12 April 2010

Great Reader Email #2

Dear Mr. Blechman:

In the course of dealing with unemployment ennui, I picked up a copy of Leisureville.

When my grandmother died in the mid 90s, I rendezvoused with my mother at a Christian retirement community in Florida so that we could deal with funeral affairs. My grandparents had lived the last 20-some years of their life in this community, which was on the wane, due largely to its religious exclusivity. In the rental car on the way home, we stopped to visit my mother’s parents, who were investigating housing options at a new retirement community north of Orlando called “The Villages.” Mother and I spent most of the next two days marveling at the nerve of it all. There was no Spanish Springs yet, nobody yet dared to promote a fake history, and the only building I remember was a brewery with a conspicuously large smokestack that was just too reminiscent of a crematorium for its own good [it is no longer there]. My mother and I both remarked at how absurd the community seemed and that we would never want to spend the last years of our lives in Florida.

Well, my mother and her husband now live in The Villages, and also my octogenarian grandfather. I travel there at least once a year to see them. The place has the most maddening effect of being soothing and horribly frustrating all at once. I deeply appreciated your book; it more than articulates the discomfort I experience when I am there. It is not something I can discuss with my mother or my other relatives living there; they are so happily entrenched in their life of leisure that objective discussion about it is impossible. My mother’s remark to any criticism of the place or the lifestyle is to say what I saw several times in your book: “nobody has to live here; if they don’t like it, they can leave.” In the interests of family harmony, I just don’t discuss it anymore, and I always attempt to spend most of my activity budget outside The Villages, such as kayaking and horseback riding in neighboring parks and recreation areas. Going to Villages events and observing the patrons at the clubs and restaurants in Sumter Landing and Spanish Springs usually leave me gasping for normalcy. Your quote from Homer’s Odyssey about the lotus eaters was absolutely right on track!

I am still trying to understand the Chapter 190 situation in Florida and found the chapter about Villages’ governance in Leisureville a bit confusing. I realize, though, that this is certainly not your fault. It is clear to me that Gary Morse and his minions deliberately obfuscate the situation. I strongly suspect nobody in my family—nor most of the residents—clearly understand the high-stakes real estate game that is being played under their noses.

Thanks also for talking about the Daily Sun, which I would put on the same journalistic par as a church newsletter. I find myself getting out of Dodge to get a sanity-saving copy of New York Times at least a few times every visit.

I appreciated your interviewing people on the margins, such as the group of children living on the outside. I have often wondered about what the locals think about being in economic servitude to this giant bunch of people frantically pursuing their own pleasure, and have found that many of them don’t want to talk much about it. Too many of them have jobs in (or because of) The Villages. These days, I suppose many of the waitresses and lawn care guys are too grateful to have work to complain about their low wages or lack of benefits.

I was grateful for Leisureville because it brought to light other aspects about life in The Villages I had not thought much about. It has always been the whiteness and the homogeneity of the place, rather than the childlessness of it, that have captured my attention and left me feeling disturbed (this may be because I myself do not have children). While I am pretty convinced that undercurrents of racism and fear are lingering under the Villages veneer of happiness, I’m grateful that you pointed out more of the societal consequences of large numbers of senior citizens dropping out of real life. I have always remained frustrated with the complacency people in the Villages appear to have for the problems of children, immigrants and poor people and their disdain for anyone who wants to change the status quo. Now I have a better understanding of the consequences that this group withdrawal has for us culturally.

Ultimately, I wonder whether the geritopia [great word, by the way] is a sustainable lifestyle. My last visit to The Villages was in February. The biggest item on the news while I was there was the wretched state of the local real estate market. I found myself wondering, given how many of my friends and peers are not going to enjoy the generous pensions and health care plans that our parents do, how the Villages will be able to sustain itself 15 to 20 years from now. I do not believe that a large number of people in my age bracket (late 40s) are going to have sufficient money to move to Florida when we are retired. We’re not going to make many thousands of dollars on the sale of our homes, and we’re going to have the dickens of a time clinching 30-year mortgages as retirees. I feel pretty certain that a changing economic reality for younger people is going to morph our retirement into something very different from what our parents enjoy(ed). Right now we’re all too worried about losing our jobs and houses and how the hell we’re going to pay for kids’ college educations, much less have anything resembling a financially unfettered retirement.

