A Perfect Mess

I could never live in one of those neighborhoods where all the houses are identical. I could never even live in an area with a homeowner’s association. I’m full of too many quirks and perfect imperfections. That, and I resent authority. Nobody is going to tell me what color to paint my mailbox.

But I must admit that I’ve been fascinated with New Urbanism as a concept ever since I saw the movie The Truman Show, which was filmed in Seaside, Florida. New Urbanism consists of meticulously planned communities that give off this 1950’s vibe of perfection that never actually existed. Spotless, flawless homes with spotless, flawless yards and spotless, flawless streets, restaurants, and shopping areas. Mixed-use buildings with cute little high-end shops and condominiums. A place where all the movies are rated G, and all the neighbors look exactly like you.

I love visiting these places because they are the embodiment of Trump’s idea of what a great America used to look like. It’s like peering into a misguided fantasy. It’s hard to look away.

These places are so immaculate and unblemished that they are disturbing, in the way that robots designed to look like humans are disturbing. You look into their smiling, robotic faces and you know that there’s no “there” there. Beneath the surface, something is extremely not human.

I visited the planned community of Celebration, Florida a few times. It was fun, in a voyeuristic kind of way. I blogged about it and places like it in a post called “Too Perfect.”

When I go to one of these communities, I’m impressed by their beauty, but at the same time I’m constantly on edge. I’m afraid I’ll scuff the sidewalk or something, and these men in white coats will burst from the bushes and carry me away. There’s an underlying tension required to maintain perfection, and that makes it unpleasant.

I can just imagine the neighborly infighting. “The third slat on Mr. Jones’ white picket fence is 1 degree off center. This is not to be borne. We need to report him.”

It’s unsettling to gaze upon perfection and yet be unable to shake the feeling that just below the thin veneer, there’s some kind of moral decay. Or maybe even a physical decay. And so it was that I wasn’t overly shocked to read an article entitled, “Celebration, Florida: How Disney’s ‘Community of Tomorrow’ Became a Total Nightmare”.

It seems that many of the residents of this community have filed a lawsuit, because the place is, in fact, falling apart. Disney sold much of Celebration to a private equity firm in 2004, and ever since then, Celebrationites claim that this firm has been pocketing homeowners dues and not making any repairs whatsoever. There’s so much water and termite damage that some people have had to leave, or put up with swathes of black mold, swaying floors, and unusable stairways. The firm is also threatening to slap the homeowners with fees that are higher than the original price of their residences, all while their property values decline.

It must be awful to think you’re investing in perfection, only to discover that, even in that magical place, human greed and incompetence still rises to the surface to muck everything up. That would be like gazing upon the forbidden fruit, and then realizing that, if not nurtured, it can rot before it’s even harvested, just like all the other produce in the world.

I wish these people good luck with their lawsuit, but I think their dream was inherently flawed in the first place. I’ll take my one of a kind, unregulated home any day.

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Too Perfect

If you’ve seen the movie The Truman Show, you have experienced Seaside, Florida in all its creepy perfection. I have never been there myself, but I have been to Celebration, Florida, which is another perfectly planned little hamlet. These places are cool to visit, but they kind of give me the willies.

Seaside, Florida [Image credit: misfitsarchitecture.com]
Seaside, Florida [Image credit: misfitsarchitecture.com]

These communities are regulated in the extreme. Individuality is very discouraged. The houses can only be a certain style and a certain range of colors. Your white picket fence must be of a particular design. And forget about unique landscaping. Seaside and Celebration are the Stepford Wives of communities, even more so than your typical neighborhoods with homeowners associations.

I am thinking of these places because recently I drove through Port Gamble, Washington. Port Gamble was established in 1853, and looks as if it has been frozen in time. The Victorian houses, many of them identical, are in pristine condition, and there’s one continuous white picket fence along the length of the main street. There are also some touristy shops, but we didn’t stop.

The reason we didn’t stop is that I got the shivers just driving through the place. Yes, it’s charming, and each building, if by itself, would be a delight. But as you drive through there, you start to notice that there’s a distinct absence of humans. And all the blinds are drawn. I could easily imagine an FLDS polygamist cult occupying the town, or an extended family of zombies. It’s downright disturbing. I wouldn’t want to be caught there after dark. It felt like an extremely sanitized ghost town.

Port Gamble's perfect little church.
Port Gamble’s perfect little church.
Port Gamble's perfect little picket fence. Taken from the safety of my car. With the window rolled up.
Port Gamble’s perfect little picket fence. Taken from the safety of my car. With the window rolled up.

I genuinely think that there’s such a thing as too much perfection. Humanity lies in the flaws; in the peeling paint and the tacky lawn flamingoes. When people start marching in lockstep, they seem robotic. When they force their surroundings to do the same, it feels otherworldly. I would definitely not thrive in that environment. It’s too much about appearances and what the neighbors think.