The Ponzi State

Rate this post

All along State Road 54 in Pasco County, Florida—forty-five minutes northeast of Tampa—the pine trees and palmettos and orange groves have been cleared to make way for new developments. Over the past few years, these inland subdivisions, which are sometimes called “boomburgs,” appeared as if overnight. Developers dreamed up instant communities and christened them with names evoking the ease of English manor life: Ashton Oaks, Saddle Ridge Estates, the Hammocks at Kingsway. Across flat and empty fields of wire grass, the developers paved suburban streets and called them Old Waverly Court and Rolling Greene Drive. They parcelled out lots smaller than a quarter acre and built, with concrete blocks and stucco, look-alike two-story beige and yellow houses; columned archways over the front doors lent an illusion of elegance. The houses sold for two or three hundred thousand dollars to some of the thousand or so people who moved to Florida every day, or to middle-class people who already lived there but wanted to get farther away from Tampa, where most of them had jobs. Nearby, shopping malls and megachurches sprang up. By last year, Pasco County, where twenty thousand people lived in 1950, had nearly half a million residents. A few days after the Presidential election of 2004, the Times devoted an article to Pasco County, saying that it was the kind of place that had given Florida, and the White House, to George W. Bush. The county’s growth fuelled a real-estate boom that, by the middle of this decade, was bigger and gaudier than anything the state had ever seen.

Recently, I drove around some of the subdivisions on State Road 54, as well as in other parts of Tampa Bay and in southwest Florida. A friend from Tampa, who accompanied me on one outing, called them “ghost subdivisions.” I didn’t understand what he meant until we drove into a development called Twin Lakes, where there was nobody on the gently curving streets except for a solitary middle-aged woman, who was watering her lawn in hip-hugging Capri jeans, a sleeveless top, and silvery-green eyeshadow. Her name was Bunny—“just Bunny”—and she was a native New Yorker who had grown up on Utopia Parkway, in Queens. She had pursued the sun and the good life to Hawaii, Arizona, and West Palm Beach, before ending up in Twin Lakes. Some of the houses around Bunny’s were occupied, she said, but a good number were for sale. In the past two years, property values in Twin Lakes had dropped by more than a hundred thousand dollars. One house had been for sale for almost two years.

Farther east on State Road 54, in a subdivision called Country Walk, there were streets whose pavement stopped a few feet from where it began, as if the developer had changed his mind. I saw streets with signs and street lamps but no houses, and streets with houses but no occupants. Overhead, the sky was brilliant aquamarine, and the structures looked like cardboard cutouts. Dozens of houses had “For Sale” signs in the front yard, some of them standing next to collapsed inflatable Santa Clauses. On Pumpkin Ridge Road, house after house appeared to be waiting for inhabitants—carpeted white rooms with no furniture—or deserted. Five minutes after I rang the doorbell at one house, an old woman missing two front teeth opened her door a few inches and peered out. I asked where her neighbors had gone. “I don’t know anything,” she said. “I’ve only been here since October.” In front of the house at the corner, three copies of the Tampa Tribune—one of them dated September 27th—lay on the pavers. I looked through the kitchen window: the refrigerator doors hung open and on the floor were piles of trash, including a sign that said “For Sale by Owner.” The grass outside was overgrown, and yellow from a recent drought.

To the south, on a rural road off U.S. 301 in Hillsborough County, I turned in to a subdivision called Tanglewood Preserve. The sales center was shuttered and construction had been arrested: thirty-two lonely houses were scattered around three hundred and sixty-six lots, with patchy fields for back yards. At the corner of Tangle Brook Boulevard and Tangle Bend Drive, there was a two-story beige stucco house with a black Ford Explorer and a Chevy Venture parked in the driveway. A woman named Angie Harris lived there with her five children. She was thirty-six years old, a Navy veteran, black, with short hair and a stout, powerful body. She was the wife of a sailor stationed in Bahrain who was not due to return home until 2010. He had found the place in Tanglewood Preserve online, marked down from three hundred and twenty-six thousand dollars to two hundred and twenty-six thousand. “Go look,” he told her. “There’s something wrong, for that price.” But there was nothing wrong, other than the head-high grass out back, and so Harris bought it and moved in this past July. She placed four leopard-skin-patterned chairs around a table in the dining nook and put a brown leatherette sofa set in the carpeted living room. When I visited, Harris’s two younger daughters were watching cartoons on a large plasma television, with the volume low. On the kitchen counter were audio CDs of Dave Ramsey, a personal-finance adviser. Other than a few military plaques above the TV, the walls were bare. The blinds were drawn against the sunlight.

