Letter from a Community Networker: Celebration, Florida
First Monday

Letter from a Community Networker: Celebration, Florida

In 1986, when I was working in a suburban library in northern California, I took part in a telecommunications trial conducted by Pacific Bell (the regional telephone company) to test high speed connectivity to homes, businesses, and community institutions. Project Victoria was developed by the company to provide two voice lines and five data lines using an existing phone line and special equipment in the home and the central office. Some data lines were very slow and could be used to read meters, burglar alarms, and the fast one blazed at 9,600 bits per second! There were articles speculating whether online users could read that fast because most people were using modems that ran at 1,200 bps. All the users had access to a variety of commercial services that was very uncommon 14 years ago. One of the offerings was a multi-line electronic bulletin board on a DEC Microvax. Pacific Bell held a meeting at the library to see what people could contribute to the community information service. This BBS was more popular than most of the other more expensive services, and it fascinated me to see how an electronic tool could attract disparate elements in the community of Danville, California, to deliberate about content and possible uses. The technology was never deployed commercially because other rival companies challenged Pacific Bell as it tried to get into the content business and to provide its own customer premises equipment for new services.

In spite of this short-lived project, I was hooked. Many of us know that these online tools are useful to tie together affinity groups, associations, fan clubs, and far-flung project teams, but I was interested in how they were used to strengthen geographic communities. During the 1980's the Free-Net movement of community networks grew and by 1993 accounted for more online users in the United States than all but the top three commercial services at that time (AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe). At Apple Computer, I became involved in funding community networks in the United States and helped start an organization in 1997 called the Association For Community Networking.

Disney's Planned Community

Apple has had close ties with the Walt Disney Company which had begun diversifying from theme parks and movies in the 1980's. Long a dream of founder Walt Disney, the company had planned and was now building a very special development near Orlando, Florida. It would be based on five principles: health, education, technology, community, and place. Celebration was designed to be a town of about 20,000 with a world-class school, teaching academy, innovative architectural design, and, of course, an advanced electronic infrastructure for all the homes and businesses. The company hoped the Disney magic would work in Celebration as it had with its cartoons, movies and the theme parks. Many companies partnered with Disney. Apple was working with the school, and there was considerable traffic between the two companies. In May 1997, I visited Celebration, as part of a tour of other networking projects and conferences in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Appalachia, and Massachusetts.

The town interested me for several reasons: it was a very high profile manifestation of the neotraditional or New Urbanist style promoted by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the architects for Seaside, Florida. This movement was founded in the early 1980's by planners and architects who were unhappy with the suburban sprawl that characterized so much of post-war America. In the late 1990's I interpreted this movement as another reaction to the weakening of social capital, to use the phase popularized, but not originated, by Robert Putnam. Putnam has written about civic disengagement in America, and the communitarian movement was also concerned with this detrimental trend. The architects and planners asked if a change in the physical landscape could change the social landscape. Social scientists, journalists, geographers, planners, and computer networkers - all were looking for ways to reverse the perceived "loss of community" to use one of the more popular shorthand expression for a series of very complex processes. The Celebration Company (part of Disney) had integrated a plan for community networking - the electronic kind - into the great plan, and the town somehow had decided that they did not need a library (or hardware store). I wanted to find out more. How were these choices made? Why did they omit a public library from the original town?

When I returned from the short visit, Publisher's Weekly had already announced that two books about the town were in the works, and the authors were moving into Celebration. Late in 1999, both books were published, and I contacted the authors before and after reading their works. I had read articles by a number of journalists, many of who were critical of different elements of the planned town. Some of these were drive-by treatments of a very unusual place. The writers stayed no longer than I had in May 1997. There were the usual references to stagesets, theme park atmosphere, and the unreal feeling of the new development. Disney has always been known for its control over its projects, and I wondered how the company would behave when the customers did not end their relationship with the company after a ride on the Matterhorn and a viewing of The Lion King, but lived and worked in a town created by the company. In effect, they remained Disney customers as long as they were in Celebration.

My visit in 1997 made it clear that the customers/citizens were not spending huge amounts of time online. Even with the participation and facilitation by skilled volunteers like Scott Biehler (who figures prominently in both books), the residents did not use the community network very much. The public access points for the network were not that accessible, and even those homeowners who were taking part in the AT&T technology experiment were not heavy users. Both books provided other answers.

