Out With the New, In With the Old

In Minneapolis and elsewhere, proponents of the New Urbanist planning movement are promising a new tomorrow -- one that looks a lot like yesterday.

"It's a fantasy, based on an imagined past," says Martinson. "It does not deal with the typical concerns of urban people--I'm talking about the kinds of people who are not saying that they really want a front porch, or they want to talk with the neighbors more. They're saying, 'I can't find a decent job, I can't afford this place, and what if my kid gets sick?' Architecture can make a difference, but not in those areas." But it's a mark of architectural hubris for those in the profession to believe otherwise. As Muschamp observed, "Modern architects created machine-age images of 'rational' cities that, when actually built, often functioned miserably. The New Urbanists may be producing architecture for the Prozac age: Potemkin villages for dysfunctional families."

It seems weirdly appropriate that Seaside, Florida, often cited as the birthplace of the New Urbanism, was built during Reagan's Morning in America. It was intended to be a folksy village of beach cottages, the kind of place where families would gather for generations; it also happened that a lot of the "cottages" are more what most people would call mansions. And after 15 years, even the most modest of them fetch upwards of half a million dollars on the market. Part of that owes to the fact that Seaside is a resort town; the brand-new Celebration, on the other hand, is designed to be a workaday place, although that doesn't mean it's within the reach of most workaday Americans.

Celebration's "cottage" homes start at $200,000, and slightly larger "village" models at $275,000. On the outside, they're scrupulously designed in keeping with historical styles, but these houses show a quite different face on the inside, where they boast entertainment centers and cathedral ceilings, tucked-away master suites and oversized kitchens with islands. Needless to say, "Celebration isn't for everyone," as an attendant at one of the model homes noted. She was referring to the tiny (some might say cramped) lot sizes, but could just as easily have been talking about economic exclusivity.

Celebration is for those who can afford the finer things in life, which now include living in a community with a carefully created "sense of" place and "sense of" community. (Just add people, and presumably those qualifiers will go away.) It's reconstituted small-town style with a fresh-squeezed price. All this jus' folks modesty and determined middle-classness and neo-traditional normality seems downright false for a small town that has no "wrong side of the tracks," but does have a notable preponderance of late-model luxury cars on its streets.

Granted, New Urbanism does not begin and end with Seaside and Disney's live-in theme park, but they do make neat bookends for the history of the movement so far--and they do point to where it seems headed, despite the best intentions of its proponents.

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