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  Schapiro’s notebook entry on a medieval folio at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
The Art of Letter Writing

By Jed Perl

Meyer Schapiro Abroad: Letters to Lillian and Travel Notebooks
By Daniel Esterman ’65CC, Thomas Crow, and Hubert Damisch (Getty Publications, 248 pages, $39.95)

The face staring out at us from a passport photograph on the cover of Meyer Schapiro Abroad: Letters to Lillian and Travel Notebooks is not that of a man but of a boy, with a shock of dark hair, shining eyes, and a mouth that is ready to break into a smile. The year was 1926. Schapiro ’24CC, ’35GSAS was 21. I repeatedly had to remind myself of that astonishing fact as I read the letters of this erudite and self-confident fellow who raced across Europe, through towns large and small in France and Spain and Italy, as well as the Middle East, investigating the glories of Byzantine, Early Christian, and Romanesque art. I cannot imagine a more touching, tender, or compelling portrait of the scholar as a young man.

The Lillian to whom these letters were addressed was Lillian Milgram, Schapiro’s fiancée. She was finishing her medical studies at New York University. He was working on his PhD at Columbia. Meyer and Lillian would marry in 1928. She would have a career as a pediatrician, while Schapiro would become a legendary scholar and teacher, admired for a range of interests that included seminal studies of Early Christian, Romanesque, Gothic, and 19th- and 20th-century art. Later in life, Lillian assisted Schapiro in gathering the essays he had published for decades in a series of books, beginning with Romanesque Art (1977) and Modern Art (1978); volumes still were appearing when he died in 1996. Theirs was very much a New York story, of young, brilliant Jews from immigrant families who embraced all the possibilities that America and, by extension, the world had to offer. Reading these letters, one finds the world opening up wider and wider. There were friends everywhere Schapiro went. “Such connections are inevitable,” he jokingly wrote after a Parisian encounter; “even in the North Pole I shall find Eskimos who have met N.Y. anthropologists whose cousins know friends of mine.” But along with the familiar faces and the far-flung family members he met in Palestine, there was the excitement of familiarizing himself with the unfamiliar, with the churches, monasteries, and libraries where Schapiro examined carvings, studied the engineering of Romanesque buildings, and explored the texts and illustrations in countless manuscripts.

Reading through the letters, I have the impression that many of the scholars and librarians and church officials Schapiro met were delighted by all that this Jewish boy from Brooklyn already knew. And even if they were skeptical, they could hardly deny his accomplishments. After Schapiro visited Bernard Berenson in his home outside of Florence, for example, the great connoisseur wrote to Kingsley Porter, a leading scholar of Romanesque sculpture and architecture: “Yesterday a very handsome youth named M Shapiro [sic] sent up his card on which was written Columbia Univ.” I hear a strong note of irony in Berenson’s commenting that Schapiro could discourse “as smartly as Solomon” and that “he has painted sculpted architected. He is acquainted with the entire personnel of the arts and the antiquities.” (Schapiro may well have been a bit ironic about Berenson, too, another American Jew, this one from Boston, who had turned himself into a European aesthete.) And yet, what I take away from Berenson’s letter, above all else, is a sense of Schapiro’s genius for making people pay attention, for leaving them in no doubt that he was a somebody.

This beautiful book is a love story, and not only because the letters were addressed to the woman Schapiro loved. He was in love with the bounty of the Old World, remarking of Jerusalem that “The surrounding hills are a romance of roads, churches, tombs, and villages of stone, superposed — ” After receiving his BA from Columbia with honors in art history and philosophy, Schapiro found himself savoring the experience of engaging with works of art up close. He remarked toward the end of his time in Europe that “the greater part of the journey’s experience was in learning by touching, seeing & moving about objects — school now seems strangely passive or another habit with other ends. I love architecture all the more.” The pages from his travel notebooks that compose the second half of this volume reflect the immediacy of his experience, captured in striking studies of carved capitals and initial letters from illuminated manuscripts. These travel notebooks, now preserved in the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, are the work of a young man who had seriously studied drawing and painting and who had considered becoming a painter. Schapiro’s drawings are much more than transcriptions. There is an analytical force and a lyric delicacy to his pen strokes. The elegant arrangement of images on some of these pages achieves an abstract power.

