Adventures in a World Without Childrenby Andrew D. Blechman
“Engaging . . . [Blechman] confronts the troubling trend toward isolation and escapism.” —Publishers Weekly
“Engaging . . . [Blechman] confronts the troubling trend toward isolation and escapism.” —Publishers Weekly
From the author of Pigeons comes a first-hand look at America’s senior utopias, gated retirement communities where no kids are allowed.
Andrew Blechman’s first book, the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Pigeons, was a charming look at the much-maligned bird and the quirky subcultures that flock to it. In Leisureville, Blechman investigates another subculture, but one with more significant consequences.
When his next-door neighbors in a quaint New England town suddenly pick up and move to a gated retirement community in Florida called “The Villages,” Blechman is astonished by their stories, so he goes to investigate. Larger than Manhattan, with a golf course for every day of the month, two downtowns, its own newspaper, radio, and TV stations, The Villages is a city of nearly one hundred thousand (and growing), missing only one thing: children. Started in the 1950s and popularized by Del Webb’s Sun City, age-segregated retirement is an exploding phenomenon. More than twelve million people will soon live in these communities, under restrictive covenants, with limited local government, and behind gates that exclude children. And not all of the residents are seniors, or even retirees.
Blechman delves into life in the senior utopia, offering a hilarious first-hand report on all its peculiarities, from ersatz nostalgia and golf-cart mania to manufactured history and the residents’ surprisingly active sex life. He introduces us to dozens of outrageous characters including the Villages press-wary developer who wields remarkable control over the community, and an aging ladies man named Mr. Midnight, with whom Blechman repeatedly samples the nightlife.
But Leisureville is more than just a romp through retirement paradise: Blechman traces the history of the trend, and travels to Arizona to show what has happened to the pioneering utopias after decades of segregation. He investigates the government of these “instant” cities, attends a builder’s conference, speaks with housing experts, and examines the implications of millions of Americans dropping out of society to live under legal segregation. This is an important book on an underreported phenomenon that is only going to get bigger, as baby boomers reach retirement age. A fascinating blend of serious history, social criticism, and hilarious, engaging reportage, Leisureville couldn’t come at a better time.
“Fascinating . . . Organized around recreation and promotion, the Villages welcomes residents with a ubiquitous radio station that repeats, ‘It’s a beautiful day in the Villages!’ and maps that depict the outside world as ‘a white void.’ Residents drive $25,000 golf carts to prefab downtowns, complete with histories invented by the developer, where cover bands play ‘Brick House.’ Not having children around seems to free the retirees to act like adolescents. Frank, a man in his 70s who is said to have had two heart attacks and a stroke, is asked to describe his typical day. ‘Get high and play Nintendo,’ he says. ‘I’m not much of a cook, so I just eat a lot of pepperoni.’ A nation of college students has found its gray figurehead.” —John Leland, New York Times Book Review
“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 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.” —Anna Mundow, Boston Globe
“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. ‘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’ . . . Blechman sympathizes with residents there on one important count—their desire to find community . . . 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’ would have to say about the sterile desert described by Blechman.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“Blechman describes this brave new world with determined good humor and considerable bemusement. He clearly disapproves of the whole thing, but accepts that for most residents living in these conditions is the fulfillment of a dream.” —Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Globe
“Engaging . . . [Blechman] confronts the troubling trend toward isolation and escapism.” —Publishers Weekly
“By using what social scientists call the participant-observer approach, Blechman gives readers a great sense of what it’s like to live in developments for senior citizens. . . . Most of the book is not, however, an outlet for the author’s social analysis. . . . The majority of the book provides Blechman a great outlet to display his storytelling and descriptive skills.” —Claude R. Marx, Eureka Reporter
