Potemkin Villages

Works Discussed in this Essay:

Celebration, U.S.A.: Living in Disney's Brave New Town, by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins. Holt, 342 pages, $25.00.

The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Values in Disney's New Town, by Andrew Ross. Ballantine, 340 pages, $25.95.

Home Town, by Tracy Kidder. Random House, 349 pages, $25.95.

When Disney planners stocked their brand new small town of Celebration, Florida, with all the traditional amenities, they left out a cemetery. Of course no one had died yet. But the lack of a customer base hadn't prevented them from installing a shopping district unsustainable by shoppers, a town hall for a community with no real public government, and an official charity without any problems to solve. There was a water tower that dispensed no water and a 70-foot observation tower that couldn't be climbed. Leaving mortality off the blueprint was just the last step in the defiance of ordinary social facts that had begun with Disney's decision to plant an American small town, whole, in the middle of an Osceola County cypress swamp.

The small town, after all, has been dead as a visible unit of American civic life for the better part of the postwar era. Intellectuals had been rooting for its demise since the 1920s. Sinclair Lewis painted small-town residents as conformists and hypocrites, and columnists like Duncan Aikman shook a fist at the "home town mind" from the pages of H.L. Mencken's American Mercury. It was economic forces, though, that did the real damage. The automobile stripped towns of their borders. The cities siphoned away their young population. Chain stores and urban vendors undercut local businesses; manufacturing fled. And as soon as the towns were good and gone, thinkers began to question the loss. Now, at the end of the 1990s, intellectual and commercial efforts to refabricate the small town out of spare parts are claiming triumph, and a spate of new books shows these Frankenstein communities up and walking.

The fascination with the American small town grew partly in response to the bulldozing of big-city centers in the 1960s. Urban renewal and its cement-pouring excesses gave planning a bad name and made commentators long for the older kind of jumbled-together neighborhood that Jane Jacobs had praised. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, chastened planners were looking for a self-consciously modest way to undo the damage done by massive renewal projects. They would do urban "infill" to repair the city fabric; they would recapture the old, human scale.

When they start a movement, however, architects and planners aren't known for modesty. The rebuilders soon coalesced into an ambitious school that went under the name of the New Urbanism. And as they put their ideas into practice, the difficulties of ambitious building in cities pushed planners to do their showcase work in suburbs and new developments. Seaside, Florida, where The Truman Show was filmed, was the movement's early triumph. The model for old-fashioned community had changed from city neighborhood to small town.

At their best—and their best could be very, very good—the New Urbanists bundled insights about Main Street and traditional, dense neighborhoods into planning principles for revitalizing all kinds of anonymous public spaces. They would apply the same few rules in all situations. Developers must build on lots small enough for residents to see their neighbors, mix high- and low-income housing, and encourage services that residents can walk to instead of driving. The result would be an unostentatious but fundamental improvement in community design, tailored to local circumstances.

A bit of marketing experience quickly added the further rule of historic recreation. If it looked old, it sold. To deliver old-fashioned community, planners had to make good on some heavy-duty nostalgia. The end product was a housing development like Celebration, walkable, sociable, and created to look as if it had been cryogenically frozen in the last moments before the Second World War.

Elsewhere, more incrementally, urban migrants returned to actual, traditional communities, where a steady postwar slide had made economic depression seem unstoppable. Neighborhood spirit and new investment changed that. One of those gentrified towns—Northampton, Massachusetts—also had the good fortune to fall within the stomping grounds of Tracy Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize winner with a gift for turning not very interesting subjects into very interesting books.

Yet Kidder's recent book about Northampton—like the dueling volumes released this season by two rival teams of wayfarers to Celebration—indicates a more complex tale. Certainly, community is good; potluck suppers are a blessing; face-to-face contact can't be beat. But to conceive of your own hometown in terms of some Atlantis of the collective memory is to adopt a pretty creepy, even dangerous, way to live. In Celebration, and in Tracy Kidder's Northampton, a reconstructed look and feel of the past strangles the future. And the principles of the New Urbanism—the best hope American residential planning has had in half a century—threaten to die-cut a new homogeneity.

