America More Divided ~ The Gated Community Lifestyle

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.


Published in: on June 9, 2008 at 11:07 am  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Kent, there is one thing that I like about our gated community other than having you and Natalie for neighbors, and thati s, it keeps people away from my door, you know, selling things, etc. Other than that, I really agree with you but then for someone like me, it also eliminates yard maintenance in a way since I am out and about in my servant role for our Risen Christ. Even though we might know each other and encounter one another from time to time, we are still isolated from one another. I really appreciate the updates from Glenda Henderson over the past month with reference to our neighbors Bud and Betty. Now this is what I call staying connected. We no longer have a newsletter to connect the dots and if we have time, we attend the dinners every other month. Other than that, we really do not know or interact with the entire community.

    We really are an aging community and it might behoove us to kind of stay in touch with the entire community. I do not mean to put us down BUT I just think we can do better.

    I agree, we probably should suspend the gates since they do not always work and yes, cars do tailgate to gain entrance.

    Thanks for the link to the volunteer site for servanthood. I must down load this for my church.

  2. Great post, pops!

    Made me ponder again the answer to those common questions the press and pundits might have you believe obvious;

    Does arming pilots make flying safer?

    Will computerized voting machines make election results more accurate?

    Is online shopping with credit cards especially risky?

    Will a national ID card better protect you from terrorism?

    A passage from Bruce Schneier’s BEYOND FEAR (2003, ch2, pg22), “Everyone manages risks differently. It’s not just a matter of human imperfection, our inability to correctly assess risk. It also involves the different perspectives and opinions each of us brings to the world around us. Even if we both have the same knowledge and expertise, what might seam like adequate security to me might be inadequate to you because we have different tolerances for risk. People make value judgments in assessing risk, and there are legitimate differences in their judgments. Because of this fact, security is subjective and will be different for different people, as each one determines his own risk and evaluates the trade-offs for different countermeasures.”

    Impossible (wrong in my opinion) to make everything “equal” and good that there’s still some room for most folks to decide for themselves.

    Greater individual liberties with less government interference would always get my vote.. then again, there will forever be a trade-off.


  3. Thanks, son. Good comment.
    I agree with Mr. Scheiner, of course, he being an expert on security. However, I interpret this passage from his book to mean that risk and fear are not the same thing… or maybe I’m reading my own understanding into it. Anyway, risk is the likelihood of a negative event occurring, which can be determined or at least estimated. Fear is the anxiety that we feel because of unknowns about the event, which might become known to us if only we were open to accepting facts about it to include the probability of its occurrence.

  4. Yes, exactly.. and while attempting to calculate risk can be rational, creative and compassionate in order to be guarded, cautious, and protective, fear, on the other hand, is reptilian at its core. Not only do all people assess risks differently, all people are imperfect and cannot avoid the influence or emotional strength of fear when attempting to assess risk. Moreover, systems or governments are that much greater, collectively, flawed.

    Take your example of trading and speculation in oil futures or even drilling for new resource in ‘protected’ lands. It seems to me, most certainly a fear factor impact on current day supply and demand.

  5. Which leads us to understand why people huddle together in like-groups of families, clans, tribes, bands and nations. Collectively, we are stronger than we are as individuals, which ameliorates our fears. Collectively, we can assess and respond to risks more effectively since we each see things from different perspectives and we each bring different strengths to the challenge. Then too, collective judgment is almost always better than individual judgment. This is why we need government, flawed as it tends to be. For, without it there is anarchy wherein we feed upon each other without restriction. One modern example is the subprime mortgage debacle in this country. Once government lifted the banking restrictions that were put in place following the Great Depression to prevent such a thing from happening, the feeding frenzy began.

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