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Marvin Miller:  The Deaf Town of Laurent


Lisa Butler

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!

Works Cited
1. The San Diego Union-Tribune. (2005, August 14). A town for the deaf? Retrieved April 25, 2008, from 2. The New York Times. (2005, March 21). As Town for Deaf Takes Shape, Debate on Isolation Re-emerges. Retrieved April 28, 2008, from 3. Greater McCook Development Alliance. (2005, June 1). The Laurent Report. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from 4. deafweekly. (date unknown). Laurent, SD in Deafweekly. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from


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