By 1966, Walt Disney (the man, not the corporation) had outgrown both his movies and his theme parks. Urban ills obsessed him. He detested cars, smog, and the encroachments on his original Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Multiple copies of architect Victor Gruen's Heart of Our Cities (1964) sat on his office bookshelf, a guidebook to the "urban crisis." Disney purchased a vast swath of Florida to buffer incipient Disney World from the same crush. But he also set a handpicked team of "Imagineers" to work, in semi-secrecy, on the larger solution: Project X. Twenty-thousand people would live beneath a giant dome, benefiting from clean air, no cars, light industry, and transit by WEDway People Mover. Disney sold the idea in a short film made in the fall, waving his hands in front of a diagram that resembled a giant manhole cover. In December he died of lung cancer.

Celebration, Florida, came to life as a very distant inheritor. In the 1990s, it was the suburbs that needed reinventing, and the future lay in the past. Twenty-thousand people could dwell in the vicinity of a real Main Street (except it had to be called Market Street; nearby Kissimmee had laid title to the better name in 1883). Twenty-thousand residents could sit on their front porches and rock. A Pattern Book held houses rigidly to six antique styles, with approved paint color and adornments. A white plastic fence marked the town border, a replacement for Disney's space-age dome.

The pioneers who took out crippling loans, sold profitable businesses, and abandoned extended family to become the first residents of Celebration did so for some admirable reasons. Many wanted a more neighborly community. Some wanted their children to grow up with open space and sidewalks and a sense of place. A good portion sustained the aggressive sociability that led to Celebration's "block party wars," the competitions over who would have the most intensive local gatherings, until Honeysuckle Avenue trumped them all by booking regular monthly parties two years in advance. But the new residents also trusted in two more dubious affections: the intrinsic appeal of everything looking just the way it should have in childhood (on The Andy Griffith Show, maybe) and a love of Disney. "I don't know how to describe it, but I heard a voice," reported Lance Boyer, a Michigan resident who was struggling to afford a Celebration home, "and it said, 'Everything is going to work out.'" Mickey Mouse would provide.

The writers who arrived with that first influx to record the opening years of Celebration had no less of a stake in the town. A husband-wife duo of journalists, Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, came with two young children in tow and became the extremest variety of participant-observers: homeowners who worry inordinately in Celebration, U.S.A. about their own property values. Andrew Ross, their competition, a notoriously media-ready New York University professor of American studies, showed up in Celebration with a publisher's contract to fulfill and chutzpah enough to get himself photographed for his book as George Washington in Celebration's Fourth of July parade. In The Celebration Chronicles, he proves himself a shrewd intellectual historian and a sharper investigative reporter than Frantz and Collins. It's Ross who sniffs out the corporate ulterior motives for Disney's community-building. The deal worked out with Florida for Celebration won Disney "virtually blanket approval for twenty years of development rights" on its other landholdings, freedom from future environmental regulations, and additional public roadways that eased visitor traffic to the theme parks.

Both books are mostly concerned with the life of Celebrationites, and while neither finds anything wrong with people liking things to be "traditional" or coveting a sprinkling of pixie dust, both point to a disturbing mistrust of the new that seems to go hand in hand with Celebration's headlong pursuit of reassurance.

The real trouble started with the school. Celebration School, serving grades K-12, was designed by educators from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Stetson universities, who were invited by Disney to help gear up a progressive curriculum unlike anything most town residents had ever seen. The pedagogy included mixed-age teaching and individualized study plans. Tests and textbooks were out, collaborative projects in. Since the enthusiasm of all future makers tends to run to naming, teachers became "learning leaders"; the classroom, the "learning neighborhood"; and the school assembly, the "grand kiva."