“Eye-opening—If you are contemplating retirement or know anyone who is doing so, I urge you to read Leisureville. You will not find a better written, more entertaining or more insightful account of the myriad implications of the segregation of our society by age and income.” —Misery Gore, Daily Kos
“[Leisureville is a] fun ride, thanks to Blechman’s keen eye for detail and quirky sense of humor. He paints The Villages as a Stepford for the 21st-century senior citizen, with 75,000 residents and growing fast. But his view that age segregation is fundamentally bad for society is clear as he meticulously details the darker side of life in The Village, a world of conformity, smugness, fear, and deliberate ignorance of world events, where some residents wallow thoughtlessly for years on end, selfishly and comfortably numb.” —Erica Noonan, Boston Globe
“Blechman highlights the social pitfalls of communities where people 55 and older have scant civic engagement and interaction with young people. . . . He highlights the complex political and economic arrangements that gave rise to The Villages, and he asserts that few of its 65,000 or so residents understand, let alone oppose, the limitations on their civic power. [Joe] Becker, a New York City native who moved from Orlando to The Villages two years ago, didn’t argue that point—but he said there was nothing wrong with what he called The Vilalges’ ‘benign dictatorship.’” —Adrian G. Uribarri, Orlando Sentinel
“As more and more Baby Boomers retire, the growing phenomenon of retirement communities will continue to expand throughout the country. . . . This lively book reveals why older Americans are flocking to these geritopias and what happens to our social fabric when they opt to live in gate leisurevilles where no children are allowed.” —Larry Cox, Tuscon Citizen
“Blechman’s primary interest is not in the eerily false perfection of such places, but rather in the American psychology of segregation, radical individualism and the fears underlying the dreams of their residents’ [Leisureville is] part exurban expose, part postmodern Roald Dahl parable.” —Daniel Elkind, The Forward
“To discover what, besides the weather, could induce his neighbors to leave a place where Norman Rockwell once lived, Blechman installed himself in their new guest room to research Leisureville. The answer turns out to be that familiar triad of sex, children (or in this case, their absence) and money. First, the sex. The rumor that The Villages’ wine club is a front for other ‘tastings’ leads Blechman into a sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant excursion into the sexually active adult lifestyle, filled with four-letter words that don’t include AARP. Pregnancy isn’t a concern, of course—though the permanent presence of children (or anyone younger than 19) is. . . . In several well-researched chapters about The Villages and similar developments in other states, Blechman describes what happens when large, child-free developments get enough political clout to demand services like road maintenance while having the ability to block taxes for others, like schools.” —Gigi Lehman, The Miami Herald
“Andrew Blechman’s account of the rampant unreality that has become the normal condition of life in Florida’s child-free retirement ghettos is fascinating. The generation that enjoyed the greatest economic boom in the history of the world is going out with a bang—the sound of society blowing up in our faces. Blechman has a laser eye for the tragicomic absurdities of all the fun, games, and wild sex in theme-park senior villages where Oz-like control is exercised by the developer and his minions. His mordant report from a strange land is consistently interesting.” —James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency
“Leisureville is like the science fiction of Kurt Vonnegut—except that it is reality. What a great country!” —Andrés Duany, author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream
“Tottering along as I am toward my golden years, I found this monograph by Andrew Blechman to be fun, informative, endlessly fascinating, and even a little frightening. The author’s narrative of his rollicking tour of America’s age-restricted, retirement utopias provides readers with wonderful, anecdotal accounts of the history of these communities, the life therein, and the compelling social issues that such developments raise for us all. This is a volume that should be read by everyone regardless of age.” —Joe Drabyak, Chester County Book & Music Company, West Chester, PA
1 – For Sale
IT WAS A TYPICALLY COLD, BLEAK FEBRUARY MORNING WHEN I LOOKED out the kitchen window and spotted a sign across the street on Dave and Betsy Anderson’s front lawn: “For Sale.” This came as a complete surprise; I had assumed the Andersons—cheerful acquaintances and active members of our small-town community—were neighborhood lifers. Hadn’t they just retired? Weren’t they still in Florida celebrating their new freedom with a snowbird vacation?
