Leisureville: no place like home

Article Courtesy of The Boston Globe

The Interview With Andrew Blechman

Published July 12, 2008

Andrew Blechman had never thought about retirement living until the energetic couple across the road sold out and moved to the Villages in Florida, the world's largest gated retirement community. When Blechman visited his former neighbors, he entered a surreal world of golf cart parades, Disney-like wholesomeness, pharmaceutical-enhanced sex, drugs, and classic rock. "Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias" (Atlantic Monthly, $25) is not only an entertaining chronicle of that visit but also a perceptive analysis of the social, economic, and political implications of segregated, privatized living. Blechman spoke from his home in the Berkshires.

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Q. What drew you to the Villages?
My neighbors moved there, and their stories were simply outrageous. . . . The place is far bigger than Manhattan but gated, and although it has a population of almost 100,000, and growing, no kids are allowed. I was amazed that such a lifestyle existed, let alone that people would opt for it. I didn't really believe it until I saw it myself.

Q. What were the biggest surprises?
Aside from the music that was pumped out of the lampposts and fake rocks, and the ersatz downtowns with make-believe historical markers . . . ? Well, the developer's seemingly unlimited control over the community certainly also came as a surprise. . . . He owns all the media, including the daily newspaper - which looks like a real newspaper but is really just a propaganda organ - the local TV station, radio station, even magazines.

Q. How do people respond to being governed by a corporation or a developer?
Most of them love it. . . . People increasingly prefer government by contract because real democracy is "messy." And given how transient we are . . . most people no longer know their neighbors, let alone trust them. So they opt for gates and strict neighborhood covenants. But even more worrisome is how many people are embracing communities where children are forbidden. A conservative estimate is that 12 million will do so in the next 10 years or so.

Q. What does this say about society at large?
People are distancing themselves from governance and each other. Real life is filled with friction, and these communities try to edit some of it out: children, poor people, taxes, et cetera. It's also expensive to live in a democracy, and many people no longer want to pay for other people's problems. They like to pick and choose what they pay for with their taxes.

Q. Particularly the older generation?
Our culture is fiercely youth-centric. . . . We marginalize [our seniors] and eventually move them into dead-end nursing homes. And much of America is one giant suburb. . . . How can you grow old comfortably when you need to drive several miles to grab a quart of milk, let alone for social contact? Given how scattered our families have become, there's no real direction home. But remember, at the Villages, for example, we're not talking about "old people" opting out. We're talking about 55-year-olds embracing a festive age-segregated lifestyle where children are somehow less than equal.

Q. What happens when people have only leisure in common?
If you don't have a real history you invent one, specifically one that is nonthreatening. The Villages is called "Florida's Friendliest Hometown," but nobody has ever been born there - the hospital doesn't even have a maternity ward. . . . The two downtowns were designed by . . . Universal Studios. But Americans, particularly older Americans, are searching for community, and a place like the Villages provides them with this. It can be an absolute joy to live in, but it's not sustainable.

Q. Reality eventually intrudes?
Right, in various ways. The people who choose to live in these communities are basically seceding from society to live in a bubble. But there are things you can't control. Mother Nature is one. . . . The Villages' Achilles' heel is labor. Villagers don't produce; they only consume . . . but they need thousands of employees to service them. They may live in a bubble, but these employees don't. They need housing and schools for their children. Water doesn't recognize boundaries either. In places like Arizona and Florida, these communities can't control the aquifer, but I'm sure they will try.

Q. Will the baby-boom generation reinvent retirement living?
They already are, in the sense that many such communities being built in the North are closer to cities and family, as well as within commuting distance for work. But age-segregated communities - even ones designed by developers - are still utopias, and utopias invariably fail. When people are segregated, they lose touch with their commonalities, and cooperation is replaced with strife. One of the nation's oldest age-segregated communities, Sun City in Arizona, defeated 17 school-bond measures in 12 years. . . . I'm left wondering how generous these schoolchildren will feel when they grow up and inherit nearly $10 trillion in national debt as well as senior entitlement programs on the verge of bankruptcy.