Category Archives: Autumn 1998 (8/5/98)

Communities of Fear

Communities of Fear

Our communities are in crisis, due to the burgeoning growth of gated communities and the security industry. Gated communities are becoming the norm of development; security systems, including surveillance cameras and private guards, monitor-an increasing portion of public life. There -is no obvious need for this security frenzy: crime rates have fallen steadily, throughout the 1990′s. But however unnecessary, the trend is potentially devastating to communities. Communities cannot function when people live in gated enclaves, segregated by wealth and class. A social system based around fear and enforced isolation is asking for revolt by those outside the gates.

Gated communities are becoming the model for home development. Since 1970, gated communities have increased by a factor of ten, numbering 20,000 in 1997. Fifty-two percent of Dallas-area home buyer feel gated, communities are desirable or essential, according to a National Association of Home Builders 19% survey. The demand for gated communities is spread across the home buyer spectrum: mobile homes, as well as upscale houses, are being developed within walls and gates.

What do these people feel they will gain by the gates? Psychologically, gates and valid are linked to protection but often ft structures surrounding these communities can be easily scaled. And many advertisements and newspaper, articles describing gated communities list them in relatively affluent surroundings, A gate does offer control of who enters the neighborhood and who comes to the door. But with control comes predictability, and can quickly lead to a sense of isolation. Mental health practitioners are in fact seeing increased incidences of social isolation, which is strongly linked to higher rates of disease and premature death.

Perhaps most importantly, a community composed of waited and gated enclaves is not a community. The impulse towards safety is being manifested as a desire to surround yourself with your own social class, shutting others. out. Children growing up in such non-diverse surroundings may have a grossly distorted world view. The end effect is segregation by socioeconomic class. Gates send a strong message: when you are on the outside, you are not good enough. To those on the inside, people on te outside will begin to seem less. trustworthy; the outsiders will be perceived as second class citizens. As Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder point out in Fortress America: Gated Communities, in the United States, ‘For fine inside the gates, life may be a little more comfortable. For others’, however, gated communities. symbolizee a larger social pattern of segmentation and separation, designed to disassociate, and exclude.” What gated communities are really about is the abdication of, responsibility. Instead of dealing wit I h issues that make them uncomfortable, people who can afford gates and walls secret themselves away from things, scary – or maybe even just” different.

Communities are about sharing resources and responsibilities. Since most gated communities privatize everything within the gates, including streets, parks, and other municipal services, people living within the gates risk becoming anesthetized to issues outside the gates. They will likely no longer feel the need to share their resources. If the rich keep all their resources to themselves, the rest of the larger community will have work harder to maintain institutions outside the gate. The end result is the exacerbation of the problems” the gated folks tried to escape by living within the gates.

And what are these “problems”? The main difficulty” is that the people not living in gated communities will either be too poor to afford that level of security, or uninterested in living a segregated life- neither of which is cause for fanatical security and isolation. The fear and superiority the gated folks feel is clearly a consequence of a society that emphasizes wealth, class, and profit over community and humanity.

The concentration of wealth encouraged by gated communities almost guarantees a revolt by the peoplr outside the walls. Against of angry, frustrated people, walls and gates will offer laughably little protection. One private guard working at a gated community acknowledged that he could easily scale the gate. ‘It may be nice for a couple ofdecades,’ write Carolyn Shaffer and Kristen

Anundsen in Creating Community Anywhere, ‘But if there is too much disparity between the private enclaves of wealth and homogeneous groups of people, the rest of the community is going to be poor, frustrated and angry. And the walls are not going to be high enough to keep out the problems.”

Electronic Security System Additional protection measures are being taken, both in conjunction with and apart from gated communities. Elaborate security packages, including private guards, alarms, and surveillance cameras, are standard on 30% of new homes. Private security guards are being hired to. patrol neighborhoods, in addition to the conventional police presence. Nationally, private security is a $104 billion industry, while public security (such as local police forces) is a $44 billion industry. Private security guards offer somewhat illusory protection. Often, guards are hired specifically to observe. crimes and report them to the police force, instead of to intervene. Even in uniform, private guards are still only private citizens; anybody on the street has the power to detain a suspect for a ‘reasonable length of time.

‘Most criminals know exactly what those services do and what they can’t do, and they are not afraid of them like they are the police”‘ says Terry Schauer, senior lead officer at ,LAPD’s West Los Angeles station. Nonetheless, the security guard industry continues to expand. Some neighborhoods, both with and without gates, are hiring private security guards to patrol their streets.’ Several neighborhoods in the Baton Rouge, LA area have established mandatory taxes to fund the guards. Ironically, son* conservatives join civil libertarians in speaking against these residential tax districts. ‘it is going to Balkanize the cities even further,” argues Walter Abbott of the politically conservative Americans for Tax Reform. ‘It’s pitting neighborhood against neighborhood. Ifs a gate community without walls.” Electronic security systems are as ineffective as private guards. Electronic systems are standard on 30% of new homes; a fifth of United States residences now have alarm systems, compared to 1 % in 1970. Thesystems are little to sensitive, creating a boy-cries-wolf effect: in one luxury gatedcommunity, mosquitoes can set off the infrared motion sensors. Nationally, only 1%of alarms are valid. These mistakes lead police to deprioritize any alarm signal, real orspurious. A cop’s arrival an hour after the alarm sounds is meaningless, considered that most thieves can escape with their cargo in minutes.

Surveillance cameras are proliferating even faster than alarms systems. For several years, surveillance cameras have been staples of convenience stores and ATM’S, but spy cameras can increasingly be found monitoring all aspects of public life. In one eight block area of New York, NY Civil Liberties Union volunteers found 300 cameras in plain sight; many more could have been hidden. The presence of cameras often suggests an atmosphere of safety.

According to the Village Voice, however, no clear link exists between crime prevention and cameras. Researchers think cameras may cause decreases in petty crime such as vandalism, but probably don’t prevent larger comes. For instance, convenience store robberies have not significantly decreased, even after years of taping the cash register area. Cameras often are not monitored directly, and may not be monitored at all unless a crime occurs in the area. The tapes are only viewed afterwards with hopes of catching the perpetrators.

Security Through Community The security frenzy points to a crisis within our communities. For security’s sake, mainstream America accepts daily monitoring, and then returns home-to sealed homes inside sealed gates. But technology cannot provide household security precautions, we can better invest our attention and resources in strengthening our whole-community health and security, enhancing and opening up our lives instead of closing them down.” Carolyn Shaffer, also a Berkeley community organizer and author, echoes these thoughts: ‘People are very afraid to be vulnerable and have mistakenly thought that security comes through external systems of burglar alarms, gates, guns and police forces. What I believe is that true security comes through being willing to connect openly with one another, honestly and respectfully. Building those bonds and links of connection creates much greater security- than all the hardware, firepower or guards you can hire.’

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