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Summer 2012 © 2012. All Rights Reserved
The Presence of the Past in Celebration, Florida
Gavriel H. Brown
Main Street U.S.A. is the first attraction visitors enter when they cross into Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park. This romanticized re-creation of a bygone era motivated by nostalgia features Victorian facades of arcades and candy stores, banks and pharmacies—all worthy subjects of a Norman Rockwell painting. However, the irony of this installment is ever palpable. Disney, known for “making dreams come true” purposefully built an old-fashioned American town as an antidote for what social critic James Howard Kunstler called the sprawling “scary” suburbs, dreary developments and “miserable” commute faced by a majority of Americans. Kunstler argues that what Main Street U.S.A represents—permanence, authenticity and history—Americans desperately crave. This American dream became real (estate) in Disney’s newest town: Celebration, Florida. This myth made life-size was surrounded by white picket fences and community traditions, colonial revivals and porch life. An iconic downtown would be the panacea for what Kunstler called the malignant “geography of nowhere” pop-up towns that totally lacked sense of history.1 To stand out as a successful town, Disney had to look beyond community, technology and education. It had to look back to an essential component of small town America—a presence of the past. Tracing Disney’s rewriting of history uncovers two means of the creation of the past. The first component is control. In order to create history from scratch, Disney had to carefully plan every aspect of the town, from the draperies and colors of every home in Celebration to the annual rites downtown. The second component of history making is a reliance on antiquation. Celebration needed to look enduring and genuine. It did so through false-front architecture and memory manipulation. Celebration’s streets were named to conjure up nostalgia for the past, while oldfashioned building referred back to a simpler time. Disney’s Celebration, it seems, has become an exaggerated Main Street U.S.A., a live in theme park—a magic kingdom.
Antiquation and the Quest for Authenticity
Twenty years ago, the land east of Lake Cecile and route 192 was swamp and cow pasture in the heart of Florida. Now golf courses and townhomes, villas and cottages hug curvilinear streets leading to a quant downtown where pine forests, alligators and Seminole Indians once prospered. The town hall, designed by Philip Johnson, and the post office by Michael Graves, sit on land once used to harvest turpentine. This history, along with the trees, alligators and swamps, has been abolished. Andrew Ross in The Celebration
Kunstler, James H. "James Howard Kunstler Condemns Suburban Sprawl." in Nicolaides, Becky M., and Andrew Wiese ed. The Suburb Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006. P 475-476.
Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of
Property Value in Disney’s New Town, reveals
that in the early stages of planning, Celebration officials toyed with the idea of “dating” the town. In typical Disney style, a themed backstory of the town being built in the “rubble left by General Sherman’s march” was proposed. In another proposal, the town was to be built by the “survivors of a shipwrecked Spanish galleon” with an elaborate monument in the town square to “remember their heroic ancestors.”2 While Disney executives shelved the idea, the concern of those officials remained ever-present. Disney’s Celebration needed history, tradition and collective memory. Conscious of its lack of history, the planners of this community chose a different tactic. Disney continued the long American tradition of starting from scratch. Instead of recalling its own history, Celebration evoked the small town ecology of Savannah, North Carolina, Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, and Marymount, Ohio. Instead of recalling a specific history, Disney attempted to create a memorable town through Neo-traditionalist architecture and planning. According to Ross, Neo-traditionalist developers adhered to the heritage formula of “selling the trappings of tradition along with the conveniences of modernity” by “offering a traditional townscape along with an advanced technical infrastructure.”3 The traditional town would be sold as a place of borrowed and manufactured histories. The most obvious example of manufactured history is the homes of Celebration. Modernism, cubism and Bauhaus architectural styles common in Florida are nowhere to be found. Instead, six archetypal home styles inspired by international architecture
Ross, Andrew. The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney's New Town. New York: Ballantine, 1999. P. 22.
foster a sense of the presence of a past. All of these schemes were set out in The Celebration Pattern Book, a collection of architectural drawings and guidelines used by individuals when selecting the location and model of their home.4 Moving to the downtown, Disney created a presence of history through a unique towncenter. Just like the Brownstones of the Upper East Side, and the grey and white beach houses of Nantucket create a memorable sense of history, Disney attempted to create its own unforgettable sense of history by commissioning a iconic set of public buildings for Celebration. The entrance to Disney features a vintage wooden barrel-style water tower. The Preview Center, a redbrick building wrapped in a white wooden tower recalls similar towers built during Florida’s booming real estate rush of the 1920’s. Cesar Pelli’s Art Deco Cinema’s “spires” are reminiscent of his famous Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.5 Finally, Graham Gund Architect’s wood-framed Celebration Hotel features wide dormer windows and a lighthouse tower, referring back to the wrought iron lighthouse common on Florida’s coast.6 The buildings do indeed lend the town a distinct flavor, and it is no surprise that tourists from Orlando flock to Celebration. In fact, Disney placed high-end boutique Jewelry and furniture stores downtown before residents arrived. Disney attempted to create a sense of history through permanence, distinction and authenticity.
