|Imprisoned by the Walls Built to
Keep 'the Others' Out
Published on Friday, December 19, 2003 by the Los Angeles Times
by Setha M. Low
The phenomenon of gated communities — the fastest-growing form of
housing in the United States — continues unabated in California and
across the nation. There are now more than 1 million homes behind
such walls in the Greater Los Angeles area alone. One-third of all
houses built in the region are in secured-access developments.
Across the U.S., there are 7 million households in fortified
communities, according to the American Housing Survey of 2001, with
the largest number located in the West.
This symbolism of wealth and security is so pervasive that there are
now even faux gated communities, called "neighborhood entry
identities," in Simi Valley that sport walls and guardhouses but no
locked gates or guards.
Yet residents may be walling in more problems than they are keeping
Walled communities go way back in the history of human habitation.
Ancient towns were surrounded by walls to protect inhabitants and
their property. In the United States, gated residential developments
first originated in upscale communities such as Llewellyn Park,
N.J., in the 1850s, and in resorts like New York's Tuxedo Park,
developed in 1886 as a hunting retreat and ringed by 24 miles of
It wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s, however, that middle-class
Americans first sealed themselves inside in planned retirement
communities like Leisure World in Seal Beach.
In the 1980s, real estate speculation was the driving force behind
building gated communities around golf courses designed for
exclusivity and prestige. By 2000, Southern California gated
communities expanded to the suburbs and included a broad range of
residents, not just the rich — although along with supposed cachet,
those walls and gates also added to the price tag.
Unfortunately, this sought-after feature also helped to further
divide our society. Of the 219 gated enclaves that Sorbonne
geographer Renaud LeGoix identified in a study of Greater Los
Angeles, a third were in middle-income white suburbs. But not only
whites were isolating themselves: A fifth were in middle- and
low-income Latino or Asian neighborhoods.
During ethnographic research from 1994 to 2002, gated community
residents told me they were seeking safety and security along with a
nice place to live. These desires were often expressed as a wish to
live near people like themselves because of a fear of "others."
But in fact there is little evidence that gated communities are any
safer, nor do they encourage a sense of community. Residents often
acknowledged that they were experiencing a "false sense of security"
because they still had to worry about the handymen, gardeners,
domestics and even the private guards who entered every day.
The unintended consequences of gating are widespread. In addition to
generating a sense of exclusion and social segregation, gating also
contributes to an overall shortage of public space. And although
proponents say the developments reduce the fiscal burden for their
municipalities, if they fail — and some do — municipal costs can
increase as local governments have to fund repairs.
Most people who move to gated communities are not aware of what they
are giving up in their quest for safety and privacy. Growing up with
an implicit fortress mentality, children may experience more, not
less, fear of people outside the gates. The costs of maintaining
one's home can escalate because of additional fees, such as
maintaining privately owned roads and amenities while still paying
taxes for unused public services.
Gated communities have homeowners associations with strict
covenants, contracts and deed restrictions that regulate most
aspects of their houses and environment. Many residents find these
rules onerous, as was illustrated in an episode of "The X-Files" in
which gated community homeowners who didn't toe the line were eaten
by a monster.
One of the striking features of our world today is that many people
feel increasingly insecure. To date, the main responses have been
more policing, surveillance technology, privatized security forces
and barricaded homes.
We must recognize that our fear is not simply about crime and
"others" but is a reflection of the inherent insecurities of modern
life. Perhaps then we can openly debate the effects of these gated
communities — their social and psychological costs as well as their
Setha M. Low, a professor at the Graduate Center of the City
University of New York, is author of "Behind the Gates: Life,
Security and the Pursuit of Happiness inFortress America" (Routledge
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times