The beguilements of Meyer Schapiro Abroad should not blind us to the grand themes that circulate through these informally composed letters and notebook pages. If the artists and historians of the 19th century had embraced Gothic art and architecture with a fiery passion, in the 20th century it was the art before Gothic — the achievements of the Byzantine, Early Christian, and Romanesque periods — that preoccupied many of the most adventuresome thinkers and creators. Although the fascination with the Romanesque originated deep in the 19th century, there was something about the blunt directness of Romanesque art that proved especially appealing to eyes attuned to the work of Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse. For Schapiro, the Romanesque had a boldness, maybe even an impetuousness. “This rapidly evolving productiveness in all the arts,” he observed in a letter to Lillian, “the great energy of the builders, and the transmission of the newer ideas over large areas from North France to Spain to Italy or even Syria in a little time, remind one of the history of the modern sciences.” This is a fascinating remark. What Schapiro was finding in the Romanesque was a headstrong experimental spirit, an indifference to received ideas, a desire to discover new forms — and all of this somehow suggested a premodern avant-garde, the excitements of scientific discovery.

Meyer Schapiro’s 1926 passport

Living in Europe in 1926 and 1927, Schapiro was aware that many of the Europeans whom he met did not share his optimistic spirit, and perhaps part of what made him such an appealing figure was his immunity to anything but the most fleeting feelings of disappointment. “About Europe every intelligent man I have spoken to is depressed,” he wrote to Lillian. “This is the end of the world; all culture, & goodness are dying from external economic & political troubles. Science keeps on producing in a blind, mechanical way things intrinsically beautiful but unavailing: there is still a little art, decadent, however —; the hegemony passes to America — There is such certainty about this in the few I have heard, that it is impossible to question, — ” At times, even this man who was bewitched by the wonders of scholarship seemed to find something quixotic about the life of the mind as he saw it pursued in Europe. “I am overwhelmed by the libraries of the world which surely contain 10,000,000 monographs — & the books, stores & quais, & the pages rotting in warehouses — which no search for proposed truth or man’s happiness designed, but the professional practice of printing, broadcasting personal details.” Perhaps it was in response to this nightmare vision of writings rotting in warehouses that Schapiro in his maturity sometimes seemed to prefer thinking and talking to writing and publishing, despite the large number of essays he ultimately produced. Perhaps he wanted to preserve the speculative spirit of those early adventures in Europe. He may have hoped to give even his deepest insights a lightness, a liveliness.

What one feels strongly here, at the beginning of Schapiro’s career, is a mingling of joyousness and exactitude that would characterize his thought to the very end. I cannot say I knew Schapiro, but I did study with him, taking a seminar in Sociology of Art that he offered in the fall of 1971, my senior year in the College. What I remember is what many probably remember, which is the blending of austere discipline and brilliant volubility. When he heard that I was planning to be a painter rather than an art historian, he seemed to think I might not be serious enough for the seminar, observing, “You know that this is a work course.” (I did, for the record, receive an A.) And at the end of one visit to his office, when I was halfway out the door, he noticed that I had left my New York Times on a table and seemed slightly disapproving of my forgetfulness. Yet, what I recall more than anything from those afternoons in the seminar room was the unpredictable range of his remarks, the comments that turned into miniature discourses and left the afternoon’s putative subject far behind. One day he discussed the place of aesthetic judgment in the traditional Jewish home, expatiating on the visual power of the Sabbath table, with its white cloth and its symmetrical arrangement of candles, wine, and bread. Another time, when a student was presenting one of Andy Warhol’s silk-screened self-portraits as part of a seminar report, Schapiro launched into a brilliant psychological analysis of Warhol’s pose, in which the artist’s fingers covered his mouth. (I already had developed a distaste for Warhol’s work, and remember thinking that this was an awful lot of intellectual firepower to squander on an essentially meretricious image.)

