Crime, fear and foreclosure find their way into gated communities

December 07, 2007|By Barbara Ehrenreich

Another utopia seems to be biting the dust. The socialist kibbutzim of Israel have vanished or gone increasingly capitalist, and now the paranoid residential ideal represented by gated communities may be in serious trouble. Never exactly cool - remember Jim Carrey in The Truman Show? - these pricey enclaves of privilege are becoming hotbeds of disillusionment.

At the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington last week, the incoming association president, Setha M. Lowe, painted a dispiriting picture. The gated community residents Ms. Lowe interviewed had fled from ethnically challenging cities, but they have not managed to escape from their fear. One resident reported that her small daughter has developed a severe case of xenophobia, no doubt communicated by her parents: "We were driving next to a truck with some day laborers and equipment in the back, and we stopped beside them at the light. She wanted to move because she was afraid those people were going to come and get her. They looked scary to her."

Leaving aside the sorry spectacle of homeowners living in fear of their landscapers, there is actually something to worry about. According to Ms. Lowe, gated communities are no less crime-prone than open ones, and Gopal Ahluwalia, senior vice president of research at the National Association of Home Builders, confirms this: "There are studies indicating that there are no differences in the crime in gated communities and non-gated communities." The security guards often wave people on in, especially if they look like they're on a legitimate mission. Or the crime comes from within, as in the Hilton Head Plantation community in South Carolina, where a rash of crime committed by resident teenagers has led to the imposition of a curfew.

Most recently, America's gated communities have been blighted by foreclosures. Newsweek reports that foreclosures are devastating the gated community of Black Mountain Vista in Henderson, Nev., where "yellow patches [now] blot the spartan lawns and phone books lie on front porches, their covers bleached from weeks under the desert sun." According to the Orlando Sentinel, "Countless homeowners overwhelmed by their mortgages are taking off and leaving behind algae-filled swimming pools and knee-high weeds" in one local gated community.

So, for people who sought not just prosperity but perfection, here's another sad end to the American dream, or at least their ethnically cleansed version thereof: boarded-up McMansions, plastic baggies scudding over overgrown lawns, and, in the Orlando case, a foreclosure-induced infestation of snakes. There's no fence high enough to keep out the repo man.

All right, some gated communities are doing better than others, and certainly not all of their residents are racists. The communities that allow owners to rent out their houses, or that offer homes at middle-class prices of $250,000 or so, are more likely to contain a mixture of classes and races. But all these places suffer from the delusion that security lies behind physical barriers.

Before we turn all of America into a gated community, with a 700-mile steel fence running along the southern border, we should consider the mixed history of exclusionary walls. Ancient and medieval European towns huddled behind massive walls, only to face ever-more-effective catapults, battering rams and other siege engines. More recently, the Berlin Wall fell to a rebellious citizenry. Israel, increasingly sealed behind its anti-Palestinian checkpoints and wall, faced an outbreak of neo-Nazi crime in September - coming from within.

But the market may have the last word on America's internal gated communities.

"Hell is a gated community," announced the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in June, reporting that market research by the big homebuilder Pulte Homes found that hardly anyone under 50 wants to live in them, so its latest local development would be ungated.

Security, or at least the promise of security, may be one consideration. But there's another old-fashioned American imperative at work here, which ought to bear on our national policies as well. As my Montana forebears would have put it: Don't fence me in.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of "Nickel and Dimed." This article originally appeared in The Nation.

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