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

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This is one of a series of columns that applies observations from other places to life in Oshkosh. This is Part II of an article about Celebration, Florida. In case you missed it, you should go read Part I.

We were in Orlando for my daughter’s competitive cheer team’s (go Oshkosh Jets!) performance in nationals at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports, which is, not surprisingly, part of the Walt Disney World Resort (odd ducks that we are, other than ESPN, we didn’t set foot in any of the thirteen Orlando-area theme parks in a week down there). When I saw how close Celebration was and learned that I had a free Saturday afternoon, I jumped at the chance to finally experience it for myself.

My first observation was that, despite what I had imagined, Celebration is located right in the midst of the sprawl of interstates and their cloverleaves, which oddly also have cows grazing right next to and between them. Having not been there, I had for some reason pictured Celebration being off by itself, away from the din of Orlando and the Disney parks. Nope. Though it is 21-miles from downtown Orlando, the castle from the Magic Kingdom could be seen from Celebration when it was in its infancy. And while Orlando only has 280,257 people in the city itself, it feels much bigger, as the 2.4 million people in its metropolitan area are sprawled out to Celebration and beyond, encompassing a total of 4,012 square miles (for comparison’s sake, Madison has about the same population, while the Madison metro area, which has its own issues with sprawl, has about 650,000 people spread out over 2,034 square miles).

After exiting, I found myself on Celebration Blvd. and assumed it would lead me straight to the fabled Town Center, Celebration’s centerpiece. Driving past homes that looked similar to what I’d seen of Celebration in photos and video, I thought I’d run right into it, but after I narrowly avoided turning onto a road that would’ve taken me straight back to freeway hell, I realized I was already leaving and had to bang a U-y to resume my search for utopia. Strange, especially since Celebration is a popular tourist destination in its own right. Maybe they try to keep it on the down-low, though.

This time I noticed a post office and some other commercial buildings in a different direction, headed that way, and jackpot. After finding street parking next to the Bohemian Hotel and deciding that—although the signage made it seem like perhaps only Celebration residents could park on the street—I’d be okay, I walked over to the man-made lake next to the hotel. According to Frantz and Collins, the small lake “was created to anchor the town center and provide the fill dirt that added three to four feet of elevation to the surrounding swampland, keeping the town high and dry.”

I promptly saw a small alligator. “Score one for Celebration,” I thought.

I continued on to the main drag of the Town Center, past a couple eating and drinking establishments and a Starbucks that was…closed, possibly for renovation, but closed, and surprising, nonetheless. “Score another one for Celebration?”

The Town Center included a number of upscale-looking restaurants and shops, a nice pavilion by the lake, and what appeared to be movie theater (upon closer inspection, though, it didn’t appear to show movies).

It all had the look of a mall. Perhaps more like a well-disguised, newfangled “lifestyle center”, but a mall nonetheless. It felt pleasant but artificial from the get-go. Of course, I had this idea going into it, so may have been looking to have it confirmed.

I made a plan to continue walking, towards what seemed to be a nearby park, then peruse some New Urbanist neighborhood action before returning to the Town Center for a beer, snack, and hopefully a conversation or two.

Sure enough, I found Celebration Lakeside Park nearby. Again, however, I was unsure as to whether I was welcome to set foot in the park.

Nonetheless, I proceeded, coming to an open pavilion. Behind locked fences, however, were a nice pool (no one swimming) and recreation area (two teens playing foosball) as well as a playground (with no one in it).

Point lost, Celebration.

It didn’t feel creepy yet, exactly, but as I have written about previously, coming from the Upper Midwest, it is strange and unsettling when something that seems like it should be public turns out to be private, and I’m left on the outside (too many Americans experience that feeling every day, I realize).

Again, the comparison to a mall—with its quasi-public space (seems public but is, in fact, private), where uses for the space are quite restricted and from which anyone can be excluded or expelled at the whim of the private owner—is apt. After all, as Celebration residents seem quick to point out, it is not a municipality, but essentially a large homeowner’s association.

In any case, no one seemed to be checking IDs. So, I ventured forth, but with a growing suspicion that I was being surveilled, was actually trespassing, and did not belong. I sort of enjoyed the feeling, though, because it meant that I was getting my money’s worth.

I began walking on a path on the other side of the main lake and soon found that I could fork left, away from the gaze of the private park pavilion and moderate bustle of the Town Center (what with its tourists wandering about and all) and into more mysterious terrain flanked by thick tropical vegetation. Of course I went left. I was actually impressed by the density of the scrubby palmetto forest and immediately felt more at ease. A couple joggers then passed and the male gave me a somewhat terse greeting and look of mild curiosity, quickly bringing that idea of trespassto infringe on the privacy, time, space, or attention of another—back to the forefront. Figuring I couldn’t be doing a great deal of harm, walking down a paved path and enjoying my Celebration of the strangeness of this land of ours, I continued on.