A group of original homeowners in the subdivision, who paid full price in 2006, had held a Thanksgiving gettogether to which newcomers like Angie Harris, who had bought in for much less, were not invited. She knew the name of only one other family in Tanglewood Preserve—she’d heard it from the real-estate agent. “It used to be people would wave,” she said, standing in her darkened living room in a “Verizon Wireless” sweatshirt and jeans. “Now they don’t, maybe because of the economy. It used to be Southern hospitality. Now it’s, like, grab your purse.”

After the development went into foreclosure and was sold, Harris received a letter from the new developer. It said that the building of new houses remained on indefinite hold, but also promised better maintenance of the vacant lots, and included a gift certificate to Publix, the supermarket chain.

I asked Harris if she wanted a few more neighbors. “Not really,” she said. “I want them to upkeep the property. And the playground they promised.” She had annual passes to all the theme parks around Tampa for her five kids; when she moved in, her back yard was a breeding ground for snakes, the subdivision’s common areas were not tended, and the open fields had become dumping grounds, so Harris seldom let her children play outside. She had grown up in Baltimore, where neighbors could spank one another’s children, and had lived in Brooklyn, and she had fond memories of street life in those old cities. But at Tanglewood Preserve, Harris was filled with suspicion, as if transience and isolation made her vulnerable. (Valrico, the town a few miles to the northeast where she had lived before, was overcrowded and beset with gangs.) “When we moved to Florida, the auto insurance went up a hundred dollars. ‘Florida is a fraudulent state’—that’s how they explained it. I don’t know if it’s like that across the board. It’s so much stuff that’s going on—in this day and age, you can’t trust people. The neighbors are leery of me, and maybe I’m leery of them.”

On State Road 54, there was a gated community called Hamilton Park. Toward evening, a woman was sitting in her open garage, smoking and talking on the phone. A covered Corvette was parked in the driveway. Exposed to the darkening street, the woman resembled a figure on a lighted stage, an impression deepened by the theatrical amount of clutter surrounding her: pots and pans, Masonic emblems, Art Deco fireplace tools, a metal desk, an Army Air Corps scrapbook from the Second World War, a fiftieth-wedding-anniversary album, piles of photographs and letters, brown porcelain cannisters, a Kodak Brownie Reflex camera with external flashbulb, “The Good Housekeeping Cook Book.”

“I’m liquidating everything at an auction,” the woman said, after hanging up. Her name was Lee Gaither. She had been on the phone with Verizon, trying to keep her Internet service from being cut off. The water bill was past due, and Gaither, who was renting the house, was facing eviction. (To avoid it, she had sold off her mother’s silverware, and some vintage furniture and jewelry, for thirteen hundred dollars.) Gaither, forty-seven years old, was slender and blond, with an educated voice; but her face was lined with exhaustion, and a scar ran under her left eye. She suffered from fibromyalgia, she said, and “something called lupus.” Disability payments were her only income. She was from Ohio by way of Virginia, and around her lay the precious debris that her family had passed down to her, including a document dated March 11, 1830, transferring from Kentucky to Ohio the remaining balance of a Revolutionary War veteran’s pension. In November, 2007, after financial ruin forced her to sell the family house in Vienna, Virginia, she had moved to Florida. She apologized for the disorder in the garage. “These are family heirlooms,” Gaither explained. “I might get a little for it.”

Gaither traced her disaster to her third husband, whom she’d met in Virginia. “He asked me to marry him in three weeks, and that was a big thrill,” she said, with a hint of apology. She had invested her savings in the man’s construction business, which turned out to be fraudulent. He is currently in jail in Virginia. He had put two race trucks and the Corvette in her name, leaving her with payments of thirty-three hundred dollars a month. One truck had already been repossessed, and the second had been totalled by a man who borrowed it from her. She was still hoping to sell the Corvette, which carried a balance due of twenty-six thousand dollars. “I don’t have it,” Gaither said, in a tone of quiet defeat.

Gaither’s only consolation was her son from her second marriage. He was an A student at the local high school and hoped to attend law school. “I’m really proud of him, obviously,” Gaither said. “It’s too quiet here. I thought it’d be a great neighborhood for him, but he really has no friends to do things with.” Next door, a couple had moved in and then suddenly moved out again, and another couple was now renting.

Other than her son, there was no one, she said. “It would be nice to have living relatives,” she said. “My family home—everything is gone. And here I sit, wondering if I can get the phone company not to cut me off.” Pinned to the back wall of the garage was a small card with the words “PEACE: it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of these things and still be calm in your heart.”

You are viewing this post: The Ponzi State. Information curated and compiled by along with other related topics.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here