The Mold Behind the Wall
a brief overlook of celebration, florida
February 11, 2020
The first murder in Celebration, Florida took place in November of 2010, 14 years after the red ribbon was cut and the doors were opened to those who had auctioned for a place to live. Although the grim details shall remain unmentioned, for such a twisted occurrence to take place in the primmest of fairy-tale communities speaks to the darkness behind Celebration’s utopian facade. This is not the only sign, however. Starting in 2016, citizens who belong on Celebration’s Condo Association have been defending a lawsuit against the Town Center Foundation (and one member in particular) which calls for action dealing with the millions of dollars required to maintain Celebration’s crumbling walls and leaky ceilings. Residents claim this is the fault of the “man in charge,” Metin Negrin, the autonomous figure who owns the property; Negrin, meanwhile, points to the many years of poor management in reserve funding as the cause (Hitt). And, situated behind it all as an ironic reminder, is this idealistic 1950s backdrop of suburban America, designed by some of the nation’s leading architects. Was the very idea of such a locale flawed from the beginning, or did this catastrophe arise out of a tension between the power and the people? By tracing the town’s evolution, from concept to current situation, and analyzing its design in terms of aesthetics versus practicality, it is clear that in today’s critical atmosphere Celebration stands as a disingenuous artifact of the past.
First, some context as to how such an idea was born and its attempted resolution of mass suburbia. Following World War II, the dominant mode of city planning in the United States revolved around single-family homes and “mixed zoning that separated residential, occupational, and consumptive spaces” (Bartling 44), creating this general sprawl that reflected the nation’s social and political environment. Some critics such as Lewis Mumford have compared this homogenous neighborhood to mass production; a factory that spits out the same home for all, creating a self-enclosed loop that promotes “escape” to the nice, isolated town (Bartling 45). In reality, this uniform style killed any sort of diversity within the community, even going so far as to dictate its demographic – Celebration’s estimated population in 2020 is 93% white (World Population Review). What arose as a solution came to be called New Urbanism, a planning theory that prioritized humane scale and experience above all. It introduced vibrancy and individuality to otherwise unvarying public spaces. On paper, this is a positive change – one that encourages communal interaction. Unfortunately, as is evident in the case of Celebration, “while seemingly appealing on the surface, [New Urbanist claims] are strongly based on a sense of exclusion and social withdrawal” (Bartling 46). What is perhaps most confounding is how a design that affirms its position against suburban sprawl, a community that manages to unify many distinct architects with unique visions, can still claim to be diverse and humane when it is owned and operated by a single entity that controls every aspect of its built environment. Funnily enough, while this is not too far from the Disney empire’s overarching monopoly in today’s culture, it was Uncle Walt himself who originated the idea of Celebration many years ago.
In 1966, some months before his death, Walt Disney publicly announced a new design for what was to be Florida’s own Disney World. Three times bigger than the theme park in California, this city of the future resembled a glorified exposition, with a dedicated airport, monorail transit system, and a Sforzinda-like layout that neatly segregated labour from luxury. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) was meant to stand as “a showcase for the world, for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise” (Disney), constantly changing and testing modern ideas. There is no doubt that Disney’s plan relies on a capitalist structure to succeed; at the very centre are the offices and towering skyscrapers where the world is run, all other residential types branching out of this glass-and-steel hub. Similarly to global fairs, which entertained the mass public with oriental attractions, EPCOT “constructed a microcosm of human activity that reflected the tastes and preconceptions of its day” (Nelson 106), a time of expanding media and a general gaze upon the horizon. Shortly after the visionary’s passing, the plan was put aside; its scale and aspirations were simply too massive. Cut to 1984: there is a newfound rejuvenation for Walt Disney’s idea of an ideal community, now operated by Michael Eisner and Peter Rummel. A competition is held for designers, and the master plan is complete – only instead of 30-storey office towers and high-speed monorail tracks, Celebration is made to look like a Norman Rockwell postcard.
