The legislative act that helped Disney build Disney World in Florida

Corporations, sports teams, and developers ask for or make use of tax breaks or monies or land opportunities provided by governments. Walt Disney benefited from a 1967 act by the Florida legislature:

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The Reedy Creek Development Act can be traced back to 1967.

It was a pivotal negotiating factor in convincing Disney to locate his company in Florida and allows the company to do just about whatever it wants on its land.

“The ability, the power to build a nuclear power plant, an airport manufacturer, distill and distribute alcoholic beverages and lots of other things,” said Dr. Richard Foglesong, author of “Married to the Mouse” in an interview with WFTV in 2021.

Many would love to have this kind of freedom to do what they want with a large property. In contrast to what was possible through this act, many property owners would have to apply to local governments for uses of the property beyond what is allowed through the local zoning.

If leaders in Florida follow through with revoking this act and Disney wants to go elsewhere, does this shape up to be a second Amazon HQ #2 situation? Or, does Disney have a lot fewer possible locations to go to given its need for a lot of land and good weather?

Quick Review: Can’t Get You Out of My Head

The six part documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World captures well the foreboding and confusion of our current moment at the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century. Here are a few thoughts on what I found to be a thought-provoking and interesting watch:

  1. The general premise is that the freedom, prosperity, and joy that was supposed to come with the ascension of liberal democracy and individualism at the end of the twentieth century did not come. Indeed, it may have led to new and more troubling questions. The sweep of history is limited to roughly the last 100 years but there is a lot to consider over the six episodes. Even if you do not agree with the argument, there are a number of threads and points of information that may be new and/or have not always been put together in such ways.
  2. The construction of the documentary adds to the foreboding as its intersperses multiple threads across different countries, montages of images set to generally upbeat pop music, and a dark instrumental soundtrack.
  3. That this work is not from an American point of view and includes important actors from around the globe is very important. There were things I had not known before. I know the American perspective on the world is very biased and yet my daily reading is almost exclusively in this realm. At the same time, the documentary is still from an Anglo perspective and it would be worthwhile to hear form voices elsewhere on what is chooses to say and show and what it does not address.
  4. Just as an example of one of the important questions raised: what happens if a democratic people elect or support an undemocratic leader? More specifically, what do the cultural and political elites do in such a moment? In the current populist period, this is a real conundrum.
  5. One thing I appreciate is the interest in thinking across contexts and time. I would argue we need more work that tries to pull together multiple strands from around the globe across big chunks of time. Put this documentary series next to Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything and there may be some patterns worth considering.

While I finished watching this several months ago, the title is correct: I cannot get some of the ideas and images out of my head.

What exactly makes for an “unscripted series”? The case of Flip or Flop

In an announcement about the end of HGTV’s Flip or Flop, the network said the show was an “unscripted series”:

“Tarek El Moussa and Christina Haack are long-time, fan-favorite stars on HGTV and it’s true that ‘Flip or Flop’ is coming to an end after an epic 10-season run as a top-rated unscripted series,” a representative for HGTV said in a statement to Insider. “More than 90 million viewers have watched the popular series since its premiere in 2013.

When this show is described as “unscripted,” what exactly does this mean?

Having watched a lot of episodes, here is my guess: there is not necessarily a set script for every episode. At the same time, the producers, El Moussa, and Haack make sure there are narrative elements to build an episode around including crises or cliffhangers for commercial breaks, summaries of the work at hand, and reshoots to get the right angles and lines.

When the typical viewer hears “unscripted,” is this what they imagine? It does not mean that the main actors just do their business, cameras are rolling, and they piece it together at the end. Does any reality show come close to that these days? However, there is likely some wiggle room of how much can be improvised or how much the main characters can get right in the first pass.

Save the farm from turning into McMansions by writing a song

Tennessee’s 11th state song – “I’ll Leave My Heart in Tennessee” – was inspired by a threat of McMansions in a Nashville suburb. According to the writer of the song:

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So, I sold the farm and horses and moved into the beautiful suburb of Brentwood where I was on only an acre of land. It was great but not me, as I grew up in a rural area and loved the farm. I so missed walking the land.

