- Utopian Ironies
In reviewing Andrew Ross’s Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town, I am reminded of a simple statement Herbert Gans makes at the very beginning of his 1967 study The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community. Addressing himself to the nature of community life in one of the first post-World War II suburban developments in America, Gans remarks that “people have some right to be what they are” (vi). It is not surprising that this statement comes to mind. Ross is quite aware of Gans’s study and makes good, albeit brief, use of it. Well he should, since his own book is also a study of community life, and though it is a much less formal study than Gans’s, it is one that seems to arrive at just about the same conclusion regarding the relationship between our “built environments” and the lives we lead. Ross notes early on that “Gans took up residence in Levittown... to find out what difference a place really makes. GI suburbia had become the preferred punching bag of critics of the mass-produced life in the postwar years... [and Gans] took issue with this view, which he characterized as an elitist perception on the part of urban intellectuals” (220). The typical urban intellectual whom Gans was attempting to rebut was someone like Lewis Mumford, urban historian and author of the magisterial The City in History, who believed that the American suburb was fast becoming a “low-grade uniform environment from which escape was impossible” (486). In Mumford’s view, the city presents a rich opportunity to nurture social diversity, which is crucial to the maintenance of democracy in a free state. The suburbs, on the other hand, present a threat to democracy. They segregate people by class and income, and this segregation breeds intolerance. Worse yet, the suburbs breed gullibility. As Gans notes, urban intellectuals and city planners are critical of the suburbs for fashioning a uniform and “gullible, petty ‘mass’ which rejects the culture that would make it fully human” (vi). The typical suburban citizen is gullible because he is the victim of mass production, “conforming in every respect to a common mold, manufactured in the central metropolis” (Mumford 486). Ironically, what Ross finds in the Disney-developed New Urban town of Celebration—a manufactured environment that makes Levittown look positively quaint by comparison—is the same thing that Gans finds in Levittown: it isn’t such a bad place to live after all.
Neither seems to be producing low-grade and gullible automatons; indeed, both harbor quite a bit of democratic free spirit, however homogenous the class and economic status of their inhabitants, and in spite of the corporate and market manipulations which brought them into being. Yes, Ross will discover the residents of Celebration are implicated in a market-driven experiment which attempts to sell the idea of “community” as if it were so many loaves of bread, but if we avoid the urge to treat these people as unwitting co-conspirators in their own market manipulation—in other words, as unwitting co-conspirators in some kind of inexorable corporate takeover of democratic values—we can learn something about what it means to develop something called “community,” a slippery term at best. We might learn, indeed, that we find “community” in some of the damndest places. Enter Disney.
Does the new town of Celebration offer a way of life worth celebrating? Ross takes a sabbatical from his position as Director of American Studies at New York University and moves to this newly developed suburb of Orlando, the home of Disneyworld, to find out. The Celebration Chronicles is the record of his year-long stay, and he is quite frank about his intentions. His is not the formal piece of sociological analysis that Gans produced:
Neither a journalist nor a social scientist by training, I had not angled for juicy headlines—there were enough out there already—nor had...