I first wrote about these places in my 1971 book,* when such developments were in their infancy on the American urban landscape. My first actual encounter with one was when I when we came out to San Diego and were looking for a place to live. We made the rookie error of approaching a development along the I-5 and were told we were not eligible for residency when they saw our two daughters in the back of our station wagon.
We laughed (rather lightly, since there was only a one percent vacancy rate in San Diego back then) that our cute little daughters, age four and five, seemed to strike terror in the hearts of the real estate people. We imagined letting them loose to run through the streets of what we now knew to be an exclusive, planned age-segregated retirement community. We imagined old people falling over with heart attacks at the mere sight of children skipping through their barren thoroughfares.
I now know, or am acquainted with several people who live in these settlements, from California, to Arizona, to Florida; after all, I am now at an eligible age myself, although I continue to marvel at why anyone would want live (and die) in them. But I am getting a little ahead of myself, or of Andrew Blechman, who actually briefly lived with friends who reside in the largest retirement community in America, a place called “The Villages,” about fifty miles north of America’s (other) favorite fantasyland, Disneyland.
Recently, NPR produced a piece about The Villages, somewhat in recognition of the fact that in 2011 the first “babyboomers” will turn 65, swelling everything concerned with senior life, and presumably a boon to the expanding number of retirement “communities” in the Sun Belt and beyond. The Boomers will, in general, be more fit—“sixty is the new forty”(yeah, sure)—wealthier, and more long-lived than any generation before them. And, if the interviews that Blechman and others have conducted are accurate, many if them will prefer to live out their lives among their own superannuated cohort, segregated from children, pampering themselves and playing golf.
Blechman’s interest in such settlements was stimulated by the rather precipitous decamping of his newly retired New England neighbors for The Villages after they visited friends who lived there. Their brochure effusive praise of their newly adopted lifestyle. Ironically, the wife was speaking positively when she compared The Villages to the movie The Stepford Wives. I have to say that when life imitates art, I might be inclined to head down there, notebook at the ready. What Blechman found when he made an extended visit at the invitation of his former neighbors is that The Stepford Wives was a surprisingly apt characterization. He kept meeting people who repeated a mantra that sounds almost programmed in them, about how they have found their urban nirvana, about how they pitied those who had to still live where there was snow and cold temperatures, about the joys of having nothing t do but play a different golf course every week, or join clubs and learning line dancing, about how they ate out so much of the time, about how they were on a permanent vacation or ocean cruise. The mantra is consistently reinforced by the local cable station’s programming, the local newspaper, The Daily Sun, and local radio, all extolling as their sign-on “another beautiful day in The Villages,” all owned and controlled by the development corporation. Even speakers set in trees and poles in the commercial areas, emit a stream of soothing music.
The price that is paid for this putative paradise seems hardly calculated by those willing to pay for its features. The Villages is corporate living at its finest and most calculated. It remains unincorporated territory so that the developer, the Morse family, is the autocratic government of 110,000 residents. From my own research back in the 1960’s I learned that large ex-urban developers feared that residents might decide to form a municipal corporation (a regular city) and could thereby form an elected government that would have the power over planning and zoning and public service budgeting. The Villages, like such developments in some other states, like Arizona, can e developed under state approved special district legislation (Chapter 190 in Florida) that. In essence, allow developers to float bonds, and to own and control services and commercial properties, set development regulations and restrictive covenants, and running “public” services. Residents might not realize that they do not even have the power of a vote, and that they have purchases and placed their (typically) major economic asset, their home, inside a corporation. If the corporation goes down, they are stuck with what’s left, just like Enron’s employees. Of course, this might not seem so strange in a “community” that is 97 percent white, has hosted Sarah Palin, Glen Beck and Karl Rove, and whose developer is a major contributor to Republican political campaigns in Florida and nationally. One supposes that, if you despise government as much as the political right says it does, they have found the answer in dispensing with it altogether and substituting that darling of capitalism, the private corporation
What makes this arrangement easier to get away with is that the retirement community dispenses with the most expensive local public expenditure—the education of the next generation. Age segregation allows these “communities” to remain hedonistically-focused on the “entitled” self-indulgences of the senior generation, which, other than golf, appear to e such socially productive enterprises as golf-cart Christmas parades, bingo, and apparently, according to Blechman, some Viagra-induced hanky-panky. The author took in some local bars devoted to temporary hook-ups between widows and widowers and some guys—one very busy lothario self-named “Mr. Midnight”—who never outgrew the frat party stage in their lives. Such activities, if not time itself, eventually result in a visit from the Grim Reaper (that no hopped-up golf cart can outrun). But you don’t need kids to replenish the age-segregated community when Boomers are queued-up to sign up. Turnover is good for realtors.
Another prominent feature of such settlements is the “gated community.” While gated communities are not found only in retirement settlements (some estimates are that 40 percent of new developments are “gated”) they seem to satisfy the social and physical phobias of the senior generation. Whether it is to distinguish the three-bedroom subdivisions from the four-bedroom subdivisions, or to provide an extra boundary of security from those hordes of immigrants and people of color clamoring to rape the elderly and steal their golf carts, places like The Villages put the “gate” in segregate.
Is this an issue of any social or even moral (if you think that way) consequence? To some—and I will use a word that occurs in connection with retirement communities—it is simply a matter of lifestyle, a new lifestyle that wasn’t much there before, when people died when they were still working, rather than living on in retirements that can be longer than the number of years they worked. Some might argue that they have just sort of dropped out of the main society, or driven away into the sunset years in their golf carts; but they are a demographic that is not without social consequences. They use resources—land, energy, social services, just like other people, although many feel that they have already “paid in” with their productivity and taxes, and are now entitled to collect on what is due them. Economically, that probably just won’t pencil out. No society can afford for very long to have a huge, and growing, demographic cohort that is highly consumptive and non-productive. We now have a generation of people who spend over 80 percent of the healthcare expenditures in the last five years if their life. We also have families in which both parents and children have are living in retirement. But that issue transcends retirement communities.
At bottom there is a more existential concern. The retirement community is very much a place of escape, not just from the snow in Minnesota, or the people of color in Detroit, the “terrorists” that ant to blow up our Wal Marts, or even the ravages of age, but from membership in society. Americans have become a phobic nation. They want certainties they cannot have, that their isolationism will not provide, their preemptive wars will not provide, their “concealed-carry” gun laws can’t provide, and the gates of their age-segregated communities can provide. That so many of them are willing to surrender their known liberties to achieve just the illusion of a zombie-like, Stepford existence, declares their phobia loud and clear.
Of course, this is America, where you are supposed to e free to make such choices, This is no treatise to call for retracting those choices. But if the choice you make is that today is just like yesterday, and tomorrow is likely to be the same, you have passed from the world of the living into the world of the existing.
© 2010, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 5.11.2010)
*New Towns and Urban Policy: Planning the American Metropolis (Dunellen, 1971)