16 January 2022

Company Town, Part 1

A staple of Westerns features small towns embroiled in takeovers by criminal gangs or religious cults or power-hungry land/cattle/mining/oil/railroad barons not above skulduggery, the Greek tragedies of our era: Giant, Billy Jack, There Will Be Blood, Dallas, Yellowstone. Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood crafted the movie subgenera into a cottage industry.

In modern times, we need look no further than Florida. Numerous developers and con artists have molded lands into their image. Some built monuments to themselves… literally castles. Roughly a dozen castles (including Cinderella’s) dot the Florida landscape. Two infamous local examples have been torched with redneck lightning in recent years, Glenn W Turner’s Turner Castle in Winter Park and the scandalous Mikey Busey’s Sausage Castle in St. Cloud. (Home of Sharon, who prompted this two-part series by sending me the following CIA article.)

Sanibel postcard


Friends in Minnesota loved vacationing on Sanibel Island, which was the extent of my knowledge at the time. It gives new meaning to ‘company town’, assuming you’re au fait with espionage parlance.

I confess I wasn’t familiar with author Randy Wayne White’s Marion ‘Doc’ Ford series. The protagonist is a marine biologist and not-so-retired former spy based in– you guessed it– Sanibel.

It turns out the island is loaded with former spies including some brought out of retirement from time to time. And when backed into a corner by county commissioners, they came out fighting. They built this city, not so much brick by brick, but with legal filings: “Don’t condo our island, you snot-wipes!”

So enjoy the article before we move on.

Stereotyping an Article

The COVID quarantine has taught me something about myself– I’m a mystery character cliché. The forced alone-time drives some people crazy, but others thrive. I’m one of the latter– solitude suits me. Roots probably extend back to childhood where plowing and planting, haying and harvesting, feeding, milking and mucking didn’t provide time or proximity to people. And it stuck.

But it worries me. The age line is very fine between solitude guy and crazy old coot.

Live on a boat, live on a secluded island, for me that’s paradise. As delineated below, one person’s heaven is another man’s hell.

Sun City postcard

Sun City

When I came to Florida, I’d lived in major cities and forests and farms. I wasn’t used to suburbia, I wasn’t cognizant of planned communities, and I sure as hell wasn’t familiar with the corruption of Code Enforcement (which appears to have been quietly mopped up). Shortly after I moved here, The Orlando Sentinel Sunday Supplement printed a glowing article about Sun City, a 55+ retirement community, an adult amusement park where you can spend the rest of your life.

Sun City is a sparkling self-contained paradise for affluent retirees. It offers 200 activities and sports, some I’ve never heard of. What the hell is pickle ball? Bunka and bunco? Qi gong? I suddenly feel uneducated. And cornhole? As a rural kid, that wasn’t something to mess around with.

Well over a hundred clubs are available: dollhouse miniatures, model railroading, ham radio, ceramics, porcelain painting, stained glass, lawn bowling, many, many poker clubs, writers’ groups, and a fricken’ yacht club(!!!) Plus a clubhouse kitchen, pools, pitches, courts, and ball fields. Think summer camp 365 days a year.

Sun City is designed so no one ever has to depart the premises, i.e, the ‘campus’. Catholic? Jewish? Protestant? Got you covered. Hair dresser? Pick and choose. Restaurants? Dozens of choices– burgers, pizza, casual, formal. Plus stores: knick-knacks, jewelry, grocery, general needs, and so on plus a post office window.

Sun City is designed so folks are never discomfited or even inconvenienced. Residents are discouraged from galavanting off into the outside wilds of Florida, but if one must, they organize bussed shopping jaunts and trips to Disney.

The community center’s television doesn’t show hard news. Like Disney, shops don’t carry newspapers. (This as of my last exposure… correct me if I’m wrong.) Of course everyone is free to tune in CNN in the privacy of their own abode.

When entering, ambulances don’t use sirens and keep an unobtrusive distance. Reports say when possible, the demised are quietly spirited out during the wee hours: One day Earl’s in the clubhouse playing poker and the next day he’s not. No need to remind residents the clock’s ticking along with a fading heart.

Sun City doesn’t have the disguised army barracks look of early planned communities, but after reading The Sentinel piece, I told my girlfriend if I ever entered such a place to please shoot me and put me out of my misery.

Solitude aside, if I must live near a city, I want to hear the sounds of children playing, dogs barking, and the mix of varying accents. Across my canal, a hispanic (presumably) neighbor throws parties pretty much every weekend. Even weeknights, their lights twinkle across the water. I love hearing Spanish ballads, dance tunes, and snatches of party conversation (including a hilarious snippet during a sudden silence I can’t repeat).

I considered sending my neighbor a note or a bottle of wine to thank them for the entertainment, but I fret they might invite me, which would spoil the enjoyment-at-a-distance effect. I don’t want to enter the painting or the stage play. Sometimes being the audience is better than being an actor.

