What in the Walt? Oshkosh Through the Lens of Celebration, FL – Part I

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This is one of a series of columns that applies observations from other places to life in Oshkosh.

Back in the fall of 1997, I was a Master’s student in the School of Urban Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Delaware (I am, indeed, a Fighting Blue Hen). My favorite class was about the history and theories of urban planning with the late Dr. Robert Warren, a quiet but effective teacher.

I remember learning about foundational elements like science fiction from the late 1800s that foretold the internet, early British planner Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow, French architect Le Corbusier and his vision for high-density, high-rise cities (but ended up inspiring the U.S.’s high-rise “projects”, which mostly ended up failing in the end), and voice of the neighborhoods Jane Jacobs vs. powerful planner Robert Moses in New York City. We also got into emerging issues such as the growing New Urbanism movement in planning and urban design, the coming age of self-checkouts and automated everything, the rise of surveillance states facilitated by high tech video technology, and new housing being built right into shopping mall developments. How interesting it is to see how some of these newer issues have evolved and what a joy to now be able to teach about such things in my Sociology of the Modern City class at UWO.

It was also in this class that I first learned about Celebration, Florida.

This built-from-scratch “master-planned community” near Disney World was being lauded by some as the pinnacle of good urban design. According to the developer (The Walt Disney Company…you might’ve heard of them?), Celebration was designed to be an extension of Walt Disney’s vision of a Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), and Disney executives were highly involved in the planning and development. Ground was broken for the first phase in 1994.   

I was fascinated by Celebration from the start. Back in 1997, it was basically brand new and the jury was out on whether it could possibly live up to its promise to create a walkable, close-knit city of neighborhoods hearkening back to the pre-suburbia golden years. In their 1999 “insider” account, Celebration, U.S.A. Living in Disney’s Brave New TownDouglas Frantz and Catherine Collins write,”The street patterns and architecture alluded to another era. Unlike houses separated by the broad lawns of a typical suburb, homes were grouped close together and set close to the street, the way they were built a century ago in places like Savannah and Charleston.”

Taking classes focused on planning theory, affordable housing issues, environmental sustainability, and community development, though, like the title of a recent article by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan suggests, I couldn’t trust the hype. It sounded like a supposedly utopian place that must have a dark underbelly or at least be totally unrealistic.

I wasn’t alone in that skepticism. According to Frantz and Collins,

Certainly no corporation in the world is better at make-believe than the Walt Disney Company, which had built this town of Celebration in large part as a way to sell off nearly five thousand acres deemed unsuitable for yet another addition to its nearby theme parks…Disney’s theme parks, combined with its movies and animated films, are illustrations of the defilement of American culture. The parks are, as writer James Howard Kunstler described them in his book The Geography of Nowhere, capitals of unreality dedicated to temporary escape from modern life. From its earliest days, Celebration was attacked along similar lines.

It was seen by some as a simulacrum, an image of how a traditional town might look, but a largely artificial one. It was also ridiculed for the detail and depth of its design codes. It was viewed as something purported to be (like all Disney parks are purported to be, despite their costs) for anyone and everyone, but in reality would only be affordable to the affluent, probably the most common criticism of master-planned “communities” and New Urbanism. According to Campbell-Dollaghan, Celebration “was interpreted by many as deeply artificial—partially thanks to the fact that planned communities smack of socioeconomic segregation.” Frantz and Collins even came to wonder whether the garish amusement park landscapes and accompanying highway retail establishments found nearby were actually more authentic.

Nonetheless, in 2001, Celebration was named the “New Community of the Year” by the Urban Land Institute. Planning and urban sociology textbooks now discuss it, documentary films feature segments or entire features on Celebration, and several books have written about it.

Over time, the criticism of the place has increased. While it may have been intended to be something worthy of the Disney brand and continue Walt’s legacy of EPCOT, it has become obvious that Celebration was, of course, a real estate venture designed to make money. And Disney certainly took its cut, with numerous fees taking Frantz and Collins’s three-bedroom house back in the late ’90s from a base of $243,990 to a total sticker price of $302,852. Though the architecture was generally well-received, there were issues with the quality of the construction, as noted by many, including Frantz and Collins. They further write,

The high cost of Celebration was not the only thing that nagged at us during those first days in the community, as we walked the neighborhoods and got to know the town better. At times there seemed to be a make-believe quality, an artificiality to the whole enterprise. Some houses that appeared to have second-floor dormers were actually only single-story buildings; the dormers, complete with windowpanes painted black to simulate a darkened space, were fake, assembled on the ground and hoisted into place by cranes… Also, there was the matter of the tourists.

Regardless, many people—residents and tourists alike—clearly love Celebration.

Others, however, find it creepy, a word that is commonly used to describe it. Campbell-Dollaghan argues that anything with a whiff of utopia gives us the creeps, given the association of “planned communities” with violent cults and gated subdivisions that must be hiding something. If it’s not exactly Jonestown, it must be something like Stepford (The Stepford Wives), Agrestic (Weeds, whose main character lived in a house located in Stephenson Ranch, an actual master-planned “community” in suburban L.A.) or the bubble world of The Truman Show (filmed, by the way, in Seaside, Florida—more on that in a bit).

