“Gated communities are created for different reasons, but the reasons are all about fear,” says president of the American Anthropological Association Setha M. Low. “In places like California, where the cities can’t expand their tax base easily, they turn to private developers. I imagine San Diego doesn’t have the money to provide [additional] infrastructure, so they turn to private companies to build private communities.” These communities pay for their own streets, landscaping, and parks. People who move into such new developments, Low says, “pay state taxes, local taxes, and homeowner fees — they’re triple taxed.”
On Thursday, April 10, Low will present a lecture titled, “Gated Communities in the U.S., Latin America, and China: A Cross-Comparison of the Fear and Insecurity” at the San Diego State University library. Low spent almost a decade interviewing residents of gated communities. “If you ask somebody, ‘Why did you move to a gated community?’ they’ll say, ‘I was afraid of X,’” she says. “In any of those countries, that’s the only thing that’s similar.” One major difference is that in China and Latin America, walled neighborhoods have always existed. “I find it more shocking in the United States, where there were open suburbs, and now suddenly, these walls.” The 2001 census revealed that 16 million individuals, or around 6 percent of the country’s population, lived in gated communities.
Low says those who move to a gated community in search of “community” will be “sorely disappointed.” Most residents in such developments, Low believes, practice what she calls “moral minimalism” by going out of their way to avoid interacting with one other. For example, rather than walking across the street to knock on a neighbor’s door to discuss and attempt to resolve an issue (e.g., excessive noise), most people choose to report the incident to the homeowners’ association. Thus the neighbor, robbed of open dialogue and the opportunity to respond (e.g., “I’m sorry about that; I’ll make an effort to keep it down”), receives an anonymous violation notice and may feel targeted, while never knowing which neighbor reported the issue. “Whatever happens, you get the board to take care of things — you don’t have to deal with your neighbors,” explains Low. “That’s moral minimalism, and it can be produced. They know fewer and fewer of their neighbors because they go to the board to take care of things.”
Another problem with homeowners’ associations, Low says, is private governance. During an appearance on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, Low elaborated. “[Private governance] can mean that your community is controlled by a very small number of people who will make your decisions based on property rights, and you are bound by contractual law as opposed to laws that would protect your freedom of speech. So if the HOA decides you can’t have a red door or a certain kind of plant, you don’t have any legal recourse to argue against that.” At the time of the interview, in 2004, there were 250,000 homeowners’ associations in the United States. Since that time, most new housing developments, gated or not, have been “common-interest developments” with associations.
According to Low, gated communities can give people a false sense of security. “People would say, ‘I’m worried about crime; [living here] makes me feel safe’ — but in fact it doesn’t,” she says. “Your crime rate is pretty much the same. Most gated communities are in areas where there was an extremely low crime rate in the first place.” Conversely, burglars have been known to target gated communities. Low also explained on Talk of the Nation how some communities only pose as gated: “There are faux-gated communities with no guards, they’re just pretending — they have the guard house and the walls and the gates, but the gates are open, and there’s nobody there. It’s such an important part of American culture that they don’t even have to have the software of the people, just the hardware for everyone to think they are safer or to provide a status people are looking for.”
Gated communities are most often developed in areas of the greatest heterogeneity, especially those of socioeconomic or racial diversity. French geographer Renaud Le Goix created a map of gated communities in Southern California and found that most of them were new developments located between older, lower-income neighborhoods. “I would argue this is due to the fear of others,” says Low. “This fear of others is about a kind of general insecurity with the changing quality of life in America.”
Low admits that in certain situations it is advantageous to live in a gated community. “If there’s been drive-through drug dealing, [gates] tend to be very effective. But then it just moves over a street.”
Lecture: “Gated Communities in the U.S., Latin America, and China: A Cross-Comparison of the Fear and Insecurity”
Thursday, April 10
4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Room LA 2203 of the SDSU Library
San Diego State University
5500 Campanile Drive
Info: 619-594-1104 or www.sdsuniverse.info