The Meyer Schapiro of these early letters was wise beyond his years, with a self-confidence so magnificently unflappable that it can leave a reader smiling with pleasure — and even astonishment. The miracle was that he never lost the avidity that had sent him dashing across Europe in 1926 and 1927. Back in New York he would study and teach and take part in many of the great political and artistic adventures of the midcentury years, a man who cared for both politics and art. He was active in the anti-Communist Left, a founder with Irving Howe and others of the magazine Dissent, and a friend to the abstract expressionists, especially Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman. He was a pure New York product, at once pragmatic and adventuresome and optimistic, and surely he saw something of those same virtues in the Romanesque artists, those anonymous craftsmen whose work he had fallen in love with as a young man and about whom he would be thinking and lecturing and writing for the rest of his life.

Jed Perl ’72CC is the art critic for the New Republic and the author, most recently, of Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World.

  Believe and Succeed

By Glyn Vincent

The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem
By Patrick J. McCloskey ’98JRN (University of California Press, 480 pages, $27.50)

Patrick J. McCloskey’s candid and vividly told book, The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem, takes us into the no-frills classrooms of Rice High School and shines a bright light onto the world of an all-boys school and urban parochial education. Front and center in McCloskey’s compelling narrative is Orlando Gober, the outspoken first black principal of Rice, who hands incoming freshmen Bic pens stamped with the slogan Believe and Succeed.

For freshman Ricky Rodriguez, a borderline student, donning the Rice sweater represents his best chance to graduate from high school and go on to college. But the transition from a public elementary school to Rice, where discipline is strict and academic standards are high, is difficult. It doesn’t take long for Rodriguez, a testy Dominican, who is frequently baited by other students, to get into trouble.

“‘I can’t deal with this place, man,’” Rodriguez tells Christopher Abbasse, Rice’s ponytailed dean of students. “‘You always on my back, yo. . . . I’m used to being myself at public school. . . . I didn’t have to worry about getting a 70, or rules about behavior and dress code. We have to talk a certain way at Rice. Damn, we have to watch out for the N-word and be on time. There I could show up when I wanted and say whatever. At Rice, there’s demands every minute and I don’t know how to handle them all.’”

After a long talk with Abbasse about Rice rules and philosophy, Rodriguez realizes that if he doesn’t shape up he is going to lose his privately funded voucher, which paid for his Rice tuition. Rodriguez doesn’t want to end up back in public school. He doesn’t want to disappoint his mother, who supports him and his younger sister with the $200 a week she earns as a waitress. With Abbasse’s help, he keeps his temper in check and improves his grades.

Catholic-school teaching traditionally stresses rules, a core curriculum taught to all students, and the inculcation of moral values. Principal Gober, who converted to Catholicism, frequently booms, “Conform or leave!” at his freshman class. McCloskey credits much of Gober’s success in increasing enrollment and improving academic achievement at Rice to his insistence that street culture, from use of the N-word to the wearing of do-rags, be kept out of the school. Gober also emphasizes the importance of intensive one-on-one counseling, encourages academic achievement (he established 70 as the minimum passing grade), and celebrates good behavior at every opportunity. Most important, Gober is a respected father figure for the many students without male role models at home. We learn that his tenure was a short one: Gober died in 2005 of complications from diabetes.

Parochial schools like Rice have educated generations of Irish, Italian, and other European immigrants. Today, the faculties of Catholic schools are overwhelmingly nonreligious. They serve large African American (often non-Catholic) and Hispanic communities, spend much less per pupil than does the average public school, and graduate more than 70 percent of their urban male students. In many inner-city public schools, McCloskey says, fewer than 40 percent of black and Latino males make it to graduation.

The Street Stops Here is being released at a time when Catholic schools, the only affordable alternative to public schools for many urban families, are being shuttered by the dozen. According to a new study, urban Catholic schools have lost 27 percent of their students since 1989. White flight to the suburbs has emptied the pews and coffers of Catholic urban dioceses. And while the Obama administration has increased federal funding for education, it remains resistant, so far, to government-funded voucher programs (a drain on resources away from public schools, some say), which, McCloskey argues, could help low-income families send their children to parochial schools.