One of the goals of New Urbanism is connectivity. Neighborhoods shouldn’t end in cul-de-sacs and apartments shouldn’t be so separated from single family homes, the thinking goes. Further, housing shouldn’t be separated from jobs and shopping by freeways. People shouldn’t be so separate from nature or each other. Various land uses should be closer together and connected, ideally in pedestrian- and transit-friendly ways. As discussed, Celebration seems to fall short in this regard in a couple key ways, such as it being a bubble of segregated living and its lack of connectivity to the world outside of the bubble, where most adults work and are likely driving their own cars there through the sprawl. Based on Census stats, the mean travel time to work is actually higher in Celebration than for Orlando, but a bit lower than for Osceola County overall. In Celebration, 68% of workers commuted to work alone in their own car, 12.1% carpooled and 13.8% worked at home, but only 1.4% walked to work. The latter is small, but nearly three times as high as the county’s walking rate, and it fares better than the county on the other measures, but quite a bit worse on the percentage that takes mass transit. Interestingly, Oshkosh workers walk at nearly three times (3.8%) the rate of Celebration workers and take mass transit at a significantly higher rate.

Consistent with the principle of connectivity, however, the path I walked seemed to do a nice job of easily connecting people to nature. As it continued behind the park, it then linked to housing, first some attractive-looking multi-family units. In my notes, typed at the tavern I found later, one of my primary, and über-academic observations was that the place seemed “pretty richy-rich.” That started with the apartments and continued as I walked towards, across, and within the blocks near Celebration Blvd. and back to the Town Center.

Consistent with New Urbanism, the homes did indeed feature front porches and relatively interesting design, much of it of the neo-traditional variety. It mostly seemed to be on the higher end of the scale, though there was a range of styles—such as the aforementioned apartments, townhouses, and mid-sized single-family homes—within easy walking distances of one another. I appreciated the back alleys found in several places, both for practical and nostalgic reasons. There were large and relatively opulent homes right in the heart of town, certainly an anomaly in the U.S., where it is most common to find McMansions and the largest, newest homes in recently-built exurban subdivisions. There were few people actually utilizing their porches nor out and about in these neighborhoods at all, however, but there was some light, intermittent rain while I walked.

The connectivity to natural features was pretty consistent, however, at least in the portion of Celebration that I covered on foot. For example, the boardwalk pictured below is located in the midst of these residential blocks, providing not only connection to a lush green space but also a very pleasant throughway for residents on the north side of the development to walk to the Town Center. I ate my bag lunch on a bench in there.

Again, though, as I walked around residential areas of Celebration, I was feeling a subtle anxiety. As I wrote in my notes, “Seems like a tourist attraction in and of itself…Not super creepy for that reason, but still, things didn’t feel quite right.” I should note that this was before I did some reading in preparation for this piece and was reminded about this common theme of creepiness. It’s hard to say exactly why I felt it in the residential areas, but it could be for the reasons discussed earlier, such as the many pop culture references to the hidden dark sides of picture-perfect places (think Desperate Housewives), but it may also simply be that this middle class sociologist generally feels uncomfortable in the spaces of affluence.

Feelings of unease aside, there was actually a lot to like about the layout of the residential blocks, and I easily found myself once again on the walking path that led me back to the ID-only park near the Town Center. I decided to continue walking around the lake before heading back to the main street. I found another board walk and a creek that was fed by a small outlet from the lake. Along the path were interpretative signs about native birds, some of which I saw, and other ecological features. Another point for Celebration.

At the southern edge of the lake I noticed that the path continued south through the swampland and walked on, my biophilia pulling me to see what lay around the next bend. A short walk on the path as it cut through dense vegetation led to this natural tree arch and then a close encounter with a blue heron fishing along the creek on the other side.

There I found another small lake, with the path continuing along it, past some quite large homes and then points beyond. Though various criticisms of Celebration certainly seem warranted, it seems to be a model for walkability and connectivity (in several ways), and apparently succeeds in some other dimensions as well.