People like the Andersons don’t just pick up and leave, do they? And why would they want to go? We live in a small, traditional New England town, one that people pay good money to visit. Tourists travel from hours away to take in our bucolic vistas, marvel at our historic architecture, dine in our sophisticated restaurants, and partake in our enviable number of cultural offerings. It’s a charming place to live, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. In fact, Norman Rockwell once lived here.
Although we lived across the street from one another for about two years, the Andersons and I weren’t particularly close. We didn’t barbecue together in the summer, or sit around the fireplace in the winter sipping cocoa. In fact, I don’t think I ever invited them inside my home. But we were friendly. When I left town for a few weeks of family vacation the summer before, it was Dave who mowed my lawn, unsolicited. “I had the mower running anyway, so I figured what the heck,” he modestly explained.
Dave and I frequently toured each other’s yard, comparing notes about gardening and lawn care. His was immaculate, the lawn cut at a perfect ninety-degree angle to the house “to soften the edges” of his rectangular home. If a leaf fell, Dave was out there lickety-split with his leaf blower and preposterously large headphones. The shrubs were trimmed into perfect ovals, circles, and cones. Dave even tied a rope around his large pine tree and drew a tidy circle with it to mark the boundary between an acceptable accumulation of pine needles and a green lawn.
My yard, by comparison, was a far more haphazard work in progress. Dave started to take pity on me, stopping by to give occasional fatherly pep talks. “Been a rough year for crabgrass,” he remarked to me one summer day. “I’ve seen it all over town. Must be the hot weather.” Despite my best efforts, huge, gnarly clumps of it had thundered across my lawn. I found his words somewhat soothing (It’s not just me!) until I glanced across the street at his dense, verdant turf.
Over the course of these two summers, I also got to know Betsy. Whether Dave was methodically detailing his van or organizing his garage so that every tool had a proper perch, he moved with precision. But Betsy was a firecracker. She drove a candy-apple-red Mazda Miata, and waved energetically whenever our eyes met across the street. She was the one who loudly cheered me on as I shakily rode my new skateboard down our street. I appreciated her for that.
We were at different stages in our lives and seemingly had little in common. As the Andersons pondered retirement, my wife and I celebrated the birth of our first child. And the Andersons obsessively played one sport we had little interest in learning: golf. But this disparity of ages was one reason we had purchased a house in this particular neighborhood. The generational span seemed to add stability and was somehow endearing.
Besides, I just plain liked the Andersons. They were great neighbors: cheerful, low-maintenance, and reassuringly normal. That is why the sudden appearance of the “For Sale” sign threw me for a loop.
The Andersons didn’t return until early April, during another frosty spring. I ran into Dave a few days later, while I was out shoveling my driveway yet again. I asked him about the sign and he said something about moving to “Sunny Florida.” Frankly, with my boots and mittens full of wet snow, I didn’t blame him, and I wished him the best of luck selling his house.
“But aren’t you a little sad to be going?” I asked.
Dave puffed on his pipe. His face was one big warm smile, childlike in its intensity. “Nope.”
Given the glut of houses on the market—three on our street alone—the Andersons’ didn’t sell right away, and so we spent another summer trading war stories about landscaping. One day Dave found me knee-deep in my shrubs, drenched in sweat, bugs swarming around my face, and my infant daughter perched on my back crying hysterically.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
I had spent the morning overseeding my lawn in an unpredictable wind, and most of the seed was now in the street. Then I stepped on the sprinkler and broke it.
“Oh, not bad,” I managed. “And you?” I got up and tried to shake his hand, but I was too busy swatting at bugs.
“You know, they make a product that you spread on your lawn that takes care of all these gnats and flies,” he suggested, offering me the use of his lawn spreader.
“What does the lawn have to do with all these bugs?” I asked, perplexed.
“Well, that’s where they come from, where they live. Haven’t you noticed?”
