Tear Down This Wall

This is the case that Setha Low, a cultural anthropologist at the City University of New York, attempts to make in Behind the Gates. She paints a picture of gated communities as separatist enclaves, with residents relying on gates and guards to wall them off from the contemporary world of crime and kidnapping. Low is largely convincing on these points, but what she fails to do is make it clear that the people who choose to live in gated communities are really any different from people who live in other affluent suburban developments.

Low conducted dozens of interviews for this book with residents of gated communities in and around San Antonio, Queens, and Nassau County, N.Y. Much of her book is given over to airing their concerns. Again and again, we hear from people who, although not necessarily touched by crime themselves, live in near-constant fear of it. They have bought into the marketing slogans of developers who promise “lemonade stands, not crime … on every corner.”

The idea of living in physically protected environments that can stave off undesirable elements has long held appeal. In the 19th century, the rich began to sequester themselves in neighborhoods from Gramercy Park in New York to the Central West End in St. Louis. But it was only with the advent of retirement developments, such as Leisure World, in the 1960s that the middle class chose to wall itself in. By 2001, 6 percent of U.S. households–more than 7 million–were located behind gates, with another 4 million located along streets where access is controlled by keys, security codes, or guards. Today, one-third of all new developments in Southern California come equipped with gates, and the numbers, Low writes, are similar around Phoenix, the Washington suburbs, and parts of Florida.

Gated communities “preselect a ready-made community of socially and economically similar people,” Low writes. But as her interviews reveal, in time that self-selection feeds upon itself and fear of outsiders grows. Low quotes a San Antonio woman identified as “Felicia” (identities are masked throughout) as saying “if you go downtown, which is much more mixed, where everybody goes, I feel much more threatened.” Due to lack of exposure, Felicia’s young daughter has grown afraid of poor people on the rare occasions she encounters any. Other residents are even more open about such issues. A teenager dressed in a tennis skirt for a Fourth of July party casually tells Low that the Mexicans downtown “are dangerous, packing knives and guns.”

Low blames gated communities for exacerbating these segregationist or even racist tendencies and spends a good deal of space promoting the idea that gates and guards are “symbols of exclusion,” even though she doesn’t believe that they are all that effective at keeping unwanted people out. Unfortunately, she is not wholly convincing on either point.

Low’s interviews leave little room for doubt that those who live in gated communities do so because they want to get away from certain types of people, whether criminals or members of other classes or races. She gives a good background sketch of the ways that these communities are simply an outgrowth of centuries-old forms of social controls and class separation, describing postwar American suburbs as “enclave developments with districts segregated by race, class, and social status [where] exclusion is a fundamental organizing principle.”

How, then, is a gated community any different than your average suburb? Granted, many suburbs, especially older towns closest to the central city, have undergone enormous demographic changes in recent years. Suburbs are much likelier to house African Americans, Latinos, and other recent immigrants today than they were 20 years ago. Yet there are still plenty of newer suburbs being built further out that are part of the old pattern of “white flight.” Low does not deal with continuing patterns of housing segregation that were very much in evidence in the 2000 census. But in light of them, gated communities look less like an anomaly, and more like a symptom of that larger problem.

Low concludes that crime rates aren’t any lower in gated communities than in nearby neighborhoods that don’t have gates. But she offers strikingly little data to back up that assertion. It’s odd that she doesn’t cite any statistics comparing crime rates in the relatively few communities where she conducted her research with other demographically similar neighborhoods in the same zip codes.

Maybe statistics wouldn’t be enough to convince residents they’d be living just as safely without the gates. After all, as Low points out, fear of crime did not diminish during the 1990s even as crime rates dropped. Those who have chosen to live in gated communities made that choice out of fear, not because of a cold, hard look at the numbers.

Low allows ample expression of those fears in Behind the Gates. They should sound familiar to anyone living in post-September 11 America, where the same impulse that drives people “behind the gates” now prevails throughout society: the timeless fear of outsiders, exacerbated by mistaking occasional but real threats as something pervasive and constant.

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