Parents, perhaps predictably, weren't up for it, and Celebration School provoked the town's one real political fire storm. The innovations couldn't survive: 25 of the 53 learning leaders were gone by the end of the year, while most of the forward-looking elements of school practice were effectively neutralized. The most notable feature of the parental dissatisfaction and bickering, as we see it in the books, is how muddled it all seems. The residents keep saying they want a new life in a model community of the future. But the pioneers seem baffled, then enraged, whenever they are faced with an initiative that doesn't look like something they already know.

One of the forgotten intellectual casualties of the past three decades, Andrew Ross points out, was futurism. In the Disney parks of the 1960s, it still made sense to imagine Tomorrowland: a public realm with whizzing mass transport, rational civic life, and houses that looked like they were built by NASA. In the 1990s, Disneyland Paris has to make do with "Yesterday's Tomorrowland" and its pathetic Jules Verne submarine. Rocket fantasies and "homes of tomorrow" are no great loss, but the imagination of a brand-new public future is. What's so startling about the comparison between Celebration and Walt Disney's Project X is just how much daring and public-spiritedness has been jettisoned along the way. The clever planning of Celebration might get neighbors talking more over their picket fences. But in a faux-old town that celebrates old ways, what new thing will they have to say?

Take a look at the United States today, and you see two tiers of small communities. There are the flourishing "privatopias," the much discussed lifestyle developments and gated communities. There are about 22,000 gated communities alone in this country, most ofrecent vintage. Only half that many historic small towns—11,897 of them—remained in America at the time of the last census. Their financial state, by and large, is unfavorable, and they can't count on their own supposed natural virtues for their revival.

In the struggle to keep up with lifestyle communities, what seems to get results, if a town can manage it, is an image make-over. When historian Richard O. Davies published Main Street Blues: The Decline of Small-Town America last year, he described a journey he had made through 44 states. He went to visit as many remaining small towns as possible. The few towns that weren't in decline, he found, had been obliged to make radical alterations to their identities. Oakland, Nebraska, became "The Swedish Capital of Nebraska." The town flew Swedish colors, posted Swedish street signs, and hosted an annual Swedish celebration. The new revenue paid for a school, park, and community center. Rising Sun, Indiana, sold itself to the Hyatt Corporation to become the gambling capital of the Ohio River Valley, hosting a 3,000-seat, mock-nineteenth century paddle-wheel steamboat casino.

Image marketing has been the linchpin to revival even in towns that seem to have the graces and attainments to entice without trying. Take Northampton. In 1993, newspapers across the country started to run stories calling it Lesbianville, U.S.A. The town wore the new name with pride; with 4,500 self-identified lesbians—one in seven of Northampton's 29,000 citizens, according to The Boston Globe—local stores began printing the nickname on tourist postcards. The town has other attractions besides its sexually tolerant and extraordinarily progressive local culture. But its economic achievement has depended heavily on its unique marketability as a sort of liberal niche town, not so utterly different from Oakland, Swedish Capital of Nebraska. The implications for a general renaissance of small towns aren't encouraging—and it is precisely these sorts of specific, nontransferable causes of Northampton's success that Tracy Kidder neglects when he delivers his paean to the small town as Platonic ideal.

Tommy O'Connor, the star of Tracy Kidder's Home Town, is "an honest cop." He's also one of Northampton's own: a working-class son of a town officer, who caught frogs in the town ponds, bought penny candy at the drugstore, listened to the local AM radio, and married his high school sweetheart. His was a gee-whiz childhood so apparently timeless that only with some effort do we discover it took place during the late 1960s and early 1970s. And he has an equally painless career as a policeman, winning the respect and even affection of most all the other characters we meet in the book, right down to the drug dealers and small-time gangsters he helps to collar.

