Is this just a Mickey Mouse town, or real cause to celebrate the American dream?
Mary Dejevsky on the Disney design for life that intellectuals love to hate
One of the country’s most respected commentators on Russia, the EU and the US, Mary Dejevsky has worked as a foreign correspondent all over the world, including Washington, Paris and Moscow. She is now the chief editorial writer and a columnist at The Independent and regularly appears on radio and television. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham.
Saturday 23 August 1997
There are neat villagey streets that curve and weave, defying the standard grid pattern, and a garden square or two. The brand-new school is not - like most new schools - stranded way outside town. There are woods and grass and even pavements that lead somewhere. Everyone is linked by a town-wide "intranet" and, of course, there is a golf course.
But for any American with intellectual pretensions and for any European with half a sense of history, there is only one politically correct response to this small town in the central Florida marshes: Ugh!.
To its detractors, Celebration commits two cardinal sins simply by being there: it is a completely artificial construct and it is a product of the ever-spreading Disney Company. But for the several dozen couples and families who visit the town each day with a view to settling here, these are its charms.
Strange though this may seem in Europe, much of Middle America associates Disney not with kitsch and commercialisation, but with "quality" and "family values". It guarantees a traditional sort of safety; you can rely on it.
And what these Americans (like the late Walt Disney before them) hanker after is the small town of imagined childhood memory: a town with a centre, with walkable streets and houses that look as houses ought to look; a town where you feel safe enough to leave your front door unlocked, let your children walk to school, and lend your neighbour a cup of sugar.
Small matter that, as sophisticates say dismissively, such a town never existed, except perhaps in the pictures of Norman Rockwell (another object of their scorn). The message of Celebration, joyously received by aspiring townspeople, is that even if it did not exist, it could - and would - have been invented. Now, a year after the first residents moved in, Celebration is, depending on your point of view, a town of 1,200 souls, or no soul at all.
Some have dubbed it a "company town" and drawn parallels with the forward- looking settlements built by paternalistic employers for their workers - like Port Sunlight near Liverpool. But Celebration is not a charitable endeavour, nor is it paternalistic, and it is not populated by Disney employees.
Celebration was devised and planned by a specially formed subsidiary of the Disney Company on Disney-owned land just south of the theme parks with twin aims: to meet a perceived demand for a town like this, and to see whether Walt Disney's original idea for Epcot (the experimental prototype community of tomorrow which became just another theme park) could work for real. "Experimental prototype community of yesteryear", scoff critics - even though demand for houses has exceeded supply.
There are no qualifications for living there, the Celebration Company insists, but you have to demonstrate your commitment by buying or building a house there, and then living in it at least nine months of the year. The prices alone operate as a sort of selection; starting around $160,000 (pounds 100,000) for more modest houses, they are very high compared with prices locally. The architectural constraints are another bar: only certain styles and features are permitted so as to maintain the "integrity" of the whole. "Mickey Mouse town", say the critics.
A year on, people are still buying. Most houses are occupied and term at the school has just begun. The next development phase has been accelerated and a massive hospital and recreation complex is scheduled to open early.
Despite all this activity, the streets by day seem strangely empty and the report card on the town's first year is mixed. Enthusiasts talk about friendliness, safety and civilisation. Critics talk of sanitised living and wonder whether a "community" can be built so easily.
A few of the bigger mansions are back on the market. A number of families became disillusioned with the experimental school curriculum and the fact that the new building was not ready last year. They had expected a sound dose of the three Rs in a state-of-the-art building, and presumably straight A grades for their offspring.
This innate conservatism, in fact, seems to characterise Celebration better than its experimental aspect. For, despite its novel beginning, the town resembles nothing so much as an upmarket white suburb of almost any United States city, with the houses just squashed up a little for a faux-urban effect.
Its appeal is identical to that of such suburbs: its residents select themselves by income and aspiration. With its small-town arrangement and its small shops and cafes, it seems to offer the best of both worlds.
Last summer, as the first residents arrived, the chief questions raised by Celebration derived from its artificiality. Can a community be created from scratch? The company says that is up to the residents. Can, and should, a town be started and effectively governed by a corporation? The company replies that local democracy will grow.
But will it, if the residents prefer to live as Disney-style customers rather than democratic participants?
A year on, however, Celebration poses another question. It is an extension of the question posed by the proliferation of exclusive and largely self- contained suburbs around major US cities. Should one section of the population be able to withdraw so completely as to be living in a separate world? And if not, how can that trend possibly be stopped?
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