The term “planned community” is a little like the terms “arranged marriage” or “vintage style” – when people hear them, they tend to recoil. Maybe there’s something discomfiting about the idea that something as organic as a community – or a marriage, or a cool old shirt – could be created intentionally. And yet, planned communities have a pretty good track record. LeDroit Park, one of the District’s most coveted and beloved neighborhoods, was a planned community.
Of course, sometimes they go wrong. Terribly, hilariously wrong. That’s what happened with the creepiest planned community in America, the ironically-named town of Celebration, Florida. Technically, it wasn’t planned – it was imagineered. That’s the term used by the team of designers – ahem, Imagineers – at Disney who built Celebration from the ground up in the early Nineties. (Built it from the swamp up, actually. And so many residents woke up to gators in their swimming pools that a rumor started that Celebration had been built on Disney World’s alligator dumping ground.) Celebration is the embodiment of the Disney aesthetic – surreally artificial, vaguely nostalgic, and poisonously wholesome. Check out this paragraph from the original sales brochure:
There once was a place where neighbours greeted neighbours in the quiet of summer twilight. Where children chased fireflies. And porch swings provided easy refuge from the cares 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?
Creepy! But America loved it. When Disney put on a lottery in 1995 for the first 474 homes in Celebration, over 5000 entered.
It was built by Disney, so no expense was spared. Celebrity architects were brought in to build the town’s main buildings – everyone from Philip Johnson to Robert A.M. Stern to Graham Gund submitted designs – and a team of Disney people toured cities like Savannah and New Orleans to steal architectural details for Celebration’s cookie-cutter houses. Disney even negotiated an unprecedented agreement with the state of Florida that gave them total control over everything from Celebration’s utilities and schools to its zoning and tax collections. It’s a private fiefdom disguised as a public town.The weird thing is, it should have worked. Celebration was an early adopter of “village-style” development, an anti-sprawl philosophy that prioritized compact downtowns and walkability. Houses are grouped into “villages,” with shops and amenities at their center. But its brazen artificiality is just too unnerving. All the homes in town are built after one of a half-dozen models, with wide porches, large yards, and come in either white, blue, yellow, pink or tan. (Of course, it’s Florida, so no one sits on their porches; everyone’s inside, in the air conditioning.) A foot-thick book of regulations dictates every detail of a resident’s home, down to what plants they’re allowed to plant in their flower beds. In winter months, artificial snow falls from the sky at the top of every hour. Connected to Disney World by one of its main streets, the town looks so artificial that many houses have put up signs reading, “This is a real house with real people living here, please do not come in uninvited.”
But like most things that seem too good to be true, Celebration was, well, too good to be true. The mansions of Celebration turned out to be McMansions (insert your own Disney/McDonald’s/never-trust-corporations joke here), hastily built from shabby materials. In the Florida heat, they quickly began to fall apart. According to one book, the problem was “shoddy construction … using unskilled workers whose daily work changes to whatever trade is necessary – electrician, gardener, painter.” I don’t think I could sleep at night, knowing my wiring might have been put in by a random Disney employee they pulled off the Splash Mountain vomit detail. In 2006, a group of Celebration residents sued the town managers for $20 million in repair funds.But things got even darker. In one week in 2010, Celebration saw its first murder – a resident was bludgeoned and strangled by a vagrant – and its first police shootout, instigated by a depressed Celebration resident who was upset about losing his job and wife. For a town that was built to capitalize on America’s suburban flight from crime, these were devastating blows. Property values, already depressed by the financial crash, entered an extended malaise, and by late 2016, residents still hadn’t gotten repair money from the town. In the end, the question is: did Celebration fail to embody the American Dream, or embody it all too well?