Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias
By Andrew D. Blechman
Atlantic Monthly. 244 pp. $25
If you've never heard of the Villages, a residential development in central Florida, welcome to the club, but after reading Leisureville, the first thing I have to say is: Listen up. The Villages, the brainchild of a reclusive developer named Harold "Gary" Morse, is, according to Andrew Blechman, "the largest gated retirement community in the world," covering "three counties, two zip codes, and more than 20,000 acres . . . subdivided into dozens of separate gated communities, each its own distinct entity, yet fully integrated into a greater whole that [shares] two manufactured downtowns, a financial district, and several shopping centers, and all of it connected by nearly 100 miles of golf cart trails."
The Villages has a population of 75,000 with houses for 35,000 more on the way, residents for whom it provides "anything their hearts could possibly desire, mostly sealed inside gates: countless recreation centers staffed with full-time directors; dozens of pools; hundreds of hobby and affinity clubs; two spotless, crime-free village centers with friendly, affordable restaurants; and three dozen golf courses -- one for each day of the month -- with plans for many more." But the icing on this particular cake is that it "provides residents with something else they apparently crave -- a world without children." The buyer of a house there "must be at least fifty-five years old . . . and no one under nineteen may live there -- period." Visits by children "are strictly limited to a total of thirty days a year."
This may sound like living hell to you -- it certainly does to me -- but to the vast majority of those who live there it's much closer to heaven. Located "about an hour north of Orlando International Airport," it's Disney World for the geriatric set, totally ersatz. Sumter Landing, one of its two "downtowns," is literally and figuratively a fabrication: "The Morse family hired a design firm with experience working for Universal Studios to invent this make-believe town, including its history, customs, and traditions." Its facades are "covered in clapboard and decorative second-story porches for the traditional feel of the Florida Keys," and "embedded trolley tracks run alongside the main street -- presumably, in the imaginary history, these were abandoned after decades of use in favor of golf carts."
As one who qualified for residency in the Villages more than a dozen years ago, I cannot imagine living in a community in which the dominant themes are leisure and make-believe, from which children are barred except as infrequent and closely monitored visitors, where all but a handful of residents are middle-class whites, where the "government" is totally under the control of the Morse family, which owns "liquor stores and liquor distribution rights, a mortgage company, several banks, many of the restaurants, two giant furniture stores as well as a giant indoor furnishings arcade called the 'Street of Dreams,' a real estate company, golf cart dealerships, movie theaters, and the local media." It's almost as much a company town as the ones owned in the past by textile companies, mining companies and the like, the chief difference being that residents of the Villages are wealthier and don't have to pay at the company store with scrip issued by the company.
Blechman, a freelance writer who lives in small-town Massachusetts with his young family, got interested in the Villages when his retired neighbors, Dave and Betsy Anderson, told him they were pulling up stakes and moving to "sunny Florida." The more Dave told him about the Villages, the more he "was filled with a sense of comic wonder mixed with a growing alarm." He decided to go down and have a look for himself, staying for a month, the maximum residency allowed for guests outside members' families. When he arrived, he was "registered and handed a bar-coded pass" that was, in effect, "a visa that entitle[d] me to experience The Villages' lifestyle, but like most visas, it also expires."
Somehow, Blechman's friendship with the Andersons survived his stay with them, and perhaps it will survive this book, which Dave encouraged him to write, but there's precious little here to give comfort to those who think they've found heaven on Earth at the Villages. Blechman sympathizes with residents there on one important count -- their desire to find community, "something that in today's turbulent world can be hard to chance upon, particularly for the elderly" -- and he found a number of residents whom he liked, but the artificiality of the place and its bewildering array of rigid covenants appalled him. One can only shudder to think what the late Jane Jacobs, the great evangelist for natural community and urban vitality, would have to say about the sterile desert described by Blechman:
"There is nothing about these housing clusters that even slightly resembles a 'village' in the traditional sense. There are no cafés, no corner stores, no newsstands. No commercial enterprise of any sort is allowed to take place within a village. Planned developments like The Villages generally spurn the one thing that make [sic] traditional cities and towns so varied and entertaining: mixed use. Commerce is shunted to a 'commercial zone,' i.e., strip malls, which one must drive to in either a golf cart or a conventional automobile. . . . Tens of millions of Americans have voluntarily given up certain liberties to live under private covenants enforced by fellow residents because they no longer trust their neighbors (who are increasingly transient) to do the right thing. For many communities, deed restrictions are a source of pride, and signs are posted at entrance gates proudly declaring their enforcement."
As that passage suggests, the Villages is unique only in its size. Age-restricted communities are springing up all over the country, built by developers seeking to cash in on the aging Baby Boomers, of whom "roughly 78 million . . . are still living." They are "an unparalleled business opportunity, and one that will probably skew commerce toward the needs and wants of senior citizens in coming years." Precisely what sort of retirement communities the Boomers want is a subject of intense debate among developers and others because they're "like a tsunami (some call it an 'age-wave') rolling over the housing industry; and trying to predict what they will want is like trying to predict the weather twenty years from now." Perhaps, indeed, many of them will reject artificial communities altogether and stay in the cities and towns they already know, but "given their staggering numbers, even if a development appeals to only a small minority, that market segment can still represent several million people and billions of dollars." With ample reason, Blechman views the future with dismay:
"The people living in age-segregated housing are still a small minority of Americans, but that's unlikely to remain the same. In 2004, ground was broken for 100 age-segregated developments; ten years earlier, that figure was fifteen. . . . What will happen when there are thousands of these segregated communities across America, housing millions of aging secessionists? What happens to the rest of us -- those left behind who don't qualify in terms of age or finances? For that matter, what happens to American society in general, and our municipalities in particular, when a critical mass of mature Americans form self-contained private cities and disengage from the general population? Experience shows that these privately owned quasi-governmental entities often resent paying local taxes for schools as well as for municipal services that they prefer to perform for themselves. And they are potent voting blocs that can swing elections addressing these issues."
Those are the deeper, darker questions beneath the occasionally amusing tales that Blechman tells about aging Romeos popping Viagra and pre-senile hot-rodders racing around the Villages in their souped-up golf carts. Blechman is not exactly a graceful stylist -- at best his prose is competent journalese, at worst considerably less -- but he understands the implications of this strange new phenomenon, and he knows that few of them are good. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.