The Revolution Comes to Rossmoor 

As the Vietnam War generation invades senior communities, an old generation gap rears its ugly head.

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Nothing has inflamed this tension quite like the controversial Creekside Development, a plan by Rossmoor executives to borrow $22 million and build a variety of new amenities, including an indoor pool and fitness center geared in part toward the boomer appetite for healthy living. Despite Rossmoor's tony atmosphere, hundreds if not thousands of its residents live near the poverty line in shabby apartments, dependent on Social Security and perhaps a modest pension. Many of them nurse dark fears that the Creekside plan will load up Rossmoor with so much debt that their monthly membership dues will spike to cover the costs. If Creekside goes bad, they say, they'll be forced to move out so the Baby Boomers can have a new space for their Pilates sessions.

Rossmoor citizens Sheldon Solloway and Jim Jackson formed the Committee for Open and Responsive Government, CORG for short, in part to give residents a say in big capital projects like Creekside. Three years ago, they campaigned for a community ballot initiative that required the Golden Rain Board to seek approval of Rossmoor voters for all major capital expenditures. The initiative passed by a three-to-one margin, and many CORG candidates won board seats in a divisive election. But in September, a Superior Court judge threw out the new bylaw, and some of CORG's leaders have begun fighting amongst themselves and quitting the group in disgust.

Today, as Rossmoor prepares to bet millions on the new face of retirement, CEO Adams claims CORG's problems signal the last gasp of a generation for whom citizenship and public life meant something. "A lot of the older residents are very much the old-time liberals," he says. "As they leave, then the people moving in will never have known the deprivation of the Depression, the tragedy of the war. That's the group that's taking over. And what you're seeing is far more apathy. Or perhaps not apathy -- their interest is other than getting involved in governing the community."


As the postwar years created the largest middle class in history, and Social Security and pension plans offered long-term security, millions of elderly Americans uncoupled their destinies from the fortunes of their children and charted a new, independent retirement, often in vast "active senior" communities. Starting in the 1950s, retirement centers with populations of ten thousand or more began springing up along the Sun Belt, creating new subcultures of self-governing, self-segregated elderly residents who live longer and more vigorously than ever before. Life after retirement can stretch past three decades, during which seniors build new identities beyond those of parent, professional, or spouse.

Ross Cortese had such a world in mind when he bought the Tice Valley from the family of shipping magnate Stanley Dollar and laid Rossmoor's first cornerstones. Up until the early '70s, Cortese had focused on low-cost housing, and a generation of teachers and factory workers on fixed incomes moved into his 3,300-plus cheap, medium-density apartments, which were organized into self-governing co-ops known as "mutuals." But before he could finish construction, a series of financial setbacks forced him to relinquish control of Rossmoor to the residents, who formed a nonprofit to govern community affairs, with a board of directors elected by the residents. A new developer took over construction of the remaining 3,400 units and went decidedly upscale, building first townhouse condominiums, and finally luxury homes that now fetch around $1 million. These days, retired senior executives cruise the links past the original two-story apartments, where many of their fellow seniors live on food stamps and meals on wheels.

Class division is just one aspect of the outside world replicated inside Rossmoor's gates. The valley is a city unto itself, with its own public works department to maintain roads, its own public transportation system, a city council in the form of the Golden Rain Board and, until the board leased out its medical center two weeks ago, its own health-care system. Rossmoor also operates a television channel that broadcasts low-impact morning exercise programs, videos of residents' Egyptian vacation cruises, and interactive bingo games. The Rossmoor News, a weekly newspaper operated by the Golden Rain board, employs a roster of reporters and editors and is packed with ads from Realtors, car dealers, and medical research centers seeking human guinea pigs to test new drugs for age-related disorders. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Barbara Boxer stumped for votes here.

Of course, no service is more highly developed than Rossmoor's recreation department. In addition to the ubiquitous golfers, dozens of groups offer classes and games from as early as six in the morning. The lawn bowling club conducts regular matches on the greens; the "hot flashers" dance troupe offers intermediate tap; and CB radio operators get together on Saturday mornings, followed by the Domino Club at noon. The Organ Melody Makers have been playing concerts since 1965, banging out hits such as "Chopsticks" and "Spanish Eyes." On Fun Day, mezzo-soprano Lisa Houston might sing arias from The Marriage of Figaro, or the Hawaiian band 'Ono Like might perform "Tiny Bubbles" prior to the bingo game. Rossmoor even offers getaways to Yakov Smirnoff routines in Reno, or tours around California tracing the life of Ronald Reagan.

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