Call it the real Twilight Zone. In the past 20 years, millions of Americans have chosen South Florida for their twilight years.
If you want to see the results of one of the most successful lifestyle marketing campaigns in the world look no further than the counties of Miami Dade and Palm Beach. A consuming wave of new estate developments spreads west of the I-95 coastal corridor across former wetlands and tundra as far as the edge of the Everglades.
The billionaires long ago claimed the prime ocean side strips like Palm Beach but in the last two decades the rest of America has created its own version of a tropical Nirvana in the hinterlands. And, for the first time, this vast experiment in residential hedonism lies in the path of Irma, the most potentially destructive hurricane ever to hit the U.S. mainland.
There are around 10,000 Americans who turn 65 every day. South Florida has been highly successful in attracting many of them with its promise of winter-avoidance and living costs that are often a lot lower than in the Northeast and Midwest.
The driving force behind this migration, designed by real estate developers and state economic planners, is a definitively American concept of retirement, a new twist to the attainable American Dream, carefully stratified into separate price points according to means. At the upper end there are gated communities with mini-mansions clustered around artificial lakes and ringed by moats and frequently given Italian names. Many have their own golf courses and clubs.
At a more numerous level there are sprawling subdivisions that mix of rows of three-story townhouses with low-rise condos, also having their own access to golf courses and communal pools.
And then there are new developments aimed more directly at retirees, mingling easily managed single-story ranch houses, many with their own pools, and “assisted living” residences with their own nursing support.
In effect, everybody is buying as much or as little as they can afford of the same proposal: South Florida can become your own personal place in the sun. As such, it is part of a laudably democratic process, a trickle-down aesthetic from the super rich to Everyman, unlike any elsewhere in the world.
In a real sense it all began with Mrs. Edward T. Stotesbury.
Eva Stotesbury was married to a senior partner of J.P. Morgan and Company and in 1919 she decided build a mansion on Palm Beach. She hired a then relatively unknown architect named Addison Mizner. Mrs. Stotesbury wanted something to establish her ineluctably as the grande dame of Palm Beach society – then a small enclave of plutocrats who used it only for the winter season as an extension of the social life they led in New York, Philadelphia and Boston.
Mizner gave her El Mirasol, in the faux Spanish style he later turned into his own brand. The site stretched across the whole barrier island, from Lake Worth in the west to the ocean. The living room seated 175 people.
Mrs. Stotesbury was an architect’s nightmare. She made seven changes to her own bathroom. Then she moved the sitting room to where the bathroom was and the bathroom to where the sitting room had been, and so on and so on. It didn’t matter. Mr. Stotesbury had bottomless pockets and, season after season, Mrs. Stotesbury did her best to empty them with change after change.
The influence of El Mirasol was everlasting. You can see it at a lesser scale in Mar-a- Lago and in numerous other spreads along the oceanfront of Palm Beach. It permeates the mind of every architect contemplating the latest condo or gated community – a hint of a portico there, a loggia there or, perhaps, a cloister. And, literally capping everything, the terra cotta tiles.
Along the way, in this process of democratizing the exotic, Spain has merged with Italy as a composite idiom where a Venetian bridge over a moat takes you to a townhouse in the style of old Seville.
But these days it’s not only retirees who are buying into this ersatz paradise. There are plenty of jobs in the industries that support retirement communities like doctors, dentists, accountants and lawyers and among those taking those jobs are many boomers who see the chance of combining late career moves with well-heeled retirement in the same place. The total worth of boomers is predicted by 2030 to peak at $44 trillion and hundreds of them are moving to Florida every day.
The hurricane’s impact will test their nerve. Florida’s building codes have tightened notably since the devastation wrought by Andrew 25 years ago. Power lines are underground at all new developments and above-ground lines have been hardened. Hospitals and medical centers have their own independent electricity systems if the grid goes down. Nonetheless, nobody planned for a storm as powerful as Irma.
It is even more worrisome for some of the older communities that were early enough to find prime sites nearer to the ocean that were still available for those of modest means. These are vulnerable because they don’t come close to conforming to the new codes.
One of the most vulnerable – and legendary – of these communities is a trailer park called Briny Breezes, sitting on what a real estate developer has called the last big parcel of undeveloped property on the whole Florida coast, just east of Boynton Beach.
There are 488 trailers crammed into 43 acres on two sides of the original coastal road, A1A. They have access to their own 600 feet of ocean beach and more than 1,100 feet of frontage on the sought-after Intracoastal Waterway. There are multi-million dollar mansions on each side of the park. Fifteen years ago a trailer could be bought for $42,000. Some have now been priced at $1 million. Ten years ago a developer offered half a billion dollars for the whole park. He was swiftly rejected.
Until Irma appeared on the horizon this was a happily defiant haven of blue collar escapism. There is a new community clubhouse on the beach and a small, funky highway strip with a grocery store, surf shop and bars. But the trailers are closely packed on concrete bases and exposed now to a combination of ocean surge and 185 mph winds they have never before been encountered. Residents were placed under a mandatory evacuation order Friday.
And it’s salutary to remember what South Florida in its natural state looked like.
About 20 miles west of Palm Beach there is a small nature preserve called Green Cay. An elevated boardwalk circles the 100 acres, just big enough to convey the wild and wonderful fecundity of an unmolested wetland. Since it was created from a pepper farm in 1999 nature’s natural order has, under careful protection and guidance, reasserted itself. The bird population includes grebes, pelicans, herons, egrets, ibises, doves, cuckoos, coots, shrikes, swallows, crows and parrots, all claiming their own distinct habitats in mutual accord. In turbid waters turtles share the shallows with alligators and frogs.
This is a landscape designed to be resilient in the extremes of weather, to absorb a tempest and rebound with vivid life. We should be so lucky.