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  • From Senior Citizen to Sun Citian:Aging and Race in Neoliberal Retirement
  • Flannery Burke (bio)

In the cartoon, two horseback riders, one male, one female, leap over a fence in pursuit of a pack of hounds and two fleeing children. "Tally-ho! Hunting in Sun City is Such Sport!" shouts one, obviously enjoying the chase as she spurs her horse on. The riders are inflated to ridiculous size, piles of wrinkled fat that no horse could balance. The children are cherubic, but terrified, seemingly straight from the pages of Hansel and Gretel. Ahead, a sign points to the nearest oxygen tank. Behind the scene stretches a golf course. The image was one of a series by cartoonist Steve Benson, who drew attention to the retirement community's aversion to the young and to the schools and city taxes that would support them.1

Benson pulled no punches, not even in deference to age. In the late 1980s, he ran another cartoon that called Sun Citians "Unincorporated, Untaxed, and Ungrateful." An assemblage of wrinkled and overweight figures bask in the sun, golf, play tennis, and count their money. A small street sign reads: "Kids will be shot."2 The caricature foretold the experiences of communities across the United States in the 1990s and early twenty-first century [End Page 589] as neighborhoods became more and more segregated by race, income, and age; the social services needed for community health and prosperity concentrated among the already well-off; and boundaries between neighborhoods became more violently policed.3 Nonetheless, the most notable elements of the cartoon are the grotesque old people. Phoenicians encountering the image over their morning coffee were more likely to shudder at the thought of growing old than they were to question how the city and the nation were caring for the elderly.

The jibes had begun at Sun City's inception as one of the first communities designed specifically for residents fifty-five and older. Jack Tucker, a retired Arizona journalist who self-published a book about Sun City in 1985, noted that "Sun City scarcely was born back in 1959 when the ribbing began. Some smart-aleck sociology experts called it a 'geriatric ghetto.'"4 The two words continued to be the refrain of Sun City's critics. Prejudice against the old and aging underlay criticisms of residents from the community's outset, but so too did Sun City's own aloofness. Arizona residents, such as Benson, resented outsiders arriving and ignoring local conditions, and even more distant observers noted that Sun City presented itself as free of the nation's problems. Such criticisms, however, often came veiled. The word "ghetto" was frequently the closest that even critics came to evoking the race and class structures that Sun City reproduced.

Intriguingly, the residents of Sun City did not call themselves citizens, but Sun Citians. Perhaps it is reading too much into the choice, but Sun Citians did not appear to want, or be able to accept, the obligations of citizens.5 Between 1960 and 1990, Sun City mirrored Arizona's and the nation's vexed relationship to urban civic responsibility and the aged. While historians of postwar Arizona have well described Phoenix's embrace of a neoliberal, capitalist urban system, they have less frequently addressed the intersection of such systems with the human life cycle.6 As a [End Page 590] retirement destination, Arizona offers an opportunity to see how the state's economic system interacted with a group new to the United States in the postwar period: senior citizens.7 The elderly not only presented cultural challenges as their numbers grew during the nation's postwar prosperity, they also posed material ones, often to the very economic engines driving unregulated growth. Individuals aged at Sun City, just as they did throughout the United States, but they did so in a suburban development that prized the growth of self-contained household units.8 The Sun City model capitalized on the fact that no one could turn the clock back while producing housing and urban services that developers called leisure-driven retirement. Politics in Arizona favored those Sun Citians with the resources to buy into the idea of leisure...