Control: No Cause for Celebration
Celebration Pattern Book. The Disney Company. Celebration, Fla.: Celebration, 1997. 5 Lessel, 56. 6 See Fower Rocks Lighthouse, Sand Key Light house and Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse.
book dictates that the “gingerbread” details of
Creating an enduring and authentic “sense of history” from scratch required manipulation, fabrication and control. Giving the town a sense of history meant carefully controlling the architectural antecedents, ornamentation and materials of the buildings in Celebration. Much of this guidance came from Disney’s design Bible, the Celebration nn Book. However, Disney’s publication subverts the tradition of pattern books. Disney’s pattern book is less a collection of drawings than a strict set of parameters limiting the very creativity pattern books were designed to foster. Rules concerning setbacks, fences, hedges, surface areas, garages, dormer windows and porches fill nearly half the volume. Disney favored what it considered a harmonious “community form” to individual expression. Control, not creativity was the goal of this publication. Behind the veneer of who’s who architects and designer outlets lies the telltale signs of manufactured histories. The “vintage water tower,” lighthouse and preview tower were built for aesthetic purposes and serve no utilitarian function. Almost all the dormer windows throughout Celebration are fake.7 The preview center’s tower can’t be climbed. The lake across the downtown area was man-made.8 The town itself will not age, or develop a feeling of being lived in. Just like in nearby Disney world, the streets in Celebration are cleaned nightly, never to show signs of wear.9 The columns of the town’s Estate homes are termite resistant plastic. The Celebration Pattern
Frantz, Douglas, and Catherine Collins. Celebration, U.S.A.: Living in Disney's Brave New Town. New York:
the Victorian Model and the slate roofs of the Colonial Revival houses were to be made out of polymerized materials or synthetic slate.10 In fact, the pattern book recommends man-made clapboard, synthetic banisters, plastic shutters and cast stone. While these materials were certainly chosen for their weather and insect resistant properties, they also lack character that comes with age. Ross was indeed correct in his assertion that Disney has “long been a catchphrase for false-front architecture and optical illusions”11 In Celebration, a strict control of architecture and landscaping means residents have little freedom. Disney regulates the town’s narrative. Communal traditions and rituals are developed and carried out by the town.12 The town’s newspaper is controlled by Celebration.13 The town cleans the streets nightly.14 Town ordinances regulate protests, housing and community forums.15 New residents must sign a lengthy binding contract, a “Declaration of Covenants” limiting, among hundreds of miscellaneous ordinances, how many political signs may be placed on a front lawn.16 17 Celebration has a Town Manager hired by
Henry Holt &, 1999. P. 166. 8 Ross, 45. 9 Baxandall, Rosalyn Fraad, and Elizabeth Ewen. Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened. New York, NY: Basic, 2000. P 255.
Celebraiotn Pattern Book, C-5, C-11. Ross, 45. 12 Ross, 216. 13 Frantz, 165. 14 Kirp, David L. "Pleasantville." New York Times. New York. 19 Sept. 1999. 15 Ross, 291-293, 340. 16 Frantz, 156. 17 For a more complete list of regulations found in Celebration’s Declaration of Covenants see Appendix A of: Thomas, Matt. "Celebration, USA: The First Sign of What Will Be America's Homogeneous Landscape." The Journal of American Culture 30.2 (2007). P. 187-97
Disney instead of an elected mayor.18 Control has restricted the ability of residents to voice individual concerns.