McCloskey, a Canadian-American journalist, knows from personal experience how hard it is for these families to keep their children out of trouble and provide them with a good education. He got the idea for his book in the late 1990s, when, as a single parent with a modest income, he embarked upon the difficult task of finding an academically sound and affordable high school in the New York City area for his daughter. The public schools he tried were inadequate, and the private school in Brooklyn, where he eventually enrolled his daughter, cost $16,000 a year. McCloskey paid the tuition, in part, by waiting tables at a steak house in Brooklyn.

In 1996, he enrolled part-time in Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and began to write articles about inner-city schools. Under the tutelage of Samuel G. Freedman, a journalism school professor who teaches a celebrated course in book writing, McCloskey put together the concept for a book on parochial education. It took 12 years for him to report and write The Street Stops Here, for which Freedman wrote the foreword.

During the 1999–2000 school year, McCloskey immersed himself as a journalist-in-residence at Rice. He was given complete access, and his observations are frank. He takes us into the local bar where veteran teachers gather after work and into run-down apartment buildings that some students go home to at the end of the day. But the touchstone of the book is Rice’s mercurial and visionary principal. A former Black Panther and activist, Gober does not always agree with his Catholic administrators and is prone to fits of messianic zeal. Mostly, though, he goads his acolytes to empower themselves and win “the war against the culture of academic failure” and anti-intellectualism that he believed dooms many young urban black men.

Undoubtedly, Gober’s fervor and charisma contributed to the turnaround of students like Ricky Rodriguez. But McCloskey points to the pedagogical method at work at Rice, which the principal pounded into his students and faculty, as the key to the school’s success. Again and again, Gober exhorts his students to take responsibility for their futures, to be disciplined, and to place academic achievement above all else, including even the glory of Rice’s famous basketball team. That may seem old-fashioned compared to the holistic, more creative programs of some charter schools, but virtually all of Rice’s graduates who apply are accepted to colleges, and some even make it into the Ivy League.

Rodriguez, by the way, graduated from Clarkson University in 2007.

Glyn Vincent ’98JRN writes about cultural and social issues.

  He Cannot Escape History

By Nina Silber

Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World
Edited by Eric Foner ’63CC, ’69GSAS (W. W. Norton, 336 pages, $27.95)

Lincoln scholars live in happy times. Perhaps not since the 1860s has the 16th president received so much attention, a great portion of it emanating from Barack Obama’s presidency. Obama himself has made the links explicit, first declaring his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, then expressing interest in Lincoln’s so-called Team of Rivals–style cabinet, and, most recently, echoing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with his inaugural theme of A New Birth of Freedom. If the historical present has not already done enough to excite interest in the past, we have now entered the Lincoln bicentennial year, the 200th anniversary of his birth on February 12, 1809, near the village of Hodgenville, Kentucky. Scores of books, museum exhibits, and dramatic works have appeared or stand waiting in the wings. If there is yet no video game featuring a digitized Abraham Lincoln felled by the assassin’s bullet, perhaps we won’t have long to wait.

For those who fear wading through the flood of Lincolniana, fortunately some of the most insightful of the latest Lincoln scholarship has been gathered in Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, a one-volume collection of essays edited by Eric Foner ’63CC, ’69GSAS, Columbia’s DeWitt Clinton Professor of History. These 11 essays by historians tackle Lincoln’s life and career, his religion, family, attitudes toward race and slavery, and military leadership, as well as the use and misuse of the Lincoln legacy by both his contemporaries and later generations.

Eschewing what he sees as a trend toward overspecialization in Lincoln studies, narrow examinations of Lincoln’s humor or melancholy or sexuality, Foner has compiled articles that focus less on Lincoln from a strictly biographical perspective and more on a broadly contextualized Lincoln, a man who was very much shaped by the social and political dynamics of his time. The result is a set of perceptive pieces, many of which will force readers to understand Lincoln’s limitations and gain a deeper appreciation of his contributions. Acknowledging the ambiguity that drives Lincoln studies — Was he a staunch white supremacist or a proponent of racial equality? A deeply religious individual or fiercely atheistic? A devoted family man or a husband tormented by a neurotic wife? — the contributors to Our Lincoln provide a more complicated and a more deeply human portrait.