In 2004, when I wrote the song, the only bucolic land in Brentwood was a 250-acre farm called Green Pastures on the corner of Franklin Road and Concord, owned by the Turner family (Dollar General/etc). They boarded horses there and a friend ended up bequeathing me a gorgeous six-year -old paint mare and said he would pay for its care if I got it ready to ride for his daughter someday. It was a beautiful compromise to living in the suburb yet having a masterpiece of a farm three miles down the road. Everyone there just loved it, and it was a close group of people who boarded there. Many said it was what kept them sane going through divorces or cancer, etc. Horses really are healing creatures…. especially when you don’t have to pay for them! It was such a gift to go out there and ride on the property or just hang out there with the horses and boarders. It was a family.

Well, at one point, developers (‘damn those developers they’re cold and heartless’) got the ear of the Turners and they were going to sell it off to put up what we called McMansions…. the LAST thing Brentwood needed. It went so far as to have a huge sign with the plans and everything. The barn family was of course heartbroken. So, I said, ‘Let’s at least try and see if we can have them save at least part of the property.’ I suggested we put a digital scrapbook together with each boarder having two pages of pictures and what the place meant to them. Underneath I put the song I’ll Leave My Heart In Tennessee. We gave it to the Turners and were told they cried when they watched it. I’m not saying my idea was the only reason they decided to stop the development, but I do think it may have been the catalyst/last straw to validate what a unique place they had.

They helped SO many people PLUS just driving by and looking at the property was uplifting to anyone with eyes! It staved off the development for over 10 years. A few years ago, they decided to stop the boarding business, but the property still remains today. I don’t know what their plans are for it. I worked with a grass roots group called Save The Brentwood Green Space for a while who put up an idea for the city of Brentwood to buy the property, but the citizens took a look at the $50 million price tag and got spooked. I would assume the price NOW would be over $100 million so they lost a deal!”

Today I learned Tennessee has 11 state songs (!!).

At the same time, this could be a story from many states and metropolitan regions: the farmland once common is quickly turning into houses. Not just any houses; big houses with dubious architectural quality (i.e. McMansions). The farm will be gone and replaced with supposedly impressive yet private homes.

How often does such a scenario lead to writing a popular song? Not often. Instead, neighbors and residents might quietly seethe. They could show up at local meetings and make their displeasure known. Some might even move away to find a different plot of land still near farms or open space.

As far as I can tell in watching performances of the song on Youtube, the song decries “progress” and sprawl but does not specifically call out McMansions…

Naperville’s status and Farley’s “Van Down by the River” performance inspired by Naperville bridge over the DuPage River

According to Naperville native Bob Odenkirk, he was inspired by his hometown when writing Chris Farley’s famous SNL skit “Matt Foley: Van Down by the River.”

Q: Speaking of “SNL,” that famous sketch for Chris Farley you wrote, about him living in a van down by the river — were you writing with Naperville in mind?

A: There is the DuPage River, and when I was writing that I did picture the bridge in Naperville over the DuPage. It was a bridge for stoners when I was a kid. Stoner kids hung out there. So this guy parking his van by a river — yes, that was the image I had.

There are several bridges Odenkirk could be referring to. Could it be this bridge (in a picture from nearly a decade ago)? This is a little removed from the busier downtown area and the more manicured areas of the lively Riverwalk.

Naperville has a reputation as a wealthy and large suburb with a thriving downtown and numerous high-status jobs. Does the image of a guy living in a van down by the river fit this or kids smoking pot by the DuPage River? Probably not and the city in recent years was not interested in marijuana dispensaries.

I cannot imagine a statue of Matt Foley near the DuPage River in downtown Naperville among the suburb’s collection of public art...but perhaps Odenkirk could eventually make the cut?

TV writers playing with floor plans for fictional residences, The Simpsons edition

The depictions of residences on TV do not always line up with reality (examples here and here). Here is another example: the writers of The Simpsons played around with some inconsistencies in the home.

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Weinstein engaged with Twitter users after posting the photo, responding to comments about the rarely seen “rumpus room” on the main floor’s northeast corner, the “mystery door” in the entryway, and other inquiries…

“Simpsons” fans may notice the layout doesn’t include the basement — a frequent location for various Simpson shenanigans. Twitter users chimed in, noting the different spots the show has placed the basement staircase.

Here is my interpretation of this “flexible” floor plan. On one hand, television shows need a predictable set of spaces. The audience needs to be able to recognize quickly where a scene is taking place. The behavior of the characters connects to where they are. In many shows, a residence, whether a single-family home or an apartment, is one of the most important settings as this is where the characters eat, sleep, and interact.

