Almost Perfect

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

The helpless onlookers and lapping flames were a harbinger. Before long, another house caught fire, then another. Perfection's formerly sunny skies became perpetually cloudy, filled with a sooty gray haze. Homeowners complained about the poor air quality and the lack of services that allowed small fires to get out of hand in the first place.

They were smiling, though, when they cashed their insurance checks.

Though built to enhance the entire area, Perfection's jogging trails were eventually deemed off-limits to nonresidents
Though built to enhance the entire area, Perfection's jogging trails were eventually deemed off-limits to nonresidents

Benson sips a Scotch beside his swimming pool. The sky is bruised with sunset, casting a pinkish glow over the patio. It might have been the perfect emblem of relaxation, but black smoke billows in the distance, and Benson is bitter and tense.

Nearby another house has been burned and robbed. Someone carts away a DVD player. Whom can he call? The cops won't come, and the neighborhood watch is too busy sabotaging public telephones and restrooms.

Benson reclines in his chair, which makes a disconcerting scrape on the concrete patio. The chair is broken; Benson has attempted to fix it with duct tape. The Bensons didn't bother buying new pool furniture, he says, stroking his neatly trimmed beard. By way of explanation, he nods in the direction of the pool. Drained of water, it is pale and unsettling, bereft of refreshment.

Instead of swimming, Carrie, Bernard's 16-year-old daughter, rides her skateboard up the pool's sloping sides and back down again, grinding the board on the edge of the pool, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Carrie dropped out of the Perfection School and is now home-schooled by her mother. Bernard doesn't mind that her skateboarding may be scraping away the surface of the freeform gunite pool.

"Skateboarding's not a crime," he says, chuckling darkly. "Besides, the pool's not worth anything anyway."

Over the years crime and destructive infighting prompted property values in Perfection to plummet as sharply as they had risen. The Bensons are among the few holdouts; most original residents have long since left Perfection. Bernard Benson sought a place in Perfection in large part for the sense of community and, like Antonio, was slow to admit that the experiment wasn't going to work.

Meanwhile Rebecca Farnsworth dug in her spike heels, clinging desperately to her role as New Urbanism's opposition leader. While many residents were being burned out and relocating, Farnsworth hunkered down in her basement turned bunker. "I'm a survivor," she snarled. CACS members were afraid to travel to meetings at her home, so she held real-time meetings via the Internet. Though the audience couldn't see her, Farnsworth continued to dress the part. She wore a black T-shirt with "Never Surrender" spelled out in rhinestones.

Farnsworth vowed never to admit defeat. Benson is not so stalwart. With a gaping yawn, he stands up and stretches. He climbs the stairs and goes indoors, to bed. Things will be better, he says, in the morning.

At 8 a.m. the family leaves early for the beach. They return to a shocking sight. The distant fires must have somehow spread to their home, which is singed, smoldering, and wet.

The Bensons race out of the SUV. Carrie screams in surprise. (Or is it delight?) Perfection's volunteer firemen reel in the hoses. The pavement is slick and damp. Bernard fills out an accident report as Carrie hugs her skateboard to her chest and stifles a smile. Bystanders offer consolation. The air is choked with smoke, a dissipating cloud of gray that adds to the confusion.

"The cause of the fire?" Bernard asks, reading the form aloud. Then he turns, glances at his wife and daughter, and smiles: "Unknown."

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