Gathering The Tribes

By: Brad Edmondson

My brother, Brian, raises goats on our family’s farm in Nokomis. Last fall he sold two especially tasty youngsters to the St. Saba Serbian Orthodox Church in North Port. They were the highlight of a festival the church puts on every year to raise money for its building fund. Now the Rev. Dragan Zaric calls […]


People from varied backgrounds form bonds at the Orange Blossom Community Garden.My brother, Brian, raises goats on our family’s farm in Nokomis. Last fall he sold two especially tasty youngsters to the St. Saba Serbian Orthodox Church in North Port. They were the highlight of a festival the church puts on every year to raise money for its building fund. Now the Rev. Dragan Zaric calls Edmondson Farm whenever he’s making plans.

This isn’t the kind of business that would interest an economic development agency, but maybe it should. It’s good for Sarasota when a fourth-generation Florida farmer connects with a Serb to put on a street festival.

Sarasota has always attracted lots of different kinds of people, and diversity is one of the county’s untapped strengths. You can join the gay bowling league at Gulf Gate Lanes or choose between 11 different Baptist churches, depending on your point of view. But ever since the 1910s, when the Crackers and the Yankees started their love-hate relationship, Sarasota’s groups have not done a good job of connecting with each other.

The normal state of relations among natives, newcomers, snowbirds and tourists has been a wary live and let live. This works fairly well as long as there are plenty of jobs. But now that the economy is down and the county’s diversity is growing rapidly, we have some work to do.

Sarasota Tribes

Migration is the engine that drives Sarasota, and migration trends are changing. First of all, there’s a lot less of it. Only 11.6 percent of Americans changed their residences between 2010 and 2011, which is the lowest rate since the Census Bureau started collecting these data in 1948. Some people are still moving to Florida, but for the last four years, more have been moving out of the state than moving in. Florida’s newcomers these days are often foreign-born or Hispanic, and white middle-class snowbirds are getting harder to find. Sarasota County’s Hispanic population doubled in the last decade, to more than 30,000. Hispanics are now the county’s largest minority group. And their numbers continued to grow rapidly during the recession, while other groups grew slowly or declined.

Meanwhile, the long-term residents of Sarasota keep getting older. About 380,000 people live in Sarasota County: More than 118,000 of them are 65 and older, and about 56,000 of them live alone. More than 19 percent of men and 33 percent of women in the county are widowed, divorced, or separated, compared with national averages of 14 percent and 24 percent. This means that every day, an unusually high proportion of county residents need to make new friends. And since research has shown that lonely people tend to be sicker, finding friends is more than just a nice thing for Sarasotans to do. If you’re single, your health could depend on the strength of your social network.

Social networks rest on two principles. One is trust and the other is reciprocity, or the idea that members share ownership of something valuable. These two principles work in communities in the same way that oil works in
an engine: They reduce friction, increase output, and allow things to run smoothly over the long haul.

Sociologists often refer to reciprocity and trust as social capital, and they add that social capital comes in two forms. Some of it is bonding activity, which is anything that strengthens the ties between people who emphasize shared interests and beliefs. Most churches and clubs fall into this category. And social capital also includes bridging activity, which introduces strangers from different groups and gives them the tools to become friends. Bridging activities are often found in public places like parks, schools and streets.

In 2004 and 2006, The Community Foundation of the Gulf Coast hired Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, to take a survey that measured the strength of social capital in Sarasota. The survey found that Sarasotans are better than most Americans at bonding with others who are like themselves, but that they are not very good at bridging with strangers. At first glance, this finding doesn’t make sense. Putnam is an expert on social capital, and his other research has shown that sociability and trust in institutions tend to increase with age and income. Sarasota has those in spades, so it should have strong social capital.

Yet Putnam has also found that whenever a community accepts a lot of newcomers from diverse backgrounds, as Sarasota is also doing, the long-term residents tend to withdraw from public activities, hunker down in front of the TV and stick to themselves. They might bond, but they don’t bridge.

It’s a strange situation. Sarasotans have plenty of time on their hands: Just 52 percent of county adults are in the labor force, compared with the national average of 65 percent. Yet Sarasotans are not, as a rule, into volunteering. Fewer than 21 percent of adults in the Sarasota-Bradenton-Venice metro area participated in volunteer activity in 2007-10, compared with a national average of more than 26 percent, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. Local folks who do volunteer put in an average of just 27 hours a year, compared with a national average of 34 hours. Sarasota’s volunteering rate ranks 112th of the 126 mid-sized cities listed at the corporation’s website, volunteeringinamerica.gov.

