The major question I think that people should ask before buying into the gated community life style is, “Do the gates really keep crime rates down?”
A little over ten years ago, my wife and I moved into a gated community here in DeSoto, north-central Texas — The Enclave at ThornTree. It wasn’t that we were necessarily attracted to this community by of a sense of security that the gate would provide; we were attracted here because of the location next to a golf course and the promise of freedom from outside maintenance of the townhome property that we felt we could afford. Back then I thought I could enjoy a regular regimen of golf and was toying with the idea of an early retirement. I planned to join the ThornTree Country Club when I got good enough at the game. But I never did get good enough and I soon got bored not working. So I started substitute teaching and went back to school to earn a social studies composite certification. I’ve been teaching full time ever since, summer vacations being all the retirement I can tolerate. Teaching gives me a sense of self-worth for community involvement and I do so enjoy working with my students… seeing them grow and mature in their under- standing of the way things really work. They challenge me to stay sharp.
I wonder now at the wisdom of buying where we did. We could have had more home outside a gated community without homeowner association dues, or with lower dues because we wouldn’t have to be helping to pay the high maintenance cost of the gates. I’ve come to consider this expense to be a waste. We wouldn’t be replacing so many windows or filling-in golf ball pock marks in our simulated stucco EFIS siding either. But what’s done is done. The economy being what it is and with home values backsliding, we are probably here to stay. Well enough, I guess – it’s about equal distance to my wife’s job in Dallas and mine in Waxahachie. Besides, we have great neighbors.
Gated communities like ours are growing in popularity for home buyers, especially for those who, like us, are baby boomers and nearing retirement. These enclaves range in size from a few dozen homes to a thousand or more, with or without additional amenities within the gates. Most of these gated enclaves are found here in the south and southwest where couples who have earned at least a measure of the American dream tend to want to retire.
By some estimates, gated communities comprise ten percent of the new home market and, a according to the US Census Bureau, in 2004, gated communities like ours house an estimated sixteen million Americans, about six percent of all households. In major metropolitan areas, encouraged by city planners, fifty percent of new housing developments are being built as gated communities because private developments allow local municipalities to receive property taxes without cities having to provide services such as street maintenance and traffic enforcement.
The overwhelming reason that home buyers purchase in a gated community is for a sense of security. Fenced or walled and with gated entrances, enclaves do provide some privacy and peace of mind. But, and I know that this will not please my neighbors for me to say, this is really a false sense of security. The reality is that gated, unless there is a 24/7 guard posted at the entrance, only means “limited access”. Unauthorized persons can easily gain access by tailgating a vehicle driven by an authorized driver. I see this happening all the time at the entrance to our enclave.
Home buyers also buy in a gated community because of a desire for exclusivity. Gates keep out the “riffraff”, which I do not mean to say in a judgmental way. For the sake of the community, this can be viewed from the positive aspect of homeowners having shared values and similar economic levels that encourage people to stay rooted in their homes for longer periods. Among the golfers, at least, who live in our enclave, there is a true sense of cama- raderie, a feeling of extended family for couples whose children are long grown and long gone to other cities and states in this modern, more mobile society of ours.
But there is a downside to this attitude of exclusivity and concentration of relative wealth too. Here in DeSoto, which is a highly diverse city, both racially and socio-economically, over forty-seven percent of the children attending public schools qualify for free lunches owing to the income levels of parents. I learned this the other night from the superintendant of the DeSoto Independent School District who participated in a Dining and Dialogue evening my wife and I hosted. This, I fear, makes us a mighty big target right in the middle of a growing community of have-nots as our nation’s economy declines. A recent series of burglaries in our enclave bares whiteness to this fact.
Some, including me, believe that gated communities may be affecting our society in a negative way. Urban geographers and sociologists are saying that when people wall themselves off from others, they are cutting themselves off from the mixed, open society that is needed for a social and political democracy. Worth pondering are the words of Edward J. Blakely, Ph.D., “The thing that is most worrisome for me is this kind of ‘forting up,’ turning our backs on what I think is the nation’s civic destiny — a more heterogeneous, open society” (Tucker, 1998, p. 1)1.
The Declaration of Independence claims that everyone is equal, which is hardly true. We all know this. But a central goal of our democracy, in giving everyone equal justice, ought to be giving everyone equal opportunity too. I sincerely believe this. There- fore, should we not want all races and cultures to be able to live and work together in harmony? Should we not want everyone to at least have a shot at the American Dream, however each person may define it? But this gated trend, according to doctor Blakely, “is moving us in the opposite direction. Rather than being involved in an open society, gated communities tend to foster segregation. They also promote privatization, replacing public government with private organizations. As more private communities provide their own security, maintenance, parks, recreation, and other services, the poor and less well-to-do are left more dependent on the ever reduced services of the city and county governments” (Tucker, 1998, p. 2).
According to a study conducted by the city of San Antonio “such economic segregation could divide the community in ways similar to the racial divisions caused by segregation in recent years” (Diamond, 1997, p. 4 )2. There are also many legal ramifications of closing off streets to the public. In 1991, a group called Citizens Against Gated Enclaves sued the city of Los Angeles for allowing residents of prominent Whitley Heights to gate public streets against outsiders. The superior court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating that “the city owes a duty to the public not to allow gates on public streets” (Dillon, 1994, p. 7)3. Of course, that happened in California. This is Texas, and the streets of our enclave are not public since no thoroughfare yet exists. But a planned, new addition to the north of our existing enclave may just change this fact.
The major question I think that people should ask before buying into the gated community life style is, “Do the gates really keep crime rates down?” The answer, according to Edward J. Blakley, Dean of New York’s Graduate School of Management and Urban Planning, seems to be yes, but only by very little. The city of Miami, according to the dean, “reports that some forms of crime such as car theft are reduced, at least immediately after the streets are closed. However, data indicate that long-term crime rates are at best only marginally altered (Blakely, 1995, p.)4.
In gated communities, the trend is that crimes against the person go down and stay down in “controlled” not “limited” access developments like ours. This occurs because perpetrators do not want to go into an area that they are unfamiliar with and where it might be hard for them to make an escape. “According to preliminary research, crimes such as burglary drop in the first year or so after gating, but then rise back to the level of the areas outside” (Diamond 4).
So, what am I suggesting? Of my enclave neighbors, I am suggesting that we consider suspending our gate maintenance contract and leave the gates open. The money we spend on this only buys us an illusion of security. I anticipate, however, that most of my neighbors will reject this proposal. I’m also suggesting that more of my neighbors get outside the enclave and off the golf course, volunteering for church and other community programs like my good friend, Nancy Coleman does. There is a great opportunity for this, communicating to the rest of DeSoto’s citizens that we are not the elitists they may think we are, by joining the annual Great Days of Service movement. You may check with me, if you’re interested, for a registration form or you may register on-line at the last hyperlink. For others who may be reading this blog posting because they are thinking about buying into the gated community life style, I am suggesting that you think long and hard about the decision. Consider what message you are communicating to others with respect to how you think.
I invite your comments pro or con.
1 Tucker, C. (1998). Gated communities: Barriers go up. Public Management, 80, 1-3. 2 Diamond, D. (1997). Behind closed gates. USA Today, 1, 1-3. 3 Dillon, D. (1994). Fortress America: more and more of us living behind locked gates. Planning, 60, 2-8. 4 Blakely, E. (1995). Fortress communities: The walling and gating of American suburbs. Land Lines, 7, 1,3.