At this point, I decided to head back to the good ol’ Town Center to observe some social life and satisfy my growing thirst. I quickly decided upon Celebration Town Tavern, figuring that must be the place. I also liked the looks of its wall-less bar area, a baseball game on the TV, and what appeared to be an open spot for me. I ordered some local beer that did the trick (though I failed to take note of what it was, specifically) and a nondescript appetizer, but found the late-20s/early 30s bartender to be quite friendly. He told me that he lived in Celebration for four years and now lives nearby in Davenport, which he called an up-and-coming place. He said he enjoyed living in Celebration, too, but when I asked him to expand upon what the place is like, he responded,

Interesting. The town controls everything to a T and Disney still calls a lot of shots. When they sold it (Celebration, the real estate development) they wrote it into the contract that Disney would still call the shots. If you want to change the color of your house you have to apply to the town and then they consult with Disney. Disney wants to keep it the way they started it.

He added, “Disney’s got kind of Big Brother role going on here.” He noted that it took “forever” for the Tavern’s new backdoor to be approved.

Our discussion got the attention of the woman sitting next to me. She noted that she lives in a condo. She agreed with the bartender and complained that “the town” forced her condo association to to make their inside locks match the outside locks of other condos with which they’re not even associated. But, she added, “It’s a nice community. We’re runners and there are lots of places to run. I work in Kissimmee (the Osceola County seat, a half-hour drive away) and I don’t want to live in Kissimmee.”

All in all, Celebration did not disappoint. Overall, it struck me as a mixed-bag. For me, it had qualities that were both artificial and laudable, both facilitated my nice walk through natural areas and provoked a feeling of unease, and gave me first-hand experience that is useful not only for this sprawling piece sure to be enjoyed by at least a couple loyal Oshkosh Independent readers, but will also be excellent material to draw upon the next time I teach Sociology of the Modern City.

In the end, I partially agree with Campbell-Dollaghan, who concludes,

Celebration, below its twee veneer and even below its shoddy craftsmanship, is a pretty sustainable idea. It has lessons for us to learn about how to quell the worst of the sprawl eating away at our country. And it is, by most accounts, a pretty good place to live: Public spaces, walkable streets, downscaled housing, and good schools, all within a compact downtown. Even its critics have to admit that it’s better than the swampy, sprawling hellscape that lies just outside of it, dripping with strip malls and sweaty drive-thrus.

So why don’t we think of it as a success?

I’d argue that Celebration does seem to be a success, at least in terms of what it is at the core: a real estate development designed to make money. I think it has succeeded in spurring a good deal of conversation as well. Her answer as to why it isn’t seen more widely as a success is the creepiness factor. I’d agree that this is part of the answer, but the rest of it likely stems from other shortcomings discussed above, and most importantly, from the primary rub with most New Urbanist-inspired developments: they’re generally reserved for the affluent. Shouldn’t the rest of us have access to the good life, too?

Further, while it may not be sinister, the reality of Celebration may be disappointing in that, even though Disney had complete control over the design, it still fell short of (unrealistic) expectations. And even if it met them, how could this model be replicated in U.S. cities and suburbs that are already fully built out and where the dominance of the private property model means that municipalities and their planners have very little control? Perhaps the little bubble of Celebration is relatively sustainable, but it is nonetheless a drop in the bucket.

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THE TAKE-HOME

With that, I’ll conclude after a few additional points related to what we in Oshkosh can learn from the curious case of Celebration, Florida. Though it is far from perfect and difficult to replicate anyway, it does present some good lessons.

Writing from my current digs on the Near West Side of Milwaukee, I see the stark reality of segregated living and separate-but-unequal conditions every day. We live just off of Vliet St., a major East-West thoroughfare that stretches from downtown to the Wauwatosa border, after which it is called Milwaukee Ave. Our Martin Drive neighborhood lies in the transitional area between the lower-income areas between here and downtown and the more affluent Washington Heights neighborhood, which soon morphs into the stately, shady opulence of Eastern Wauwatosa. Driving west on Vliet from, say, 27th St. to 67th St. in Wauwatosa, one travels between different worlds—one low-income, with few trees, shoddy streets and buildings, and populated by mostly people of color, and the other upper-class, tree-lined, with smooth streets and tidy buildings, populated by mostly white folks—in the span of seven minutes. Drive north on 27th St.—which we’ll be doing daily when school starts next week—and the difference in living conditions is even more extreme. There, one is likely to see only brown faces for blocks upon blocks, stark and sad, but not surprising given that Milwaukee is considered one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. And this stark separation has caused serious problems related to social inequality for multiple generations.

As I have written about previously, though it is less extreme, Oshkosh has its own issues with racial and economic segregation. The central city on the whole is relatively poorer and less white than the newer, faster growing edges of the city, particularly its West and Southwest sides. The differences between these areas are quite visible in terms of the age and quality of the streets, schools, and more. Perhaps more important, however, is the social divide it exacerbates, with stereotypes being perpetuated and people’s behaviors being influenced by them. For example, a friend from the Menominee South neighborhood on the near east side indicated that could not host a house party for a project we were working on because the families she knew from the west side school where she worked would not come to her house in the evening. I thought she was joking. She was not.

