A marxist in Disneyland

by Pierluigi Cervellati

Celebration, la città perfetta. L’utopia urbanistica finanziata dalla Disney, Andrew Ross, arcanapop, Rome, 2001 (411 pages, € 17,00)

Andrew Ross was perplexed by his stay in Celebration. He doesn’t come out and say so, but you gather that he has something against this city built by Disney during the last decade of the 20th century. An anthropologist and sociologist who teaches at New York University, he wants to convince himself that he is ‘unbiased’, neither drawn to nor repulsed by this new development, and, indeed, favourable articles alternate with fiercely critical ones. Pointing out that ‘Disney-fying’ has become a synonym for kitsch, he remarks in his preface that Disney-bashing is one of New York City’s most popular sports. Perhaps arrogant motives lie behind his decision to go to Celebration after having studied previous developments in Florida, most notably the ‘failed’ EPCOT in Orlando.

EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, was supposed to be futuristic rather than utopian. But when Walt Disney died, it became Disney World, merely a money-making machine. Even the initial scheme mirrored an obsolete planning vision based on pipe dreams. The idea was to build an urban model capable of solving all major metropolitan problems through technology. The difficulties still persist: blight, insecurity, isolation, traffic jams and pollution. When he presented the project on film in 1966, Disney made a statement that has often been repeated in America and abroad: ‘EPCOT intends to tackle the urban challenge...beginning with the needs of the people; it does not want to treat the old diseases of old cities. We believe that people must start from scratch on green-field sites.... EPCOT will construct a special community that will never cease to be a project of the future. The single purpose will be the happiness of those who live, work and play there, plus all those who visit it.... Industry must satisfy the needs expressed by the people in this experimental community’. Disney’s heirs achieved none of this; they merely built a high-tech Disneyland. Ross underscores the rhetoric behind EPCOT. He compares the intentions of Celebration with those of a long list of illustrious forerunners, from Victorian capitalist philanthropists to the no less refined apologists of social utopias. But Celebration’s conception is worse, for it is explicitly speculative.

Increasingly bewildered, Ross left for Celebration. However, as he approached his destination he gradually became aware that his prejudice was full of commonplaces. He even likes the billboard advertising the town: two girls on a seesaw against a blue sky. The slogan: ‘Isn’t this a good enough reason for Celebration?’ Once he started to live there his doubts weakened. (Something similar happened to another famed anthropologist, Marc Augé, when he was invited to describe Disneyland Paris. Despite all his preconceptions against it, he had a terrific time.) Aside from its advertising campaign, one can’t help noticing the scheme, brief and planning concepts that characterize the city. The highly controlled architecture is immediately obvious, and this attention paid to community life cannot readily be matched in nearby developments, not to mention theme parks. (It certainly can’t be matched in Italy; there is no point in thinking of Milano 2, which is advertised in the same way. Just think of the countless new resort, urban or other developments scattered throughout Italy. Then think of the new regional or provincial planning laws, which supplant the master plan with a kind of mayor’s plan. In other words, Italy’s developments are not guided by any planning criteria at all.)

Ross believes that Celebration has certain advantages, despite all the drawbacks. It was built to reduce the Disney Company’s debts, brought on by purchases of land in the 1970s. Also on the downside are benefits derived from government subsidies for erecting infrastructures; other Disney developments received the same compensations. Furthermore, the houses – which cost twice as much as homes in other parts of the county – are badly built, often with very cheap finishes. Disney has also sought to control the community, which received far less than was initially promised. Yet life is pleasant in Celebration. Ross, a Marxist anthropologist, is courageous enough to admit this; he points out both the positive and negative features in objective fashion. Through participation, the citizens have transformed the school, so now it is quite advanced. The hospital is first class. Sure, 99 per cent of the population is white.

One-fifth works for Disney, but they were hired after they had moved in. Ross enjoyed Celebration. The neighbours are nice, and they are not all filthy rich. On the contrary, the majority had trouble paying for their houses and cannot complete the furnishings. America’s New Urbanism movement led to the rediscovery of the traditional cities and a desire to make the most of environmentally friendly alternatives to urban sprawl. (By now, the whole world is identical. Just think of Italy’s small towns, the marvellous old cities and towns in the Appenines.

They were abandoned after being ruined by the champions of modern architecture, who still claim the right to hand down their imprint. One should consider that the population of Italy’s regional capitals has dropped 12 per cent, while construction in isolated areas and urban outskirts has risen 30 per cent.) Celebration has a population cap of 20,000. The houses come in a wide range of types and styles, depending on their lot positions. Members of the city government, along with the townspeople, keep a tight rein on Celebration’s appearance, right down to the kinds of trees planted and the colours and signs around town (the Disney logo was removed from the tower by vote of the community). But the town’s urban plan is rooted in tradition. The urban structure, in fact, seeks to favour even accidental contact between the inhabitants. The porch is exalted: the people of Celebration are intended to spend their evenings there chatting with neighbours. It certainly resembles a movie set. (It will remind everyone of The Truman Show and the other model city – Seaside – on Florida’s north coast. It is far more comfortable than other places, where the population, albeit wealthy, is forced to live in an ugly, squalid location.)

We must not forget that famous architects have worked here: the town hall was designed by Aldo Rossi. Ross is enchanted by the feeling that one belongs to the town. There are plenty of places for public meetings, and participation is spurred by self-interest: urban blight could diminish the value of one’s house. However, residents take part in community life as both actors and authors. Ultimately, Ross asserts, ‘Few communities are comparable to Celebration, because of its strong, congenital commitment to ensure public life’. It will be interesting to study this community in the future. Regardless of whether real estate values continue to rise, it will be curious to see whether the citizenry is able to extend the bounty of community life – the rights of citizenship – to less fortunate, more socially isolated neighbours.

Urban quality has always been measured by the townspeople’s attention to the future of the physical environment. The purpose is to defend the identity of the place while preventing blight, as other anthropologists maintain, from impoverishing, generating ignorance and unleashing violence in the community. This is true of other nearby developments built by Disney for pure speculation. Ross’s book is enlightening, especially for those of us who have belittled utopia. We have invoked deregulation and done away with the master plan. Unable to construct communities, we treat tradition as a ponderous, anti-historical heritage. It is also instructive for both architects and civil servants, as Celebration’s urban scheme aims to revive public participation while overcoming architectural pipe dreams and cunning anti-planners.

Pierluigi Cervellati teaches urban rehabilitation and redevelopment at the Venice IUAV
Celebration promises utopia and delivers victorian style houses and parks
Celebration promises utopia and delivers victorian style houses and parks

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