Kidder wants to revive the small-town ideal at the end of the 1990s, but he also wants to make his new small town accommodate every bit of the excitement of modern life. The Northampton he introduces starts out as a miniature: "From the summit, the cornfields are a dream of perfect order, and the town seems entirely coherent, self-contained... . The town below fits in the palm of your hand. Shake it and it snows." It is then made to expand, as Kidder descends from Parnassus and finds all "the sights of urban America," striding down Main Street. We meet a forgotten layer of working-class citizens learning to adapt to the nouveau prosperity. We see a hidden world of crack dealers and city-style poverty. We see sexual abuse and vagrancy. And we see that Northampton—venerated, spiritualized—is the improving force in all these lives, an old-fashioned soap to wash off the grime of city ills.

The author insists that for all these citizens, the answer to anonymity and travail is the same fantasy of small-town life. At the Heights, a largely Hispanic housing project of faceless units, outside several front doors "residents had created little gardens, surrounded by miniature white picket fences." One of the book's main characters, Samson Rodriguez, is a career criminal who can't help feeling the charm of Northampton's downtown when he's toting rocks of cocaine—"its prettiness, its liveliness, and above all its mannerly, safe atmosphere." If this doesn't change his behavior overmuch, at least he feels hopeful.

Hope, though, has to be weighed against effects. The small-town ideal is like the American Dream: It's often justified by how many people believe in it, but it really needs to be evaluated by how many actually benefit. And there are hints that the gentrified prosperity of this town, though it bathes everyone in the same vapor of good feelings, works best for the gentrifiers. Northampton's weakness is its scarcity of good jobs. The image economy masks the lack of an equivalent employment base. The town's "new prosperity, so apparent downtown," Kidder admits, "depended largely" on "a corps of young men and especially young women who would work for low wages as clerks and waitresses," migrants from someplace else, "competing with thirty other people to land a minor managerial position." Wages are kept artificially low because young people undersell themselves for the sake of the Northampton mystique.

Home Town is a very appealing book to read—warm, engaging, and lyrical. The shock, which takes awhile to register for the reader, is that, for all its charm, you just wouldn't want to live in this town. There are the material realities to consider, and there's also a real worry about Kidder's "dream of perfect order" on what can only be called its spiritual side. The writer's choice to show us a community through the eyes of its policeman is revealing. In an early scene, O'Connor frisks a black man on a street corner. Kidder chides an onlooker for her outrage. Doesn't the experienced cop really know best? But some of that woman's outrage we should want to keep. The main critics of small towns have always attacked their conformism, and Home Town intends to demonstrate the real variety of small-town life—but it sometimes winds up communicating what a wide variety of people you might want to bring into line. Some of the virtues of disorder are individual freedom, social improvisation, and dissent—not always helpful, maybe, but nothing to brush away lightly.

Despite their different histories, audiences, outlooks, Northampton and Celebration wind up starting to resemble one another. The consolidation of communities around a concocted small-town image and the sheer force of gentrification accelerate a weird convergence. They stimulate the deadening homogenization of supposedly "quirky" local practices. Celebration, down in Florida, pleases residents with its "Taste of Celebration" restaurant festival. Northampton, up in Massachusetts, pleases residents with its identical "Taste of Northampton." Meanwhile, relentless upscaling has meant that Celebration's schoolteachers, fire fighters, and police officers simply can't afford to live there. And Northampton's longtime residents, like Officer O'Connor, no longer shop on Main Street since its revitalization as part of the upscale downtown nicknamed "Noho."

Anyone who hasn't wiped clean the memory banks of childhood will remember the disappointed sensation of discovering the corners cut in a dollhouse: the cupboards that don't open, the door painted on a wall. To grow up in Celebration, or in Kidder's picture of Northampton, is to experience that disillusionment on a grand scale. Andrew Ross reports that the teens of Celebration have taken to "miming the stiff, jerky movements of Disney's audio-animatronic figures" in the presence of town visitors. The young always catch on first. Where the memory of someone else's past fills in for the possibility of a new, innovative future, all the planning in the world won't make up for the injury.

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