The conversation soon turned to Dave’s imminent move. I still felt a little let down by his decision to move away so abruptly. Didn’t he feel at least some regret? Weren’t he and Betsy going to miss strolling into town for dinner and waving to old friends along the way?
“We never intended to leave the neighborhood, Andrew,” he explained. “As you know, I’m not someone who makes rash decisions. But then we discovered The Villages. It’s not so much that we’re leaving here as we’re being drawn to another place. Our hearts are now in The Villages.”
The Villages? The name was so bland it didn’t even register. All I could picture was a collection of English hamlets in the Cotswolds bound together by narrow lanes and walking trails. But I thought Dave had said they were moving to Florida.
Over the course of the summer, Dave cleared up my confusion. At first, his descriptions of The Villages were so outrageous, so over the top, that I figured he must have been pulling my leg. Then he started bringing me clippings from The Villages’ own newspaper. As I sat and read them, I was filled with a sense of comic wonder mixed with a growing alarm.
The Andersons were moving to the largest gated retirement community in the world. It spanned three counties, two zip codes, and more than 20,000 acres. The Villages itself, Dave explained, was subdivided into dozens of separate gated communities, each its own distinct entity, yet fully integrated into a greater whole that shared two manufactured downtowns, a financial district, and several shopping centers, and all of it connected by nearly 100 miles of golf cart trails.
I had trouble imaging the enormousness of the place. I didn’t have any reference points with which to compare such a phenomenon. Was it a town, or a subdivision, or something like a college campus? And if it was as big as Dave described, then how could residents travel everywhere on golf carts? Dave described golf cart tunnels, golf cart bridges, and even golf cart tailgates. And these were no dinky caddie replacements. According to Dave, some of them cost upwards of $25,000 and were souped up to look like Hummers, Mercedes sedans, and hot rods.
The roads are especially designed for golf cart traffic, Dave told me, because residents drive the carts everywhere: to supermarkets, hardware stores, movie theaters, and even churches. With one charge, a resident can drive about forty miles, which, Dave explains to me, “is enough to go anywhere you’d want to go.”
According to the Andersons, The Villages provides its 75,000 residents (it is building homes for 35,000 more) with 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.
More important, The Villages provides residents with something else they apparently crave—a world without children. An individual must be at least fifty-five years old to purchase a home in The Villages, and no one under nineteen may live there—period. Children may visit, but their stays are strictly limited to a total of thirty days a year, and the developer reserves the right to periodically request that residents verify their age. As a new father, I found this rule particularly perplexing, although I hesitated to say as much.
I asked Dave, a schoolteacher for thirty years, if he felt uncomfortable living in a community without children, and I was surprised when he answered that he was actually looking forward to it. “I was tired of trying to imagine what a thirteen-year-old girl in my classroom was going through,” Dave said. “I’m not thirteen, and I’m not a girl. I want to spend time with people who are retired like me.”
When I asked about diversity, Betsy said that she didn’t much care for it. Dave explained that diversity to him is more about interests and background than about age or racial demographics. “There are very few blacks—although I did play golf with a nice man—and I don’t think I’ve seen any Orientals, but there’s still so much stimulus there. Diversity exists if you want to find it. There are hundreds and hundreds of clubs to join, and if you don’t find one that suits your interests, they’ll help you start one.”
Orientals? I hadn’t heard that word since the 1970s, when chop suey was considered an exotic menu item. It never occurred to me how culturally out of sync I was with my neighbors. Although Dave and Betsy were young retirees (fifty-five and sixty-two, respectively), we were clearly of two different generations.
“Life in The Villages is really too much to describe,” Betsy added. “It’s simply unforgettable. For me, it was love at first sight.” She patted her heart for emphasis. “I can only equate it to the movie The Stepford Wives. Everyone had a smile on their face like it’s too good to be true. But it really is.”
