Culture At Large

The injustice of gated communities

David Greusel

People familiar with psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famed hierarchy of needs know that personal safety is right at the top of the list - or near the bottom of the pyramid, if you will. That fact alone is enough to explain the existence of gated communities. Those who can afford it enjoy the feeling of being protected by walls and gates that purport to keep intruders at bay.

The term “intruder” would presumably include a person like Trayvon Martin, who, tragically, was killed walking through a gated community in Sanford, Florida. Of course “intruder,” like “threat,” is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?

In an op-ed for the New York Times that touches on the Martin slaying, author Rich Benjamin describes some of his observations from having sampled a number of gated communities in the United States as an African-American man. Benjamin has written a book about the experience called Searching for Whitopia, a book I would read with relish. In my city, there is a suburban subdivision called White Haven. No kidding.

According to Benjamin, more than 10 million American households exist sheltered behind walls. While that’s just under 10 percent of U.S. households, it represents a sizeable minority hunkered down in fortified bunkers. There must be a lot of bad guys out there.

One question to ask about gated communities is, how real is the threat they purport to avoid? Speaking broadly, there is a slightly better than one percent chance that your domicile will be assaulted this year by people intent on thievery. Stated another way, a U.S. household is due to be burgled every 73 years, on average. Obviously, your mileage will vary considerably depending on where you live and how vigilant you and your neighbors are. And that is the argument for gated communities in a nutshell: they want to reduce that 1.4 percent chance to as close to zero as is humanly possible.

We are created for community, but gated communities are communities of the narrowest sort.

Of course, a responsible householder will take prudent steps to avoid being a victim of crime. But thinking Christianly, one must ask what are the costs - beyond expensive real estate - to be borne by someone living in a gated community?

I believe those costs are considerable. We are created for community, but gated communities are communities of the narrowest sort. They are designed to exclude: the poor, the homeless, the renter, the boulevardier, the itinerant worker - in short, anyone who’s not landed gentry. And incidentally, the very people that the Bible indicates God is most concerned about.

Part of justice is seeing that accused criminals are treated fairly by the courts. But there is another aspect to justice: simply being aware of the existence of our fellows, and in being aware, having the ability to respond to their needs. Gated communities prevent this latter sort of justice entirely, even while they tip the former toward considering non-landowners, like Trayvon Martin, as potential suspects. Residents with remotely controlled gates can effectively avoid contact with strangers altogether on their hermetic commutes. That is unjust in the latter sense and deprives the resident of much of the richness cities have to offer, a richness best seen at a farmers’ market or a fair.

The great thing about fairs and festivals is the mix of people that come to them. You get to rub elbows with many people who are emphatically not just like you and your nearest neighbors. Fairs and festivals are, in that sense, small foretastes of the kingdom of God, which will be far more demographically diverse than the pews of any particular church. And this joyous diversity is the very thing that gated communities intentionally avoid, out of fear that any diverse group must include criminals intending harm.

But Christians are supposed to operate from a posture of love, not a posture of fear. Jesus said “Fear not” so often that we assume it was some sort of vocal tic. But it wasn’t. He knows our natural tendencies better than we do. Our presuppositions almost always start with fear. One fear drives the George Zimmermans of the world to cruise their own neighborhoods on the lookout for strangers. Yet Jesus reminds us, constantly, to fear not. But fearing not is not the same thing as hiding behind walls.

Gated communities address a particular fear, the fear of crime. But in doing so, they deprive their residents of the rich tapestry of human life that every city, large or small, offers in abundance to urban dwellers who are willing to exit their vehicles long enough to experience it.

What Do You Think?

  • Is there a Biblical case against gated communities?
  • What has your experience been with such communities?
  • What sort of residential lifestyle best represents a Biblical ideal?


Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends, Justice