I like to feel I can rely on solid, dependable facts about our world, such as the existence of gravity. Despite a basic grasp of aerodynamics I am never quite convinced, until a plane is airborne, that it will lift off the ground. Even thousands of feet up I can readily imagine that I am just in an elaborate flight simulator with a blue skies diorama circling the plastic portholes. In October last year I was strapped in to a seat approximately 36,000 feet above the Atlantic. For some reassurance and a sense of my position relative to planet earth I could click my way to the airline’s ‘Your Journey’ page and watch an animated plane creep forward over pixelated seas in real time. This high up I’m grateful for experts.
After nine and a half gravity-defying hours we were on our final approach. Trays were locked in the upright position, cabin lights dimmed. We arrived with a gentle bump at Orlando International Airport. I had pre-conceived ideas about the sunshine state. Given a choice between visiting Trump’s America or limiting my air miles and getting my wellies stuck in a bog in northwest Scotland the bog would win. Despite this I had just knowingly been an accessory in the burning of tens of thousands of gallons of aviation fuel, my only defence the fragile family ties that had forced my hand.
I had arrived for a long overdue visit, co-ordinated with siblings, to elderly relatives who had moved from Illinois to ‘The Villages’ in central Florida. Once through immigration I paused beside a fountain in the lobby of Orlando’s main terminal building. Tuning in to trundling suitcases and incongruous piano music I overheard a woman discussing her small dog with a friend.
‘He only wears it when he’s training.’
The dog, a terrier, was wearing a small jacket embroidered with the words Emotional Support Animal. I imagined him tilting his head sympathetically whilst proffering a paw. Things were taking a surreal turn. Hordes of Mickey-Mouse-eared children scuttled around the baggage carousels as I waited for my sister. The airport clocks told me it was evening but my body was ahead somewhere in the wee small hours. Once united with family we made our way north.
‘The Villages’ (registered trademark) is, to date, the largest age-restricted gated retirement community in the United States. You have to be over fifty-five years old to move there. It accommodates over 120, 000 residents in around 50, 000 properties and continues to grow, spreading over three counties and incorporating state roads within its sprawl. Via satellite you’ll see herring-bone patterns of compact housing abutting tight jigsaws of landscaped residences. I like a fold-up map so had bought Marco Polo’s ‘Florida’ for the trip. It appeared comprehensive but The Villages wasn’t marked. I ran my index finger over a lattice of red and yellow roads and wondered why a place with over 120,000 inhabitants wouldn’t get a mention.
‘The Villages’ is a ‘planned community’. ‘Florida’s Friendliest Hometown’ doesn’t feel like a town or a city, despite its growing population. Little wonder mapmakers can’t keep up. The Developer, regularly referred to with a reverential capital ‘D’, continues to construct new neighbourhoods apace, transforming mere traces on sand into walk-in homes in a ninety day conjuration the Wizard of Oz would be proud of. It is less town or city, more a vast network of bungalows interspersed with around fifty golf courses, ninety recreation centres, three ‘town squares’ and numerous man-made lakes.
Golf carts are the preferred mode of transport on over one hundred miles of golf cart tracks. Visitors, including children, are issued with ID cards and all vehicles are photographed as they pass through Checkpoint Charlie style barriers into Villages territory. Community Watch employees patrol the neighbourhoods. Majority Republican and not known for its ethnic diversity, this sprawl occupies over 33,000 acres.
That the Developer has employed a theme park scene-setting company is most obvious in the ‘town squares’. Brownwood has a Wild West theme. It boasts a central performance area surrounded by retail and service outlets like the Nail Saloon, Est. 2014 offering treatments I presume no self-respecting pioneer would go without, such as a ‘no chip manicure’ for $30. Pieces of redundant yet decorative farming equipment are positioned artfully in flowerbeds. Fake historical plaques provide fictional history. Just up the road bulldozers were busy levelling genuine pasture for the next 21st century additions to the development. The pervasive ‘olden days’ facade fosters a sense of everything being illusory apart from the dollars exchanging hands. It’s fakery on an industrial scale.
Lake Sumter Landing, another ‘town square’ by a small man-made lake, comes complete with simulated shipwreck and faux flashing lighthouse, the only conceivable maritime hazard the occasional stray golf ball. Distanced from these Disneyesque areas were utilitarian retail parks. In one of these, next to a display of boulder-sized pumpkins at a supermarket entrance I thought I could hear a cricket chirrup so searched for it on the ground. Nothing obvious, I looked for a speaker, thinking it might be a sound engineered for shoppers’ pleasure. I never fathomed whether it was man-made or unplugged cricket but the moment brought home how much trust I’d lost in my senses. Even the herons and egrets were beginning to appear choreographed.
The Villages attracts new residents daily. Out on the golf cart tracks you can be assured that if you run into trouble with either your heart or your cart someone will stop and help. This appears to be the main draw apart from winter sun—the promise of instant community and oven-ready bonhomie. It is also pitched as a relatively safe place to live, despite the proximity of establishments like ‘Shooters World’, a cavernous and troubling outlet where, with some basic credentials, you can buy yourself a semi-automatic gun and some human-shaped target practice posters within just a few days should the mood take you.
‘Florida’s Friendliest Hometown’ isn’t really anyone’s hometown but there’s little doubt many who live there are ‘Lovin’ the Lifestyle’. The Villages newspaper, The Daily Sun, enjoys unusually high circulation and according to the Villages radio station, broadcast from lamppost speakers, it’s regularly, ‘Another beautiful day in The Villages’. For many residents there seems scant reason to venture beyond the boundaries.
After six days my hosts’ pet parrot, Pepper, was chirping ‘Bye-bye’ on repeat. Pepper is not a creature you’d ever find in an emotional support role. It was time to leave for the airport. On a sleepless return journey I tried to process the Villages experience. It had been eerily reminiscent of Seahaven Island, the synthetic world featured in the prescient 1998 sci-fi satire ‘The Truman Show’. As it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction in our digital age, The Villages, for me, represents a destabilising 3-D confusion of the real and the fake. There’s also something disconcerting about ‘neighbourliness’ being used as a selling proposition. It implies that camaraderie is a rare commodity beyond gated-community gates.
To my relief, things have a familiar authenticity back on home turf. But as a friend has since pointed out, perhaps we all live in a bubble of our own making, seeking affirmation of our world-views. You could argue that the art world accommodates its own echo chambers. Despite these uncomfortable thoughts veracity surely still matters. For me, ‘good optics’ means being able to see things clearly, not keeping up appearances. I want it to be possible to make well-informed choices in our volatile times. Reinforcing barriers appears to be in fashion but I think it diminishes us. As an artist, some of my most valuable experiences to date have involved exploring new environments, meeting, working and living next to people of different ages, backgrounds and nationalities. Creativity thrives in places where chance connections and the sharing of divergent influences and perspectives can happen. Exciting new work and valuable insights can emerge from exchanges between the generations. Not to mention fun. It might be another beautiful day in The Villages but for now I’m happy to persevere with multi-generational city living under genuine Scottish rain.
Nicola Murray is an artist living in Edinburgh.