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Authors: Andrew D. Blechman

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The philosophical underpinnings of Schleifer's preference for age segregation were more practical than purposefully discriminatory: children cost money. A community without kids is a community without schools and with no high taxes to pay for schools. One of Schleifer's main objectives was to ensure that Youngtown's residents could afford to live with dignity, even if their sole income was Social Security.

“Nature divides the generations,” he said. “So let's not blame the older people for not wanting children in the community. We didn't build Youngtown for social advancement. We built it for the economic security of the elderly.”

Although Schleifer's biggest contribution to American history was his decision to exclude children from the development, the father of age-segregated housing married a much younger woman with two small sons, just one year after founding Youngtown.

According to his surviving stepson, the exclusion of children was secondary. “The intention was to create a community of elder retirees, and a natural consequence of that was not to have any children around except visiting grandkids,” Paul Metchik told me. “At the time it seemed like a good thing, a place for older people to go. I don't think his foremost intention was to be exclusionary. He liked kids. He was a wonderful father.”

Schleifer later admitted some embarrassment when the residents of his community helped shoot down a local school district's bond issue. “Our first obligation when I was a boy was to give young people an education, no matter what sacrifices it took,” he said. “He who has the Torah has bread.”

But asked at the time if he would have done anything differently, Schleifer said only that he would have tried to save residents even more money by modeling Youngtown on the Israeli kibbutzim, where members pool their labor and finances for a common goal—the overall health of the community. After completing Youngtown (which had no religious affiliation), Schleifer pursued his American kibbutz for retirees. Located twenty miles farther into the desert, Circle City was designed to attract lower-middle-class Jewish retirees. It was called Circle City for two reasons: it had circles and spokes radiating from a central civic area; and it was affiliated with the Workingmen's Circle, a Jewish society with socialist leanings. But it was a failure and left Schleifer bankrupt.

“He was a bighearted visionary, but sometimes his vision took him too far from the mainstream,” Metchik told me. “A socialist Jewish community in the middle of the Arizona desert is a hard sell.” Schleifer retired quietly on Social Security and spent the rest of his days playing pinochle with friends at a neighborhood park in Phoenix. “I'm rich with the good health Arizona has given me,” he would say.

As the first of its kind, Youngtown made big news. It also made a big impression on a wealthy Arizonan entrepreneur, Del Webb. The legendary, charismatic Webb owned one of the nation's largest construction companies (as well as the New York Yankees) and had a history of building large-scale projects: military bases, missile silos, casinos, and the Flamingo Hotel for the mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Webb had also built internment camps for more than 25,000 Japanese detainees; which gave him experience in designing and implementing planned communities. Webb, who never had children of his own, was intrigued by the idea of a large-scale age-segregated retirement community, and had his company meticulously explore its financial feasibility.

Early feedback was not encouraging. Experts on aging claimed that it would be nearly impossible to tear senior citizens away from their extended families; and if this attempt did succeed, the elderly would feel displaced and isolated. Although the multigenerational household was fast becoming little more than a fond memory, many social scientists were nonetheless convinced that retirees remained dependent on their children and grandchildren for emotional sustenance.

But as Webb's lieutenants conducted their own research, they came to a different conclusion. Sure, older folks cared about their families, but this didn't mean that after decades of devotion, old people wanted to dedicate the rest of their lives to the family. Webb's market research suggested that retirees would welcome the
opportunity to distance themselves from their offspring and limit contact to visits. Higher up on their priorities were good weather and something to do. They had worked hard, and now it was time to pursue hobbies, play golf, and socialize with their peers.

Given this information, Webb began to depict old age in a decidedly more favorable and promising light. Old age wasn't so bad, he declared. In fact, it could represent the best years of one's life, something to look forward to rather than dread. To help spread his message, Webb called late life the “golden years.” Using this marketing pitch, Webb set out to create and sell his vision of carefree retirement—a metropolis of leisure named Sun City. “Together we can realize a way of life unprecedented in America,” he declared.

The Webb Company had hoped to attract 10,000 potential home buyers to the opening of Sun City on New Year's Day 1960. There was some fretting about the numbers; perhaps they were too optimistic. Research or no research, building Sun City still required a tremendous leap of faith—the firm belief that America was on the cusp of a sociological revolution.

Apparently it was: 100,000 seniors visited Sun City that weekend, creating a mile-long traffic jam in the desert. Several hundred homes were purchased on the spot, and Webb's bewildered staff ran out of blank contracts. Despite the obvious hurdles to marketing thirty-year mortgages to aging retirees, the money rolled in; Webb sold 2,000 homes by the year's end.

Sun City had what seniors wanted: moderately priced ranch homes in a sunbelt community anchored by a golf course and a recreation center. Webb called his utopian creation “resort-retirement living.” It was a new version of the American dream, designed exclusively for the nation's fastest-growing leisure class.

“In the average community there is no way of controlling the age bracket of our neighbors or the number of their children,” Webb
said at the time. “This we can control in Sun City, thus avoiding the problem of mixing conflicting living patterns and forcing social contacts that constitute an invasion of privacy, with resulting inconveniences for senior citizens.”

Time
magazine put Webb on its cover, with the caption “The Retirement City: A New Way of Life for the Old.” His creation was heralded as a triumph, and Webb was feted as the man who put “active” into retirement. Few questioned the community's long-term sustainability, its segregationist premise, or the potentially negative impact of that premise on American society.

Sun City, with its emerging cultural cachet, would soon eclipse Youngtown. In time, Youngtown would be seen as a home for poorer and less sophisticated seniors, and its housing stock would fall into varying degrees of disrepair.