On the other hand, a rigid floor plan limits what can be done. Most homes and apartments would make bad television sets due to walls and angles not conducive to filming and/or particular activities. Parts of the home of the Simpsons family are fixed and predictable: the TV is in the same place, the kitchen looks the same, the stairs go upstairs from the front door, etc. But, other portions allow for some creativity. A mystery room? A basement that can turn into all sorts of things (I am recalling what happened there in the episode “Homer vs. the Eightenth Amendment”). An animated show does not suffer from the same camera issues but it too could benefit from slight changes to the floor plan that enable all sorts of plot lines.

The popularity of the Beatles, informational cascades, and culture developed by champions and conditions

Explaining the rise and fame of the Beatles is complicated but there may still be new arguments to be made:

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So how did the Beatles make it? Obviously, they had talent that was going unrecognized. But they had something else: early champions. They had a fanatically committed manager in 27-year-old Brian Epstein. They had two enthusiastic admirers who worked in the music publishing arm of EMI who pushed until the company offered the Beatles a recording contract. When “Love Me Do” was released in late 1962 with little support and low expectations from their label, a different kind of champion — fans back in Liverpool — helped build up a wave of support for the song.

I take this example from a paper by Cass Sunstein that is awaiting publication with The Journal of Beatles Studies (you knew there had to be one, right?). Sunstein is a celebrated Harvard Law professor who studies, among many other things, how informational cascades work…

In his paper, Sunstein cites a study done by Matthew J. Salganik and others that illustrates the immense power of social influence. The researchers recruited about 14,000 people to a website where they could listen to and download 48 songs. Some of the people were divided into subgroups where they could see how often other people in their subgroup downloaded each song. Sunstein summarizes the results: “Almost any song could end up popular or not, depending on whether or not the first visitors liked it.” If people saw the early champions downloading a song, they were more likely to download it, too…

These findings support the work of René Girard, a French thinker who is enjoying a vogue these days. Girard exploded the view that we are atomistic individuals driven by our own intrinsic desires. He argued instead that we explore the world by imitating other people. If we see someone wanting something, then that can plant a desire in us to want it, too. “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind,” Girard wrote…

If you are an artist, you probably have less control over whether you’ll become famous than you would like. Social conditions are the key. The better questions for the rest of us may be: Who am I an early champion for? Who are the obscure talents I can help lift up? How am I fulfilling my responsibility to shape the desires of the people around me?

This could be the start of a joke: “How many famous researchers does it take to explain the rise of a set of adolescent celebrities from Liverpool?”

Or, perhaps this simply illustrates Marx’s idea that (paraphrased) “people make choices in circumstances not of their choosing.” The Beatles did their thing but operated within a particular system and time.

More broadly, explaining significant cultural and social change can be complicated. Creativity often builds on the work of people that came before (as the Beatles did). Artists may be creative but not find an opening in the existing system or not be recognized in their time. Even “successful” change can take a long time to develop and be adopted. The Beatles has many things going for them including champions, changes in technology, the rise of teenagers, an ability to put together music and lyrics, etc…but, as noted above, they did not control the whole process nor survive the subsequent pressures.

Familiar story: suburb that looks like paradise but is not, The Villages edition

The Florida community The Villages has roughly 80,000 residents living northeast of Orlando. Is it paradise or a sinister place?

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For the residents, it’s one of the most successful experiments ever undertaken in creating a community from scratch…

But critics say there’s something not quite right about The Villages, a sprawling suburb an hour’s drive north of Orlando in Florida…

She likened The Villages to Jim Carrey film The Truman Show about a flawless but ultimately fake town.

The filmmaker has now produced a documentary about the world of The Villages called The Bubble which has its Australian premiere at this month’s Sydney Antenna documentary film festival

Days for its residents are crammed with exhausting rounds of golf, cardio drumming, belly dancing and cheerleading lessons, even synchronised golf cart displays. And day drinking – lots and lots of day drinking…

The company that runs The Villages were none too keen on Ms Blankenbyl and her film crew’s presence.

On one hand, this is a familiar suburban story told for decades: the suburbs present themselves as the place for happy and successful family life. They aim to be green, quiet, and friendly. But, are they really? When a crime is committed, this might be a crack in the facade. Or, family life is not what it seems. Or, the community is built on the basis of exclusion and who is not welcome and/or present. There are plenty of real-life examples of this plus numerous films, novels, and stories that explore these themes.