This is a collection, then, that is refreshingly devoid of hagiography. Not that Lincoln doesn’t come in for considerable praise in some essays, but the praise never rings hollow. James McPherson, for example, challenges those who have disregarded Lincoln’s abilities as commander in chief, rightly arguing that war was the defining element of Lincoln’s presidency. As a relative novice in military matters, Lincoln erred on certain occasions, most notably in his reluctance to replace incompetent generals. But as McPherson shows, Lincoln astutely recognized the intertwining of war and politics, and managed to effectively assess military matters, down to even fairly specific levels of strategy and operations. For example, Lincoln grasped something the Union army’s general in chief, George McClellan, never did during his ill-fated 1862 campaign on the Virginia Peninsula: the need to engage the enemy wherever he was, rather than occupy specific places where there was no enemy presence.

Praised by McPherson for his acumen in military affairs, Lincoln receives a few knocks from scholars who evaluate his record regarding constitutional powers and race relations. Mark Neely of Penn State, providing an insightful reading of Lincoln’s initial suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in the arresting and holding of suspected secessionist sympathizers, finds considerable confusion in Lincoln’s preliminary attempts to rationalize his decisions.
In his own essay for the volume, Foner looks at Lincoln’s support for colonization, a program that had fairly wide support among whites in the years prior to the Civil War as a way to settle freed slaves in Africa, Haiti, South America, or some other locale outside the United States. According to Foner, not only did Lincoln promote a misguided scheme that ruined the lives of a few hundred blacks, he also fed into a climate of racial hysteria and intolerance that surfaced as the prospect of emancipation neared: colonization was, after all, a means of getting rid of unwanted blacks. Even more, says Foner, the impractical nature of the scheme should give pause to those scholars who see Lincoln as the consummate politician and clear-thinking pragmatist.

James Oakes, author of The Radical and the Republican about Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, provides one of the best essays in the collection. Oakes skillfully dispels the confused assessments of Lincoln’s attitudes toward race by identifying three different arenas in which Lincoln contemplated racial equality. Lincoln,
he explains, embraced equal rights for black Americans in the realm of natural rights (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) and, by the time of his presidency, in the realm of citizens’ rights. Regarding certain specific political and civic practices, however, such as voting and marriage, Lincoln believed it best to defer to the states, a decision, Oakes points out, that meant deferring to prejudice and discrimination.

Two other essays deserve special mention. Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco reminds us of Lincoln’s eloquence, not by heralding Lincoln as a forerunner of modern 20th-century prose, but by showing us how Lincoln’s language was a product of a 19th-century world in which speaking, and the aural experience, mattered greatly. In the volume’s final essay, Yale’s David Blight writes about the ongoing contest over the meaning of Lincoln’s legacy, and especially the tendency of present-day Republicans to claim the mantle of Lincoln. Despite their disavowal of so many of his political beliefs, including his commitment to use the federal government to advance the rights of an oppressed minority, Republicans, Blight observes, “ride Lincoln’s coattails,” seeking “a warrant of the past” as a crucial touchstone for political legitimacy in the present. Yet clearly, as the current political climate suggests, Republicans are not the only ones who look to Lincoln for this blessing. Perhaps readers of Our Lincoln will be better prepared than most to judge how well today’s political leaders — whether Democrat or Republican — can rightfully claim to be the inheritors of Lincoln’s legacy.

Nina Silber is professor of history at Boston University and the author of Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (2005) and Gender & the Sectional Conflict (2009).

  Not in My Neighborhood

By Cindy Rodríguez

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
By Thomas J. Sugrue ’84CC (Random House, 688 pages, $35)

On a warm June night in 1950, four black students from Crozer Theological Seminary drove from Chester, Pennsylvania, into New Jersey looking for a place to eat. A half hour later they came across a diner in Maple Shade called Mary’s Cafe. They walked in and sat down, but the waitress refused to serve them.

The students complained; one cited a recent New Jersey antidiscrimination law. In response, the owner pulled out a gun. The four ran outside as the owner fired once into the air. One of the students was Martin Luther King Jr. At the time he was 21, working on his second bachelor’s degree, and had been living in the bubble of a progressive, racially mixed college town in Pennsylvania. Several years earlier he had written to his sister that in the North, “We can go anywhere we want.” Mary’s Cafe was his introduction to Jim Crow in the North.

