Thursday, February 10, 2005

The future of the American town

Slate magazine provides this brilliant photo essay into what may be the most interesting community in America today, Celebration, Florida. For those to you, like me, who do not follow the residential developments of suburbia, this is the Disney corporations venture to take "Main Street" from Disney World and have it transform reality. Begun about ten years ago, the Celebration community sought to offer the best of the past and the future into the ideal, albeit manufactured, community.

"The heart of CELEBRATION is a commitment to community, education, health, technology, and a sense of place." So the Celebration website introduces its community section, before going into how it provides "the look and feel of a warm and friendly hometown. " (Quick side note: I can't tell for sure, but it appears as though the actual name of the town is CELEBRATION, not Celebration, at least according to the website.) Take note, all who seek to garner an understanding of the post-modern spirit. This will be how Americans cope with "artificial" relationships and unwelcoming communities. They will be making better artificial communities, build better schools and houses, and recreate the best of the past while anticipating the best of the future. Don't kid yourselves, Americans are not looking to the church to reclaim their authenticity, but rather to the best architects in the world and the instanciation of their idealized memories of the past.

Anyone suspecting me of over reacting, at least consider this ad, which captures the spirit of the CELEBRATION city planners: "The destination your soul has been searching for, Celebration." This is the response to the need of people for what the planners call a "sense of place." Disney allows people to settle in, get comfortable, and relax. And, of course, there are countless advantages to doing this, especially if your the CELEBRATION type of person. Here is the data:
Median resident age: 36.9 years
Median household income: $74,231 (year 2000)
Median house value: $380,900 (year 2000)
White Non-Hispanic (87.3%)
Hispanic (7.6%)
Black (1.7%)
Other race (1.0%)
Two or more races (1.0%)
Asian Indian (0.8%)
Chinese (0.6%)

And, apparently, the right numbers are going up, which leads me to believe the 'wrong' numbers are going down. Against the stated wishes of the planners, property value is sky rocketing, most houses selling for double their original price, leading me to expect both the median household income and house value is getting close to doubled. As is often the case, I suspect that this means the good 'ole 87.3% is probably going up too.

In an article focusing more on the technological commitments of Celebration, Steve Cisler points out some of the more interesting aspects of this project. This is a community we all want to boo and hiss at, one that decided against having a public library or a hardware store, the paying off of the state government to avoid having actual affordable housing, and amazing ability to actually create a place where they could 'forget' the rest of the world, we have to see this in a nuanced way, realizing that we all have something to learn from Celebration. Part of fostering community was "the design of the town encouraged face-to-face contact with neighbors on the block, downtown, and at meetings of affinity groups." These being values shared and necessary for authentic community, it fostered a spirit of democracy that was compounded by "adversity" and has begun to foster a community where the people of Celebration actually started setting a vision for where they want to see the community go, creating tension with their Disney "community planners".

In summing up my experience of reading on this today, I want to point to probably the most interesting and thoughtful response, too long for a summary.
"Unlike utopian communities of the 18th and 19th century, however, Celebration's specialness is not derived from its unique understanding of its relationship with God nor from a revolutionary conception of human relationships. While Celebration claims that it has a dedication to Community unusual in the modern age, the very institutions and organizations that form the bedrock of American community are lacking in it. There is no representative government, no churches, and residents have little control over the policies of the Celebration School, although it is public. What they have in common is commodities, and an agreement to a set of rule that dictate what type of shrubs they can plant in their yards and how high their fences may be."

Where this thesis is wrong is in the absence of churches (a search turns up 5 protestant churches and 1 jewish community), especially ten years into the project. Christian visionaries at the Presbyterian church decided to revolutionize the way to start churches for this revolutionary new town when they opened their downtown sanctuary in 2000. " What they are thinking, however, is entirely atypical for new church developments. As the yet unbuilt church's new pastor, the Rev. Pat Risley, puts it: "We're going to start with the building, then fill it. " Any doubts that this is an uncritical attempt to get to live in the best place on earth, is handled with this quote representing the churches missionary zeal:
"The gospel's been changing lives for centuries ... And it'll be here long after [this] company has been purchased by some other conglomerate ... Disney can't corrupt the gospel. "But the gospel planted right here in the middle of the corporate world -- [think] of the lives it might change. ..." To the elitist charge, Richardson simply says those leveling that kind of critique ought to look more closely at their own neighborhoods. Many PC(USA) churches are built in privileged areas. "But no matter how nice the yards are or how idyllic the setting, the pain of life will not pass by this community," said Richardson. "And these people are gonna need somebody to stand with them in [that] pain."

Now, that living in an obviously artificial world, ultimately based on a lie, is no doubt painful. But Disney has one uped the church again. I believe this is a great example of the difference between church assimilating to culture and church creating culture. I would be lying, however, if I did not admit that I somewhat envy the community that is there, compared to the community of risk, violence, and negativity where I live. What is life in community with the communities of the world for the church going to look like in 20-50 years? Will it be places like Living Water Community church or the Celebration Presbyterian church?


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