In Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America, Setha Low combines techniques of personal narrative, ethnography, and social theory to problematize the growth of gated communities in American suburbs. Her analysis does not focus so much on the often times tense relationship between suburban and inner-city residential development, but on the precise characteristics of a gated community that set it apart from suburban development generally. "Even though the gated community evolved from suburban designs and development practices and responds to middle-class values and desires, this housing solution is distinctive in its political significance and potentially disruptive consequences, and must be understood in terms of how it changes the social organization of the neighborhood and a sense of community and security for individuals." (Pg. 52)
Gated communities have existed since European settlers began migrating to North America and began as a defense against the indigenous populations. With the subsequent extermination of these populations, however, defensive walls surrounding European colonists ceased to be necessary. (Pg. 14) Gated communities that function as an exclusionary status symbol of the American ruling class date back to the mid-nineteenth century, but did not take on their present form and enter the current period of explosive growth until the 1980s. (Pg. 14) In 2001, "7,058,427, or 5.9 percent of households reporting that they live in communities, live in those surrounded by walls or fences, and 4,013,665 households or 3.4 percent, live in communities where the access is controlled by some means such as entry codes, key cards, or security gate approval." (Pg. 15) This represents a massive increase, as even in 1995 only four million people lived in gated communities. (Pg. 15)
This growth points towards the question that motivates Low's book: given that gated communities are, in fact, no safer than comparable, non-gated suburban developments, what motivates people to move to them? This question is further complicated by the substantial sacrifice of personal freedoms that residents frequently make in conforming the often-extensive rules and regulations established by homeowner associations in these developments and by the substantial cost associated with maintaining gates and guards. Low argues that the driving force behind the growth of gated communities is primarily symbolic and psychological and that it is not actual well-being but a sense of well-being rooted in complex, multi-faceted social factors. (Pg. 11)
An important psychological factor that motivates many of the subjects Low interviews to move to gated communities is a search for community. "The important elements of community-shared territory, shared values, shared public realm, shared support structures, and shared destiny-are all part of the gated community package." (Pg. 57) The material basis that secures these commonalities is two-fold. First, gated communities tend towards homogeneity in housing prices because of the high cost of security and amenities fees in most gated communities. (Pg. 46) Second, most gated communities are privately owned and enforce rules through "covenants, contracts, and deed restrictions (CC&Rs)" (Pg. 19) that dictate the terms under which residents may move into a development. Both of these factors have a homogenizing effect that tends to select residents that share values and lifestyles and that binds those residents together by creating a common set of norms and regulations.
These material elements, however, may not actually create a sense of community for residents. Despite frequently citing the desire for community as an important reason for moving to a gated community, the majority of residents of gated communities do not feel that their gated community provides a sense of community. (Pg. 70) Low suggests that gated communities may actually exacerbate feelings of isolation by intensifying the division between insiders and outsiders.
This division between insiders and outsiders touches on another crucial aspect of Low's investigation. The fear of others strongly motivates many people to move to gated communities. A host of factors that range from status anxiety to fear of crime to concerns about terrorism to outright bigotry give rise to the figures of otherness that permeate the culture of gated communities. For instance, in an extraordinary number of interviews that Low conducted, subjects casually made reference to a fear of construction workers who entered the community to do maintenance and repairs and to build new homes. (Pg. 59, 98, 102, 147,150) These fears tend to be deeply radicalized and motivate the construction of spaces of whiteness that in turn reinforce the fear of others. "Racist fears about the "threat" of a visible minority...are remarkably similar. This is because many neighborhoods in the United States are racially homogenous. Thus, the physical space of the neighborhood and its racial composition become synonymous. This "racialized" spatial ordering and the identification of a space with a group of people is a fundamental aspect of how suburban landscapes reinforce racial prejudice and discrimination." (Pg. 146)
This insistence that the organization of space is not just consequence but cause of social and political tensions is for me the crux of Low's analysis and the main intersection between her book and our class. She at no point attempts to fully diagnose the complex reasons why people move to gated communities nor does she try to attribute them to some fundamental cause. Instead, she provides a multitude of analytic tools for understanding this phenomenon and, above all else, lets her interviewees speak for themselves. In this way she raises more questions than she answers, but this is as it should be.
What does become clear is that exclusion is spatialized and self-perpetuating, For instance, fear of crime is a strong motivating factor for people who move to gated communities. However, spatial separation and isolation from surrounding communities tends to perpetuate and reinforce the fear of crime and victimization. Thus, gated communities form, in a sense, a self-reinforcing system of exclusion and fear that has disastrous political and social consequences. If ever there was an argument for analyzing cities and neighborhoods as a confluence of social, psychological, and political factors then this is it. That cities are not only built from out political and social imagination, but help to create and recreate it means that only a sustained and critical intervention into the techniques and process that construct cities can provide alternatives to what are, in many cases, flawed and dangerous ways of thinking about and planning cities and neighborhood. By laying bare the assumptions, motives, and desires of people who move to gated communities, then, Low allows us to rethink this phenomenon.