trade book, and so parts of the writing had to be dramatic, with human interest, and a direct record of some of my own adventures in town.

After a few months in Celebration, I wasn't very conscious of the tension you speak of. I expect I'll disappoint some readers who expected more of that flavor, but I'm not sure I agree that the result was overcompensation. Those who know my work know that I try hard to respect the communities that I write about: Polynesian Mormons, Jamaican musicians, and New Age practitioners, to name just three of the groups that I've done studies of, all of which are probably much more "exotic" to me than the Celebrationites.

As for your skepticism about our mobility as writers, I'm not sure we'd be very good writers at all if we decided we could only write about people like ourselves and things within our own short-sighted, parochial orbit. Caryl Philips, the Caribbean author, described the modern writer as someone who is born somewhere, lives elsewhere, and writes about somewhere else. Even so, Philips's willed cosmopolitanism was not my prime motive in becoming a temporary Celebrationite. When all is said and done, I was just doing American studies, which is my job, after all.


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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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