Kunstler, foul-mouthed but well-regarded author of numerous non-fiction books about urban geography and design, peak oil and economic collapse, as well as several novels (including one of my favorite books to assign, the post-oil future novel World Made By Hand), a blog called Clusterf*ck Nation, and vehement critic of typical post-war planning and development, characterizes the typical suburban landscape as such:

Any nine-year-old in America could sense neurologically the appalling failures of the post-war built environment with all its zones of alienation and anomie, its thoughtless, off-the-shelf, generic arrangements of boring-unto-death housing subdivisions, Big Box PUDs with groaning out-parcels of clown-like fried food dispensaries, and horizonless wastelands of free parking. These were the mere surface disturbances of a way-of-life so out of whack with the larger ecosystem that one could literally sense portents of apocalypse in it. Not to put too fine a point on it, American society had made a range of tragic choices in the late 20th century which, if not altered, were sure to make civilized existence impossible.

This was the backdrop to the dawn of a day of Celebration in the Florida swamp. According to Campbell-Dollaghan,

Ironically, Celebration was designed as an antidote to what Disney World itself had caused in Central Florida—what Andrew Ross, in The Celebration Chronicles, calls a ‘purgatory of fast growth and fast food.’ Instead, Celebration would be ‘yet another fresh start in a world gone wrong.’ It borrowed heavily from a burgeoning young movement called New Urbanism, pioneered by a duo of Miami architects the town of Seaside just a few years before. Without getting into specifics, the idea was simple: To combat the endless, creeping, invasive sprawl that had engulfed millions of acres of the U.S., planners would model their developments on the small towns of early America, with compact downtowns, walkable streets, diverse housing stock, and plentiful public spaces.

Interestingly, while it has many critics, Kunstler has been a defender of New Urbanism. He lauded Seaside upon the occasion of its 25th anniversary, praising its human scale, walkability, public access to beaches and park space, early sustainable design and green building based upon practicality, and interesting architecture. He concluded,

Artistry in our daily surroundings is a bulwark against the ravages of entropy—the force in the universe that shoves things toward disorder, stasis, and death. Conscious artistry is the physical expression of our gratitude for being, which puts us in the realm of the sacred. Seaside is an early harbinger of where history is taking us: into a lean future that will surely compel us to act differently, value things differently, and build places where we stake our lives with much more care and love.  

Kunstler seems less concerned with the affordability of this artistry for the average person, however.

With my gut (and a number of facts about it) telling me to be highly skeptical of Celebration, but my academic side reminding me to try to remain objective, I have long wondered how Celebration stacks up to its older, coastal cousin and the promise of New Urbanism.

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When I returned to grad school at UW-Madison to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology and then landed my professor gig at UWO a decade after I first heard about Celebration, I once again thought about the place. I have incorporated a brief case study of it into Sociology of the Modern City every time I’ve taught it since.

Through immersion in sociology, I learned that since the 1960s authors/activists like Jacobs and scholars like sociologist and planner Herbert Gans have criticized mainstream urban planning for, among other things, relying too heavily on the “fallacy of physical determinism” and planning with particular people (read: affluent, white, and male) and land uses (e.g. roads for private car travel) in mind.

As alluded to, the idea that settlements should be set up like they were in the good old days before World War II and the explosive suburbanization that followed sounds good on the surface, but it ignores the stark racial and gender inequalities that dominated the period. Who is allowed to live in an apparently wonderful place like Seaside or Celebration? My students and I dig into this through examining census stats, readings, and sociological theory.

While Celebration did initially include affordable housing, once the word got out about this model settlement and demand increased, it disappeared, as there was no mechanism built into the plan to ensure that it maintained a supply of affordable housing. This is, of course, simply how it works in the U.S.

So, who lives there? According to the Census Bureau’s 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, the “census-designated place” called Celebration’s population of 8,410 people was 83% non-Hispanic white, 9.9% Hispanic, 3.3% Asian, and 2.2% black, which reveals a relative lack of diversity when compared to Osceola County, Florida, overall, which was a much more diverse 50.2% Hispanic, 35.5% non-Hispanic white, 11.4% black, and 2.4% Asian. It was also quite segregated by income, wealth, and education, as the median household income in Celebration was $81,064, nearly double that of the county overall ($45,536), the percentage of adults with Bachelor’s degrees or higher was 62% in Celebration compared to only 18.7% in the county, and it is especially apparent in regards to median value of owner-occupied housing—$401,400 in Celebration vs. $146,500 in the county. About 38% of Celebration residents rented, roughly the same rate as for the county.

In comparison, the 10,548 inhabitants of the census tract in which Seaside lies (it is unincorporated) was 87% white (compared to 84% for Walton County, which is much less diverse than Osceola), had a median household income of $82,849 (compared to $46,910 for the county) and a median value for owner-occupied homes of $315,500 (compared to $183,400 for the county), was comprised of 35% renters (compared to 29% in the county), and 40.3% had a Bachelor’s degree or higher (compared to 26.3% in the county). So, the good life of Seaside is also reserved for a relatively select few, but its socioeconomic stratification appears to be less severe than Celebration’s in several ways.

Further critiques relate to New Urbanist design, which is built upon premises like the idea that front porches should cause people to get to know their neighbors and people’s health would increase because they could walk to work and shopping, and have easy access to nature. According to Gans and the sociological perspective, this is the epitome of physical determinism; just because something is built in a particular way—even if the principles behind it are laudable— it doesn’t mean it will actually happen, because the social world is far too complex to be manipulated via an equation, and behaviors tend to follow the cultural status quo.

With this as the backdrop, I recently got the opportunity to see what all the fuss has been about in person.

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Click here for Part II

 

All photos by author.

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About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He is currently living in the central city of Milwaukee while on sabbatical and among other things is writing about Oshkosh through the lens of his experiences there.

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