Day 741: Welcome To The City Of The (Sorta) Future

originally published January 10, 2014

I will admit to a moderate love/hate relationship with Edmonton, the city where I would hang my hat were I hip enough to own a decent hat. The ‘hate’ stems mostly from the weather, as the recent “warming” trend to near-freezing temperatures mocks me and subtly reminds me we’re only two months in to our six-month dog-fight with winter. I’m also perturbed by the excessive number of jacked-up pickup trucks adorned with decorative metallic testicles, but that’s a kvetch for another day.

But put aside the redneck hickery, tuck in that atrocious neighborhood sprawl and set the perma-calendar to an eternal July and this is one of the finest places a person can plant roots. Like most cities, Edmonton has shifted and adapted with time. When some lucky schmuck discovered oil nearby, our little skyscrapers started poking at the sky. When they built our primary tourist attraction (a giant shopping mall) in the west end, the neighborhoods out that way spread their borders like an vinyl-sided virus.

With some cities, you saw what they were going to be on the side of the box. They were built (or were almost built) with a blueprint. A concept. A pre-ordained destiny. Maybe it’ll be sci-fi and futuristic, the utopian embrace our cold, alienated shoulders have been longing for. Maybe it will inspire a new era, a new reality in urban awareness. Or maybe it’ll just be creepy.

Welcome to Celebration, Florida.

If this quaint little strip of Americana looks too perfect to be real, well in a way it is. Located right around the corner from Walt Disney World near Orlando, Celebration is the brainchild of the Disney Development Company. It was built in the 1990’s with the aim of contradicting the perpetual state of sterility and individual isolation that has been suffocating American suburbs over the past few decades. The theme is neotraditionalism – pedestrian-friendly, intrinsically self-sustaining, and ideally the kind of place where you’ll actually want to meet your neighbors.

Cooper, Robertson & Partners, the urban design firm that carved out Battery Park City in lower Manhattan and worked for a tasteful expansion of Harvard University, were given the reigns to design Celebration. The look is classic Main Street, USA – a page out of the Disney book o’ dreams. The housing varies in density from McMansions down to more tightly-packed condos, but the feel is ‘cozy’, not ‘cramped’.

If living in a town owned by a multinational corporation freaks you out a little, don’t worry – Disney may still operate a number of shops in the downtown area and maybe they also run the telecom and energy utilities from somewhere inside the Magic Kingdom, but the land you’ll buy will be yours. Disney built the town, they don’t own it. Well, not all of it.

Most of the residents in Celebration really seem to dig the place. It’s as clean and flawless as any Disney park, the lawns are manicured and the flora is maintained by a meticulous crew. A stroll through Artisan Park might evoke notions of Pleasantville, or the more sinister faux-perfection of The Stepford Wives. But nothing sinister is afoot in Celebration. If there’s such thing as a Disney conspiracy, Celebration is not the powdered makeup façade covering it.

There are rumors of course. Some say Disney pays residents to walk their dogs regularly and to spend inordinate hours sitting on their porches and looking folksy. But this simply isn’t the case (I don’t think). As easy as it would be to pin an ulterior scheme or a malicious hidden intent upon the creation of Celebration, there doesn’t appear to be one. Under the watchful eye of Michael Eisner, Disney aimed to weave modern suburbia together with that ethereal small-town Americana charm that adults falsely recall from their youth, and they pulled it off. The people of Celebration are happy.

Or brainwashed. Someone needs to test that water supply.

No, I kid – if there’s a monster beneath Celebration’s surface it remains expertly hidden, so much so that it might not even exist. This may be the one of the finest constructed communities in the country, if you can afford to live there that is. It ain’t cheap to settle down in Celebration, and if your skin is any shade other than a shimmering alabaster (or a tanned version thereof), you’d best prepare yourself to be in the minority. 91% of the town’s 7427 residents are white and the median family income is over $90,000. There’s no ‘slumming it’ in Celebration.

The surface ‘perfection’ of Celebration is anything but a new dream. In the early 1960’s, while the space race was inspiring us to believe in the dream of a Jetsonian future of flying cars and multi-armed dressing robots, the folks at the University of Minnesota were ready to quit fantasizing and start building. Geophysicist and oceanographer Athelstan Spilhaus was dean of the school’s Institute of Technology, and his vision of the ideal city was realized in the Minnesota Experimental City, or ‘MXC’ before those letters referred to a weird Japanese game show.

Well, it would have been realized had the thing been built. Spilhaus pictured a geodesic dome over 60,000 acres of city with no cars permitted inside, a meagre 1/6th of the area paved (the rest would be parks and farms), and with its own branch of the local 3M Corporation and a U of M campus. He saw no need for schools, believing the city itself would foster sufficient lifelong learning, and that everyone would be both student and teacher forever. Also, waterless toilets. Spilhaus was big on the waterless toilet concept, whatever that was.

It’s no wonder this concept never received the necessary funding.

Seward’s Success might have been a futuristic dream-town near the southern shores of Alaska had it come to be. Just like Edmonton’s mid-century boom, the ambition behind Seward’s Success kicked off when oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. Tandy Industries of Tulsa, Oklahoma (I don’t know if this is the same Tandy that supplied Radio Shack with its toys back in the day) aimed to construct this future-burg just a couple miles away from Anchorage, connected to the city and airport via a high-speed monorail. Once again, no cars allowed in this dreamscape – only bikes, trams and people scooting along moving sidewalks.

A glass dome would keep the Alaskan elements at bay, maintaining a consistent room-temperature calm year-round. Oil companies would build the city and live under its protective transparent shell, and everyone would live happily in the future, but without all that robot uprising and super-intelligent ape-enslavement stuff.

It never happened, of course. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was delayed and eventually someone neglected to pay the lease on the land where Seward’s Success was to be built. The project was abandoned by 1972.

But Celebration, Florida proves that crazy dreams of a perfect community can be realized, or at least realized to a reasonable, non-domed, non-moving-sidewalked expectation. It ain’t utopia, but it’s a start.

And I’d probably dig the weather there.

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