Book Review: “Leisureville” by Andrew D. Blechman

(note: this is cross-posted from OverMediated)

I don’t know what prompted me to pick up “Leisureville” by Andrew D. Blechman. At my age, I’m far away from retirement (assuming I will even be able to retire). Even so, there has always been something about these Stepford-like developments that has fascinated, and scared, me.

From Blechman’s Web site:

“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. ”

I tore through it in one afternoon. As a piece of literary journalism, it shines: there were places where I laughed out loud (such as when the author tries to make contact with closeted lesbians in The Villages), but a lot of the book was truly frightening.

“Leisureville” shone a spotlight on why I, and many others like me, find these planned, gated, age-discriminating “communities” so disturbing. It’s not because a bunch of grandmas and grandpas are having so much fun (and, apparently, unprotected sex); I truly respect my elders and want them to enjoy their lives as much as they can.

The problems with these developments are twofold: first, their unsustainability (environmentally and socially), and second, their fundamentally undemocratic, tyrannical structure.

The first of these planned retirement “communities” (I can’t bring myself to call them real communities) began in Arizona, and The Villages, the setting for most of “Leisureville,” is in Florida. Because of their insistence on maintaining large grass lawns around each home, as well as their preponderance of golf courses, these developments guzzle water in places where the water table can’t support that type of lifestyle. In the book, Blechman describes sinkholes forming all over The Villages because the water table has dropped so drastically. One sinkhole even formed beneath a house, nearly destroying it.

Blechman also describes the plundering process used to build the development – native landscapes and trees are cut down, bulldozed and burned so the ground can be leveled and planted with lawn and golf course grasses.

Socially, these mega-retirement-towns represent something much more sinister. Many of the retirees interviewed in “Leisureville” stated that the reason they came to live at The Villages was that they “had paid their dues” and were “tired of giving back.” After a lifetime of work and raising a family, they, perhaps rightfully, wanted a long-awaited vacation.

On the surface, it seems innocuous. But looking a little deeper, it becomes apparent that this system of segregating oneself from society after a certain age isn’t sustainable. The Villages represents the biggest voting bloc in the counties it sprawls across; like Sun City before it, its residents consistently vote down school-based millage proposals for the district it inhabits. The families of their neighbors are increasingly left with fewer and fewer resources for their needs. Despite being age-segregated, these developments need laborers – cooks, waitresses, bus drivers, landscapers, etc. These laborers have to live somewhere, and they certainly can’t live in the retirement communities. But neither will they live in outlying towns if the schools, roads and other services are woefully underfunded.

Which brings me to my original distaste for planned retirement communities: the enforced conformity. I used to put it down to a simple generational difference: many people from the GI and Silent (or Eisenhower) generations find conformity comforting. Many from the Boomer and X generations find it stifling and more than a little creepy.

These developments don’t just happen to end up looking like a sea of sameness; they are tightly controlled by the company that owns them to be so. These communities are often governed in more-or-less tyrannical ways, through various bureaucratic means where homeowners may end up with no representation or say in how they are administered or governed. As Blechman puts it, “the government is owned by the company.” And the company likes conformity: all the houses in a “neighborhood” are exactly the same, there is no mixed-use zoning (meaning no corner stores or cafes), and lawn ornaments – or even non-grass landscaping – are forbidden. These rules are part of the restrictive covenants buyers sign when they purchase a home.

The Villages has its own TV station, radio station and newspaper, all of which are very tightly controlled by the owning company. Blechman interviews the two newspaper reporters (neither of which had any journalistic experience before being hired) and finds out just how censored the news really is: when the sinkhole opened up under one resident’s house, the only thing reported was how well the construction crew was fixing the home. Any mention of why the sinkhole occurred was carefully edited out.

And if we are really being honest, segregation is discrimination, pure and simple. The Federal Fair Housing Act has a convenient loophole allowing for age discrimination in over-55 communities. And like other forms of segregation, conformity breeds contempt for the other: Blechman describes some surprisingly ugly responses when children “infiltrate” the community. In one example, a retiree runs over and kills a 7-year-old on the street; rather than feeling sorry for taking a young life, the driver is angry that the child was in the community in the first place.

It disturbs me that so many Americans – including a fair number of veterans – would agree to such undemocratic living arrangements in exchange for lots of golf courses and swimming pools. “Leisureville” is an excellent, hard look at this phenomenon.

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