Shared assets like the Orange Blossom Community Garden provide an enjoyable setting for people to come together. More such gardens are planned throughout Sarasota County, reaping a harvest of connection.Of course, we shouldn’t expect some of our neighbors to ever get involved. One in 10 dwellings in the county is occupied only part-time, and the folks who own these homes often think of themselves as residents of somewhere else. Also, a lot of people who do live in Sarasota full time came here specifically to relax. It would be too much trouble for them to leave their protective bubbles. They might not like it. It might even be kind of tacky.

We should pity such people. The all-play lifestyle has many toxic byproducts, and one of them is loneliness. Staying within a tight circle of family and friends is dangerous, because it leaves you vulnerable when the circle breaks. The percentage of Americans who say they have no one to discuss important matters with rose from 10 percent in 1985 to more than 24 percent in 2004; those with just one or two confidants increased from 31 percent to 38 percent, according to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey.

But the bigger reason to avoid “hunker-down” mode is that new and exciting things are going on here. Ethnic and economic diversity is America’s ace in the hole. Great things can happen when different cultures mix: Think of jazz, which was born in New Orleans in the 1920s, or the Asian-American fusion cooking that started in San Francisco in the 1970s. Until a few years ago, Sarasota was overwhelmingly native-born and white, with a small black population. As the county adds more Latinos and foreign-born Americans, it becomes a place where parties can get a lot more interesting. Just think of that proud Florida Cracker powering an Orthodox goat roast.

Remember those World War II movies where foxholes always seemed to contain a nice Jewish boy, a small-town football star and an Italian? At the end of the movie, they pull together and become American heroes. Newcomers join communities when they change their identity by taking on new social roles, writes Putnam. Churches are good at helping their members do this. But there are lots of ways to turn Ohioans and Mexicans and Russians into Sarasotans, and they don’t require any specific set of beliefs. People come to Sarasota because of the shared assets everyone owns and can enjoy—like the beaches and parks, the colleges, Sarasota Memorial Hospital and the arts. Our public square is big, and good things are already happening there. Here are just a few examples.

The Crusty Old Curmudgeons help out at Oscar Scherer State Park—good for the park, and good for the volunteers, too.Community gardens. Like spring, cooperative growing spaces are busting out all over. Four established gardens operate on county parkland in Laurel, Nokomis, Bayou Oaks and Orange Avenue. New plots are blooming in parks at Warm Mineral Springs, Englewood, North Port and Palmer Ranch. The North Sarasota and Fruitville branches of the county library also want to open gardens on their land, says county extension agent Robert Kluson; so do the Bee Ridge Park Neighborhood Association and a church congregation in Nokomis, which plans to give its produce to a soup kitchen. And in Colonial Oaks (along Cattlemen Road between Bee Ridge and Fruitville), there’s a community-run patch of fruit trees and banana bushes.

The oldest of these is the Orange Blossom Community Garden, which began in another location in 1996 and is now in its fifth growing season at Orange Avenue Park. The two-acre garden rents 57 plots to groups of one to 25 people, including a patch maintained by the McBean Boys & Girls Club that sells produce to Carr’s Corner Cafe. “I’m born and raised here, but I’ve gotten to know people from Africa, Burma, Puerto Rico and Moscow through this garden,” says co-coordinator Gail Harvey. “The gardeners are an incredibly diverse group. We have Ph.D.s sharing wheelbarrows with people who don’t have a high school diploma.”

Orange Blossom’s produce is really a byproduct of its main job, which is building community. “We get all kinds of children wandering in because
there’s a big public housing project right next to us,” says Harvey. “These kids see a lot of violence and bullying. We teach them life lessons. We explain to them that this is a peace garden, so if they need to throw a punch at someone, they need to do it outside the fence. First they look at us like we’re crazy. But once they realize that we’re serious, it seems to work.”

Kluson says that the potential for community gardens in Sarasota is huge. They are officially encouraged in the county’s master plan, and there are dozens of ownership models. One community garden popped up when several Atlanta homeowners put their back yards together. They are also rampant in Houston schoolyards and tiny front yards in Philadelphia. “They always bring people together, sometimes in really cool ways,” Kluson says. “I’m getting calls from people who want to put beehives and chickens in their community gardens. Why not?”

