Monday, December 10, 2007

Safe from what?

A few years back, we were looking at new housing developments and we had narrowed it down to two locations. The first location was a gated area, the 2nd was not. That first property was on our list not because of being gated, but rather, despite it. Ultimately, it was one of the deciding factors in us choosing against it. How we looked at it is not the norm, however. A recent article by Barbara Ehrenreich of the Nation has an interesting take on gated areas:

McMansions Meet the Mortgage Crisis
by Barbara Ehrenreich

Another utopia seems to be biting the dust. ... the paranoid residential ideal represented by gated communities may be in serious trouble. Never exactly cool–remember Jim Carrey in The Truman Show?–these pricey enclaves of privilege are becoming hotbeds of disillusionment.

At the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington last week, incoming association president Setha M. Lowe painted a picture so dispiriting that the audience guffawed in schadenfreude. The gated community residents Lowe interviewed had fled from ethnically challenging cities, but they have not managed to escape from their fear. One resident reported that her small daughter has developed a severe case of xenophobia, no doubt communicated by her parents:

We were driving next to a truck with some day laborers and equipment in the back, and we stopped beside them at the light. She [her daughter] wanted to move because she was afraid those people were going to come and get her. They looked scary to her.

...gated communities are no less crime-prone than open ones, and Gopal Ahluwalia, senior vice president of research at the National Association of Home Builders, confirms this: “There are studies indicating that there are no differences in the crime in gated communities and non-gated communities.” The security guards often wave people on in, especially if they look like they’re on a legitimate mission ... Or the crime comes from within ...

Most recently, America’s gated communities have been blighted by foreclosures ... So, for people who sought, not just prosperity, but perfection, here’s another sad end to the American dream, or at least their ethnically cleansed version thereof: boarded-up McMansions, plastic baggies scudding over overgrown lawns, and, in the Orlando case, a foreclosure-induced infestation of snakes. You can turn away the Mexicans, the African-Americans, the teenagers and other suspect groups, but there’s no fence high enough to keep out the repo man.

All right, some gated communities are doing better than others, and not all of their residents are racists. The communities that allow owners to rent out their houses, or that offer homes at middle class prices of $250,000 or so, are more likely to contain a mixture of classes and races. The only gated community I have ever visited consisted of dull row houses protected by a slacker guard and a fence, and my host was a writer of liberal inclinations. But all these places suffer from the delusion that security lies behind physical barriers.

Before we turn all of America into a gated community, with a 700-mile steel fence running along the southern border, we should consider the mixed history of exclusionary walls. Ancient and medieval European towns huddled behind massive walls, only to face ever-more effective catapults, battering rams and other siege engines. More recently, the Berlin Wall, which the East German government described fondly as a protective “anti-fascism wall,” fell to a rebellious citizenry. Israel, increasingly sealed behind its anti-Palestinian checkpoints and wall, faced an outbreak of neo-Nazi crime in September–coming, strangely enough, from within.

But the market may have the last word on America’s internal gated communities. “Hell is a gated community,” announced the Sarasota Herald Tribune last June, reporting that market research by the big homebuilder Pulte Homes found that no one under fifty wants to live in them, so its latest local development would be un-gated. Security, or at least the promise of security, may be one consideration. But there’s another old-fashioned American imperative at work here, which ought to bear on our national policies as well. As my Montana forebears would have put it: Don’t fence me in!

It seems that in our fear-mongering society, we try to achieve security through building fences instead of engaging our community. In the world community, we are making the same mistakes - building fences and failing to engage our world neighbors. The places where I have felt the safest were those where neighbors knew each other - where if you had a problem with someone, you'd go talk to them civilly.

Are people wrong for wanting safety for their family? No. Are they wrong in thinking that ethnic and economic homogeny produce this desired safety? Yes. People are looking for "safety" from immigrants, from low-income people. They are using security concerns to justify xenophobia and racism. Again, they are taking their cue from our country's leaders who do the same on the world stage.

The post-war suburbanization of our society gave us the illusions of security, privacy and space. But it took away our connectedness. War, the environment, poverty - it's all connected. We overvalue material things and undervalue people and nature. Instead of building walls, we should be knocking them down.

"As long as our civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson


shrimplate said...

Most excellent post.

I think there might be an angle here that involves language.

wunelle said...

Whatever our issues with immigration, only an idiot thinks a 700 mile fence is the solution. How sad that those idiots are running the show.

dbackdad said...

shrimplate - Thanks.

Language certainly comes into play. Do you mean language as a figurative "wall"?

wunelle - It's certainly a complicated issue and no side seems to have a firm grasp on it. I saw an interesting story in our local paper the other day that told of an illegal immigrant who saved a white boy who was injured and wandering in the desert in southern Arizona after his mom had died in an accident - AZ Republic. It reminded me of the movie 'Babel' and ties in with Shrimplate's comment about language. Some things are universal and independent of language - caring for your children, wanting to have a better life. But because of differences in language and culture, some people don't realize what we have in common.