As belts tighten and paradigms shift, families are leaving the American Dream of previous generations and abandoning their manicured cul-de-sacs in search of something more. They’re trading in their McMansions for quaint bungalows and loft apartments as they look for more livable communities with civically engaging gay neighbors with Asian babies.
“Angel-headed hipsters” have made gentrification cool as they mingle with ethnic neighborhoods and buy up cheap homes to start their skinny-jeaned families in. Affordable housing is vital to the overall health of cities and without it a large demographic of the work force is not able to participate in the greater economic picture.
As today’s urban planners are so fond of saying, “People need to be able to live close to where they work” and “New Urbanism, ra ra ra”. The days of commuting are coming to an end as gas prices soar and livable wages sink. Historically there have been many attempts to solve the issue of affordable housing but most of these experiments have fallen flat (holler atcha Pruitt Igoe). Yet there seems to be a trend that has been overlooked in our civic history, and that is the case of the Company Town.
Ancient Egypt provides one of the oldest templates for affordable housing as the pharaohs and their architects provided entire districts of base adobe shelter for their artisans. Clearly since they were pre-automobile, mobility for the workers was dependent on their sandaled feet. These artisan districts were located in areas where these workers could access parts of the city that were vital to their survival; markets, well water, or their local gay bar (toga party!).
In the more recent past, like in the 19th century, industries would provide company sponsored housing for their workers in close proximity to their source of employment. Traditionally these were extractive industries like lumber or coal. Citizens in these factory towns would either work in the plant or make a living by servicing those who did.
One of the most famous company towns was Pullman, Chicago. Pullman owned everything; housing, markets, the library, churches, and the entertainment. I imagine the Pullman story was something like playing monopoly all by yourself… tilted top hat, twirling your mustache, and stacking your paper money into neat piles. If you worked in Pullman, you had to live in Pullman, even though it was far cheaper to live in one of the neighboring communities.
This is a model that is still at work today, most notably at Walt Disney World.
Much like a factory town, Lake Buena Vista is centered on a large production engine; the parks. The bulk of people living in the area are working directly for Disney or they are servicing those who do, much like in Pullman. There is a lack of single family homes in Lake Buena Vista as it favors the tourism industry and the transitory work force that follows it. Lake Buena Vista is primarily a rental market, surrounded by a sea of time shares, condos, hotels, and is home to Walt Disney’s staff accommodation compounds; Vista Way Apartments, The Commons, Chatham, and Patterson Court.
These residences house around 8,000 students at any one time, and about 25,000 people a year. Most of these residents are between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. Three quarters of those workers are in Orlando for a three month contract through their college, while the rest are mostly there on the International Program which provides all of the “authentic” foreigners for Epcot’s World Showcase. I myself paid my way through college by saying “EH” to tourists while serving them over-priced steak.
The College Program participants make a little more than minimum wage, whereas the International participants make slightly less. The cost of their rent depends on how many people live in the apartment which is in increments of 8, 6, 4, and 2. Depending on how many roommates you have the cost of your rent changes respectively and then is withdrawn from your company bank account on pay day. The residences come equipped with a gym, laundry facilities, and transportation to and from work on the company bus system, and the entire facility is walled and patrolled by a 24-hour security force.
The Housing Office checks the apartments to ensure that they are being cleaned regularly. If the apartment is found to be less than ideal, the residents are issued a citation, upon the third citation they are expelled from the apartment. Yet if you lose your housing, you also lose your job.
Guests to the apartment complexes must be signed in by a resident and then leave the premises by 1 a.m. If the guest is discovered on property after hours, they are seized and sometimes turned over to state police for trespassing, resulting in the termination of the employee who signed them in. A percentage of the housing units are labeled “Wellness Apartments” in a futile attempt to curb underage drinking. Residents who are under the age of 21 live in these apartments and are forbidden to have alcohol in their rooms. If any is found, their contract with the company is terminated.
Over the years, security has become wound so tightly that they have outlawed anything that posed a potential threat: squirt guns, plants on balconies, no window hangings; all windows are bolted shut, so they can’t be opened. I once saw someone receive a citation for playing their guitar next to an open window for violating noise ordinances. Remember, three citations and you’re… terminated and don’t listen to Arnold, because you won’t be back. In fact according to your Disney owned Visa, you have to be out of the country within 24 hours of being fired, hope you managed to save some money while working on that popcorn cart!
These students are essentially migrant workers, traveling to Florida to work for short periods of time for low pay. Fort the bulk of 2009 Disney World was on a hiring freeze due to the recession. They were severely understaffed yet they continued to offer all of their regular services. Most employees were working without days off, and on mandatory overtime. In the latter part of the year there were a number of fatalities linked to exhaustion, most notably the death of a monorail driver on the College Program, who was on the tail end of his seventh 14-hour long shift at the wheel. Those in Food and Beverage often work 12 hour long days with little to no break because there is nobody there to cover them while they eat their lunch.
Recreation is encouraged but since the majority of these students don’t have a car, their options are sorely limited. Employee buses run hourly to the parks, so most of these workers go to the parks on their day off. They work six days a week, pay for their rent, and then go to the parks where they work. By following the money alone, the trail points to many similarities between Disney and Pullman’s philosophies. These people live and work together 24 hours a day, with nowhere to adequately blow off steam and reconnect with themselves as people rather than employees. It’s no wonder that the most successful businesses in the area are the bars (Howl at the Moon anyone?).
Social order is derived from a labor routine; isolation is imposed by company rules and policies restricting free time and the expenditure of disposable income. These situations are completely un-American, but since its foreigners and college students doing the time, and service jobs aren’t seen as “real” jobs nobody seems to care. Most people think that the factory town is a sad backdrop for newspaper selling street urchins on Broadway, that our more liberal interpretations of property and civil rights have made the concept of a company-owned life too absurd for today’s America… well apparently we’ve all be had by the hardest working American Dream selling machine itself; Walt Disney World.
This piece was originally published in Orlando Weekly’s “WTF, Orlando?” issue in 2012