Friending the environment. The inflation-adjusted budget of Sarasota County’s Parks and Recreation department has decreased 20 percent since 2002, even as the number of acres under management has increased dramatically and the county’s population has grown 17 percent. The situation isn’t much better at the state parks. Luckily, the parks have friends. “We’re in growth and expansion mode,” says Terry Redman, President of the Friends of Sarasota County Parks, which operates three of the aforementioned community gardens and put in more than 24,000 volunteer hours last year. The Friends of Oscar Scherer State Park worked 26,000 hours last year, equivalent to 10 full-time positions. According to park manager Tony Clements, “We couldn’t exist without them.”

One of Oscar Scherer’s core volunteer groups calls themselves The Crusty Old Curmudgeons. At least 10 men show up every Monday and Wednesday morning by 8 a.m., says Clements; sometimes there are also women, and sometimes the group numbers well above 20. The Curmudgeons come rain or shine, stay at least half a day, and do all kinds of things the staff can’t get to. They recently completed a footbridge and canoe launch at North Creek built to disability standards, and Clements says they especially like to split firewood for the campground. Earlier this year, he nominated the Friends for six statewide volunteer awards.

One of the most encouraging things about groups like the Curmudgeons is that they’re mostly men. Although the majority of older volunteers are female, environmental projects seem to have a special appeal to guys (maybe it’s the power tools). Getting older men out of the house is one of the big ideas behind Retirees in Service to the Environment (RISE), a national program that educates groups of older people about environmental problems, introduces them to not-for-profit groups, and encourages them to get involved. Some of the Curmudgeons came to Oscar Scherer through a RISE program run by Sarasota’s Senior Friendship Center.

“Older people are uniquely suited to this kind of engagement,” says Karl Pillemer, a gerontology professor at Cornell University and co-creator of RISE. “We look for people who are trying to figure out what to do in retirement. We explain environmental problems to them in a nonpartisan way and encourage them to devote some of their time to the solution. A lot of older people like the idea of doing something that will leave a legacy, and RISE appeals to that.”

VolunteerEntrepreneurship. Building community doesn’t necessarily mean volunteering for the government. The drum circle on Nokomis Beach, for example, gets together regularly for some tribal dancing at sunset, and everybody is welcome. Most of the drummers buy their gear and take classes at Rhythm Inlet, a nearby music store owned by two baby boomers, Barbara Gail and Jeff Hanna.

One in four baby boomers (aged 48 to 66) says they would like to start a business or not-for-profit organization within the next decade, according to a 2011 survey sponsored by the think tank Civic Ventures. That works out to about 25 million Americans. About half of these boomer entrepreneurs say they want to make a positive social impact with their ventures. Boomer entrepreneurs say they are especially interested in fighting poverty, working with at-risk youth, taking on economic development and healthcare projects, and healing the environment. Many of them are looking to start second careers, after years of striving in a job that offers more money than satisfaction.

Social entrepreneurs like these are looking for a middle way. They reject the myth that a completely unfettered free market can solve every social problem, and they also reject the myth that every problem is the government’s responsibility. They are using an entrepreneurial spirit to strengthen social capital, reaching out to their neighbors first and hoping to turn some of them into customers. Strengthening the things Sarasotans own in common is just as important to them as making a profit. Because in the long run, it’s the things we own in common—things like beaches, parks, schools and sidewalks—that make Sarasota a great place to live.

The Sarasota Tribe Guide

Sarasota County is home to about 380,000 people who live in lots of different ways. Here’s a thumbnail guide to the who, how many, and where of some of the county’s tribes, using 2010 Census Bureau data.

Young retirees This group defines Sarasota to the rest of the world as they drive around in golf carts and drink cocktails at sunset. But only about 89,500 county residents are aged 60 to 74, less than one-quarter of the total population. It might seem like everyone is a retiree if you live on Longboat Key, where 45 percent of residents are 60 to 74, another 34 percent are 75 and older, and only one-quarter of adults are in the labor force. Young retirees are also more than one-third of the total population in Venice, Englewood, The Meadows and Siesta Key. But they are just 12 percent in Lake Sarasota, which is even below the national average.

Elders This is a small group with a big impact on healthcare and charitable giving. About 18,000 county residents are 85 and older, and another 42,000 are 75 to 84; together, the oldest Sarasotans are a little less than 15 percent of the county’s population, compared with only 6 percent in the United States. What’s more, the county’s oldest old are highly concentrated in a few places. One in 10 is aged 85 and older in Venice, Vamo and the Meadows. And more than 20 percent are between 75 and 84 in Venice, The Meadows, Longboat Key and Warm Mineral Springs.

