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Townmouse

Disney's controlled experiment in small-town life is both a little Utopia and a breed of fascism. But mostly, there's not enough there there.

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The Celebration Chronicles
By Andrew Ross
Ballantine; 340 pages; $25.95

Celebration, U.S.A.
By Douglas Frantz And Catherine Collins
Henry Holt; 342 pages; $25

Whether or not you can't go home again, Americans keep trying, strapped to a wheel of nostalgia and idealism, desire and regret. It's the engine that propelled the Mayflower, settled the West, elected half our presidents, and built the Florida town of Celebration, the Disney-engineered embodiment of a long-lost ice-cream utopia where, according to the promotional literature, "neighbors greeted neighbors in the quiet of summer twilight," "children chased fireflies," and "porch swings provided easy refuge from the care of the day." From the moment the town broke ground in the mid-nineties, it held out something for everyone. To cynics, it represented a sort of sentimental totalitarianism, a pastel bubble world. To believers, it offered the civic equivalent of a seedless orange, a thornless rose. And to writers, it offered something even more valuable: a heat-and-serve, prepackaged controversy. No wonder, then, that not one but three reporters moved in immediately to get a story whose general outline was fixed from the beginning: Disney promises everything, delivers only some things.

The result is two simultaneously published books: The Celebration Chronicles, by Andrew Ross, an American-studies professor, and Celebration, U.S.A., by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, a married team of newspaper reporters. Both books are live-in, from-the-field dispatches, compiling the experience of lengthy stays inside the mouse-eared pleasure dome, but they come to different conclusions from different angles, using different tools. Ross is the long-winded social critic, all dialectics and poli-sci abstraction, the kind of thinker who goes to buy a lemon and returns with a footnoted thesis on migrant farm labor. Frantz and Collins are spiral-notebook literalists, more interested in scenes than in sociology. Neither book gives the full story on Celebration, but between them they pretty much exhaust a subject that is fairly easily exhausted.

Ross is the more detached observer. Descending from the academic Olympus of an NYU department director, he rents a small apartment in Celebration as though he were pitching a tent in tribal New Guinea. A funky urbanite, he first confesses his love of Greenwich Village and then assures us, repeatedly, that he will take Celebration on its own terms, resisting the impulse to preach or patronize while leaving the distinct impression throughout that he could if he wanted to. The outlines of the town itself only slowly become visible through the thickets of his wisteria sentences. Before we even know where we are, we're finding out what it means to be there: "At a time when urban contact is so often simulated in bogus portrayals of public space like Universal Studios' City Walk in Los Angeles (and now in Orlando), real places like Celebration that are built to champion public interaction are surely a step in a better direction." This bit of faint praise aside, Ross's biases are clear, despite his disclaimers about open-mindedness and his tone of grad-school erudition. Built by low-paid workers and marketed by well-paid managers to an overextended middle class, Celebration is mired in political original sin.

Artistic sin, too: "It was in the service of the Mouse that postmodernism found its most dependable employer." Architectural whimsy doesn't amuse Ross, who catches whiffs of capitalist excess and aesthetic decadence in Celebration's faux dormers and hollow columns. He's delighted when shoddy home-construction practices occasion the town's first burst of civic outrage. Also a sham, he reveals, is Disney's promise to wire the town through a high-tech intranet. The network fails to function as advertised, bogged down by inadequate budgets, poor design, and a presumed reluctance by corporate bigwigs to create a high-speed forum for potential discontent and grass-roots activism. That Celebration is not the Berkeley campus circa 1968 never fails to disappoint Ross, whose subtitle for the book is Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney's New Town. His discomfort with the very notion of homeowning as a form of private investment rather than a scheme for social justice rigs the game from the start, and watching Ross kick a deflated ball around grows tiring after a while.

The only plot development of consequence during Ross's stay in Celebration involves the near disintegration of its experimental public school. Hyped to the skies as a New Age learning center where students can progress at their own pace without the distraction of grades and formal lesson plans, the school soon enrages the town's conservative parents. Fearing their kids aren't being prepared for college, they organize town meetings, make demands. Teachers resign and are eased out. Chaos reigns. Ross praises the tumult as democracy in action, but sympathizes with the embattled visionaries and derides the parents as philistine consumerists unduly concerned with their children's earning potentials. Easy for him to say; he doesn't have kids. Ross blows up the brouhaha into an allegory for the betrayal of liberalism itself, and finds the book's only hero amid the strife: a rebellious teenage boy who naïvely models Ross's own views. The kid is the only human being in town.

Frantz and Collins, who did have kids enrolled in Celebration's school, treat the controversy more casually, as a messy day in the life. After reading Ross's version of the battle, so full of dark portent, one wonders if Frantz and Collins were on sedatives during their residency, or if maybe Ross was on speed. Their wish to know what their kids are being taught seems simple enough, and hardly reactionary. Then again, Frantz and Collins, who moved to Celebration to make a home and not just set up an observation outpost, do come off as uncommonly complacent. At one point, a local clergyman gives a speech to a community gathering and his text is censored by Disney honchos who discern negativity between the lines. Frantz and Collins don't raise an eyebrow. Like the majority of their neighbors, they seem perfectly willing to submit to pages of ordinances, codes, and bylaws governing everything from window treatments to the disposition of junk cars. Exchanging freedom for security, self-expression for stability, strikes them as a generally good deal, however philosophically troubling. They're happy in Celebration. In fact, at times, they're positively effusive, chowing down at cheery block parties, blabbing away the morning at the coffee shop, and chatting familiarly about their friends as if we knew them, too. In the end, their passivity is as wearying as Ross's intensity.

Click here to buy "The Celebration Chronicles" from Amazon.
Click here to buy "Celebration, U.S.A." from Amazon.


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