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May 11, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities

Meet the women of the richest and poorest communities in America

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America, the land of equal opportunity and a robust middle class, is an illusion facts can no longer support. In the past 25 years, the median income for the average family has grown by less than 1 percent, while the median income for the very top tier has grown by 200 percent. Not since the Great Depression has there been such a divide between rich and poor. Middle class? What middle class? Life in the U.S., increasingly, is a matter of extremes.

There's no such thing as popping by a neighbor's house to borrow a cup of sugar in Rancho Santa Fe. To visit fellow residents, women get in their Jaguar convertibles or Lexus SUVs and head down long, curving driveways and out mechanized gates, past ivy-covered walls and thick stands of eucalyptus trees, into the center of town. There, they might run into a few friends doing morning yoga in the airy gym at the Rancho Santa Fe Community Center. They might meet another friend at Thyme in the Ranch, a bustling cafe that resembles a country inn, where women gather for cappuccino and croissants. They might swap gossip when they swing by the post office to pick up the daily mail -- which they do several times a week because there is no home postal service in Rancho Santa Fe, a deliberate choice that ensures residents will cross paths here, if nowhere else. "We try to maintain the feeling of a small town," says Marian Benassi, 45, a 15-year resident.

Despite the high hedges, there is an easy familiarity among the 5000 residents, as well as an old-fashioned sense of community that manifests itself in quaint traditions like the annual Fourth of July parade, featuring tractors, 1957 T-birds, and children on bicycles decorated with streamers and flags. But this is no Mayberry, USA. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Rancho Santa Fe is the wealthiest town in America, with a median family income of $200,000 and sprawling Spanish-style homes secreted behind high stucco walls and abundant shrubbery -- homes with tennis courts and infinity pools and well-tended gardens cared for by staff, with polished limestone floors and soundproofed media rooms and temperature-controlled wine cellars sheltering rare bottles of Premier Cru Burgundy.

Bill Gates has a home here. So do seven other billionaires. Set in the rolling hills north of San Diego, the heart of "the Ranch," as denizens affectionately call it, is the Covenant, an elite area within the town's original boundaries where spacious homes border a world-class, 18-hole golf course designed by Max Behr. (On Election Day, locals have been known to pull up to the polls in their golf carts.) Club membership -- with a $50,000 initiation fee--is limited to Covenant homeowners, as is membership to the adjacent Tennis Club. Membership to the Rancho Riding Club is open to all residents, but most do a lengthy stint on the waiting list before finally getting in.

The town has a more discreet expression of wealth than a flashy, Beverly Hills -- style glamour. Women stroll around town in designer jeans and casual cotton separates; their straw mules match their straw purses, and their nails are perfectly done. But despite the everyday, informal aesthetic, Ranch residents know how to throw a party: In April, Elton John was the entertainment at the wedding reception of billionaire investment adviser Charles Brandes and his wife, Tanya. A few years ago, Paul McCartney was flown in to perform at the birthday bash of investment tycoon Ralph Whitworth's wife, Wendy. They've since divorced. ("Can't buy me love . . .")

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