“The Town Your Grandpa Grew Up In:” Revisionism in Celebration
In addition to manufactured communal histories requiring control, Celebration attempted to invoke personal histories to sell the town. Brochures promised, “Except for all the newfangled modern stuff, it’s just like the town your grandparents grew up in.”19 Disney resurrected or created a history that “many Americans either grew up or wished they had grown up in.”20 The advertising scheme conjured up a time of simplicity and safety many residents wanted for their children: There is a place that takes you back to that time of innocence. A place where the biggest decision is whether to play kickthe-can or king-of-the-hill. A place of caramel apples and cotton candy, secret forts, and hopscotch on the streets. That place is Celebration…A new American town of block parties and Fourth of July Parades. Of spaghetti dinners and school bake sales, lollipops, and fireflies in a jar. Here, images of a long forgotten childhood are recast in a romanticized vision of the town. Another brochure promised similar happiness, but this time understanding that history can be created by a desire for a sweeter, simpler and more wholesome past: There was once a place where neighbors greeted neighbors in the quiet of summer
twilight. Where children chased fireflies. And porch swings provided easy refuge from the care of the day. The movie house showed cartoons on Saturday. The grocery store delivered. And there was one teacher who always knew you had that “special something.” Remember that place? Perhaps from your childhood. Or maybe just from stories. It held a magic all its own. The special magic of an American hometown. Disney did indeed deliver on its promise. In a conscious effort to give Celebration a sense of history, the town boasts an Art Deco cinema, a “hometown grocery,” and a “much vaulted porch life.”21 Celebration also organizes “new traditions:” memorial-day ceremonies, a founders day weekend, a pie festival and annual block parties.22 In 2008, Celebration spent $120,000 on its annual snowfall event on Market Street, where ersatz snow showers residents and visitors.23 These imagined manufactured “traditions” illustrates Celebration’s conscience effort to have an authentic history. Signs of manufactured histories can be found throughout the town. The street names of Celebration are far from arbitrary; instead, they are carefully chosen to invoke memory and emotion. Mulberry Sycamore, Honeysuckle, Longmeadow recall the sweet memories of childhood. Campus recalls parental desires.
The Celebration Company “Celebration.” Celebration community cornerstones [Brochure]. Celebration, FL: 1995. 20 Frantz, 28.
Ross, 13. "Annual Traditions." Events in the Town of Celebration. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <http://www.celebration.fl.us/celebration-events/annual/>. 23 Celebration History Center: A Quarterly Newsletter. Celebration History Center. Celebration, FL: Celebration History Center: A Quarterly Newsletter, 2008. <http://www.celebrationhistorycenter.org/doc/NewsletterIssue-3-08.pdf>
Here, the physical transforms the present and the present creates the past. While most towns shy away from the corporate logo, Disney chose otherwise. Celebration’s town seal and logo, a little girl with a ponytail riding her bicycle past a picket fence with her dog trailing behind, was commissioned to appeal to a mythic conception of small town America.24 The town seal was self-promoted throughout the town and reproduced on manhole covers and fountains, sales centers and trail markers.25 The town created a “Celebration History Center” whose mission is to "To collect, preserve and make available documentation and memorabilia about the history of Celebration, Florida.”26 However, in an ironic twist, except for three superficial newsletters published in 2007 and 2008, the center is devoid of any content. Disney’s Celebration is indeed lacking in history.
“Totalitarian Land:” Criticism of Celebration’s Antiquation and Regulation
Disney’s deliberate attempt to inseminate history into a town through control did not go unnoticed. It is no surprise that an enterprise commissioned by Disney, whose very name evokes falsification, sentimentalization and commercialization, would be pounced upon by
vehement critics.27 Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, sees Celebration as a theme park of a town. “It'll have an artificiality,” she predicted in 1995. “Genuine places that grew up over a course of time weren’t the brainchild of one committee. You can't fake it,” she said.28 Architecture critic Louis Huxtable in her work The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, has a healthy dose of scorn for the new town. She bemoans the phenomenon of replacing reality with idyllic fantasies to satiate the American desire for “authentic reproduction.” She argues that while architecture has a role to play in “mythmaking,” “sentimental unreality” and “nostalgic idealism” have replaced the importance of lived experiences. 29 Architecture critic Michael Sorkin noted that the “visual and conceptual authority” of Celebration “hinges on the questions of authenticity.” He then went on to critique Celebration’s planners who believe that “a shell of a city really is a city, that appearances are enough.” Sorkin continues “But cities are for real; democratic culture can not flourish in a theme park.”30
Russ Rymer, "Back to The Future: Disney Reinvents the Company Town," Harpers 293 (1996): 65-78. 25 Bierut, Michael. "Looking for Celebration, Florida." Observatory. Design Observer, 13 Oct. 05. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry= 3627>. 26 "Welcome to Celebration History Center." Celebration History Center. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <http://www.celebrationhistorycenter.org/index.html>.
To Celebration’s credit, Celebration represented a leap forward in combating what the Neo-traditionalist target, namely “place-less sprawl, increased separation by race and income” and “environmental devastation.”27 Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins’s Celebration, U.S.A.: Living in Disney's Brave New Town, an ethnography of Celebration, showed that careful town planning lead to increase community cohesiveness, less reliance on the automobile and more mixed socio-economic citizenry.27 Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Modern Library, 2011. Huxtable, Ada Louise. The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion. New York: New, 1997. P. 1328 29
15, 65-68. 30 Sorkin, Michael. "Can New Urbanism Learn from Modernism's Mistakes." Metropolis. Sept. 1998. <http://www.metropolismag.com/html/content_0898/aug9 8wha.htm>.
