The freeway east out of Los Angeles leads into the suburbs that speckle the Inland Empire, passes through green hills, and eventually swings by the monolithic Morongo Casino. This marks the passage into desert, where the road begins a slight decline into the Coachella Valley, flanked on either side by a forest of spinning wind turbines.
This is the route I’ve driven every family holiday and birthday for the past seven years, ever since my grandparents, tired of their increasingly crowded Arcadia neighborhood, packed up and moved into a brand new home in Sun City Palm Desert, a gargantuan gated community for “active adults” aged 55 and older. Sun City has almost 5,000 homes, nearly twice as many residents, and two 18-hole golf courses. It boasts 44 different home models, but you would never know it driving past one tan and yellow “Spanish” house, with its desert-landscaped front garden, after another.
With its uniform houses, empty streets, and carpet-green fairways built atop 1,600 acres of barren desert sand, Sun City looks unbearably artificial. And it is artificial, even, somehow, unethical–a remote and isolated fortress in which ordinary standards and expectations fall away. There is no dress code in Sun City (although you’ll see a lot of golf shirts and khakis). There is minimal engagement with the rest of the world: You will probably read fewer books and watch more TV. You can still poke your head over the walls of the complex and see the arid wasteland that surrounds Sun City, but who wants to? This abruptly imposed settlement offers its aging denizens “resort style living,” an intentional detachment from cities, a permanent vacation in the middle of nowhere. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote, “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real,” but for Sun City dwellers this is no longer the case. They happily accept that their home and community are a fabrication for their enjoyment. They take Sun City for what it is.
Passing through Sun City’s gates, we leave behind not just the real world but also our ordinary outside identities: horse trainer, county engineer, suburban house owner, theater student, high school orchestra geek. We become simply parents, children, and grandchildren in a celebration of the simple fact of progeny. For better or worse, there’s no space for anything else.
For Christmas, Thanksgiving, or a birthday, a dozen of us cram into my grandparents’ house to stay the night or the weekend. Most of our time–like that of all loving families with little else in common–is spent eating. Between meals and snacks and lying on the carpet recovering, some of us make it out of the house to take a walk, go for a swim, or venture outside Sun City’s gates to the closest Starbucks.
On one such occasion, when we’re out for a swim, my younger cousins start some playful splashing in the shallows. The horseplay escalates, and the rest of us join them. Half an hour later, we’re in an all-out three-generation bout of Marco Polo, the Marcos blind and reckless, diving in any direction at the smallest splash, the Polos scrambling ashore (fish out of water!) in a last, desperate attempt at escape. On the far side of the pool is another large family. Each family has remained in its own corner until now, but after enough splashing our family has spread our reach across the length of the pool, roping in the other group. Some of them join the game; others end up serving as shields for frantic Polos on the run. The adults laugh and shriek as much as the children, and we keep it up until the sun goes down and it’s too cold to stay outside.
We leave without exchanging names with the other family or even waving goodbye. Perhaps we should have better manners. But then again, maybe not. Sun City has no rules. We’ve just had a good time like a bunch of kids at summer camp, temporarily freed from our societal roles, in Sun City, where the real world never reaches.
Antal Neville is an intern at Zócalo Public Square.
*Photos by George Illes.