The town I live in has gotten a fair amount of notoriety over the years. It’s had more than its share of articles and even books written about it–even a disparaging song by one clever rock band–and lots of people who’ve never visited feel entitled to an expert opinion on what it’s like to live here, and on what kind of people would choose to. Living here has given me a good education how even people who claim to be educated really just repeat uncritically the talking points they read somewhere. Something I’m doubtless guilty of myself in a different context. I should try to keep it in mind when I feel certain I know what’s going on with the budget crisis, or why one particular party does the things it does.
I live in Celebration, Florida, a town originally designed and built by Disney. For some reason, as soon as people find this out about me, most people feel perfectly free to share all the disparaging stereotypes they’ve heard. I suppose it’s all they’ve got, and their only entry point into anything resembling a conversation. Just yesterday a total stranger on Google+ asked me how I could live there, made a Stepford Wives reference, and called it creepy. At WorldCon one year, a fat mustachioed woman in a Starfleet uniform mocked me when she noted the town listed on my badge. At Disneyland–Disneyland!–a cast member shared with us her expert knowledge about our town and its “cookie-cutter” homes.
If you are also an expert who has never spent a day in my town, but has read a couple articles online, then maybe I should dispel a few myths before I go further:
- Celebration is not a gated community. I see the phrase “gated community” used as almost a throwaway descriptive all the time, but it’s simply not.
- Celebration is not owned or run by Disney. Disney did not build the houses, either. Disney owned the land and developed a “master plan” for the community–as in, where the roads would be laid, where parks would be, that sort of thing. Like any developer of any subdivision would do. For a few years, Disney was the landlord for the downtown commercial area, but they sold off that interest nearly a decade ago. Disney does have a few office buildings on the periphery of town, but that’s the extent of their presence here.
- Celebration is technically more of a subdivision than a town. It has a “town-like” atmosphere, in that there is a downtown area and a strong civic sense, and there are many people who want to incorporate, but so far it hasn’t happened.
- Celebration has an HOA, it’s true. I’m not crazy about HOA’s–in fact, I’m opposed to them on philosophical grounds. But Celebration is not unique in having one. I don’t know about where you live, but in my experience in Florida, any suburban subdivision built in the last twenty to thirty years has one. If you want to avoid having one in Florida, your only choices are to build your own house on your own land in the country somewhere, or to buy a much older house. Celebration’s HOA, however, is no more onerous than any other HOA I’ve encountered. Nobody’s policing the color of your curtains, which is one of the things I’ve actually learned about my town only online.
- There are many, many communities in Central Florida filled with “cookie-cutter” homes, but Celebration is not one of them. Homes in Celebration were built by more than a half-dozen different builders, each with their own models. If all the buyers had hired architects to design their homes individually, we’d have more diversity than we do, sure. But for a subdivision, which again, is what this is, we actually have far more diversity than is typical.
- Disney does not pay actors to walk dogs around town, pretending to be residents. Yes, this actually something I’ve read about my town online.
- People who live in Celebration do, contrary to published information about us, actually own books. In fact, we have more than our share of published authors living in town.
- People who live in Celebration are not delusional Disneyphiles who believe they’ve moved into Main Street USA, and who think they’re free from “real-world” problems. In fact, I’d say a substantial fraction of the people who live here actively dislike Disney, but knew a good real-estate investment when they saw one.
- People who live in Celebration are generally less conformist than other people I’ve encountered. It takes a certain off-beat sensibility to overlook this town’s Disney roots, and to knowingly sign up for the condescension you will receive from all quarters when you live here.
Celebration was not Disney’s first foray into real estate. Back in the eighties, Disney was part owner of the development company Arvida, who built many attractive middle- to upper-middle-class subdivisions throughout Florida. I’ve not seen any of the mockery that Celebration gets directed at people who bought homes in Arvida developments; I suppose it’s because the Disney connection is less conspicuous there, and internet experts are more about superficial appearances than they are about facts.
The biggest difference I see between Celebration and the Arvida developments is that Celebration was designed to look and feel like a town. It’s not just a bunch of houses and a community center or two, but rather it has a “downtown” area. Celebration was built roughly according to New Urbanist ideals–“roughly” as in it fails to live up to those ideals on a few fronts. In this day and age when so many intellectuals decry the sprawl of suburban living, New Urbanism is an attempt to reverse the trend. New Urbanist principles are all about designing a town around pedestrians instead of around cars: the bulk of a home’s frontage is not taken up by a garage, homes are close together and feature porches to encourage socializing with your neighbors, all streets have sidewalks, all homes are [arguably] within walking distance of downtown, parking areas downtown are in the middle of the block, with businesses directly on the street instead of isolated by acres and acres of parking lots.
Celebration is not the first New Urbanist town–not even the first one in Florida.
When somebody mocks Celebration to me, they almost invariably make one of two comparisons. Always! If it’s a man, he’ll reference Pleasantville. If it’s a woman, she’ll reference Stepford Wives. Always! The implication, I guess, is that we Celebration residents are all in lockstep conformity, and that the key virtue in our town is phoniness. Of course, you’re so much more of a nonconformist when you make the exact same snide reference that everybody else makes–a comparison that you first read on a website somewhere.
People who move to this town aren’t trying to fake anything. Are we trying to “create” a life? Well let me ask you: who the heck isn’t? When you consider buying a house anywhere, don’t you try to imagine yourself living there, and don’t you try to imagine yourself making the time for all sorts of things you maybe haven’t had time for before? Oh hey, a breakfast nook. I can just see myself sitting down for a real breakfast every day instead of a pop-tart and a coffee. With a space like this, I’ll want to make time. I’ll fill this other room with workout equipment, so I can finally get in shape. Ooh, that recreation area is lovely; I’ll come swim in the pool every week!
The thing that sets Celebration residents apart is that most people here, when visualizing the kind of life they want to live, rank community high on the list of things they’re looking for. People who move here want to know their neighbors; they want to be active in the town. They want to stroll downtown, eat in an outdoor cafe, and then sit by the lake and shoot the breeze with whoever wanders by. Some people actually live that way more than others, just like some people will use their home workout equipment more than others, but that’s the big difference between those creepy weirdos in Celebration and folks elsewhere–wanting to build a community.
It’s not a perfect place. We have crime, dysfunctional families, nosy people, and people who are just plain jerks. Just like every other place does. It’s also not for everybody, and that’s cool.
As for anything else you may think you know . . . well, there’s a word for people who judge folks they don’t know, repeating stereotypes they’ve heard elsewhere, without bothering to find out if their assumptions are true.