On the other hand, The Villages appears to have some unique features that might set it apart from typical suburban experiences. It is a 55+ community which changes the entire social structure. The American suburbs broadly are built around protecting children and providing them room to thrive and succeed. It is in Florida so there is warmth and sun in levels that many suburbs cannot match. It is relatively new with a limited history and set of traditions and practices plus a particular architectural and natural approach that still looks new.

Is it a bubble? Many middle to upper-class suburbs might be accused of this. Is it different than many suburbs? Just by its population composition, yes. I look forward to seeing this documentary and thinking about it more.

Perhaps celebrity-led affordable housing is not the answer

Actor Brad Pitt created a foundation that built 109 affordable housing units in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. According to one observer, the project has not gone well:

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Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation built 109 eye-catching and affordable homes in New Orleans for a community where many people were displaced by damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Now this housing development is in disarray. The vast majority of the recently constructed homes are riddled with construction-related problems that have led to mold, termites, rotting wood, flooding and other woes.

At least six are boarded up and abandoned. Many residents have filed lawsuits that are still pending. That is, a nonprofit that built houses with input from Frank Gehry and other prominent architects amid much fanfare for survivors of one disaster then ushered in another disaster…

Brad Pitt, who took credit for launching this organization in 2007 and often served as its public face in subsequent years, was still listed as a board member as of 2018.

Pitt’s lawyers argued that he could not be sued over the housing development’s failings, but a judge ruled in 2019 that the movie star would remain a defendant because of his role as Make It Right’s founder and chief fundraiser.

Housing, plus the decades of policies and history undergirding it in particular locations and in the broader sense, is difficult to address.

This proposed solution is one employed in many American sectors. A celebrity comes in and lends their name and resources to a project. I think I showed a class a documentary Pitt narrated about efforts to rebuild in the Lower Ninth Ward.

What happens in the end because of the efforts of the celebrity? Here, the outcome does not sound good: the homes are in disrepair and court cases are pending. The homes that were intended to help are their own problem.

To repeat, tackling affordable housing, even with the help of a megastar, is no easy task.

Alternative cultural histories, Dvořák and American music

I have always enjoyed the music of composer Antonín Dvořák. I am familiar with most of his compositions, starting as a kid listening to Symphony #9 over and over to finding many favorites later.

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What if American music had followed his lead in weaving American songs, particularly Black music, into classical compositions? I am finishing up the recent book Dvorak’s Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music. The publisher’s description:

In 1893 the composer Antonin Dvorák prophesied a “great and noble” school of American classical music based on the searing “negro melodies” he had excitedly discovered since arriving in the United States a year before. But while Black music would found popular genres known the world over, it never gained a foothold in the concert hall.

Joseph Horowitz ranges throughout American cultural history, from Frederick Douglass and Huckleberry Finn to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and the work of Ralph Ellison, searching for explanations. Challenging the standard narrative for American classical music fashioned by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, he looks back to literary figures—Emerson, Melville, and Twain—to ponder how American music can connect with a “usable past.” The result is a “new paradigm” that makes room for Black composers including Harry Burleigh, Nathaniel Dett, William Dawson, and Florence Price to redefine the classical canon.

Horowitz argues American classical music ignored and sidelined Black composers and music. Is there an alternative history that could have occurred?

While this falls out of bounds of typical academic research, it can be useful at times to think about ways events and narratives could have gone. In “”Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy,” Max Weber said sociology is interested in “on the one hand the relationships and the cultural significance of individual events in their contemporary manifestations and on the other the causes of their being historically so and not otherwise.

Horowitz hints at least three ways an alternative timeline could have gone: (1) more classical musicians attuned to American songs and culture rather than turning to European forms and/or modernism; (1) more recognition and knowledge about Black composers; (2) the inclusion of jazz in classical music and American culture more broadly; and (3) more classical music attuned to and drawing on American songs and culture rather than turning to European forms and/or modernism.

If these things had happened, what might be different? As a big fan of the Beatles, I think of ways that their music was directly influenced by numerous American Black rock ‘n’ roll artists. And they were not alone; so did Elvis and the Rolling Stones and others. Yet, when they presented their music as white artists, would the reception have been different if Black music had a more prominent role in the classical world starting in the late 1800s?

There is a lot to consider here and I look forward to finishing the book and exploring more of the music Horowitz write about.