Oh Where, Oh Where, Has Marvin Miller Gone?
I am a Geography major here at California State University
Sacramento and very interested in urban planning and design. I tend
to follow instruction fairly well and as such I followed Professor
[Bill] Vicars' [suggestion for a project] to combine my interests
with ASL and see what happens. I was expecting to find a few
examples of new buildings or building updates with assistive
technologies or maybe something featured on the Deaf community. My
research however took me down an unexpected path. Not only did I
learn about an ambitious town building project laced with
contradiction and controversy, but more importantly, I had a moment
of clarity and understanding of Deaf culture.
The town that never came to fruition was called Laurent (after
Laurent Clerc) and it was to be located in South Dakota. The town
was conceptualized by Marvin Miller (who is deaf) and his hearing
mother-in-law, M.E. Barwacz. Miller's vision was to have a town
where the Deaf community is fully engaged in everyday life. Everyone
from postal workers and waitresses to police and city officials
would communicate with sign language (1). The town design would
reflect current trends in Smart Growth planning and be modeled after
European communities with high density, mixed-use developments that
are also created with the needs of the Deaf community in mind. For
example, emergency vehicles would use more lights, buildings would
have more glass to enhance visibility, and there would be abundant
internet access connections for communications purposes(2).
Miller had several reasons for choosing South Dakota, but the
location may have contributed to the downfall of the project. The
Laurent Company, the development firm that Miller and Barwacz
created, stated in several interviews that they choose the area
because the state has no state income or property taxes, wide open
spaces, property's location to major freeways, an opportunity for
the Deaf community to have a political voice, and the weather, to
each his own I guess (3).
So, why did Laurent fail? Well, to be honest I have no idea. There
were several articles about the proposed community and then all of
sudden the information regarding the town abruptly ends in 2006.
It's almost as if Laurent, the Laurent Company, Marvin Miller and
everyone else involved just fell off the face of the planet. I can't
find any new information and the few websites I found directly
related to Laurent are gone. The development plans started in 2004
and everything seemed to be progressing smoothly. They hit a minor
snag when they had to wait a couple of months for the legislation on
the changes to the zoning ordinance's to go through but that was
about it. In the development world delays are very common but maybe
that it was ate up their funds. At the end of the project the
company was said to be $600,000 in debt (4). I think they would have
been better served if they had picked a more populated area. The
entire county that Laurent would be located in only has around 6,000
people and they were trying to build a town of 2,500 to 8,000
people. Also, they were going to be building on agricultural land
and that practice is becoming more and more frowned upon.
What is almost as perplexing to me as the sudden halt in information
was the range of reactions from the Deaf community. They had deaf
families from all over the world signing up to live in Laurent at
the same time people were throwing around revolting terms such as
"deaf and dumb" and "ASL militants". The blogs that I visited
floored me. There was such anger and passion from people. For
whatever reason, in my head I always pictured the Deaf community to
be a truly united front. But what I have come to realize is that
people are people, no matter what cultural bonds hold them together,
there were always be disagreements and it is impossible for people
to like everybody else. I know that I should have known this already
and it's not like I discovered the cure for cancer or anything, but
it was such a profound moment of clarity for me. So…Marvin Miller,
wherever you are, thank you!
1. The San Diego Union-Tribune. (2005, August 14). A town for the
deaf? Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20050814/news_mz1h14deaf.html.
2. The New York Times. (2005, March 21). As Town for Deaf Takes
Shape, Debate on Isolation Re-emerges. Retrieved April 28, 2008,
3. Greater McCook Development Alliance. (2005, June 1). The Laurent
Report. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.onemccook.com/thinkone/news%20articles/2005%20news/Laurent%20Report%20final%20draft%206-4-05.pdf.
4. deafweekly. (date unknown). Laurent, SD in Deafweekly. Retrieved
April 25, 2008, from http://www.deafweekly.com/backissues/laurent.htm