Almost Perfect

The rise and fall of Perfection, South Florida's biggest and boldest New Urbanist community

Farnsworth just snickered. With her as instigator, CACS and its sympathizers launched a covert "monkey-wrenching" scheme to discourage Towne Centre shoppers. They picketed. They held sit-ins. Yet when a few store windows were shattered by bricks, CACS members insisted they had nothing to do with it.

All the while Farnsworth's rhetoric grew increasingly militant: "We will take back our neighborhood," she promised, arching an artfully penciled eyebrow, "by any means necessary."

Among these means was a team of gatekeepers called the New Neighborhood Watch, a radical arm of CACS. The group hired people to pose as construction workers, Florida Power & Light employees, and landscapers. These fake laborers, many of them aspiring actors from a nearby university drama department, were posted all over Perfection, poised to ask "questionable-looking" passersby for the day's password. It was real-estate profiling. If someone failed the test, on-call militiamen would move in to expel the individual, forcibly if need be, from the premises.

To fortify this strategy, the renegade neighborhood watch blocked grid streets to create those familiar, beloved cul-de-sacs. Without through traffic, passersby could also be more easily monitored by the tiny surveillance cameras installed in mailboxes.

The tactics were effective. Much to Antonio's dismay, even a few real Perfection residents were temporarily barred from the development. These incidents quickly convinced the few who had previously failed to cooperate with CACS to change their ways. Or else.

Antonio wanted to fight back, but he was trapped. Because no one wanted to diminish the houses' market value, Perfection's problems remained unknown to outsiders. Fearing increased security would draw negative publicity, he instead hired private investigators.

The battle over Perfection escalated. With two private armies pitted against each other, Mayor Grunwald cut ties to the area. Venus Springs' police had nominal jurisdiction over Perfection, but the cops, who wanted no part of this suburban guerrilla war, simply stopped responding to calls from the development. The message to residents was clear: You're on your own.

Outside Perfection, national media hype had nonetheless made proximity to the celebrated development a selling point for other builders. The first look-alike project, Reflection, upped the aesthetic ante by filling natural wetlands to make room for idyllic Japanese-style water gardens replete with lily pads and real, albeit nonnative, goldfish. In order to promote chi, or positive energy, throughout the neighborhood, shiny, reflective banners were hung near Reflection's east-facing entrances. "Feng Shui from $475,000!" boasted advertisements.

The more expensive Perfection and its environs became, the more residents came to view its New Urbanism-mandated affordable housing as a waste of valuable space. Residents resented being forced to mix with less affluent apartment dwellers; new neighborhood watch operatives who had infiltrated Perfection's management group saw an opportunity to make a profit and keep out "those people." Rather than renting the townhouse apartments above the empty Towne Centre stores, the moles within Perfection management sold them to other residents, who then knocked down the walls to create penthouse suites -- ostensibly rented by phantom low-income tenants. Cunning homeowners, abetted by insiders, also surreptitiously cashed in on government-subsidy programs by counting tool sheds and doghouses as affordable housing units.

Just past the palm-lined entrances to Perfection and Reflection, a similarly sinister development began. A ring of strip malls spread out to serve the burgeoning population. Since the housing developments all but banned retail to their shared periphery, that's exactly where such businesses cropped up, creating an exurban circle of commercial developments with copycat names like "Perfection Junction," and "The Shoppes at Reflection." The growth came so quickly that, even after Antonio funded a road-widening project, traffic was clogged and accidents were frequent. It was déjà vu -- suburban sprawl all over again.

Many Perfection residents resented such perceived eyesores, and some even refused to shop in the stores. Their antigrowth campaign was bolstered by the entrepreneurial efforts of one of Perfection's youngest residents, 32-year-old software executive Blake Bentworth. The boyish redhead launched "RoomService.com," Perfection's online concierge that recalled an earlier era, when grocery stores and milk trucks offered home delivery. (His trucks always traveled with a neighborhood watch escort.) It also eliminated the need for residents to shop in Perfection's struggling Towne Centre, which irked its few remaining retailers. They appealed to Perfection management but did so to no avail. In 2007 the last store, Lickety Splits Candy and Ice Cream Shoppe, closed its doors. Perfection's Towne Centre has stood empty ever since.

The disconnect between Perfection's outer image and inner life was, for many residents, too great to bear. With no center, retail or otherwise, to hold the community together, Perfection residents became all the more isolated. Neighbors avoided one another for fear of conflict over their politicized home. They rushed to and from their cars, and front-porch chats were a thing of the past. Some parents even forbade their children to play outdoors.

Then something amazing happened. All of a sudden, a house "accidentally" caught fire, and Perfection was put to the test. Earlier the development had lost service from the area fire department, and Perfection residents had purchased their own used truck and equipment and formed a volunteer fire department. But the ad hoc crew was slow to respond and ill-equipped to quell the blaze. No one was injured in Perfection's first major fire, but the home burned to the ground.

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