April 2011 Newsletter

Celebration sprang up on the land like the blossoms of this season, an aspiring front porch republic of sorts. Since the community’s inception, realtors have emphasized the “welcoming front porches” that “encourage activity in the front yard.” Celebration also maintains a community internet service, provided to all residents and local businesses, named “Celebration Front Porch.”

By many front-porcher metrics, the Celebration experiment has been a success. Disney divested control of the town early on, and residents clamored to take control of government, schools, and community organizations.  By all accounts, the town’s religious institutions are vibrant places. Associational life has flourished in Celebration from the beginning, and those well-designed public spaces are always busy. (Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins describe this and more in their terrific book about the town’s early years, Celebration U.S.A.)

Yet the vast majority of Celebration’s residents are and always have been commuters, a signal of how much the modern economy opposes the realization of self-sufficient and self-governing communities.

The mosquitoes of central Florida – at times bearing encephalitis, as Andrew Ross notes in The Celebration Chronicles – have plagued Celebration from day one, challenging its much-ballyhooed porch life and reminding us that throwing up a town in Florida swamplands is very much a manifestation of the modern project to master nature, not its corrective. Ross also points out that Celebration cannot be understood outside the context of Florida’s ecologically irresponsible 1990s development boom and the quest for property values (that, perhaps needless to say, do not always square with human values). It is a place without a true sense of place.

And despite the initial vision of Celebration as a mixed-income community, it’s hard to find a house there now for less than half a million dollars. (In 2009, the mean price for homes in Celebration, including condos and townhomes, was close to $700,000.) Although it does not have the feel of most gated communities, effectively Celebration is – like many of the municipalities in this country that still maintain high-quality public services and have a thriving downtown – gated to all but the wealthy.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, it’s hard to celebrate Celebration. It is inseparable from the worst of present-day American life even as it appeals to some of our better instincts.

But I wonder if in the spirit of this season, the season of hope, there is at least some small encouragement to be taken from Celebration – the fact that even in this unhospitable time, people seize the chance to live in relatively hospitable places.

~Susan McWilliams


On the Nightstand

“Read it,” my friend commanded, handing me Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  “What is it about?” I asked.  “Read it,” she repeated.

Obediently I began to read, quckly losing myself in the lyrical prose that seemed as much meditation as story.  Within a few pages I understood both my friends’ evangelical enthusiasm, and her refusal to offer a synopsis. But, as you probably trust me less than I trusted her, I’ll try to offer a little bit more than just “read it”.

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