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Report from Leisureville: A Reasoned Perspective of America’s Age-Segregated Communities

Howard Devine

$12.95; 240 pages
pub. by Lakeside Press, Cleveland

Book Review by Nicolas Mazile, Orlando Sun Sentinal

In 2008 Andrew Blechman published Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias. a highly critical review of age-segregated retirement communities. The book focused on the nation’s largest such complex, The Villages in north central Florida (current population about 85,000). His 3 general criticisms can be summarized:

  • by attracting healthy seniors with disposable income, these retirement communities help deplete originating home towns of tax-paying citizens and thereby harm the local schools;
  • by banning children (from living there, not visiting), they foster an artificial ‘Anti-American’ environment lacking in diversity and generational caring;
  • being homogeneous communities, they increase ‘groupthink’ and insularity from the rest of society.

Report from Leisureville takes issue with Blechman, and augments a growing debate as America’s baby boomers begin to retire in very large numbers. Should they stay in their home towns and support the tax base? Should they move to age-segregated enclaves? Should public policy have any role what they choose to do?

Devine believes Blechman’s book, coupled with interviews and editorials he has published, reflect a destructive ‘liberal bias’. Devine’s message – spread over 240 pages – can be summed up as follows: ‘What’s really American is that people vote with their feet. If you don’t like the result, change the conditions that cause them to walk. What’s really un-American would be any attempt to legislate, mandate or coerce people to live your preferred life lifestyle in your preferred location.’

It's been pointed out that Andrew Blechman is not a sociologist or psychologist, simply a writer who feels age-segregated communities are bad for community and country. He came upon the subject when he found his New England neighbors moving to The Villages: "How could two bright individuals be drawn to something as seemingly ridiculous as The Villages?" he asks. Blechman goes to live with his old neighbors for a few months in TV (as it’s called), and meets many of the locals, including a few quirky ones. But they all seem happy and contented, which drives him nuts. Don’t they see how phony and artificial and insulated the place is?

Devine, a retiree from Cleveland, comes at the issue from a different perspective. First, he is an avowed conservative politically, bordering on libertarian, and finds social engineering abhorrent. Second, he has lived in TV for 3 years, and knows how the place runs, not to mention several of the people Blechman interviewed. Third, he was an academic economist at Case Western Reserve University, and uses his background to present a more in-depth analysis of what makes these places (like Sun City and TV) work.

The Villages sign

Devine actually praises Leisureville as being well written, entertaining to read and accurate in presenting the history of age-segregated communities. While housing segregation on the basis of race, religion and sex is strictly prohibited by federal law, neither the Fair Housing Act of 1968 or the 1995 Housing for Older Persons Act prohibit age-segregated communities. There are now numerous such communities in the U.S., with Sun City (several states) and The Villages among the largest and best known.

Devine also accepts some of Blechman’s criticisms but scoffs at the idea that everyone should find TV appealing. “It’s largely Republican and 98% white. It’s main mode of transportation is golf cart. The newspaper is owned by the developer and much of the content is ads for houses sold by his company. The ocean is two hours away by car. The number of high quality restaurants can be counted on one hand. I doubt people who love Manhattan or Santa Barbara or Martha’s Vineyard or Seattle would find this place appealing -- but so what? What most retires want is a place that’s clean, keeps them active, has affordable housing, a place that works like it’s supposed to, and TV delivers on that premise.”

The liberal assumption, Devine writes, is that diversity and generational mixing and local government control are all good and that the TV model is bad. "The facts don't support the assumption. Cleveland has been the poster child for massive government corruption. Both top county officials were indicted in 2010. Many lesser officials were also indicted or sent to prison for, in effect, robbing the citizenry. Small communities that arose 100 years ago today are still small and horribly inefficient. Metro Cleveland is replete with many small towns that, from an economic standpoint, shouldn’t exist. They aren’t big enough to really need a mayor and a fire chief and a police chief with their separate fiefdoms. All these services could be consolidated - and we're talking dozens of communities. Instead, all the chiefs and cooks have to be paid, and their pensions too. This is economically insane but politically it’s not going to change anytime soon. The result is ridiculously high property taxes - on top of already high local and states taxes. When George and Martha retire they think, well, I can certainly live cheaper in Florida. I don't have to pay any state taxes. And I get much more house for the money. And there’s very little crime. And the weather’s nicer. Why not?”

Devine finds it offensive that seniors should be denigrated for seizing the opportunity to improve their retirement years. "Blechman doesn’t really address the problems driving people away from their home towns, except to give lip service to the 'limited senior center in our small town in New England.' TV has over 1800 clubs available to all residents, and they're not all quilting and bingo. There are clubs for folk and concert music, learning a new language, chess, motorcycle riding, scuba diving, civil war history. Not to mention golf, pickle ball, polo and lap swimming. All easily available and affordable. What senior center can offer all this without hassle or high cost? Blechman wants seniors to stay in their high tax communities and continue to feed the politicians who often seem to care less about the citizenry than their own pockets. This will make him feel good, but not help the seniors much.”

Devine interviews Sanford Reichman from the Detroit area. “We sold our house for half what we paid for it, and were glad at that. The neighborhood was bad. The schools were non-existent. My wife and I love TV. I don’t care who runs it. If he’s a billionaire, he deserves it. We get a fair value for what we spend, and if we don’t like it we can always leave. In fact, we do, in the summers. But this is our home now.”

Golf Carts in The Villages Devine digs deeper into what the TV residents like and what upsets Blechman so much. In the end, it comes down to political philosophy. “Liberals like Blechman want to control people – the way they live and work. People of this mindset favor unions that coerce workers into joining, even if that dampens job creation. They favor governments that demand high taxes for social programs, even if those same governments are manifestly corrupt (like Cleveland and Detroit in past years). They favor income re-distribution even if it’s proven to lower tax revenue. They favor diversity even at the cost of individual freedom. It’s really about how they want to feel about themselves. They don't care much about the real consequences of social or fiscal policy. Only that they feel good about the rules and regulations.”

At times you get the sense this book is less about the actual subject (TV and age-segregated communities) and more about Devine’s libertarian agenda. He found a place to his liking, and uses his own biases to make a strong case for TV and against Blechman's philosophy. On his side, of course, are hundreds of thousands of retirees who have 'voted with their feet'. Certainly if you agree with Devine's politics you will like this book, even if you’ve never heard of The Villages.

Will TV and similar communities survive? Devine doesn’t know or care to predict. However, he does give some interesting history about the rise and fall of cities in general. Nothing stays the same, and he wouldn’t be surprised that, in say 50 years, TV is a relic, replaced by something newer and better. Cleveland was a major U.S. city from 1920 to 1960, but the loss of manufacturing, the incredibly backward-looking leadership, the balkanization of suburban communities and the region's tax and spend philosophy (under both Republicans and Democrats) simply decided many people to leave and perhaps many more to never come in the first place. Result: Cleveland is one of the few metro areas to keep losing population.

Cleveland -- like Detroit and other cities -- had a good thing going and blew it, despite having in place all the qualities and institutions about which Blechman would approve. Of course it's quite possible that the homogeneity of places like TV and Sun City will work against them at some point, that the age-segregated model with (in TV's case) a single owner of all the commercial areas is not sustainable. In fact there is concern now about what might happen when the developer and his family depart the scene, when or if all the individual villages that make up "The Villages" cease to be under a single hegemony. But Devine, like all his neighbors, doesn't have a 50-year time horizon. For him it's a great place to live out retirement, and criticism of the concept or the people who move there is simply another example of liberal bias run amok.

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