Here is the first clear diversion from the original idea, which is built on a totally different notion of utopianism. Robert A.M. Stern and Jaquelin T. Robertson’s design focuses more on nostalgia than the infinite possibilities of science-fiction, fabricating this isolated slice of familiarity, away from the hustle and bustle of the contemporary urban city. In a way we have returned to this issue of mass-produced suburbanization, only at the scale of a single community. Under the label of the Disney Company, the corporation promised “a place of caramel apples and cotton candy, secret forts and hopscotch on the streets” (Hitt). Although this caused many to flock at the opportunity of living in this private theme-park, today one thing is painfully clear: no city is perfect, and the ones which advertise themselves as so, deceive consumers (hindsight is, after all, twenty-twenty). Albert Ross, a resident of Celebration himself, tries to understand the attraction of such a site. He claims that these dreamers “had become lately entangled with the designs of a company that controls a lion’s share of the dream business, and had opted to offer, in the realm of real estate, some of the wish fulfillment it had long traded in the realm of make-believe” (Ross 1). Even the buildings themselves, which appeared diverse in character yet unified in style, abided by codes that did not allow inhabitants to alter the exteriors of their homes (Hitt). The inside was subject to personal taste, but the outside had to maintain its pristine, unadulterated nature. Eventually this caused further problems when roofs began to leak and home-owners could do nothing to fix them, leading to Celebration’s current state of confusion and disrepair.
This brings up a point about priority. Should we be so focused on aesthetics when there are far more pressing issues at hand? Negrin’s foundation, the Lexin Company, anticipates it will cost five million dollars to mend impairment, including the one million they’ve already spent (Hitt). Meanwhile, further south in the same state, houses are in danger of flooding due to rising tides and climate change. Florida’s population does not cease to grow, and instead of dedicating time and resources to finding alternative methods of resilient design, we are still stuck in the past, trying to make things look good for the sake of looking good. Visually, Celebration may be unique and interesting enough to qualify as a tourist destination. Some enjoy driving down the quiet streets and admiring Michael Grave’s Post-Office, but this is all surface glamour. When it comes to practicality, not only does it fail to support its current residents, the community is a poor example of solution-driven suburban planning for surrounding regions.
Celebration’s manicured lawns and New Urbanist dollhouses are merely cardboard cutouts for reality, ie the lack of personal care that often proceeds from corporate power. There is a reason why utopian communities rarely leave the page without eliciting one issue or another: our social fabric is always adapting in ways that are too complex to box into a single perfect town. Celebration does have its admirers, but there is no doubt its image as a “Disney dream made real” poses a risk not only for designers seeking to move away from this visual wonderland to more important affairs, but for newcomers who are unaware of the decay behind the painted walls. One billboard on the way into town featured a pair of smiling girls on a swing-set with the slogan “Isn’t this reason enough for Celebration?” Evidently, the answer is no.
Bartling, Hugh E. “Disney’s Celebration, the Promise of New Urbanism, and the Portents of Homogeneity.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 81, no. 1 (2002): 44-67. Accessed February 11, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/30147614.
Hitt, Tarpley. “How Disney’s ‘Community of Tomorrow’ Became a Nightmare.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, December 18, 2019. htps://www.thedailybeast.com/celebration-florida-how-disneys-community-of-tomorrow-became- a-total-nightmare.
Nelson, Steve. “Walt Disney’s EPCOT and the World’s Fair Performance Tradition.” The Drama Review: TDR 30, no. 4 (1986): 106-46. doi:10.2307/1145786.
Ross, Andrew. The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town. London: Verso, 2000.
Walt Disney. Epcot/Florida Original Film. Walt Disney Productions, 1966. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLCHg9mUBag.
World Population Review. “Celebration, Florida Population 2020.” Celebration, Florida Population 2020 (Demographics, Maps, Graphs). World Population Review, August 28, 2019. http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/celebration-fl-population/.