What’s not on trial in the Trayvon Martin case: a senseless shooting in a soulless place

It is called “The Retreat at Twin Lakes”: the platted subdivision where Trayvon Martin was shot to death by George Zimmerman. The story has captured the public imagination, and all the sharp distinctions of culture wars on steroids. But what of the place itself?

“The building of the Retreat at Twin Lakes is a classic Florida story,” begins the St. Pete Times. “Developers saw potential in the sandy acres east of Orlando and determined to turn them into an oasis. They planned a gated subdivision just 10 minutes from downtown — a cloistered community near the interstate, close to good schools, outlet malls and the magic of Disney World.”

What kind of an oasis is a gated community, really? There are no lakes at the Retreat at Twin Lakes. And it is only a retreat in the sense of withdrawal. Subdivisions across the American landscape are places where getting lost is crystallized. “The idea, as always, was that people could live peacefully in a paradise where nobody could park a car on the street or paint the house an odd color.”

But the houses are all the same, and not because it is what the market wants. Subdivisions like the Retreat at Twin Lakes fed the Wall Street derivatives machine. Mortgage backed securities were fabricated on the flimsiest of foundations; the notion that investor and shareholder risk could be dispersed and rewarded, using subdivisions to conform demographics to scalable investment models.

George Zimmerman was virtually a self-appointed, law enforcer in a soulless place dragged down by the real estate crash. He had the law on his side in a place that wasn’t much of a place at all the night Trayvon Martin died.

According to the Tampa Bay Times: “In 2004, Engle Homes began construction on 263 two-story townhouses, with upstairs porches and covered back patios and plenty of green space. Inside, the townhomes boasted granite countertops, hardwood floors, master suites and walk-in closets. Outside, there was a pond, a clubhouse and a community pool. Everything was walled in, to keep out the unknown.”

As the only person to volunteer when the homeowners association wanted to organize a community watch, Zimmerman was appointed coordinator by his neighbors, according to Wendy Dorival, Neighborhood Watch organizer for the Sanford Police Department.” I bet you couldn’t find two “neighbors” who vetted George Zimmerman.

Yes, there was a “community pool” at The Retreat, like any one of the million, half-hearted attempts at builder-created civic life in gated subdivisions in Florida. The chief feature of communal value: a soda machine.

The same way that it is difficult to be healthy living on an unhealthy planet, in platted subdivisions where nothing is built to last beyond the lifetime of particle board and sheetrock, how can anything last? Police had been called to The Retreat at Twin Lakes 402 times from January 1, 2011, to February 26, 2012.

The St. Pete Times notes that the initial average price of the Retreat homes had dropped from $250,000 to less than $100,000 today. “The developers had envisioned a stable neighborhood with home­owners planting long-term roots, but now townhouses were turning over all the time. Insiders moved out. Outsiders moved in.”

The place where Trayvon Martin lost his life is not on trial. But as surely as the places we build reflect us, we are reflections of our surroundings. In a real estate market driven off the rails by oversupply, mortgage fraud, and greed, why would builders be held to account? They only build what the market wants, right? Their legal rights to build sprawl are as solid as George Zimmerman’s right to carry a weapon and to stand his ground. Right?

Sanford Police volunteer program coordinator Wendy Dorival, told theMiami Herald that she met Zimmerman in September, 2011 at a community neighborhood watch presentation. “I said, ‘If it’s someone you don’t recognize, call us. We’ll figure it out.” Places don’t shoot people, people do.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

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