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Authors: Andrew D. Blechman

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BOOK: Leisureville
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I board the intensely air-conditioned bus. Mindy sits in the front on a raised seat facing me. I take out my pen and paper and look around. I am the only passenger. Nevertheless, Mindy puts on her headset and turns up the volume. “The Villages is the place to be,” she says, in her sing-song Scandinavian cadence of the upper Midwest. “It's unbelievable! Buddy and I are both proud to call it our home. If you're bored here, it's your own fault!” Buddy turns his head and nods emphatically from the driver's seat, and then puts the bus into gear. Mindy tells me that above all The Villages stands for GLC: golf, lifestyle, and convenience. “You can buy a home anywhere; we're selling a lifestyle that you can't find anywhere else in the world. Now keep in mind, everywhere we go today is accessible by golf cart.”

We drive around the town square, which Mindy compares to New York City's Times Square “because there is live entertainment every night.” We drive past several churches: “No community is complete without houses of worship!” Then Mindy points out the hospital. “Take a good look at it now because we're about to add three more floors and an intensive care unit.” Mindy doesn't mention that despite the expansion of the medical facility and its self-proclaimed status as a regional hospital, there is no maternity ward.

Buddy makes his way around another large traffic circle and then pulls up to a guard booth. “These are our lovely gates,” Mindy announces. “We're going to drive to some more established neighborhoods so you can get an idea of what your house will, uh, look like in a few years.” Mindy looks at me awkwardly. “Um. OK. We're in the neighborhoods now; that's why we came through a controlled-access gate.”

Every quarter mile or so, we pass additional gates on either side of us. These are the so-called residential “villages.” The
preponderance of gates, guard booths, walls, and security cameras is a touch peculiar, given that The Villages bills itself as Florida's Friendliest Hometown. But it is representative of how an increasing number of Americans live. More than 10 million Americans live in communities protected by some form of fortification. Forty percent of new home construction in America's sunbelt is gated; in some communities, it's difficult to find middle- and upper-income housing that
gated. In an age of globalization, building moats at home has become something of a national pastime.

This trend has been seen for many years in South America, where members of the wealthy elite barricade themselves from the multitudes of the poor; and in the Middle East, where western workers take cover from an increasingly angry local population. In America, the main reason for turning one's community into a fortress is ostensibly to reduce crime. Yet studies have found that long-term crime rates are only slightly altered. Regardless, Americans want their slice of paradise gated, with a uniformed Saint Peter.

Gates create a gated mentality, which is quite contagious. The debate over illegal immigration was heating up when I was visiting The Villages. I can't say I was particularly surprised by one resident's solution to the problem, published in the
Daily Sun
: build a bigger wall.

Even after my arrival, I continue to find the nomenclature of “the village” and “The Villages” frustratingly vague and confusing. That's because there is no real taxonomic definition for what The Villages itself considers a “village” to be. From what I can tell, a “village” is little more than a monotonous grouping of similarly priced ranch homes built on spec by the Morse family. There are about fifty villages in The Villages, although the development is expected to continue growing at a breathless pace. Most have distinguished-sounding yet meaningless names such as “Village of Lynnhaven” or “Village of Winifred.”

A village can range in size from several dozen of these spec homes to hundreds of them, with the underlying principle being financial
segregation and preservation of assets. As one realtor in The Villages explains to me, “You wouldn't want a basic ranch home next to your ‘premier' home. We can guarantee that your home will be surrounded by a product line just like yours.”

Except for the occasional recreation area and clubhouse, each village looks basically like any other suburban subdivision, with its mostly dead-end residential streets that curve aimlessly. Besides the front door, the visual centerpiece of each home is the driveway and garage; there are no sidewalks and few if any front porches.

There is nothing about these housing clusters that even slightly resembles a “village” in the traditional sense. There are no cafés, no corner stores, no newsstands. No commercial enterprise of any sort is allowed to take place within a village. Planned developments like The Villages generally spurn the one thing that make traditional cities and towns so varied and entertaining: mixed use. Commerce is shunted to a “commercial zone,” i.e., strip malls, which one must drive to in either a golf cart or a conventional automobile.

Developers and home buyers believe that such measures will protect and even enhance property values. According to this reasoning, the opening of a corner café, let alone the construction of a home worth ten percent less than yours, could put your investment at risk.

This thirst for standardization and stability is also why deed restrictions are so popular with home buyers, who pay a premium to live under them. Tens of millions of Americans have voluntarily given up certain liberties to live under private covenants enforced by fellow residents because they no longer trust their neighbors (who are increasingly transient) to do the right thing. For many communities, deed restrictions are a source of pride, and signs are posted at entrance gates proudly declaring their enforcement.

Deed restrictions were developed in fourteenth-century England and were particularly popular in America in the pre–civil rights era, when they were used to keep out Negroes, “Mongolians,” and
Jews, among others. Early homeowners formed associations to enforce these “gentleman's agreements.”

Today's deed-restricted communities like The Villages are similarly although less offensively, “utopian.” Most restrictions are designed merely to keep life's usual surprises at bay, addressing such mundane issues as home renovations, paint colors, and what kind of flowers one may plant. But some deed restrictions—and their rigorous enforcement by powerful homeowners' associations—can be severe to the point of being comical. For instance, one woman in California was repeatedly forced to weigh in her overweight poodle because it hovered around the community's thirty-pound weight limit for dogs. The Villages' covenants require the removal of weeds and the edging of lawns, which must be at least fifty-one percent sod. Hedges over four feet high are prohibited, as are clotheslines, individual mailboxes (mail is collected at central kiosks), the keeping of more than two pets, window air-conditioning units (all homes must have central air-conditioning), door-to-door solicitation, and Halloween trick-or-treaters. In newer neighborhoods, lawn ornaments are forbidden except for seasonal displays “not exceeding a thirty-day duration”—the same time limit put on visiting children.

