Saturday, July 03, 2004

The Cornerstones

Once upon a time, back when Disney was in charge of the marketing material, there were five cornerstones upon which Celebration was based: Community, Education, Health, Place, and Technology. Their definitions of these cornerstones and the way in which they would supposedly be worked into everyday life was quite lofty.

For example, Health would mean more than just having a hospital close by in case of illness and emergency. It would go beyond the curing of illness, to encompass wellness as a lifestyle and to encourage staying fit and healthy. The hospital itself features a health club, and miles of walking/biking paths run throughout the town as a testament to that cornerstone.

Community was, of course, meant to be that sense of closeness and neighborliness that is missing in so many suburbs today. Block parties, clubs, and community events were aimed at bringing people together. I think Place was meant to go hand in hand with this cornerstone, as that sense of community would foster a sense of pride in our hometown. Many communities in Florida have a transient feel due to the number of part-time residents who use their homes only for wintering or vacations. Originally, Celebration had rules to ensure that it would be its residents' primary home.

Technology was the pie in the sky promise that every home in Celebration would be wired, as would schools and offices. Children at school would be able to instantly call up information on the web to enhance their learning experience, and their parents would be able to check their assignments and grades online.

Speaking of technology in the schools, I suppose that could link up with the Education cornerstone too. That was perhaps one of the biggest promises and expectations of this town. Kids would attend the same school from kindergarten through senior year of high school, and each child would live up to their full potential as they were guided by the lastest and most innovative learning techniques.

Unfortunately, those promises soon hit the hard brick wall of reality. Perhaps the most famous failure was Education. I won't go into all the sordid details, as they have been covered in enough books and newspapers, including the "Wall Street Journal." But let's just say that multi-age "neighborhoods" and a lack of textbooks, structured assignments, and grades worked about as well as "open classrooms" (i.e. classrooms without walls) did in the 1970s.

The Education controversy continues to this day, and the vision of that original cornerstone has been altered and changed to a version that bears little resemblence to the old ideas. The school now employs more traditional methods, and now it only goes up to eighth grade. The Celebration High School is now in its second year for ninth through twelfth, and it has been the instigator of many controversies of its own.

Technology didn't come to fruition in quite the way it was planned, either. The school didn't use computers in the ways envisioned in the initial lofty plans, and the homes are no more wired that those in comparable communities.

We do have the hospital with its fitness center to assist us on the road to Health, and the walking paths too, but I don't know just how seriously the concept is taken. Before the law against electric and gas powered scooters was enforced, I would chuckle at the sight of overweight youngsters zipping around town on their motorized toys. And why use a walking path to get downtown when you can hop in the NEV, or even the Hummer, and drive there so much faster?

Community and Place have their controversies, too. Rather than being known as Celebration, we are often thought of as "The Disney Town." In the eyes of many outsiders, we're not a community in our own right, but just an extension of the theme parks and resort next door. And there have been squabbles between home owners and renters, full time residents and snowbirds, and other "us" and "them" feuds that seem to go against the sense of one big happy "family." Interest in community events is dying down, as evidenced by the recent demise of the "Lights & Lemonade" committee, due to declining attendance at their events.

And does that all really matter? After all, how many brand new residents even know what the cornerstones are? What was once a backbone of the original Celebration marketing campaign has now been reduced to an afterthought.

Sure, that may sound bleak, but I would like to propose that the cornerstones are not forgotten after all. Sure, they may have morphed beyond something that looked good to present to prospective home owners once upon a time. And no, they're probably not what the original planners and the marketing folks at Disney originally had in mind.

But we're not like a theme park attraction. Real people in a real town don't always grow according to the rules and go in the direction they were set upon. I think that we've tailored those cornerstones into something that works for us and fits into our everyday lives. If you look around you, you'll see all five of them alive and well in Celebration 2004.

For example:

Education: Yes, this one is controversial, but that very controversy shows just how important it is to this town. If people didn't care so deeply about ensuring that their children get the best education possible, the conflicts and disagreements wouldn't exist. Whether it's caring enough to put your child in a private school or to band together with others to change the public school, it's obvious that education matters in Celebration. When people stop caring, the cornerstone of Eucation crumbles. This has happened too often at other schools, but there is no danger of it happening here.