Loners In the U.S., about half of all householders aged 65 and older live alone. This is the main reason why one-third of households in Sarasota are a single person, compared with a national average of 28 percent. The loneliest neighborhoods are in the City of Sarasota, Gulf Gate, The Meadows, Venice and Vamo, where singles account for more than 40 percent of households. In North Port, fewer than 22 percent of householders are going solo.

Baby boomers Almost 110,000 baby boomers (48 to 66) live in Sarasota County, including 14,000 in the City of Sarasota and 15,000 in North Port. Boomers are 29 percent of the county’s population, but more than one-third of the total in a big swath of South County. So if you’re in a classic rock band, your biggest fans are likely to be in Nokomis, Laurel, Osprey, South Sarasota and Ridgewood Heights.

Young adults College-age adults (18 to 24) are only 6 percent of our population, compared to 10 percent in the nation. The City of Sarasota is the only place here where the concentration of college kids is above the national average. It’s the same story for adults 25 to 44—about 29 percent in the U.S. but only 18 percent in Sarasota County. If you crave youth, go to Lake Sarasota, South Gate Ridge, Ridgewood Heights or Kensington Park, where more than one-quarter of the population are young adults.

Children Pity the poor little rich girls and boys of Longboat Key. In this community of 6,900, only about 200 residents are under 18. That’s less than 3 percent, and that’s a real outlier. In the U.S., more than one-quarter of the population is under 18. Only two places in Sarasota County are close to this concentration. One is tiny Lake Sarasota; the other is North Port, home to about 14,000 children, or one-quarter of all the children in the county.

Hispanics The number of Latinos in Sarasota County doubled between 2000 and 2010. It is now more than 30,000 and continues to grow rapidly. Almost half live in the Cities of Sarasota (with 8,600) and North Port (5,000). But if you want to speak Spanish in Sarasota County, you’ll have the greatest chance of success in North Sarasota, where one-fifth of residents are Hispanic, or Kensington Park, where one-quarter are.

Brad Edmondson, author of this article, will be a featured speaker at The Institute for the Ages’ 2012 Winter Forum on March 2 at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota. Sarasota Magazine is a sponsor. Also speaking: Dr. Kevin O’Neil, Chief Medical Officer of Brookfield Senior Living. Registration is $25 at institutefortheages.org or by mail at 1226 N. Tamiami Trail, Suite 202, Sarasota, FL 34236.

The baby boomer owners of Rhythm Inlet (co-owner Barbara Gail, far right) combine business with social impact, providing classes and equipment for people who enjoy drum circles on the beach.

Live Longer! Volunteer

Why doing good is good for you.

Volunteering does more than help the community get stronger. Many studies show that volunteers are healthier, stronger and happier than those who don’t get out. Volunteering can also help you live longer. But a new study suggests that you get bigger benefits as you put in more time, and that the right attitude is crucial.

The new results come from a survey that has followed more than 10,000 Wisconsin residents since 1957. The average age of those surveyed was 69 in 2008; half were female. In 2004, 57 percent reported that they had done some volunteer work in the past decade. In 2008, just 2.8 percent of those volunteers had died, compared with 4.3 percent of non-volunteers. But only 1.8 percent of people who volunteered regularly had died, and the risk of death declined further for each hour per month served.

What really made a difference was people’s motives for volunteering. Even after controlling for differences in physical health, University of Michigan researchers found that volunteers’ reasons had a strong effect on their risk of dying. Those who volunteered for selfless reasons (compassion for people in need, to please a loved one) were much less likely to die than those who did not volunteer. But people who volunteered for more selfish reasons (enjoying social contact, exploring their strengths or getting out of the house) were slightly more likely to die than those who did not volunteer.

Sara Konrath, the lead researcher in the study, cites other studies showing that altruistic actions can deactivate stress responses and promote feelings of well-being. “Of course, it’s reasonable for volunteers to expect some benefits for themselves,” she says. “But it’s ironic that the potential health benefits are significantly reduced if self-benefit becomes a person’s main motive.”

Contributing editor Brad Edmondson, former editor-in-chief of American Demographics magazine, writes regularly for such national magazines as AARP and The American Scholar. He frequently covers baby boomers, retirement and local demographics for Sarasota and BIZ(941) magazines. A fourth-generation Floridian with roots in south Sarasota, he lives in Ithaca, N.Y. 

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