The Villages postcard

The Villages

Before the practice was outlawed, Villages developers ran a mail-order housing tract scheme. Northerners could buy a lot sight-unseen. Sometimes lots were under water or otherwise unsuitable for building. Stuck with unsold tracts, developers converted to an ‘age restricted’ retirement town, primarily in the northeast corner of Sumter county, which metastasized into Lake and Marion counties.

Statistics tell a story beyond the Villages five (or six) zip codes. In a place where children are forbidden to reside, a median age of 67.4 years makes it one of the most elderly in the nation, 29 years older than the average community.

The population is reliably 70% Republican, further reflected in political donations. More than one wag has noted the place couldn’t get any further to the right in Sumter County, geographically or politically. Violent crimes run about half the state average and property crimes are about two-thirds. No other non-military town in America has more veterans than the Villages. The majority of homes are purchased by women and population demographics show 15-16% more women than men.

Depending upon how you view the numbers, the stats turn dark– or very, very white, 98% white.

The Villages has far fewer black folks than it has children… and children are for the most part banned. A joke claims the only black man seen in the Villages was Ben Carson during a campaign stop. The joke isn’t funny: only one out of every 250 people is a person of color.

Perhaps then we shouldn’t be surprised white supremacy flourishes. During presidential campaign visits, Villagers shouted, “White Power,” from their golf carts and flashed not-so-secret white supremacy OK hand signals indicating ‘WP’ for white power is ‘O-KKK’… right here in River City.

Residents professed surprise when at least three police officers (including a deputy chief) of Fruitland Park (partially annexed by The Villages in Lake County) were discovered by the FBI to be Ku Klux Klan members. This sort of welcome committee may explain why the Villages is 98% white and only 0.4% black.

Allegedly, of course.


Speaking of retirement centers…

For years while I wanted for the traffic light at the Lee Road exit off I-4 in Orlando, I stared at billboard signage of a retirement center called Senior Meadows. I often thought their slogan should read, “Senior Meadows… Where we put your parents out to pasture.”

Next week: What do a clairvoyant, a circus, and a church have in common?


  1. Now Senior Meadows- with or without the explicit slogan- seems made for a mystery!

    1. I could imagine a cosy murder there. I fret that the retirement center (now with a different name) rests under that sign sidled against the interstate. I fret about the carbon and particulates clogging their lungs. Damn, I should stage that homicide myself.

  2. The gated / retirement communities of Florida horrify me, for a number of reasons, from the fairly obvious racism to the assumption that somehow 70+ year old people SHOULD be behaving like middle- or high-school kids until they die. Have you seen "Some Kind of Heaven" the documentary about The Villages? On Hulu. I watched it and said, "Shoot me first."

    1. Eve, I guessed you would understand. I have not seen the documentary, but I need to.

      When I first arrived in Florida, a Villages resident chided me because I'd never heard of the place. "It's famous," she said. Now I realize she was missing the prefix 'in'.

  3. To be clear, although a place like Sun City horrifies me, I don't judge it bad or even wrong if one has the wherewithal. It's simply not for me. We have one life and one world, and I'd rather be exploring the world outside the fence.

  4. John D. McDonald and his Travis McGee (with Meyer commenting on the economics of it all) would be having a great deal of..."fun" is not the right word...anyway, they'd be right at home.

    1. Yes, indeed, Don. Travis motivated me as I was writing this.

  5. I agree, Leigh, Sun City is one thing, The Villages is another. And yes, McGee would be... heavily employed.

    1. From the outside, one appears like Pollyannaville and the other… no indication of shame. But whenever did the Klan internalize shame?

  6. We've been binge-watching Seinfeld on Netflix & on at least one occasion, somebody says with a straight face that when you get old, you're required to move to Florida ... all I know is, I was born there because my father was stationed in Jacksonville at the time. We left when I was eight months old. I've never been back & don't want to go.

    1. Oh Elizabeth! The drama! The crazy governors! The crazy senators! The insanity! The lack of common sense! Not to mention temperature and humidity 100! Yes, you're wise.

    2. Elizabeth, the New York Jewish retired people's Florida Seinfeld was talking about was different. People's parents moved to Miami Beach and environs for the sunshine (before the New Weather, which seems to be mostly hurricanes) and because at least it had some cultural life, ie the Miami Symphony and the Miami Opera. Or when condos came in, they might buy a condo in Tampa or St Petersburg for the fishing. But it was a different world.

  7. The Villages has another distinction. The US election saw minuscule voter fraud, but more than 1 out of 6 cases happened in Florida and a disproportionate number were in the Villages, including at least 4 cases of double voting, 3 men in their 60s and a woman in her 70s. The retirees are being allowed to plead guilty and avoid prison time if they stay out of trouble for 18 months. The scheme involved voting voting in Florida and simultaneously voting again in northern states like Michigan, Connecticut, and New York.


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