King’s story seems discordant with the popular historical treatment of segregation. Say “Jim Crow” and most people reflexively think, “South,” the land of lynchings, whites-only drinking fountains, and seats in the back of the bus. But a separate, parallel universe of bigotry existed throughout the North, even in predominantly black enclaves such as Harlem, where some local stores refused to hire blacks.

In his book Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, historian Thomas J. Sugrue takes us on a journey of the “Jim Crow North,” places where the “colored only” signs may have been missing but the sentiment was not. In suburban communities throughout the North, black families were prohibited from owning property during much of the 20th century. Sugrue ’84CC, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, writes about the devious strains of racism and xenophobia that existed throughout the North, which resulted in whites-only restaurants, stores, hotels, clubs, beaches, parks, and cinemas.

In his much-lauded Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996), Sugrue explained the forces that kept blacks marginalized in postwar Detroit. Discriminatory housing covenants, whites-only federal mortgage programs, and segregated auto plants created gaping inequalities that fueled animosity and turned Detroit into the most racially divided metropolitan area in the country.

His new book looks at a broader period, from 1920 to the end of the century, analyzing uprisings in Northern cities and how pioneering leaders and the black press helped connect people, allowing protests to turn into national movements.

If we’ve heard about the contributions of enlightened white Northerners partnering with stoic black leaders, fighting against the entrenched racist mind-set of the South, Sweet Land of Liberty provides a more accurate picture of struggles blacks had in the North, correcting the popular view that segregation happened solely below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Sugrue tells stories of black entertainers, such as singer-actress Josephine Baker, who found herself rejected by 36 hotels throughout New York City before she found a room during a visit in 1948. A black comic troupe resorted to wrapping turbans on their heads and faking Arabic so they could enter restaurants and hotels.

Northern battles for equality were often protracted. In 1951, blacks began protesting Cincinnati’s Coney Island amusement park, which barred them. Activists picketed and handed out leaflets, but that didn’t work. They blocked the park’s entrance with their cars, but were arrested. Jailed protesters tried going on hunger strikes. In 1955, the park operators finally agreed to allow blacks to enter, but didn’t permit them to use the swimming pool or dance pavilion. In 1961, 10 years after the first protests began, the park was finally integrated after members of the NAACP were arrested at the pool.

Sugrue devotes a chapter to political strategist Henry Lee Moon’s 1948 book, Balance of Power: The Negro Vote, which lays a plan for blacks to mobilize as an electoral bloc to show that even a marginalized group can wield power. Moon’s thesis convinced President Harry S. Truman to embrace a civil rights platform, which some analysts credit for helping him defeat New York governor Thomas E. Dewey in 1948.

But while segregation may seem like an ugly part of America’s past, Sugrue reminds us that it still lingers. Barack Obama may have broken the highest glass ceiling in America, yet many schools across America — in both the North and South — remain as segregated as they were 50 years ago, with minority children clustered in poorly run schools that have inadequate facilities, outdated books, and a high rate of uncertified teachers.

Blacks are aware of these disparities, Sugrue writes, but it’s an issue whites still don’t clearly see.


Utopia Limited

By Kate Cusack

Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias
By Andrew D. Blechman ’93JRN
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 256 pages, $25)

“Welcome to Florida’s Friendliest Hometown!” heralds the entrance to The Villages, a colossal planned retirement community in the center of the state. It houses about 75,000 people and is physically larger than Manhattan. Yet its size is not its most striking feature. The Villages is a lifestyle, one that many seniors (some as young as 55) are eagerly buying into. Boasting numerous country clubs, recreation centers, and golf courses, The Villages also hosts two downtowns, each with its own fake history. Spanish Springs resembles a mix of a Spanish colonial village and an old western town, built where, as The Villages’ legend has it, Ponce de León traveled while searching for the fountain of youth; and Sumter Landing is equipped with a functioning lighthouse that was supposedly built in the 1830s. The Villages promotes a sense of community, security, and the unabashed pursuit of enjoyment.

