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Author sees social costs of retirement communities By Lisa Von Ahn

Are Retirees Breaking Their Social Contract? By Elizabeth N. Brown - AARP Bulletin Today

The Boston Globe
Leisureville: no place like home. By Anna Mundow - Boston Globe



Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias

An Interview with Andrew Blechman

"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 plunk 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.