FOCUS : Leisure World: A Strong Voice in Seal Beach

Clipboard researched by Elena Brunet and Janice L. Jones / Los Angeles Times; Graphics by Doris Shields / Los Angeles Times

Just beyond the large, rotating globe that marks the entrance to Leisure World in Seal Beach, a tall man in a black, yellow and white uniform approaches a car heading into the community's main gate. The car slows slightly, and the guard waves the driver through the checkpoint.

"This is my home," says Richard Poulsen, a resident of Leisure World who works two days a week on the security force. "And I want to make sure anyone who drives through is supposed to be here."

But the rest of Poulsen's days are spent relaxing or attending Biola College basketball games. "We just got back from driving all the way to one of their games in Tennessee because my wife is afraid to fly," says Poulsen, who is a friend of Biola's coach. "But at least I don't have to worry about a house while we're gone. That's why we moved here."

Poulsen and his wife, Pat, moved to Leisure World four years ago when he decided to make a second attempt at retirement. After a year, Poulsen joined the 50-member security force, made up almost entirely of Leisure World residents.

"It keeps me busy and provides a little extra income," he says. "But I like doing it because I care about the people here."

The security force watches the entrance gates and provides 24-hour patrols around the 540-acre private community that is home to 9,000 residents. It is a community within the community of Seal Beach.

Within the cinder-block walls that separate Leisure World's borders from the nearby Naval Weapons Station is a nine-hole golf course, 2,500-seat amphitheater, 24-hour health care facility, a swimming pool, clubhouses, churches and a library.

Leisure World, brainchild of developer Ross Cortese, opened in 1962. Most residents, who must be 55 or older, live in one- or two-bedroom apartments that can be occupied by buying $50,000 to $150,000 of stock in one of 16 organizations that form the basis of the community's governing board. This gives the buyer not ownership of the dwelling but the right to occupy it.

Selling prices, set by the "owner," vary, much like in a normal real estate market, depending on the location and customized improvements. Condominiums, built in 1981, sell for $150,000 to $160,000. These, however, are actually owned by the buyers.

Residents pay a monthly fee of about $250, which covers repairs, water, street and landscaping maintenance, trash pickup, local transportation and use of entertainment and

club facilities.

More than 200 clubs and service organizations meet at Leisure World, but residents are also active outside the community. Seal Beach City Manager Robert Nelson says Leisure World residents are often on the city's Planning Commission and provide an enormous resource of volunteer services.

Shirley Casterton, 64, has lived at Leisure World for nine years and helps run the city's all-volunteer animal shelter. "I'm not a club joiner," she says, "but I like animals, and Leisure World doesn't allow pets. So I take care of the animals here.

"I'm very active, and I can come and go at night at Leisure World without having to worry about something happening to me going to and from my car."

Leisure World is a favorite stop-off for politicians on the campaign trail. But, Nelson says, residents do not vote as a bloc: "Common knowledge has it that they have a higher turnout and vote more conservatively as a group, but comparisons show that they mirror the rest of Seal Beach."

However, the presence of Leisure World caused Seal Beach to become one of the smallest communities ever organized into voting districts. "Leisure World residents control all of District 5, most of District 2 and part of District 3," Nelson says. "The city was broken up into districts because it was feared that Leisure World residents would vote as a bloc against matters that did not affect them directly, like building schools. I doubt that would happen, but that is the structure we have here."

Leisure World has also attracted 27 financial institutions to Seal Beach, which has a population of 27,000. "That's a one-per-thousand population ratio," Nelson says. "So Leisure World definitely has an impact on the community financially, even though many of them are on fixed incomes and do not contribute to the retail tax base here."

"Where I come from, taking care of the elderly is basic to the culture," says Harbir Narang, a native of India who has lived in the United States for 20 years and has spent more than half of that time managing Leisure World. "It's a tremendous challenge running a place like this. You spend a lot of time listening and getting to know people."

That feeling is echoed by another resident: "Not everybody has family nearby who can check up on them," says Vince Palomares, who has lived in Leisure World since 1976. "So we keep an eye out. There is a good supportive network here."

It is that attitude, as much as shared demographics, that makes Leisure World one of the most tightly knit neighborhoods in Orange County.

Population Total: (1989 est.) 8,949 1980-89 change: -1.4% Median Age: 80.7

Racial/ethnic mix: White (non-Latino), 98%; Latino, 1%; Black, 1%; Other, 1%

By sex and age: Males Median age: 79.6 years Females Median age: 81.1 years

Income Per capita: $14,258 Median household: $16,371 Average household: $19,258

Income Distribution: Less than $25,000: 76% $25,000-49,999: 20% $50,000-74,999: 3% $75,000-$99,999: 1%

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