“I was real worried about Elizabeth when it was time to go,” Dave said. “I was worried she would just crumble when we left to come back up here. The place really touched her heart.”
“There are a lot of people just like us,” Betsy continued. “I was very comfortable there. It’s where I want to be. It has everything I could possibly want.”
I was struck by how many of Dave’s newspaper clippings described the residents’ unusual leisure pursuits, including their fascination with gaining entry into the Guinness Book of World Records. In the eight months Dave had his house up for sale, his compatriots down south qualified for the big book twice: first for the world’s largest simultaneous electric slide (1,200 boogying seniors), and next for the world’s longest golf cart parade (nearly 3,500 low-speed vehicles).
As amusing as these descriptions of daily life in The Villages were, they left me feeling dismayed, even annoyed. Were the Andersons really going to drop out of our community, move to Florida, and sequester themselves in a gated geritopia? Dave and Betsy had volunteered on the EMS squad, and Betsy also volunteered at the senior center and our local hospice. By all accounts, they were solid citizens with many more years of significant community involvement ahead of them.
And frankly, our community needed the Andersons. There were whispers that the town intended to pave over our little neighborhood park with a 20,000-square-foot fire station. Other sites were being considered for the station, but because the town owned the property it would be cheaper to build it there. The Andersons were a known quantity around town. They were respected and presumably knew how to navigate town hall and the surprisingly acrimonious politics of small-town New England. And now they were leaving—running off to a planned community where such headaches in all probability didn’t exist. Rather than lead, they had chosen to secede.
As Betsy described The Villages’ accommodations for the terminally ill, it was clear that she had no intention of ever returning to our community. “The rooms overlook a golf course!” she said. “The Villages has even made dying a little more pleasant!”
After spending so much time discussing retirement living with the Andersons, I decided to take a peek at one of the few places in our town that I’d never bothered to visit: the senior center. I found it to be a rather glum-looking building, resembling an oversize ranch house, with small windows. One look at the activities offered, and it was plain to see that they paled by comparison with the hundreds of activities going on at The Villages: just a lunch “excursion” to a local Chinese restaurant, an art class, and a weekly bridge game. A flyer on the bulletin board advertised a free seniors’ seminar titled “I Don’t Want to Go to a Nursing Home!”
Money budgeted for seniors’ activities and services represented less than half of one percent of our town’s annual expenditures. Meanwhile our school system devoured fifty-five percent of the town budget, and residents had recently approved a $20 million bond issue to build two new schools.
This lopsided arrangement isn’t lost on Dave. “Pretty soon, Andrew, your daughter will be school-age and your greatest concern will be the school system,” he told me one day as I struggled to install a tree swing in my backyard. “You’ll want your tax dollars to go there. But our needs are different and we’re in competition for a finite amount of resources. It’s not a negative thing; it just exists. At The Villages, there’s not that same competition. It’s not a matter of funding a senior center or a preschool program, because at The Villages we spend our dollars on ourselves.”
By September, the little ranch house across the street had found a buyer. The Andersons spent the month packing up their belongings, while I planted crocuses in preparation for winter. The Andersons were positively ebullient on moving day. “The Villages puts everything we had here in a different light,” Dave told me, while waving good-bye to our mailman, Kevin. “Sure, we had a lovely home, a nice neighborhood, some status in the community, and some good friends. But none of that measured up to the two months we spent in The Villages.”
Betsy mechanically surveyed her empty home as if she were giving a hotel room a quick once-over before checking out. “It’s called ‘new beginnings,’” she said. Dave asked me if I wanted his winter boots. “I won’t be needing them anymore,” he said.
As the days grew shorter, the leaves turned fiery red and the sky a brilliant autumnal blue, I soldiered on in the garden while my wife pushed our daughter in her new tree swing. It would be several weeks before the new neighbors moved in, and I couldn’t help looking across the street at Dave’s leaf-strewn yard and empty house. It fell to me to organize the neighborhood against paving over our park, and I reluctantly accepted the challenge. I soon found myself flushed with purpose, sitting at the computer writing editorials and waiting outside our local co-op grocery store in a bitter wind for signatures on a petition.
