The curvilinear streets and golf courses of Sun City.
Fifty years ago, Del Webb began Sun City. It was just south of Grand Avenue and the Santa Fe railroad amid the flat farm fields of Maricopa County and near the tiny railroad sidings at Surprise and El Mirage. I first saw it from the train -- there was no Sun City station, for this was a development built for the automobile. For most Phoenicians, it was a curiosity -- or a joke. Pat McMahon's misanthropic, demented Aunt Maud character on Wallace & Ladmo was from Sun City. Photos of oldsters riding around in their golf carts provoked much mirth. When an older lady asked my grandmother if she was going to move out there, this daughter of the frontier was aghast. "Why would I want to be stuck out there with all those old people?" she asked. The older lady was shocked.
Yet Sun City would prove to be one of the most influential events in the history of modern Phoenix, setting in train a series of business, demographic and social changes that have proven to be very mixed blessings. Before Sun City, Phoenix was something like a real city. Tourism and snowbirds were part of the mix. But so was a huge agricultural economy, along with a large -- for its population larger than today -- and growing number of technology, aerospace and defense businesses. Resorts were limited. The artist colonies in Scottsdale and Carefree were more important than retirees. After Sun City all this would change.
Del Webb had been building in Phoenix for decades before Sun City. Go to the iconic Phoenix Towers at Cypress and Central and you'll see his name on the building, erected in 1956. Downtown sidewalks from years before had it etched in the concrete (although here Webb competed against "Frenchy" Vieux). He grew rich in the New Deal. In World War II, he built military facilities, as well as the concentration camp -- there's no polite way to put it -- at Poston to hold interned Japanese-American citizens and other Japanese living in America. By the time he envisioned Sun City, he was no longer "ole Del," but a very rich man, friend of celebrities, part-owner of the New York Yankees -- and, among Phoenicians in-the-know, trailed by the odor of associations with organized crime and war profiteering.
Webb began assembling the land for Sun City in the late 1950s. It would be built on the site of the farming ghost town of Marinette, northwest of Peoria, which died out as a settlement in the 1920s.
My earliest memory of Sun City was its isolation. That, of course, was the point. John F. Long was creating Maryvale around this time, too. But Long, a Phoenix city councilman, was building his postwar automobile suburb contiguous to the existing urban footprint; it was quickly annexed by Phoenix. Maryvale was always part of the city.
Webb had something very different in mind. In addition to cheap land, Webb sought a location to ensure separation, seclusion and middle-class exclusivity. Good, relatively inexpensive air-conditioning was still fairly new, especially central air. Thousands of potential customers were awaiting in the frigid Midwest. Instead of the old Western dream of land for mining, ranching and farming, here were endless sunny days, warm weather, new houses, golf courses -- and no damned noisy children.
It was no coincidence, either, that Sun City was so popular as the civil rights struggle was intensifying. Over time, the cliche "active retirement living" became magnetic. The houses were nothing special -- the same Phoenix ranch style being built all around the Valley. Yet the buyers were the start of a huge demographic wave that would change Arizona forever. Webb blazed a trail that became an entire sector within the development and real estate business. There would be other Sun Cities, but none would so radically transform its surroundings (Florida, for example, was long a retirement mecca).
Sun City played a pivotal role in the steady demise of agriculture and cattle feedlots in the Salt River Valley, when Webb's company sued a cattle operation that had long predated the subdivision as a "public nuisance." Webb won and other developers took note. Sun City was also the first of the so-called "master planned communities." John Long was just building houses, admittedly with the same dull cookie-cutter look and dehumanizing curvilinear streets and cul-de-sacs of post-war suburban design.
Webb was creating a stand-alone entity. But it wouldn't be a new town. Sun City has never incorporated. This, along with a host of legal protections and deed covenants, allows it to essentially outlaw real public spaces, contract out public safety but evade such messy real-town duties such as social services, and maintain its age restrictions. Everything is private property. The home loans went to Anglos. This would be a template, in varying degrees, for all such "communities" to follow, including Verrado with its "park," which is not really public. Many are nominally inside the city limits of someplace, but they are not really a part of it. Webb also built other Sun Cities in nine other locations around the country, as well as expanding Sun City, Arizona, and adding Sun City West and other projects. North of Phoenix is Anthem.
The retired cohort in Arizona is now huge and plays an even more outsized role in politics. It votes -- and turnout is reliable and large -- unerringly "conservative," including against adequate funding for schools. This was long foreshadowed by Sun City residents consistently voting down levies for the poor Dysart school district.
When Joe Arpaio goes out on his immigrant sweeps and other pieces of theater, he's playing first to Sun City and all its extensions and imitators with their hundreds of thousands of determined, fearful voters. Not surprisingly, the 2000 Census showed the Sun City area to be more than 98 percent white. It is, however, a largely classless society: everybody has money and means -- not at a north Scottsdale level, but comfortable and secure. As the other subdivisions built in this era have turned into linear slums or struggled to stay out of decline, Sun City has remained remarkably stable.
Much of this is ironic. The people who move to Sun City grew up in an America where the federal government devoted itself, more than any time in history, to social uplift and fair play, from the GI Bill to 70-percent taxes on the rich. They benefited from a trade and regulatory environment that created good, stable jobs with pensions. Once retired they enjoy Social Security and Medicare. Conservatives are against all these things. In addition, most of them grew up in real towns, with walkable neighborhoods, real downtowns and a rubbing-of-elbows with different kinds of people.
It calls itself "a city of volunteers," and to be fair I have always been received warmly by Sun Citizens at the many speeches and book signings I've given there. There are even Sun City Democrats. But surrounded now by relatively affluent suburbs and far removed from a real city with real civic connections, Sun City mostly offers separation — or at least the illusion of it. A panhandler sighting caused a panic. In Willo or Roosevelt, by contrast, the city's problems are urgently nearby -- so are its energy, diversity and potential. But the great retiree immigration has set the vibe for Phoenix, and it has been reinforced by the self-selecting Anglo immigrations that have followed. It's about walls, malls, endless single-occupancy car trips, indifference to the environment. Arts and civic organizations struggle.
Giving and civic engagement in Phoenix is far below that of other American metros of its size. The vibe is "me" more than "we." As so many retirees told me, in varying formulations, "I paid my taxes back east (or in the Midwest)...I paid for schools there, raised the kids...now I don't want that...(or, more pointedly, 'I've done my share. Now I want to be left alone.')." While the retirees spend money and pay some taxes, whether they are a net plus to the economy, much less the city as a living entity, is debatable. And of course there are many heroic individual exceptions in Arizona, but the general views and behavior of the mass is undeniable.
I go back to what my grandmother said, about not wanting to be stuck out there with all those old people. It becomes a more urgent question as the Baby Boomers get older. I want to "age in place" in downtown Seattle (and before that I had hoped to do so in the historic districts of central Phoenix). Many retirees of the future will want something far different from aging suburbia, and that's even before its rising costs of sustainability and maintenance kick in with higher energy prices, hotter temps, water issues, smog, the state budget crisis, the consequences of financial crises, etc. Tastes change.
Still, consider that today's 70-year-old Sun Citizen was only 21 when Webb set up the first models and sales office there. He or she would have been at the ideal age to enjoy all the anti-establishment and taboo-breaking pleasures of the 1970s. But they've retired to Sun City.
What would Aunt Maud say?
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