The high school has been another educational adventure, but sometimes I think that the parents get more bent out of shape than the kids. There was a lot of worry because of the influx of teens from outside of town, but other than a few incidents, things seem to be going as well as you might expect from any similar school. The kids I've talked to often wonder what all the grown-up fuss is about. They are proud of their school and are showing how wonderfully adaptive young people really are.

As for Health, now that the motorized scooters have all but disappered from our town, I see kids riding bikes and skateboarding again. It's great to see them out in the sunshine and doing something healthy. When I was a kid, I would leave the house in the morning on my bike and not return until dusk forced me back inside. I can't even imagine how many miles I pedaled, and I never thought of it as "work" or physical labor. Back then, it was known as "having fun," and it didn't require a motor.

And there are lots of adults who seem to care about health too. My husband and I love to bicycle for miles through town, and we see many other bicyclists and joggers out and about every day. Celebration has several pools, and I almost always see a few intrepid lap swimmers dodging their way around the splashing bodies.

Technology exists here, too...not in the futuristic way that was promised, but it has taken an interesting turn. Celebration residents all have access to "The Front Porch," a community intranet that is as lively as any in-person discussion with your neighbors. It features information about events (parades, craft shows, and the like), activities (sports, exercise classes, club meetings), and newsworthy items (like when one of the pools is closed due to a kid's "Winnie the Poo" accident).

But the best part of "The Front Porch" is the discussion forums. In this Age of the Internet, people don't gather outside in the oppressive Florida heat to gossip. They do it right at their keyboards. Some of the discussions get heated to the point of scariness, but most of them stay within reasonable boundaries.

Of course, the forums are also used for more mundane but useful purposes. If you've lost or found a pet, have something to sell or give away, or are looking for some kind of recommendation, post it and your neighbors will be happy to assist.

For every Front Porch there is a Back Fence, and that would have to be It is not an official Celebration website, and, unlike the Front Porch, posters on its forums can choose to remain anonymous. For this reason, it tends to be a lot more free-wheeling. It is moderated, so it doesn't get too crazy, but it definitely offers the online equivalent of back fence gossip. Or maybe it's more like the 2004 equivalent of the old days, when people would climb on a soap box in the park and spout off about the topic of their choosing (or maybe that's actually known as "blogging" now, ha ha).

The only bad thing about the Technology cornerstone as it has manifested itself in Celebration is that it is not community-wide. I suspect that only a small percentage of residents actually visit the Front Porch. I have met some who don't even know it exists, and some who have signed up for it but who have no clue on how to access it. Still, for web savvy people, it's great.

The Celebration online forums also offer a New Millenium version of Community. There are people who I've never met face to face, but I feel like I know them based on reading their posts. There are some whose identity I don't even know; all I know is a screen name from, but I still feel that sense of "knowing," and they are still vocal and valued members of our virtual community.

Community exists in the real sense, too. Sure, some organizations are folding, but others, like Neighborhood Watch, are springing up, and plenty of residents are active in putting together community events. We've had wonderful block parties here in East Village, and Celebration-wide events like Founders Day are still well-attended. Neighborliness is a way of life unlike anything I experienced at my last home. I hardly knew my neighbors there, even though I'd lived in the same building for a decade. In Celebration, I've made wonderful new friends within a month of moving in.

I believe that Place is going to increase as we come into our own as a real town; that's what we are, despite how outsiders perceive us, and that is especially true now that control has been turned over from Disney and into the hands of the people. Sure, we live on what used to be Disney property, and it's darned nice to live so close to the parks, but that isn't the main feature that defines us. I'm not sure what exactly does, but I think that we're in the process of finding that out.

That's my take on the Cornerstones, for what it's worth. I suspect that, as more time passes, the memory of their existence as an "official" entity might fade away. But even when they're gone as official concepts, they will linger as tangible parts of life in Celebration that will grow and evolve as we ourselves grow and evolve as a town.

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