When his New England neighbors Dave and Betsy, 55 and 62, suddenly moved to The Villages, Andrew D. Blechman ’93JRN (author of Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird) trekked down to check it out. During his monthlong stay, Blechman befriended many of the residents, some of whom had come to The Villages for the weather and community, others for the golf or safe living conditions, and some for the hassle-free lifestyle or low taxes (the residents tend to vote against school-tax proposals). But many seniors, like Dave and Betsy, come because they feel that they have worked hard, made it, and can now relax and do whatever they please — literally. Some golf daily, others take advantage of the free entertainment, and others try to find new love — or, in some cases, simply pleasure.

Blechman goes deep into the phenomenon of major retirement communities spreading across the nation, detailing the development of Youngtown, Arizona, which was begun in 1954 and is considered the first; the Sun Cities, Youngtown’s later neighbors; and The Villages, originally a small trailer park, which soon exploded into the behemoth leisure community that it is now. Blechman also relates his personal experiences as a visitor: being chastised during a game of cutthroat bingo, and getting passed near the links by men in souped-up golf carts. Before long, the author was unsettled by the mandated uniformity, the easy-listening music that’s punctuated by constant reminders of the good life (“It’s another beautiful day here in The Villages”) broadcast through speakers in the plastic rocks along the streets, and the Truman Show–like feeling of being removed from the real world. “I’m oddly comforted by the fact that there’s been continued violence in the Middle East,” Blechman writes on day one of his stay.

More disturbing to him, however, is the exclusion of children and young people, who can visit but had better not try to enjoy The Villages’ hospitality for more than 30 days per year. Whatever the original motivation of the residents to live in these childless communities — the low crime rate, the low tax rates, the quietude, the desire to enjoy themselves or just to be among peers — many of them want to keep their neighborhoods as age-segregated bubbles. So, some residents have turned into child-reporting watchdogs. In addition, owing to the questionable governance of The Villages, a privately owned community in effect run by the developer, seniors are more or less required to relinquish some of their civil rights — an arrangement about which the residents are surprisingly blasé. “Just as long as they keep this place looking so nice, and they keep on building more golf courses, then I’m happy,” reasons Blechman’s former neighbor. As a result, Blechman argues, these communities both permit segregation by age and foster the estrangement of seniors from their original communities, to the detriment of all. They also engender bizarre feelings of entitlement, as an incident in pre–age-integrated Youngtown illustrates: a woman who ran over a child claimed that “the child should never have been crossing the street, because schoolchildren aren’t allowed to live [here].” Blechman’s research and experience justifiably serve to strengthen his aversion: “No clever euphemism can hide the fact that these communities are based on a selfish and fraudulent premise — the exclusion of children and families. And no amount of volunteerism and continuing-education courses . . . can compensate for the high societal price of this exclusionary lifestyle.”

The book ends with a call to action: “We as a nation [must] once again recognize the importance of our elders, whom we often treat less than admirably.” We need to strive to better understand and fulfill seniors’ needs, and to strengthen the ties among the generations, rather than excluding those at either end, Blechman says. He rightly points out the flaws of a culture that doesn’t meet its seniors’ needs and from which seniors who can afford it simply secede. He also presents a strong case for a readjustment of our societal values and behavior as he ponders the future of these gated communities and the communities left behind. (Since publication of the book, the financial crisis has affected many of the communities, some of which are lowering their age limits while others stagnate with unfinished projects. The Villages, meanwhile, has recently encountered trouble with the IRS.)

The book also provides food for thought about subtler, and perhaps deeper, flaws in our society. At one point, Blechman elaborates on our country’s obsession with convenience: “We invented and popularized fast food, drive-throughs, and the La-Z-Boy recliner. . . . So why not build an entire community predicated on convenience — even if it’s an illusion?” Blechman also focuses on the sex lives of the seniors (at times in rather too much detail) as another example of their hedonism. Yet his conclusion, which includes a call for sacrificing for one’s community and its children, would be more comprehensive were he to develop the idea of the need for sacrifice in all areas of both public and private life. Because our need for instant gratification has permeated everything, leisurevilles are just one symptom of this larger epidemic.

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