Whither South Florida?

A holiday visit to my grandmother’s retirement community begs the question: What will happen to those 1970’s developments?

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Old New Yorkers don’t die, they move to Florida. If you’ve seen any episodes of Seinfeld where Jerry goes to visit his parents, you have an idea of the development outside Ft. Lauderdale where my grandmother lives. Sixty years ago, when my grandmother was my age, this land was a swampy outpost of the South. Rapacious developers saw cheap land and warm winters and they built houses to suck up the generous pensions of the Greatest Generation. They drained the swamp into canals and man-made lakes, leaving land dry enough to support useless little front lawns of distinctly hard Floridian grass and roads and sidewalks. They created towns with names that evoked, alternatively, easy-living and Southern charm, such as Plantation, where my grandmother lives, and Sun Rise, the next town over.

When my grandmother moved here, more than 30 years ago, her development, Lauderdale West, 20 miles inland from the beach, was at the far edge of civilization. Today, it is surrounded by strip malls and office parks. Initially Lauderdale West was populated entirely by Jewish retirees from the New York metropolitan area. Gentiles have moved in, with their ungapatchka Christmas decorations, which look even more ridiculous in the baking Florida sun. There are even African-Americans and Caribbean immigrants. People have taken in their children and grandchildren, and not everyone is elderly anymore. Small Toyotas and Nissans now outnumber big Buicks and Cadillacs along the arterial roads and cul de sacs.

But still you see elements of an old New York culture that does not exist in most of New York anymore. The supermarket carries pastrami and rye bread and plenty of seltzer. Listen to the conversations at the pool and “saw,” is pronounced “sore,” and Yiddish grammar rules. “I don’t know where it is,” becomes, “Where it is, I don’t know.” The old hassle of bringing your guest tags to the pool to satisfy the resident busybodies has found a technological solution: Each resident gets an electronic key and if a visitor has one, it’s safe to assume it’s been borrowed for a week of vacation.

With the over-construction and foreclosure crises hitting the Sun Belt hard, the value of these houses is on the downswing. But that doesn’t mean they are going away. Sure today’s old New Yorkers might want pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented development. But that just means it will be a different clientele moving into developments like my grandma’s. Perhaps the developments like my grandma’s, once the epitome of suburban segregation, will become among the most diverse communities in the country.

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Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.

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Tags: new york city

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