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 part of the work force is not able to participate in the greater economic picture, and that's totally un-American! 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, especially the overlooked case of the company town.
Ancient Egypt provides one of the oldest templates for affordable work-based housing, as the pharaohs and their architects provided entire districts of base adobe shelters for their artisans. These artisan districts were located in areas where workers could access parts of the city that were vital to their survival: markets, well water or the local gay bar (toga party!). In the more recent past, like in the 19th century, industries provided company-sponsored housing for workers in close proximity to their source of employment. Traditionally these were extractive industries such as lumber or coal. Citizens in these factory towns either worked in the plant or made a living by servicing those who did.
One of the most famous company towns was Pullman, Chicago. The Pullman railroad car company owned everything: housing, markets, the library, churches and entertainment. 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. If you're like me, I'm sure you'd be shaking a fist at that company and pulling out your clever picket signs and putting on your butt-kicking boots, but surprisingly this is a model that is still at work today, most notably at Walt Disney World.
Much like a company 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; 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 timeshares, condos and 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, or about 25,000 people a year. Most of these residents are between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. Three-quarters 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 paid my way through college by saying "Eh?" to tourists while serving them steak.) The Disney World College Program participants make a little more than minimum wage, whereas the international participants make slightly less. Rent rates depend on how many people live in an apartment (anywhere from eight to two), and rent is withdrawn from company bank accounts on payday. 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 students living in this company town are subject to onerous rules. The Housing Office checks the apartments to ensure that they are 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. If you lose your housing, you also lose your job. Guests to the apartment complexes must be signed in by a resident and must leave the premises by 1 a.m. If guests are 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. According to the student workers' Disney-owned visas, they 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. For 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. I observed that 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 a 14-hour-long shift. Those in food and beverage positions often work 12-hour days with little or no break, because there's nobody to cover for them while they eat 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 the workers go to the parks on their day off. 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 isolation is the result of company practices that restrict free time and where employees are able to use their disposable income. These situations are completely un-American, but since foreigners and college students are doing the time, and service jobs aren't seen as "real" jobs, nobody seems to care. Most people think 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 been had by the hardest-working American Dream-selling machine itself: Walt Disney World.
Brendan O'Connor is a graduate of Rollins College, an import from Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, and founder of the SIT Project (sitproject.com). This essay originated on Urban ReThink's Rethinking the City blog, rethinkingthecity.com.