Gated communities: the American dream behind walls

Laura Wojcik, translated by Alice Robert
29 Octobre 2013

At a time when borders are massively closed, Gated Communities become steadily common in several Northern American cities. Although the concept of Gated Communities is not new, it is currently soaring in the United States. Analysis of a phenomenon which is not common in Europe.

Green lawns are perfectly mowed, dazzling sedans are driving on smooth asphalt driveways, and neighbors with perfect hair are smiling while removing their cake from their oven, smelling like vanilla. You can imagine this suburban scene for sure. It may actually remind you of Wisteria Lane, the imaginary district from Desperate Housewives. Television tends to distort the reality of such places, but they do exist though. Suburbs in some of the largest cities overflow with housing stocks for people looking for quiet districts to settle in. In some of them, thick partition walls set them totally apart from the rest of the world. These residential areas are called Gated Communities and deal with extreme upscale districts. Residents are chosen before moving in, in order to maintain a suitable environment for the neighborhood. Segregation is the motto of Gated Communities, at any time. Before going into such districts, you need to show your credentials as well as an authorization from a resident at the checkpoint. Stepping in a Gated Community is voluntarily being part of a self-centered and very exclusive world.

These suburbs sprout up all over the country. 11 millions of Americans have decided to live away from the rest of the world and within a community that meets their expectations in a better way. Do you want to play golf or water-ski near home? Do you fancy living in a 19th century-like district or enjoying a swimming pool with neighbors of your age without having to listen to any child screaming? There must be a Gated Community that suits you.

Are they areas for personal fulfilment or fortresses for wealthy paranoiacs?

When property developers are asked the advantages of living in such districts, they always have the same arguments. They praise a unique opportunity to live freely, without having to cope with any constraints of the city. They perfectly know how to take advantage of the conservative ideas of the American middle class that wants to live by the values of the past. Is this desire to wall up from the rest of the world the modern expression of the American Dream?
In Hidden Hill, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, you can horse ride your children to the local private school, and live in a lovely fully equipped cabin for 3.5 million dollars. In Celebration, in Florida, Disney also decided to build its own perfect city. Everything was conceived in order to make contacts and well-being easier, from the color of the porches to the pavements’ width of the small town. Happiness has been conceived as a turnkey solution. Everything is indeed designed - including green spaces and human warmth - especially to make sure you will not lack of anything. All you have to do is look at Celebration’s advertising spot to realize how sick the project is. The voice-over easily praises this kind of ersatz based on a wonderful world and cartoons for kids. “There is a place where you can live your life innocently (….) A place where you can buy caramel apples and cotton candy, and where streets are filled with hidden huts and hopscotches”. The ad may make you smile, the concept is however a great money-spinner. Gated Communities are mainly successful because millions of Americans tend to seek happiness in their way of life. Many of them are willing to pay a high price to live their own American dream while isolating themselves into artificial perfection with people and rules they chose. Nevertheless, their desire to live within a community is not coupled with their need to barricade themselves. Living in a district on a selective basis is one thing, building walls so it will be set apart from the rest of the world is another.

In his report “United Gates of America”, the American journalist Charlie LeDuff addressed the issue of fences. Safety is the central focus of the inhabitants. John Knight lives in Canyon Lake, one of the most important communities of Los Angeles. When the journalist from NY asked him why he settled there, he answered very clearly: “We reached such a level of violence in this country that you need to pay to feel safe. You have to pay for almost everything like having a private life, for humanity and for being happy. But if it is necessary, I will pay the price for it”.

John Knight is far from being the only one thinking this way. For many of his neighbors, there is so much insecurity that moving far away from the town centers is not enough to protect themselves from violence. Distancing themselves from violence hubs also goes with hiding behind safety devices. Vigilance continues to apply indeed within the community itself. For instance, automatic window and door locking, unbreakable gate, video surveillance, and private surveillance patrols aim to protect you even against your own neighbors. You can never be too careful. Some of the people who live in Gated Communities barricade themselves so much behind security systems that they no longer dare to go out without fearing for their life. Like prisoners, they live outside reality. It is the fences' butterfly effect, no one escapes it.

Safety is worth a lot of money in the Gated Communities. In addition to high maintenance charges and the enormous purchase price, these housing estates require their residents to comply with very stringent rules. If you decide to live in a Gated Community, you are told which lifestyle to adopt.

You cannot do what pleases you, otherwise you will have to pay for it. Most of the restrictive rules apply to property maintenance. The community has to emphasize on rules that directly apply to your home, in order to ensure green lawns, kind smiles and shining roofs. For instance, if the water of your swimming pool turns cloudy, you must clean it immediately. You also need to fix your plumbing problems quickly, to paint your low walls and to eradicate weeds. If not, financial penalty may ensue.
Neither can you be infested with insects or let your dog barking too long. In some communities, telling swearwords on public road can be fined 50 dollars each by private entities. Isn’t it an intrusive practice? Sure it is, but it is perfectly legal. The American law is applied differently in these communities from traditional neighborhoods, given that they are controlled by private entities and follow their own rules. The signature of the co-ownership agreement deprives the residents of the constitutional protection of their rights. As an example, when buying your dream at a high price, you need to give up on your garden gnomes. How sad…

Are Gated communities a nightmarish and hazardous social pattern?

Gated Communities are an extreme embodiment of communitarianism. Districts aiming at gathering people from the same social class are not new. You just have to look at major cities in the United States to realize how deeply urban segregation is rooted in the overall population. Barricades erected in the Gated Communities however changed the face of social inequality which can be easily seen and localized, and has never dealt so much with material wealth before. Walls keep the poor together and set them apart from the wealthy people who live an opulent life. Two worlds coexist on each side of the barbed wire fence. As an impassible barrier, it also represents the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor in the United States who are tired of trying to live together. This phenomenon raises all the more ethical questions since it only favors white people at the expense of the others who feel let down on the other side of the wall.
The example of Canyon Lake is striking given that black people only stand for 1.2% of the community. In 2001, in New York, the Gramercy Park case, highlighted how much racism we can find in these private districts. Local black children were not very welcome to come and play in the private park. When the residents were asked why some children could not, they answered without embarrassment: “The park is not meant for those children”. Gated Community may have a new approach of “White Only” with real walls to protect themselves from the African-American threat.

Whether territorial, racial or social, segregation crossed a new threshold with Gated Communities. What future is there for American cities under these circumstances? Is public space doomed to turn into a giant ghetto for those who cannot afford the peacefulness of a detached house far from the dangers of the city? Las Vegas is a good example of what an American city could look like if the phenomenon of Gated Communities kept on sweeping the largest cities in the United States.

New inhabitants do not settle downtown anymore but only on the outskirts of the city, considered a better place to live. Historical downtown tends to be sparsely habited areas which become less and less appealing and in which efforts are hardly made to preserve infrastructures. Because of a lack of better options, they will soon turn into housing solution for people who come from underprivileged backgrounds. However, the more social and racial inequalities increase, the more housing developers will sell gated neighborhoods easily. Wealthy people will always have money to spend in fences that would set them apart from the poor. But, by living socially isolated in their own homes, it is quite likely that the rich will become even more paranoid towards people who do not look like their neighbors. As a result, coexistence between various social classes will be increasingly challenging. Communities looking for isolation and for independence could trigger the American society breakdown. Needless to say, the social impact of such fragmentation of society would lead to a disaster. 

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