The newer housing and commercial developments that ring Oshkosh on all sides but the east (due to that big lake sitting there) were all generally built in the typical, post-war suburban style, first and foremost to accommodate the private automobile and in any case encouraging separation. As noted by Robert Steuteville in Public Squarea journal of the Congress for New Urbanism, this is the norm, as “The separate-use system has become known as sprawl or conventional suburban development (CSD). The majority of US citizens now live in suburban communities built during the last 60 years.” Sprawling CSD causes a number of environmental and social problems.

While Oshkosh’s central city layout also generally privileges cars over people, its density does encourage more walking and mass-transit usage. Pick a tract from the central Oshkosh and another on the outside and the data will bear this out. In census tract 5 (basically, the heart of downtown Oshkosh), 7.7% walked and 2.6% took public transportation to work, while in census tract 18.01 (a large tract on the southwest side of the city), only 0.7% walked and zero people took public transportation to work, according to the latest Census stats.

How can we encourage greater connectivity (pedestrian, biking, and mass transit) between the edges of town and its center? More dedicated bike lanes throughout the city are a positive development, but in a car-centric culture, bicyclists aren’t necessarily safe. Additional bike/pedestrian-only paths are needed, along with greater respect for walkers and bicyclists through the city; we have had too many accidents (include my own run-in with the hood of a car while biking to UWO a few years back) and even fatalities due to cars striking pedestrians or cyclists.

Encouraging greater use of mass transit is a thornier issue, particularly when budgets for the system are already razor thin and the cultural importance of the private car is so strong. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, in Celebration and all parts of Oshkosh. I have a number of friends who live in the existing CSD areas of Oshkosh, which clearly have positive elements as well—those noted earlier and other qualities such as proximity to small forest and natural areas, remaining open space, our only hospitals and almost all of our full-service grocery stores—and there are ways to make them more connected, more New Urban in nature.

What might be the most effective in promoting the best elements of living in a place like Celebration, though, is to encourage more investment and in-fill development in Oshkosh’s central city. After all, the old urbanism upon which New Urbanism is based is largely still there, in interesting older homes with front porches, large trees in the yard, close to bus lines, parks, schools, downtown shopping and employment, the farmers’ market, walking/biking trails, and more. The infrastructure is already there, too, as is outstanding quality of life in many ways. Further, as I noted in my profile of the Stevens Park Neighborhood for the inaugural Oshkosh Independent magazine, according to neighborhood leaders, simply re-doing the major streets in an area can have a positive ripple effect upon the real estate market and people’s outlooks and even behaviors because of the message that the place is being cared for that this sends. Physical change won’t necessarily produce social change, but it can provide a spark.

According to Steuteville,

New urban infill developments in older cities and towns are proliferating as well — probably to a greater degree than greenfield developments. Redevelopments of suburban sites are also increasingly common. Some of the infill communities occupy formerly industrial properties. Others are redevelopments of public housing projects, shopping malls, apartment complexes, or even military bases. Still others consist of revitalization of underpopulated parts of cities. The diversity of new urban developments is steadily growing.

As noted, what Celebration really seems to have going for it is connectivity, both in terms of space that is walkable/bikeable and also in close proximity to natural areas. As I have written previously, we could do a lot more to bring nature into Oshkosh neighborhoods, particularly in the central city. For example, there are lots of examples and new research that demonstrate the many benefits that come from greening empty lots—with landscaping, community gardens, and even urban orchards (the largest example being found in suburban Milwaukee, incidentally)—, including enhanced property values, decreased crime, greater social ties and trust, and even psychological well-being from such efforts. We have planted thousands of trees in central Oshkosh to great effect and much more can be done, on empty lots and beyond.

This piece is already far too long to go into further detail related to reimagining and revamping our built environment to be more sustainable, healthy, and enjoyable, but the ideas and concrete examples are out there, for those interested in learning more and taking action.

What we have to remember from Celebration, however, is that the principles of New Urbanism are laudable, but development inspired by it should benefit the many, and not just the few who can afford it. Further, with the fallacy of physical determinism in mind, we can’t rely on good design to solve social problems anyway; without programs, policies, and events that facilitate interactions and positive change in those spaces, they may look better but not actually produce the desired social outcomes. Finally, for it to be transformative—which is what we need in an era of increasingly visceral climate change and social division—there needs to be a groundswell of support for it, from private property owners, renters, businesses, and government, because otherwise it will be just another drop in the bucket.

 

Note: 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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