My favorite aunt lives in Columbia Heights. She is retired, if retirement means collecting antiques to sell and working at a bank just to meet people. She and my uncle, who is officially retired, circumnavigate the District by foot and Metro, seeing friends, running errands, and simply enjoying the city. My mother, in her work appraising short-sale houses, recently discovered how cheap it is to buy a place in Leisure World, the city-sized, gated retirement community at Georgia and Norbeck. And she’s taken it upon herself to convince her sister and brother-in-law that they should finally move to the suburbs.
Convinced that somehow I’d talk them out of it, my mother drove me around Leisure World to stop me from meddling in her meddling. “Look,” she said, “it’s so pretty! They can walk around.” (We see a guy in a golf cart, a woman watering her lawn, but no one walking.) “But there aren’t any sidewalks,” I replied. “How will they get to the grocery store?” “They can drive there,” my mother said.
Old people are cool now. (My aunt is not quite old, but still cool.) They play Nintendo Wii and write blogs and laugh at the line of Buicks snaking from Riderwood Village to the McDonald’s across Cherry Hill Road, all with their blinkers going. Pretty soon most retirement homes will look like my freshman-year dorm but with an earlier bedtime. And as the baby boomers get older, I seriously wonder if places like Leisure World or Riderwood will stay relevant.
Earlier generations of seniors loved these places because they were safe, self-contained, and filled with people like them. Leisure World has three gated entrances, two golf courses and a shopping center. Riderwood’s nineteen apartment buildings and “Town Center” clubhouse are connected by skybridges, relieving their occupants of even having to go outside. If you can drive, these places are fine. But if you can’t or don’t want to drive, you’re basically screwed. My aunt hasn’t driven in fifteen years. Why would she and my uncle move from Metro-accessible Columbia Heights to a cul-de-sac three miles north of Glenmont? It’s not like they’ve got kids and are worrying about schools and bedrooms.
There’s nothing wrong with retirement homes. Why shouldn’t I want to hang out with people who remember the same old songs I do and also have plenty of time to kill? But when those retirement homes morph into retirement compounds, where I’ve got a security guard keeping the rest of the world at bay, I’m not as enthused. Nor are people who actually are retired. Today’s seniors are “aging in place,” hiring local builders to retrofit their old homes to make them safe for years to come. Or they’re banding together with fellow retirees to form “naturally occurring retirement communities,” as one Fairfax County neighborhood is doing.
Or they’re tackling the physical form of the neighborhood itself, bringing a little piece of the city to the suburbs where they raised families decades before. Outside of Atlanta, Fayetteville and Mableton are both turning their strip-malls into retiree-friendly town centers, building sidewalks, mixing uses, and increasing density so that everything is within walking distance. The end result won’t be too different than what we already have here in Downtown Silver Spring or Rockville Town Square. But bringing retirees into the discussion recognizes that they stand to benefit from good urbanism as well, whether it’s freedom from driving or from budget pressures:
“Space is something we thought we had to have” in the suburbs, says Ms. Trammell, age 74. “But we can’t afford that today—time-wise or money-wise. Putting a single house on a one-acre lot means more street in front of that house, longer electric and gas lines to run to the house, more yard and shrubs to cut, and a bigger property-tax bill for the owners. We’re all tired of that. I know I am.”
The city, it seems, is where the young and old meet. Sort of. There are large groups of both who want walkable, accessible, sociable places, but I don’t know if how many seniors would move to Adams Morgan, as walkable, accessible and sociable it is. But they’re already moving to neighborhoods in the District and throughout the region that provide some form of urban life. These are places that provide the low-maintenance lifestyle retirees want and need with the independence that communities like Leisure World and Riderwood can’t offer.
It’s not surprising that baby boomers are turning away from gated retirement complexes to real neighborhoods. After all, they’re more likely than I am to remember a time when people weren’t stuck in their cars. And it allows them to live out retirement with the same vitality they’ve always enjoyed. As for my aunt and uncle, they still haven’t moved to Leisure World. “Why would I want to live out there?” She keeps asking. “The houses are nice, but we don’t need all that space.”