Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias
Andrew D. Blechman
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York 2008
ISBN 978-0-87113-981-8 (hardback) $25.00
Reviewed by Lauren B. Allsopp, Ph.D. Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, Scottsdale, Arizona
...Andrew Blechman has produced a valuable book, which makes every reader ask his/herself: Is this the future of the United States?...
"I don't want the real world anymore. Whatever happens now, you guys have to worry about it — it doesn't affect me", says one resident of The Villages, a gated retirement community in Florida—touted as "Florida's Friendliest Retirement Hometown" (www.thevillages.com). Author Blechman was so intrigued by his neighbours', the Andersons, move to The Villages and in general, this mass-exodus of people 55 years or older from the 'real world' that he decided to examine the phenomenon of retirement utopias. The outcome is Leisureville, a well-written (to the point that a reader will want to read every word), thoroughly researched, yet personal accounting in 14 chapters of The Villages, its predecessors, and the inner-workings — from governance to pleasure — of these "senior citizen playpens".
Initially, the book focuses on what made the Andersons make a snap, life-changing decision. The author visits The Villages for one month, attending events ranging from social clubs to governance meetings to restaurant dinners with "Mr. Midnight", a retiree who looks for sexual activity to overcome boredom. Mr. Blechman paints a community somewhere between "Disney for adults" and the "Stepford Wives", where stress is calmed by music piped through lampposts in the downtowns. His elegant prose keeps the pages turning.
The book quickly becomes more than the engaging rambles of his visit. Blechman's theme is to discover how and why geritopias, particularly The Villages, are so successful. He sets the stage by first delving into the history of retirement utopias, beginning with a visit to the first one in Youngstown, Arizona, and then discussing the explosion of Del Webb Sun Cities across America. Societal and financial issues are also addressed. Do we frown at seniors who step out of society, avoiding their community responsibility? Or, do we see these age-segregated communities as providing a sense of place when the residents' families are dispersed across the nation? Are they havens for redistributing tax dollars from schools to clubs and pools? Or, are they towns where people on fixed incomes can have a decent life after retirement?
The meat of the book is found in the chapters entitled "Government, Inc.", "Necropolis", and "Foreign Policy". Here Blechman uncovers the workings of these retirement utopias, especially The Villages; how developers finagle land and utilities to pursue the almighty dollar... but how easily "projects are abandoned at will" if they are not profitable. "What concerned residents [at Sun City, Arizona] most was the inescapable feeling that as the development reached completion, their progenitor and protector was slowly abandoning the community altogether. And, they were right: Webb had made his money and he was now detaching himself and his company...". Gary Morse owns The Villages, now encompassing the larger part of three counties; his residence is a large, white vacant area in the middle of the complex's map. Residents have little say in The Villages' planning, governance, even the sizes of clubhouses and the program offerings within; their sole responsibility is to pay the annual fees. The Villages has its own newspaper (that reports no bad news), radio station (playing 1950s and 1960s music) — piped into those lampposts - TV station, restaurants, everything one needs to never leave the complex. No stress is part of its success: "[The Villages] has everything I could possibly want... Its just plain fun", cites Betsy Anderson.
Local towns and counties around The Villages cannot support this massive development and supply it with electricity, water and sewage, Blechman discovers. The community, read Morse, is given a Chapter 190 by the governments to allow The Villages, read Morse, to self govern with Oz-like control, a quasi-government if you will. Privatization puts the retirees at the sole mercy of Morse. "Residents are free to complain about these financial arrangements, but they have no leverage in the matter". The voting size of The Villages even impacts the outcome of propositions, taxes, and other voting issues within the rest of the three counties, such that the votes of county residents not within The Villages are negated. The author gives the reader a clear picture of what these Leisureville monocultures are doing to all our resources, from school taxes and natural resources to dictatorships that gobble up land and, if abandoned, the effect such action will have on local government.
Blechman also puts this fast-growing phenomenon in perspective with the rest of the world by attending a developers conference. Attendees include planning representatives from several European governments. After touring select age-segregated communities, they comment that their countries' living patterns are too well established to permit gated utopias. Most of Europe uses "NORCs": naturally occurring retirement communities, such as a single building in a town center.
Leisureville is certainly an eye-opener to yet another development technique to disconnect and bisect our towns and communities, to remove interaction among generations as well as develop our land into cookie-cutter housing and amenities with no consideration for local resources and the natural environment. "Gated planned communities often have about as much in common with the local area and population as a Club Med resort—it doesn't really matter where they're located as long as the weather is nice". Andrew Blechman has produced a valuable book, which makes every reader ask his/herself: Is this the future of the United States? Leisureville is a must-read for everyone from young adult upwards, student or retiree, and readily compliments such books as The Flight of the Creative Class by Richard Florida.