Two Books

I chose first to read Celebration, U.S.A: Living in Disney's Brave New Town by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, a husband and wife team, who, with their two school-age kids, fit the profile of the "average" Celebration buyer. Frantz writes for the New York Times and telecommuted from his new home. His family's experience was one I could imagine my own family having, and it rang true, from what I had seen and experienced and read. I trusted their reactions and felt I had a good idea of what their neighbors were like, the kinds of block parties they held, and some of the many controversies that the "pioneers" (as the early buyers thought of themselves) were enmeshed in. Collins was part of a small group that regularly met at a Celebration coffee shop, and this meeting became very important to her and to the book. The authors note that it was an example of "a great, good place" to use Ray Oldenburg's phrase. These are places that every town needs for its citizens to meet, to relax, and to talk. Many of them sprouted in the Celebration climate. Another small but important feature Frantz and Collins describe are the rocking chairs near the lake. I noticed them when I visited and had an interesting encounter with school kids as I sat in one. The chairs are not tied down, and the ability to move them, to regroup according to the needs of the people, was critical to fostering rich discussions. They note: "The chairs exemplified the idea that, in designing public spaces, the small things can matter the most." I then tackled Andrew Ross' The Celebration Chronicles, which placed the same events in a different context that was consistent with his other books on cultural criticism and leftist interpretations of recent history. Ross was on sabbatical from New York University. Ross, as well as the other authors, commented on the critical comments and jokes from friends who visited, facilely bashed suburban life and assumed that living in a Disney project would be without much substance or reward. The authors are sophisticated, world travelers, and they have lived in many places. I was heartened to find all the authors were sympathetic to the residents and provided a very wide range of opinions, quotes, and ideas from the residents, company and county government officials, but they are a little less sympathetic to Disney.

Ross explains what attracted him to the project:

"One of the reasons I had taken up residence there was that I believed there might be some lessons to be learned from Celebration about the direction of public life at the end of the century. Here, a giant beneficiary of the private marketplace entered the business of sponsoring the public realm and of infusing suburbia - the bastion of social and economic privacy - with a revived public spirit."

Ross had read about wired towns such as Telluride, Colorado, and Blacksburg, Virginia (where I had made grants in years past), and he thought he might discover in Celebration a "virtual republic of free speech."

They interviewed hundreds of people, young and old, all of who were aware of the plans for the books. Most of the residents were married and had children. Frantz and Collins viewed the community from that perspective. Ross, who is single, rented an apartment in the center of town and became very knowledgeable about happenings in town and was an informal conduit of information. The place was fueled by rumors because there was no newspaper (until early in 1999) and only a Celebration Company newsletter. The online system was used during some crises, and the design of the town encouraged face-to-face contact with neighbors on the block, downtown, and at meetings of affinity groups. From their descriptions I believe that the electronic tools were less important to most people, at least for community deliberation and decision-making. The physical design of the place and the newcomer's expectations about community and neighborly interaction made the e-tools redundant. Possibly, the rest of us live in places that are not conducive to a rich interchange except under special circumstances (a town hall meeting, PTA, political rally) and that we are relying more on e-mail, chat, computer conferencing to fill that void.

Did Celebration idealize the past and deny the problems in communities of yore? Celebration attracted many buyers because of the nostalgic imagery and architectural controls that were emphasized in the sales literature and videos before any house was built. All of the housing designs were at least 50 years old. As Frantz and Collins posed it, "Was Celebration selling nostalgia or peddling amnesia?" Route 192 leading into Celebration, which is lined with "neon thickets of fast-food shacks and discount malls" (Ross), featured a big billboard with a photograph of two girls exuberantly soaring on a garden swing. It looks like a clip from a Maxfield Parrish painting. The caption reads, "Isn't this reason enough for Celebration?" Ross quotes from the sales brochures:

"There once was a place where neighbors greeted neighbors in the quiet of summer twilight. Where children chased fireflies..."

"There is a place that takes you back to that time of innocence. A place where the biggest decision is whether to play Kick the Can or King of the Hill. A place of caramel apples and cotton candy, secret forts, and hopscotch on the streets..."

The sales video promoting the development also emphasized the world-class school that was being built, and this, as much as the promised sense of community, attracted many of the early buyers. Early on, two major crises emerged.

The two most serious figure prominently in both books: the poor quality of the housing construction and the divisive battles over the K-12 school. Disney planned for the town to be attractive to both buyers and renters of varying incomes, but they avoided including affordable housing in Celebration by paying the county a small sum that could be used for such housing in other parts of the county. Both rents and housing costs were very high. There were apartments over the stores in the downtown area, and wealthy buyers could spend a million dollars or more on a home. By early 1998, the average Celebration home would be selling for $377,300, which was about 40% more than surrounding top selling developments in central Florida. The initial demand for these homes and apartments was so great, TCC had to resort to a lottery in late 1995. However, as the lots sold quickly, the contractors were not able to hire enough skilled (or semi-skilled) labor and many buyers did not move in to their homes at the designated time. Worse, the construction of many of the houses was sub-standard. Some people gave up and moved away; others fought long and hard and eventually forced the builders to replace roofs, fix poorly drained lawns, and even rebuild a whole porch. The turmoil figures prominently in both works. It is hard to say how this compares with other new developments, but few others are in the spotlight the way the Disney project was. The second factor was the expectation that many buyers had about Disney's ability to do things right, fix what was wrong, and keep sprinkling "pixie dust" to make living in Celebration a magical experience. Because of the continuing interest by journalists, tourists, and other architects and city planners, the inhabitants grew accustomed to living in a fish bowl. The Celebration Company worried that disgruntled buyers would "run to the media", but this was tempered by the worry that bad publicity would decrease the investment individuals had made in their homes. To some extent, this encouraged the people to continue to struggle and not blab to the press, but the battles also divided the community, and some of these wounds were slow to heal. Indeed, a number of people moved away. One went on a media-run Internet chat site in 1997 to complain and tell his side of the story.