A few months later, I received an e-mail from Dave. “The Villages’ mystique has not dimmed,” he wrote. “It was the right move at the right time for the right people. We’ve asked ourselves many times if we have any regrets. The answer is always the same, ‘No.’” He went on to invite me down to see the place for myself. “Maybe you’ll want to write a book about it.”
I’d already started taking notes, awkwardly following the Andersons around and writing down everything they said, like an ethnologist recording an oral history. Their move fascinated me—and kept me up at night. How could two bright individuals be drawn to something as seemingly ridiculous as The Villages? And by the looks of it, they were clearly not alone. Something was afoot; I could feel it. I suspected that the Andersons were in the vanguard of a significant cultural shift. I took Dave up on his offer.
As the day of my departure for Florida neared, it occurred to me that I had never visited a retirement community before, and so I had no idea what to pack. How does one dress for golf and bingo? I certainly didn’t want to cause the Andersons any embarrassment. With gritted teeth, I resolved to purchase a pair of casual loafers, argyle socks, and a sweater vest.
On Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias
Tottering along as I am toward my golden years, I found this monograph by Andrew Blechman to be fun, informative, endlessly fascinating, and even a little frightening. The author’s narrative of his rollicking tour of America’s age-restricted, retirement utopias provides readers with wonderful, anecdotal accounts of the history of these communities, the life therein, and the compelling social issues that such developments raise for us all. This is a volume that should be read by everyone regardless of age. —Joe Drabyak, Chester County Book & Music Company, West Chester, PA
Joe Drabyak: I’m a big fan of PIGEONS: THE FASCINATING SAGA OF THE WORLD’S MOST REVERED AND REVILED BIRD, your previous volume. Sometimes I imagine that your inspiration for that work may have occurred when you observed an elderly person feeding the birds from a park bench. Were you motivated to write LEISUREVILLE—a wry mediation on the activities of older folks and retirement communities—as a means of providing equal time to those on the other end of the breadcrumbs, or did your inspiration come from elsewhere?
Andrew Blechman: The subjects of my books are actually quite accidental. I wrote about pigeons because I met a pigeon racer while ordering a tuna sandwich at my corner deli. The birth of Leisureville was also a fluke: my neighbors moved to the largest retirement community in the world. Their stories were too outlandish to be ignored. Frankly, I didn’t believe it until I saw it for myself.
JD: You did considerable research on America’s retirement utopias by spending time in The Villages, an age-restricted, gated community in Florida. I was astounded to learn that this development is larger than Manhattan. What was it really like to be in such a vast metropolis where everyone is so homogenous in age?
AB: The restaurants close by 9 pm, last call is half an hour later, Muzak is pumped out of rocks and street lamps, and with so few people working everyday pretty much feels like Saturday. For many it’s paradise—most residents are about as worry-free as one can get without swallowing a bottle of Valium. But without the excitement of children—baby showers, playgrounds, little league, graduation ceremonies—it can feel not only antiseptic, but also depressing. Children represent the future, and these communities have no children. I came to like many of the people I met, but frankly, I missed being around people of all ages. The homogeneity of the scene felt artificial to me—because it was.
JD: I love the hustle and bustle of Manhattan! I would imagine that, considering the size of The Villages, there would be thriving commercial districts; hundreds of restaurants; and small, supporting businesses galore. Was this the case?
AB: The Villages is no Greenwich Village, and you certainly wouldn’t feel like you were in New York City, despite the size. The Villages downtowns are pleasant, but there is very little there to excite your senses and very little diversity. They are closer to themed amusement parks than legitimate municipal centers. It’s a controlled environment.
JD: I fondly recall The Prisoner, a cult television series from the sixties starring Patrick McGoohan. Where there any similarities between your experiences and this televised program?
