McMansions Meet the Mortgage Crisis

Another utopia seems to be biting the dust. The socialist kibbutzim of Israel have vanished or gone increasingly capitalist, and now the paranoid residential ideal represented by gated communities may be in serious trouble. Never exactly cool--remember Jim Carrey in The Truman Show?--these pricey enclaves of privilege are becoming hotbeds of disillusionment.

At the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington last week, incoming association president Setha M. Lowe painted a picture so dispiriting that the audience guffawed in schadenfreude. The gated community residents Lowe interviewed had fled from ethnically challenging cities, but they have not managed to escape from their fear. One resident reported that her small daughter has developed a severe case of xenophobia, no doubt communicated by her parents:

We were driving next to a truck with some day laborers and equipment in the back, and we stopped beside them at the light. She [her daughter] wanted to move because she was afraid those people were going to come and get her. They looked scary to her.

Leaving aside the sorry spectacle of homeowners living in fear of their landscapers, there is actually something to worry about. According to Lowe, gated communities are no less crime-prone than open ones, and Gopal Ahluwalia, senior vice president of research at the National Association of Home Builders, confirms this: "There are studies indicating that there are no differences in the crime in gated communities and non-gated communities." The security guards often wave people on in, especially if they look like they're on a legitimate mission--such as the faux moving truck that entered a Fort Meyers' gated community last spring and left with a houseful of furniture. Or the crime comes from within, as in the Hilton Head Plantation community in South Carolina where a rash of crime committed by resident teenagers has led to the imposition of a curfew.

Most recently, America's gated communities have been blighted by foreclosures. Yes, even people who were able to put together the down payment on a half-million dollar house can be ambushed by Adjustable Rate Mortgages. Newsweek reports that foreclosures are devastating the gated community of Black Mountain Vista in Henderson NV, where "yellow patches [now] blot the spartan lawns and phone books lie on front porches, their covers bleached from weeks under the desert sun." Similarly, according to the Orlando Sentinel, "countless homeowners overwhelmed by their mortgages are taking off and leaving behind algae-filled swimming pools and knee-high weeds" in one local gated community.

So, for people who sought, not just prosperity, but perfection, here's another sad end to the American dream, or at least their ethnically cleansed version thereof: boarded-up McMansions, plastic baggies scudding over overgrown lawns, and, in the Orlando case, a foreclosure-induced infestation of snakes. You can turn away the Mexicans, the African-Americans, the teenagers and other suspect groups, but there's no fence high enough to keep out the repo man.

All right, some gated communities are doing better than others, and not all of their residents are racists. The communities that allow owners to rent out their houses, or that offer homes at middle class prices of $250,000 or so, are more likely to contain a mixture of classes and races. The only gated community I have ever visited consisted of dull row houses protected by a slacker guard and a fence, and my host was a writer of liberal inclinations. But all these places suffer from the delusion that security lies behind physical barriers.

Before we turn all of America into a gated community, with a 700-mile steel fence running along the southern border, we should consider the mixed history of exclusionary walls. Ancient and medieval European towns huddled behind massive walls, only to face ever-more effective catapults, battering rams and other siege engines. More recently, the Berlin Wall, which the East German government described fondly as a protective "anti-fascism wall," fell to a rebellious citizenry. Israel, increasingly sealed behind its anti-Palestinian checkpoints and wall, faced an outbreak of neo-Nazi crime in September--coming, strangely enough, from within.

But the market may have the last word on America's internal gated communities. "Hell is a gated community," announced the Sarasota Herald Tribune last June, reporting that market research by the big homebuilder Pulte Homes found that no one under fifty wants to live in them, so its latest local development would be un-gated. Security, or at least the promise of security, may be one consideration. But there's another old-fashioned American imperative at work here, which ought to bear on our national policies as well. As my Montana forebears would have put it: Don't fence me in!

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