Schleifer had considered amenities expensive and generally unnecessary, but Webb had bigger dreams: he eventually built seven Olympic-size swimming pools; thirty miles of golf fairways; a substantial lake with docks, pedestrian bridges, and faux waterfalls; and a large outdoor performance facility. Schleifer kept the population of Youngtown purposely small to ensure a sense of affinity. At 40,000, Sun City would be Arizona's seventh-largest community by 1977. Webb soon built housing for another 30,000 people farther down the road and called the new development Sun City West.

Webb's once diversified company eventually committed all its energies to building retirement communities. It was a bold move. The building of these projects was considered by many in the industry to be nothing more than an interesting specialty for a niche market. Few could have predicted that it would one day become so central to the real estate business.

Decades after the creation of Youngtown and Sun City in the Arizona desert, retirement in America is undergoing numerous changes.
For many people, it remains an unattainable aspiration, but for tens of millions of Americans, retirement represents a chance to start afresh and put together a whole new life—one that is often centered on leisure. Today's retirees are the healthiest and most affluent generation in history.

Average life expectancy has risen sharply in the past century, from forty-seven in 1900 to seventy-seven in 2000. Quality of life is also rising, and age sixty-five is often described as “the new forty-five.” Many of today's retirees want to remain fully active, especially given that many, such as civil servants and teachers, retire as early as fifty-five. It's expected that these early retirees will spend a full third of their lives in retirement; consequently, some experts recommend a more realistic retirement age of eighty-five in coming decades, as well as the creation of fifty-year and seventy-five-year mortgages. Some see the beginnings of an entirely new life stage (much like the “invention” of adolescence a century ago), in which people are neither middle-aged nor old, but rather “pre-elderly.”

We are once again entering uncharted territory, and the painful alienation that seniors experienced more than half a century ago has not lessened. If anything, it has been exacerbated by the rise in wealth and life expectancy, and by the increasing transience of our country's population, which puts additional stress on the family unit. Average Americans move about a dozen times during their life.

With few guideposts to follow, older Americans continue to search for terra firma. To a significant number of retirees, such as the Andersons and their neighbors in The Villages, living with their peers in updated versions of Webb's cloistered playground is an attractive solution. And given the generational bulge of 78 million baby boomers just now entering this “pre-elderly” stage, the nation will soon be flooded with healthy “active adults” with similar needs. In 2001, the first boomers turned fifty-five, the point of eligibility
for most age-restricted communities. By 2014, the number of Americans aged fifty-five and older is expected to reach 85 million.

Not surprisingly, the marketing campaign for the “active adult lifestyle” is well funded, highly polished, and revved up. Still a leader in its field, Del Webb's company, for one, provides its prospective clients with a free online “lifestyle adviser” service that begins with a questionnaire. Visitors are asked to respond to a number of statements on a sliding scale, from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

To learn more, I took the questionnaire—albeit with my daughter sleeping in my lap—and was prompted with, among others things, the following statements: “It's too easy for my kids to ask us to baby-sit.” “I want a community with twenty-four-hour security.” And my favorite—“I want to leave our past behind and have a new future.” When I failed to score a marketing bull's-eye, Jennifer, my new lifestyle adviser, mailed me a few questions to consider: “What is it that really keeps you connected to where you currently reside?” “Can you truly relax there?”

I was soon congratulated for considering a move “that will improve my life,” and was invited to celebratory events at Del Webb age-segregated communities around the country: a costume contest for pets in southern California; a faux harvest festival in North Carolina; and an evening of Greek food and belly dancing in New Jersey. I was also sent handsome newsletters from existing communities with photos of joyful gray-haired potential neighbors. Another company mailed me a DVD in which a celebrity tennis player invited me to buy into a particular age-segregated community so that I could “play like a champion and live like a winner.”

Although I may be far from retirement, other members of my family are currently navigating their way through it. They were young professionals when Sun City first opened, and their living choices today continue to be influenced by Webb's vision. An aunt and uncle
live in an upscale gated, age-targeted community in central New Jersey, where children aren't forbidden so much as discouraged. They enjoy the community's demographics as well as its country club–like amenities. As my aunt says, “We've earned it!”

At this stage of their lives, community to them isn't so much a particular geographic location as easy access to new friends and senior-oriented activities. My uncle doesn't share a long history with his neighbors, but as a member of the community barbershop quartet and the bell choir, he shares hobbies with a good number of them.

And in many ways, that's about the best he could have hoped for: the communities in which he and people like him grew up and raised their families don't really exist anymore. Their communities may exist in a physical sense, but the people they knew have all moved away. “One sister is in California; two are in Minnesota; my son is in south Jersey; and my daughter lives in Westchester, New York,” my aunt says, of her family from a previous marriage. Adds my uncle, “My son is in Kansas, my daughter is in California, and my brother is in Chicago.”

My immediate family and friends are scattered as well. Most of them have moved repeatedly and live at least one time zone away. The remnants of our community exist mainly in the form of e-mail, cell phone calls, and the deep recesses of memory. Given our transient population, one wonders just where retirees are
supposed
to live. How does one adjust when social bonds are stretched thin by geography, when there's no longer a direction home? As our society fragments, the message many seniors are receiving is that they had better band together and take care of themselves, because nobody else will take care of them.

To adjust to this growing reality, my aunt and uncle picked a location that gave them access to cultural activities as well as the best chance of living near family. They live within driving distance of
their grandchildren. “It's a long drive, but seeing them every week means a lot to us,” my aunt explains. But just in case their children move, like so many others, they have also surrounded themselves with peers who stay put—so many that their community doesn't celebrate Halloween. No pumpkins. No kids. No candy.

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