Boomers leave generation's imprint on the U.S. landscape

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 29, 2015 10:33 AM

By Barbara Liston

THE VILLAGES, Florida, (Reuters) - U.S. baby boomers have been on the planet for nearly 70 years, long enough to reshape almost every aspect of American life. Rock culture, consumerism and political activism are part of their legacy.

So too are the lasting changes they've made to the landscape.

The modern American suburb was carved out of the unspoiled countryside around established cities to serve as the boomer nursery. As many boomers remained there to raise their own families, suburbs sprawled outward exponentially, plowing under the forests, farmland and natural habitats and covering the land with asphalt and lawn turf.

Now in their retirement years, boomers are putting their final stamp on the landscape even further out of town in age-restricted communities epitomized by The Villages, a massive master-planned retirement development in Florida.

At 34 square miles (88 square kilometers) and still expanding, The Villages is already bigger than Manhattan and approaching the size of central Paris, which is 40 square miles.

Though the expansive tract housing might look and feel like home to suburban retirees, a bird’s eye view shows something else. The Villages is a self-contained exurb, a housing island sprung like an exotic fruit from rural central Florida, untethered to a city or anything else that came before it.

The Villages took root in the 1960s, far from Florida’s famous sandy beaches, in remote cow pastures and watermelon fields in rolling Lake County. Like other land speculators of the time, Michigan businessman Harold Schwartz and a former partner doubled their money by selling home lots sight-unseen to northerners dazzled by the dream of a retirement paradise.

After the federal government banned mail-order land sales, the two were left holding land and began to slowly develop a trailer park they called Orange Blossom Gardens. By the late 1980s, the Gardens had more than 2,000 mobile homes.

Now, almost 50 years later, the re-named development has gobbled up more than 20,000 acres (8,094 hectares) of pastureland, hay fields and vegetable farms in three rural counties, dominating most of the historic small towns nearby in both size and population.

The Villages is surrounded by Central Florida’s remaining cattle ranches, horse pastures and farms. Orlando, the closest city, is an hour’s drive away.

The configuration has undeniable appeal to the retired suburbanites.

The Villages has been the fastest growing metro area in the nation for two years running, more than doubling its population to 114,000 since 2010, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Residents remain tucked behind The Villages’ gates for weeks on end, emerging only occasionally for an odd trip back into the heterogeneous world they intentionally left behind.

Schwartz’s son H. Gary Morse, who died in 2014, and the family-held Holding Company of the Villages drew Boomers to their multi-billion-dollar enterprise with visions of a care-free, play-filled lifestyle for their final years.

The Villages is visually defined by its lush green fairways for golf, the sport of the boomer generation. There are over 45 courses with about 600 holes and 100 miles of paths used by residents in customized golf carts to tool around the development.

Themed commercial areas in the Disney-esque style of childhood dreams, country club amenities and clubs for every interest round out the diversions.

Like the homogeneous suburbs of their youth, The Villages is 98 percent white and affluent.

All of which begs the question: What happens to this landscape when the boomers are gone, leaving behind subsequent generations which have shown themselves to be less enthralled by golf and more at home in the melting pot of the city?

(Reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by Tom Heneghan)