Many people feel that careful planning and mandatory conformity is a small price to pay to ensure that your neighbor doesn't threaten your investment by changing his oil in his driveway, or building a swing set in his backyard. This is part of what makes The Villages' villages so predictable and manicured.

Gary Lester, The Villages' spokesman, made this abundantly clear to me during our interview. “I bet you're wishing right now that your neighborhood was better planned,” he said. “I bet you wish that there were rules about when and how people could put their trash out and how they can park a boat or an RV. I bet you're thinking that you don't want that RV parked on the road or in the driveway for a month or more, that you'd like the trash to be carefully bagged and placed outside the day of pickup.”

“You have a point,” I responded. “But where does it all end, and at what cost? Do you, as a former minister, think that age restrictions have a positive effect on our nation's social covenant?”

Lester paused, considered the question, and then, to my surprise, declined to answer it.

Back on the bus, Mindy enlightens me about the community's three dozen or so pools. There are four pool classifications: family pools, adult-only pools, member-only exercise pools, and premium-membership social pools. “Any resident can use any pool,” she says. “There are no class distinctions at The Villages. The amenities are for everyone.”

Buddy calls her over and whispers in her ear, and Mindy hastily corrects herself. “Actually, the social pools are for priority members only, but the golf courses and country clubs are open to all residents.”

The bus crosses a four-lane thoroughfare as we head to an even newer area of the development. I see golf carts descend out of sight like burrowing animals as they approach the highway, only to re-emerge effortlessly moments later on the other side. “Those are our golf-cart tunnels. Aren't they neat?” Mindy asks.

With so much territory to cover, the tour begins to quicken its pace. I scribble furiously to keep up in my note taking. “Now put that pen down and look up for a moment, Andrew,” Mindy says. “I don't want you to miss this—our very own boardwalk and lighthouse!” We are entering Sumter Landing, The Villages' second manufactured downtown. The Morse family hired a design firm with experience working for Universal Studios to invent this make-believe town, including its history, customs, and traditions. After all, if you don't have a history, why not invent one? Unlike the real thing, an imaginary history is nonthreatening and noncontroversial, so why not choose one to your liking and invite people to stay awhile?

A recent promotional DVD for Walt Disney World cheerfully lists all its theme resorts, each with a make-believe history. “Had it
up to here with the twenty-first century?” the narrator asks. “All that hustle and bustle? Then this is the place for you.” The narrator goes on to describe a fake seaside resort from the 1880s “just like all those seaside resorts that popped up along the eastern seaboard.” If the 1880s aren't to your liking, there are plenty of other possibilities. As the narrator says, “Choose your experience!”

In a sense, injecting fantasy and entertainment into more permanent communities is the logical next step. At The Villages, you even have a choice of themes, depending on which downtown you visit.

Built less then two years before my visit for an estimated $120 million, Sumter Landing rests beside a small man-made lake dotted with partially sunk boats. There is a rustic boardwalk of sorts, as well as a functioning lighthouse whose purpose and effectiveness are not quite clear given the size of the lake and all the shipwrecks. Unlike Spanish Springs with its adobe construction, Sumter Landing has facades covered in clapboard and decorative second-story porches for the traditional feel of the Florida Keys. Mindy points out the attractive central square, with its bandstand, fountains, and shops lining three sides. Embedded trolley tracks run alongside the main street—presumably, in the imaginary history, these were abandoned after decades of use in favor of golf carts.

Mindy turns our attention to a tract of land farther down the lake beside what appear to be rowboats for rent but are also just props. Nearby construction will soon begin on a Barnes and Noble superstore and a large hotel. “Sumter Landing has all the grace and charm one could ask for,” Mindy announces. “You can just feel that it's a real hometown!”

From a planning perspective, The Villages' saving grace is in fact its downtowns. Although few residents live within walking distance, the downtowns provide an environment where people can stroll and mingle effortlessly. Most planned communities lack this pleasant design feature.

But there's no hiding the fact that these aren't real downtowns —they are “themed” by entertainment specialists and are owned almost exclusively by a single family that leases out space for businesses. Calling them downtowns is just as disingenuous as the using the term “Villages” or “hometown.”

An authentic community is more than a collection of buildings designed to look old, like makeup applied to a young actor's face. Real towns are defined by a complex and multilayered web of interactions between businesses, residents, and civic institutions—little of which Spanish Springs or Sumter Landing possesses. Instead, Villagers have settled for a Hollywood facsimile that could one day be sold en masse to another investor.

Much like Disney World's “Downtown Disney,” The Villages' so-called downtowns are really glorified shopping malls with souvenir stores and theme restaurants. That is why they look like ghost towns at night when the “mall” closes—no one lives there, or even actually shops there for necessities. Want to buy a quart of milk or a stick of gum? You'll need to jump back into your car or golf cart and drive to the development's periphery, which is crowded with big box stores and acres of asphalt parking lots.

Historically, downtowns have provided senior citizens with a convenient place to live near basic services. Planners call them naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs). My grandmother lived in downtown Philadelphia for just that reason—ease of access. If she wanted a quart of milk, she'd walk a block to buy one.

When it comes to NORCs, the gauge of convenience isn't the number of drive-throughs, but rather the number of things that can be reached on foot or by public transportation. Much of Europe is chockablock with NORCs because its living patterns were well established before the advent of the automobile.

I suspect that The Villages' downtowns could be easily retrofitted to encourage genuine downtown living, but such a future seems remote. Although many of the buildings in Spanish Springs
and Sumter Landing have second and even third floors (often with elevators), no one is permitted to live there. The spaces are either used for offices or for storage, or left empty.

BOOK: Leisureville
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