After the housing problems, the more divisive crisis has been the Celebration School. It is clear that many of the parents did not know much about the philosophical principles underpinning the pedagogy favored by the university consultants who planned the school. Not only was it a very constructivist and progressive plan that did not fit into parents' vague memories of their own schooling, but the building was not ready and the first students were in multi-age "neighborhoods" in a building designed for another purpose. The battles over the direction of the school were not just within Celebration. The school is public and part of the Osceola County school system, which lacked resources. Many county residents were irritated with the attention received by this school, the corporate largesse (Sun, Apple, AT&T) as well as the demands of the residents to the school board. Many seemed to resent, at some level, the new development and its inhabitants. This was one reason that the county may not have included a public library for Celebration. However, Frantz notes that few residents had bookshelves in their houses, and a small book club did not form until the fall of 1998.

Ross spent a lot of time helping at the school, and he got to know some of the slackers and disenchanted students as well as some of the very bright and engaged kids. He has some great profiles of the different personalities on the staff and the parents. His observations nicely complemented the nuclear family point of view we get from Frantz and Collins. Ross writes about "the affluent downshifter, tired of the corporate rat race and attuned to the spiritual value of alternatives." Some of their kids enjoyed imitating jerky animatrons - a staple of the Disney theme parks - on the main street of Celebration in order to confuse the visitors who still thought they were in a Disney theme park. Ross noted that if he appeared on his balcony, a visitor might point and say, "Oh, look, there's a real person." The residents struggled with their own ideas about what Celebration could be as well compared to what Disney had been promoting. This differed from the way the media defined the place, usually critically, and the lack of acceptance by the rest of the county made it more confusing. By the end of both books, many residents realized they had to begin to solve some of the problems themselves, and a real community, formed from adversity, was beginning to take shape. Both books solidified my opinion that this messy democratic process was not something Disney embraced. It cannot be codified, anticipated, or streamlined. Disney pulled back in its involvement with Celebration. It changed its views about the school, and I doubt if the corporation tries to duplicate this elsewhere. It reminded me of a large software project where the company has put in millions to develop and market a killer application but then decides to withdraw most support. The users are upset at first but then begin to pull together and make their own improvements, bug fixes, and find others ways to get support.

The authors left Celebration. Ross returned to New York University, and Frantz and Collins to Westport, Connecticut (and next year to Turkey). It is clear from the books that the people and the experience affected them and changed their outlook on what constitutes an ideal livable place in 21st century America. While it may not be Celebration, it would have some elements worth replicating in planned and unplanned developments.

Web sites on Celebration have come and gone over the past two years. The Institute for Disney Studies is a ghost site with a few papers critical of Disney and a bunch of dead links. Kathleen Hogan's 1998 thesis on Celebration is a good online introduction, and it includes many photographs. However, she is no longer at University of Virginia. The most up-to-date site is on a Canadian system where the links are valid, and Celebration citizens are using a Web-based bulletin board to discuss various topics related to the town that they could not do on their own community intranet. The education system continues to be the main topic of discussion. I suppose the volatility of the Web should not surprise me. Though people like Brewster Kahle are trying to archive the Web, these books may be the longest lasting record of what happened in the early days of this (choose one) development/community/utopia. Aside from the town itself.

About the Author

Steve Cisler is a consultant whose background is in public and special libraries. He has been a teacher in the Peace Corps, a wine maker and search and rescue coordinator in the Coast Guard. Now he focuses on public access projects and community computing projects in the United States and developing countries. He is currently working with Tachyon, Inc., an Internet services carrier using Ku band satellite for high speed access. He has written for Online, Database, American Libraries, Library Journal, and Wired. Steve has two sons and lives with his wife in San José, California.
E-mail: cisler@pobox.com

Contents Index

Copyright © 1999, First Monday

Letter from a Community Networker: Celebration, Florida by Steve Cisler
First Monday, volume 4, number 11 (November 1999),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_11/cisler/index.html

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