News flash: Celebration is not perfect

Robert Steuteville, New Urban Network

On one of several visits to Celebration, Florida, I had dinner at a downtown bar, surrounded by residents who were getting good and tight on a Friday night. When they found out I was a journalist, they pretty near chewed my ears off, aggressively. There is drinking in Celebration — real booze, not colored water like in the movies — and also a good deal of resentment of outside writers, who are inclined to compare the town, after a brief visit or none at all, with the Stepford Wives or the Truman Show. The analogy is always to something manipulative, perhaps evil, out of Hollywood, like the reputation of the developer of the town — the Disney Corporation.

The story is always set up in the same way. The town is supposed to be perfect and all of the residents happy. But — shockingly — the journalists reveal that because of the fake snow (a holiday tradition), music piped from speakers downtown (like a mall), and traditional architecture that is closer to the real thing than the typical schlock, it’s all phony — a façade. This revelation is delivered with the relish of celebrity and political gossip. Schadenfreude is not a noble quality, but it’s considered fair game for anyone who becomes famous or a development that tries to be better than any one of tens of thousands of ordinary American subdivisions.

A series of events in the past week or so revealed how imperfect life can be for the 11,000 residents of a 14-year-old town with a name that sounds like a perpetual good time. A man was murdered, the first homicide in Celebration history. A few days later a despondent man, who had lost his job and seen his marriage fall apart, shot himself in a house barricaded by police.

For a town with very little crime of any sort, these were shocking stories. The New York Timesate it up — the report smirked at the fake snow and included the inevitable Stepford Wives quote. The Times describes Celebration as a town that was built “as the happiest subdivision on earth.” Where does the town plan make that claim? But the higher you set them up, the farther you can knock them down.

The Associated Press described the town as “picture perfect,” also mentioned the Stepford Wives, and noted that “The killing sullies ‘the type of perfection’ envisioned in 1989 when Peter Rummell, then-president of the Disney Development Corp., wrote to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner about building a new town on vacant, Disney-owned land in Osceola County.”

Even Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins — journalists who lived in Celebration early in its development and produced a book about it (Celebration, USA, reviewed in the Sept.-Oct 1999New Urban News) — wrote an op-ed piece in the Dec. 4 New York Times emphasizing that by 1999 there had been “a spate of divorces, a couple of domestic abuse cases, a handful of stolen bikes and even an armed robbery.”

Celebration, of course, never did occupy make-believe terrain, a realm somewhere outside the real world. The residents have jobs, and lose them. They have families, which sometimes break apart. There are drugs, and disease, and mental illness. The town has not been immune from the nation’s economic woes, especially in Florida, where housing values have plummeted. The Times was happy to report the movie theater went out of business at Thanksgiving, and home prices are about half what they were at their peak.

So, where does this town get off looking better than other places? How dare it resemble a stage set from an old movie — with front porches, a main street, and squares fronted by suspiciously new-looking old houses? Or suspiciously old-looking new houses? This town is not perfect. Score one for conventional housing pods.

What’s missing from this story is that the town — the streets, the squares, and the main street — have a deeper meaning than that of a stage set. The garages were not put in the back, on alleys, to deceive anyone into thinking the town is old. They were placed there to make the streets more attractive and appealing and walkable. No one ever said that the mix of housing types, uses, and public spaces — modeled after small towns in the South — would make everyone happy. The intent — a serious one — was that these elements would add to a sense of community and add to the diversity of the physical, and perhaps even the social, environment.

Celebration may or may not succeed in all of these goals, but perfection and Hollywood — despite Disney’s development of the town — do not enter into it. Those are straw men that the media keep raising up and knocking down.

Disney is not going to be developing any more towns, and that’s probably a good thing. The company is better off sticking to movies and theme parks. Yet Celebration was a well-intentioned, even noble, experiment. Disney and its planners honestly tried to create a better subdivision, and, in many ways, I think they succeeded. Celebration is better designed and more interesting than almost any housing pod across the US. It surely is not perfect — you can argue with many aspects of the town. But for its time, the mid-1990s, it was innovative. Developers and planners can still learn a lot from studying it.

Now that Celebration has had its first killing, I hope that the media can stop feigning shock when something bad happens. Perfection itself, after all, would be imperfect. If Disney had scripted life in Celebration, wouldn’t they have included a murder or two? I’m pretty sure it would have been written into the screenplay earlier than the 14-year point.

Getting back to reality — I did a quick calculation. The town now has a murder rate of about 0.01 per 1,000 residents — give or take a half of a hundredth of a percentage point — per year on average over its 14-year history. That’s about one-fifth of the US average of about 0.05 murders per 1,000 people per year, in 2009. That’s good, but who knows what will happen in the future? This won’t be Celebration’s last killing. It’s a real town.