Sorkin, Huxtable and Jacobs understood that towns grow slowly, adding layers of history and memory as time passes. The facades of Main Street in Disneyworld might gratify a temporary need for authenticity, but Main Street is in a theme park, not a town. Residents of Celebration, the critics contended, would quickly see past Disney’s efforts to create and control a sense of the past through false-front architecture and manufactured traditions. Disney is long known for it obsession with quality control.31 Its parks and hotels are carefully streamlined to produce a consistent experience for visitors. In Celebration, the routine regulations were titillating topics for critics to critique. Commenting on the control Disney wielded, Jacobs said “The big difference is Disney is dealing with real people in Celebration, not theme park employees they can control, right down to their facial hair.”32 Rutgers Political Science Professor Benjamin Barber wrote, “When a government runs news stations, creates communities, defines friends and neighbors, controls architecture and rewrites history, it’s called totalitarianism. When the Disney Corporation does it, it’s called Celebration.”33 Barber and Jacobs understood that Disney would have to usurp power from residents in order to create an aura of nostalgia. Citizens bought into this combination of a Big-Brother corporate mentality and evocative architecture, nostalgia for the past and vision of the future.
Michael Lessell wrote in his Disney sponsored The Story of a Town, “a new town
does not have is history or tradition or a set of time-tested, locally preferred methods of getting things done. ...It has no collective memory of crises, survived-floods, famines, and droughts.”34
Lessel sensed that something crucial was missing in new towns. Disney foresaw this problem and, perhaps a victim of its pedigree, attempted to create and sell a back-story for Celebration. The presence of the past became a product of the present. It sold a distilled history of other successful townscapes and controlled the product through corporate control. History, real or imagined, became a profit-making feature Disney continuously and consciously tried to sell through architecture, advertisements and ancillary structures of the town. It commodified history to fulfill what James Kunstler calls the “geography of nowhere” plaguing modern day suburbs. Celebration advanced too much of Disney and too little of it citizens. Disney controlled the historical narrative in this tabula rasa town. It sponsored the historical society. It promulgated the town’s traditions. History though Disney’s eyes was rosy, nostalgic and caricatured. If Celebration, as one academic wrote, represents the “second coming of the American town,” future American town builders might see past the dangers of commodifying history.35 But the dangers of nostalgia, controlled and manufactured histories are apparent in Celebration. It smacks of uncritical form of
Lassell, Michael. Celebration: The Story of a Town. New York: Disney Editions, 2004. P. 77. 35 Bartling, Hugh E. "Disney's Celebration, the Promise of New Urbanism and the Portents of Homogeneity." Florida Historical Quarterly 81.1. 2002. 44-67.
Commodified History: The Second Coming of American Towns?
Ross, 201. Wilson, Craig. “Mickey Builds a Town: Celebration Puts Disney in Reality’s Realm”. USA Today. 18. October 1995: 01A. 33 Barber, Benjamin "A Dissenting Opinion of Sellebration: Living Inside the Book of Disney." FORUM. Summer, 1997.
architectural appreciation. It cheapens history. It commercializes heritage. Celebration isn’t Celebration as much as it is an unconsciously conflated positive memory of a town. The merits of the town can’t be uncritically examined. While Disney might have succeeded in creating a “sense of place” through iconic architecture and civic camaraderie, it failed to create an enduring and authentic “sense of history.” It turned to manipulation, fabrication and control to coat the town in a thin veneer of the past. This deliberate crafting of traditions and weaving of history into a have been met with justifiably harsh criticism. This whole-cloth antiquation, seen failed to produce a panacea for. Critics, however, failed to point out the biggest irony in Disney’s enterprise. Disney commodified history. The lesson of Disney’s Celebration’s foray into history making is that the past is best left untouched. The sacrifice to personal and aesthetic autonomy is simply too steep. Signs of fabrication will inevitably show. Critics will scrutinize. Instead, developments in the future should acknowledge the pioneering American spirit of starting from a clean slate. Instead of banning modern architectural elements, the towns of the future should embrace originality. Traditions and rituals should grow organically. Nostalgia for the moment, not the past, should be sold. False-front architecture should be prohibited. The lessons of successful towns need not be ignored, but the history of those towns should not be transmogrified. Main Street U.S.A. must be built again, but it need not look like Walt Disney’s nostalgic rendition of his Missouri hometown. .
"Annual Traditions." Events in the Town of Celebration. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <http://www.celebration.fl.us/celebrationevents/annual/>. Audirac, Ivonne. "Celebration, U.S.A.: Living in Disney's Brave New Town / the Celebration Chronicles: Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Values in Disney's New Town."
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