Inside a town where young people aren’t allowed


Last summer, my wife and I visited our friends, Randy and Abby, at their desert home outside Tucson. They live in a retirement community with age-restriction covenants. Eighty percent of the homeowners have to be over 55 years old and the remaining 20 percent at least 40. Anyone under 19 is out of luck. 

I found the rules unsettling, though Randy, 72, and Abby, 65, didn’t seem to mind. I realize youth can be annoying, that life is noisier and riskier with youngsters present, and that the elderly may prefer the company of their peers. Still, it seemed extreme that seniors would entirely exclude the occasional child.

One difference was clear that first morning.  I stepped outside into a neighborhood that felt ghostly. Many residents travel during summer, but even homes with open garage doors looked clam-tight with the blinds drawn. Over an hour, only a man walking and one slow-going jogger passed by. Conspicuous by their absence, there were no mothers pushing strollers, tweens on skateboards or high schoolers. 

The covenants didn’t trouble our hosts. Randy had pals at a bicycle club. Abby loved to watch birds. City lights and a generational mix were close in Tucson. I respected their choice, but it wasn’t for me. 

I took early morning walks in the desert, where more was going on. August monsoons spiffed the Sonora up. Yellow and red flowers jutted, kaleidoscopic-like, from cactus.  Quail fluttered about, their chicks in tow. I spotted a cactus wren, hummingbirds, woodpeckers and a baby hawk on a branch. Javelina tracks marked a dry wash and a school of tadpoles squiggled down a rivulet. The not-so-barren desert was my balm for the absence of what I think makes a vital community.

Sun-touched saguaros in the Sonoran Desert.
Bob Wick/BLM

Randy and Abby love living in the desert, too. They were protective of a tarantula we tiptoed around in the driveway. Abby excitedly checked daily for bobcat tracks on top of the patio wall. The desert keeps them company as much as their friends do. It was exhilarating to turn in at night imagining our nocturnal neighbors, the diamondback rattlers, jackrabbits, gray foxes, packrats and great horned owls swooping, slithering and prowling around. I considered how thrilled kids would be to enjoy that sensation, too. 

I started mulling over the immensity of time, because the Arizona desert – eons ago a shallow sea – has that effect on me. The vast landscape invites perspective, in every sense. It was consoling. It’s easy to see how seniors love living in that meditative dimension. Yet I couldn’t help feel that it was selfish to leave younger generations out.

These adults-only communities are multiplying. Water permitting, they are extending from Tucson to Phoenix, a residential corridor that offers a short drive from shopping malls and urgent-care clinics. After business hours, old-timers can find quiet in their air-conditioned cocoons.

Tucson author Edward Abbey, who supposedly was interred not far from us in the Cabeza Prieta Desert, came to mind. Abbey called the wilderness “the only thing left worth saving” and despised the mass incursion of humans into the wild. Perversely, I bet the cantankerous writer would approve of these villages, arguing that places that don’t allow human reproduction quicken what may be the best outcome for the rest of life on Earth: the extinction of man.

It’s Nature that offers a saner alternative. Consider the giant saguaro we paused under one scorching afternoon. The holes in its arms were pecked by birds nesting there. Nature had arranged that a plant could serve as a cactus-condo for an entirely different species to raise its young. Meanwhile, back at the housing development with the strict Homeowners Association rules, humankind was forbidding its own to share living quarters unless you were of a certain age. 

The days zipped by. Soon we had to go. Boarding our plane, my wife helped a young mother with her baby. We ended up in the same row. My wife held the baby as the mother settled in. I goofed around with him as he tried to stick my fingers in his mouth. Then the mother put him on her lap and out popped her breast. I took a discreet peek. The baby was in seventh heaven, sucking and falling asleep at the same time. 

The mother smiled as the plane gained altitude, and my wife looked serene. I relaxed into my seat. I meant our gracious friends and their neighbors no ill will. Thank goodness, though, life was starting to feel whole again.

Elliot Silberberg is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is an American writer currently living in Italy.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].