At any rate, I was immensely grateful for Leisureville and found it engaging. Your book answered questions and left me realizing that the whole scenario isn’t that far removed from me. I look forward to your future books. Thanks for a good read,

Jill R. Walker
Chicago, Illinois

Great Reader Email #1

Dear Mr. Blechman,

I just finished reading “Leisureville” and I’d like to thank you for writing such an intelligent and entertaining book. Your work reminds me of Joel Garreau’s “Edge City” insofar as it strains to describe a phenomenon in a balanced way while still making your own concerns quite clear. As much as I enjoy James Howard Kunstler’s rants, he’s never been accused of moderation, but that’s what makes him so endearing. There were also hints of Jane Jacobs' later works, "Systems of Survival" and "Dark Age Ahead". “Leisureville” closely resembles a geriatric version of Setha Low’s “Behind the Gates” (although I admit your writing style is a bit better). Ms. Low was primarily concerned with the social and political fragmentation and mistrust that inevitably results from the self-segregation of gated suburban enclaves.

As a young man I fled the suburbs of the Jersey shore and ultimately settled in San Francisco. A few weeks ago I returned to Toms River, New Jersey to visit my mother who now lives in Holiday City. I talked to her about how she likes her new living arrangement. She said it was a mixed bag. Safe. Clean. Affordable. Lonely. Dull. Restrictive. She confirmed all the stereotypes about sex-crazed neighbors and rule obsessed committees. I had lobbied very hard for her to come and live with me in California siting the cultural offerings and free accommodations, but she ultimately wanted to stay near my sisters and brother and all the grand kids in Jersey. She also wanted to live independently. Fair enough.

As an adolescent I had plenty of contact with the elderly residents of these ever-expanding adult communities. I did housekeeping and gardening chores for many retirees as a way to earn money for college (Rutgers ’96). I enjoy the company of old people so it was a good fit. And to be honest, the generation I was dealing with back then was more likable than the new crop of boomers. They were savers and planners. They had survived the Depression and war. They told stories of how they were smuggled out of Poland “just in time”, or described burning their dining room furniture one piece at a time to keep their Brooklyn tenement warm through the winter. These people didn’t need plastic surgery or granite counter tops. They appreciated the fact that they had good food, a tidy home in the country, and money in the bank at a time in life when their own parents had been destitute. Boomers? Not so much…

I have very few fond memories of my early years in the suburbs. My family was working class and just barely managed to stay afloat. The suburbs are predicated on the concept that if you can't afford your own detached home and private vehicle, you don't belong. Public transport is considered a form of communism. Suburbia is a pay-per-view environment: private country clubs, summer camp, dance lessons, music lessons. Even the beaches in New Jersey are privately owned and charge admission. We couldn't afford any of that. To save money for college I rode a bicycle everywhere and I can't tell you how many times as a young man I was pulled over by the police and questioned. I would ask what I had done wrong, and they would always say that riding a bicycle along the highway, especially after dark or in bad weather, was suspicious. The unspoken message was that only the poor and undesirables do that sort of thing, so they needed to see what was in my backpack. Books usually. They always seemed so befuddled and sent me on my way with a warning. Nerd. Guilty as charged...

I hadn’t been back to Toms River for fifteen years. (I preferred to pay for airline tickets so my mom could visit me in California instead). I was reminded why I left. When I was a kid, the small historic downtown of Toms River still had a working movie theater, a shoe store, restaurants, and a dress shop. All that fell away by the time I graduated high school as strip malls and chain stores chewed up the landscape outside of town. The only things that remained were the government buildings since Toms River was the county seat. Now, most of the old buildings aren’t even there anymore. Little by little they were removed as the roads were widened and parking lots were installed. Downtown is just another kind of mall now, this one devoted to municipal services. Two hundred years of history were paved over so commuters could get through town and make a right hand turn forty five seconds faster.

When I express my concerns about sprawl people often suggest that San Francisco is an anomaly and out of step with how most Americans want to live. After all, nothing like a compact mixed use city has been built anywhere in the country for a hundred years now. I respond by saying that a hundred years from now San Francisco will still be well populated and vibrant. I don’t think the same will be true of most cul de sacs and strip malls. Most of the suburbs will have become mulch by then.

Again, many thanks for your good work.

- John S