They've put up the "Coming Soon" signs on that little parcel on the west side, and while I'd wondered for some time what they were going to do with that particular lot, I admit that I wasn't prepared for what's going in there: it's going to be a new "Gated Community."

Now it's not like I'd never seen such a thing before. I have friends living behind gates of this sort. And it's not like this is an unusual development for this corner of town: there's at least one more within a mile, and maybe others I haven't noticed. For that matter, there's one near me, a few blocks to the southeast. This new one can't be too awfully large there's room for maybe half a dozen townhouses and the obligatory humongous stone wall.

Then again, why there? In Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 1997), Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder identify three distinct types of gated communities: "lifestyle" communities, which exist primarily to provide an environment for leisure activities (think golf) and the participants thereof; "prestige" communities, which exist primarily to provide an overlay of status and distinction for the residents; and "security zone" communities, which are all about keeping out Other People. There being no room for much in the way of fancy amenities in this new development, we can probably eliminate "lifestyle" as a consideration. The neighborhood itself is okay, if not exactly prestigious; among the neighbors are a church, an apartment complex gone condo, and, around the corner, a Mexican grocery store that decades ago was a Safeway.

So maybe this new minifortress is intended to straddle "prestige" and "security zone": exclusiveness will be implied, at the very least, and it is an article of faith that tall walls mean less crime, though experimental confirmation of this notion has not been forthcoming. I suspect it cuts down a smidgen on one particular property crime the quick-and-dirty opportunistic burglary, which of necessity is slowed down by the difficulty of getting stolen swag past the gates but its impact on more serious offenses seems unclear. Certainly the gates can't do anything to prevent crimes committed by those inside.

Then again, "security" means more than just keeping the perps at bay. Blakely and Snyder quoted one resident of Blackhawk, in the foothills of Mount Diablo east of San Francisco Bay:

People are tired of the way the government has managed issues. Because you don't really have control over how the money is spent, [you] feel disenfranchised. If the courts are going to release criminals and we're going to continue not to prosecute people and continue to spend money the way we've been spending it, and I can't change it, at least here in Blackhawk, I have a little control over how I live my life.

And that was in 1994. I suspect this particular viewpoint is much more widespread in 2010.

Speaking of government, a gated community, manifest as an association of property owners, can be said to serve as a government writ small. What do actual governments think of them? In California, anyway, they seem to like the idea just fine:

The relationships between the gated enclaves and the public authorities can be thus summarized: because of the fiscal basis they produce, at almost no cost except general infrastructures (freeways and other major infrastructures), gated communities are particularly desirable for every local government, especially in the unincorporated areas in connection with a context where budget are tied to a low-resource paradigm after [the] 1978 taxpayers revolt and Proposition 13. When developing private neighborhoods, the homeowner pays the provision of public services. The sprawl of gated communities is not to be understood as a "secession" from the public authority, but as a public-private partnership, a local game where the gated community has a utility for the public authority, whilst the Property Owners Association is granted a certain autonomy in local governance, and especially in financing the maintenance of the urban infrastructure. But this user-payer paradigm represents a cost for the homeowner, charged with the property taxes, the district assessment, and the homeowners' fees, thus guarantying the social selection and the protection of property values.

And protection of property values is inextricably tied up with repelling the sort of people who are believed to bring them down which is not something you really want to do, argue Blakely and Snyder:

Gates and barricades that separate people from one another also reduce people's potential to understand one another and commit to any common or collective purpose. In short, gates reduce the opportunity for social contact, and without social contact, this nation becomes less likely to fulfill its social contract.

About this, I'm not so sure. What is most often described as the social contract, it seems to me, is generally enforced by government, by various means of coercion up to and including the point of a gun, which tells me that it's not much of a "contract" as we know the word. (See, for instance, Lysander Spooner, No Treason, 1867.) And I really don't see the need for "understanding" someone who is hurriedly departing the premises with someone else's Blu-ray player. Said I in 2005:

New Urbanists and such hate gated communities because they insulate their residents from the common folk; I rather suspect that there wouldn't be such a demand if so many of said common folk didn't act so, well, common.

"Good fences," observed Robert Frost, "make good neighbors." Then again, he also said, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." In the same poem, yet. As well as anything else, this seems to encapsulate my ambivalence about the whole idea of gated communities.

The Vent

  10 April 2010

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 Copyright © 2010 by Charles G. Hill