AB: In terms of a self-contained world where attempts are made to control information—yes. The Truman Show also comes to mind.
JD: Was there a singular moment that prompted you to exclaim, “I could definitely live here!”? Conversely, was there an experience that caused you to wake up in a cold sweat and go screaming into the night?
AB: I really enjoyed my nights out with Mr. Midnight and his crowd. Most of the folks were three decades older than me, but they still knew how to party like college kids. And as silly as it may sound, I grew excited every time I hopped into a golf cart and drove around, especially at night with the windshield down. It felt like riding a bike for the first time.
That said, the controlled environment and constant propagandizing became uncomfortable. The mantra, “It’s a beautiful day in The Villages,” is repeated on the radio, the Internet, the local television station, by switchboard operators, and on street signs. And as if that weren’t enough, one can even hear it pumped out of speakers hidden throughout the community that broadcast The Villages’ own golden oldies radio station. I figured it was time to go when I found myself standing beside lampposts and plastic rocks to catch the days’ headlines.
JD: I was surprised to learn that the sector of population with the highest increase in sexually transmitted diseases is the senior community. Why?
AB: These are people with a lot of free time on their hands. And when you take pregnancy out of the equation, a lot of people indulge their preferences for one-night stands and sex without condoms.
JD: There seems to be some very convoluted political structures governing these communities. How’s the Constitution and Bill of Rights fairing in such utopias?
AB: The governance of many of these leisurevilles is shocking. Residents are largely willing to trade freedom for uniformity and security. America is a transient nation and many people no longer know their neighbors, let alone trust them. They want strictly enforced standards to protect their investment and to keep out the riff-raff.
They voluntarily surrender many of the personal liberties that we take for granted, like the election of local leaders and the inalienable right to pluck a lawn gnome down on your yard. But to me, the most serious threat to democracy in these communities is the enforced age-segregation. Birthdates are examined on entry, and children are presented with guest passes, which are basically visas, that time out. We supposedly live in a post civil rights America. How is it that children (and young families) are somehow less than equal?
JD: There is an African proverb that states that, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Would you care to discuss how that expression relates to your findings?
AB: It may well take a village to raise a child, but most of us don’t live in real villages anymore, just make-believe ones. And many Americans no longer care about raising other peoples’ children. The residents of Sun
City defeated seventeen school bond measures in twelve years. That’s a pretty clear message. What happens when millions of Americans simply secede from a society—one that took great pains to raise them? What happens to children when they no longer have elders around to learn from and admire? We could end up with generational warfare. When these youngsters grow up they may well start playing tit-for-tat with Social Security and Medicare. It’s already happening inside older leisurevilles like Sun City, where the older oldsters don’t want to pay for renovations that younger oldsters might enjoy.
JD: It seems like the “golden years” of some are on their way to creating “darker times” for the many. Could you speak to the impact of these age-restricted communities on the political process, regional infrastructure, and environment?
AB: The impact will be huge. So big that I find it mind-boggling that so little has been written about it. Leisurevilles are about secession. You don’t move into a leisureville because you want to make the world a better place. The National Home Builders Association has released very conservative estimates for how many more people will be dropping out in 2008: 250,000. More than twelve million Americans are expected to drop out in the next decade, on top of the one million or so that have already done so. The rest of us will be left outside the gates. This is no way to run a society, let alone plan for the future.
JD: If your new book is selected by Oprah and generates a phenomenal amount of cash, would you retire to an age-restricted, gated community?
AB: Nope. I love community. It’s a precious commodity that we should take more seriously—and revel in as well. I loved my grandparents and I love my daughter. And I love the authentic community in which I live. Not only does it have a real history—as opposed to one manufactured by entertainment specialists—but people of all ages are welcome. And I can sleep soundly at night knowing that my town is owned by its citizens—as opposed to a developer—and it can’t be bought, sold, and traded like a baseball card.