Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Stealing Cars: Gated Communities as a Deterrent
Another strategy to secure the car was to place it in a gated community. These safeguarded neighborhoods have a long history both in the US and abroad. They were initially created as exclusive estates and later designed as retirement or resort communities. They now tend to focus on middle-income people who seek a sense of safety and security. National interest in gated communities intensified during the late 1990s, even though by that time crime had peaked and was actually decreasing. The number of people living in gated communities in the United States was estimated to have doubled from 4 million in 1995 to 8 million in 1997.15 The International Foundation for Protection Officers suggested that this represented approximately 20,000 gated communities or 3 million units.16 By the time of the US Census Bureau’s 2001 American Housing Survey, more than 7 million households or 6 percent of the national total lived in developments delineated by walls and fences, and with controlled access. About 4 million of these communities are further distinguished by self-governance.17 In these cases, gated communities are defined as: “multi-unit, master-planned developments where resident owners must be members of a homeowner association and share ownership of common facilities, including a surrounding fence with a gate.”18
The popularity of self-governed gated communities has also been interpreted as the ascendance of a movement toward privatization that began in the 1980s in response to a half-century of public-sector expansion. Gated communities are a personal example of the privatization of security, a realm previously relegated to the public sector along with the maintenance of peace. In his analysis of San Diego’s gated communities, Sven Bislev of the Copenhagen Business School suggests:
The idea of self-governance could be said to be ‘postmodern,’ in the sense that instead of overarching models, grand narratives, and historical schemes, it privileges individual and situational choice. This, however, also excludes the possibility of something radically different . . .19
That is, gated communities provide a form of self-governance at the neighborhood level aimed at averting risk, promoting common sociocultural values, and providing an alternative lifestyle to those with means at a time of growing economic disparity. These themes continue to be played out in different arenas and are at the heart of political debates that frame contemporary national discourse.
Although gated communities are now common across the US, the highest concentrations are in the Sunbelt. About 30 to 40 percent of new homes in California are in gated communities, as are most recent subdivisions in Palm Beach County, Miami and Tampa, Florida; Phoenix, Arizona; and Washington, D.C.20 A reported eight out of every ten new urban developments across the US are gated.21
Gated communities use a variety of methods from gates to cameras to achieve both expressed and implied exclusivity. It is a lifestyle choice.
Gates range from elaborate two-story guardhouses manned 24 hours a day to roll-back wrought iron gates to simple electronic arms. Guardhouses are usually built with one lane for guests and visitors and a second for residents, who may open the gates with an electronic card, a punched-in code, or a remote control. Some gated communities with round-the-clock security require all cars to pass the guard, and management issues identification stickers for residents’ cars. Others use video cameras to record the license plates and sometimes the faces of all who pass through. Unmanned entrances have intercom systems, some with video monitors, for visitors seeking entrance.
These security mechanisms are intended to do more than just deter crime. Both developers and residents view security as not just freedom from crime, but also as freedom from such annoyances as solicitors and canvassers, mischievous teenagers, and strangers of any kind, malicious or not. The gates provide a sheltered common space that excludes outsiders. Especially to the residents of upper-end gated communities, who already afford to live in very-low-crime environments, the privacy and convenience of controlled access are more important than protection from crime.22
Gated communities are never marketed as lowering car theft, per se, but rather as offering relief from a crime-ridden society. Even though their effectiveness in lowering crime has been spotty and difficult to document, car theft is one crime that has actually shown some temporary improvement. According to one 1995 study: “reports in Miami and other areas where gates and barricades have become the norm, some forms of crime, such as car theft, are reduced. On the other hand, some data indicate that the crime rate inside the gates is only marginally altered.”23
Not surprisingly, car theft is sometimes mentioned as a reason to move to a gated community since this crime hits close to home. Anthropologist Setha M. Low, in her studies of gated communities, captured sentiments from people who made the move. According to one New York resident: “I think it’s safer having a gated community. . . . They are not going to steal my car in the garage. . . . [In the old neighborhood] every time we heard an alarm, we were looking out the window. My daughter and son-in-law lived next door and their car was stolen twice;” and another stated: “I got to feel like I was a prisoner in the house. . . . You didn’t park on the street too long because you are afraid your car is going to be missing something when you get out, or the whole car is missing. . . . So there’s a lot of things we have the freedom to do here that we didn’t do before.”24
What is it about car theft that people fear? Like personal assaults and home invasions, car theft feels like an attack that plays on a person’s vulnerability. Car theft triggers an emotional reaction that is impervious to statistics that claim crime across the US is actually on the decline. Typically, a person whose car has been stolen, feels so violated that the car is later sold.25 Sociologist Barry Glassner suggests that we further overreact because of a barrage of media reports glorifying crime and violence, creating an image of a crime-ridden society that is, in fact, disconnected from reality.26 Sensationalized headlines both feed off and incite a “culture of fear.”
Anthropologist Setha Low, urban planners Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder, and social critic and political journalist Barbara Ehrenreich are among the many voices that contend gated communities play on this fear when they implicitly and explicitly delineate people by race, income, and social standing. Residents don’t have to mix with immigrants, minorities, the poor, and young delinquents they associate with urban change and a chaotic world. In the words of one resident: “when Bloomingdale’s moved out and Kmart moved in, it just brought in a different group of people . . . and it wasn’t the safe place it was. . . . I think it’s safer having a gated community.”27
Gated communities are also a way for developers to appear to offer a private good where the public seemingly has failed while making money from it.
After giving a short presentation Monday [December 9, 2009] to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, planning commissioner Nina Lipton asked the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief whether he had any data on safety in gated versus non-gated communities.
“We looked at that,” [police chief] Monroe said. The police and planning departments matched up communities as closely as they could, looking at income levels, multi-family, single family and other factors. In terms of crime rates, Monroe said, “We saw no difference,”
What matters in terms of neighborhood safety, he said, is who’s living there: Are residents looking out for their neighbors? Are they taking responsibility? Is it a rental community, is there professional management? Are renters being screened for criminal records?
. . . Just making a development gated doesn’t make it safer, he said. “Sometimes it creates an opportunity for me to charge you more.”28
Gates and video surveillance systems offer a sense of security to some, but to others they foster a false sense of community. As a tool for preventing auto theft, gated communities can even have the opposite effect. Neighbors may become complacent about their environment, and not as vigilant as they would be without the barriers. Equipment or cameras may malfunction, gates may be left open, or security guards may be distracted. Because crime prevention cannot be guaranteed, there is reportedly a recent trend in the multi-housing industry to avoid use of the word “security” in their marketing material.29
Could we actually be seeing the beginning of disillusionment with gated communities? Ehrenreich claims that gated communities are “another Utopia [that seems] . . . to be biting the dust” and reports that “America’s gated communities have been blighted by foreclosures” as evidenced by Henderson, Nevada, and Orlando, Florida.30 Gated communities may be on the wane, but they are not going away, regardless of whether their allure for preventing crime is losing its luster. Their appeal based on protection from outside influences, even if largely symbolic, remains strong. And as long as local law enforcement budgets are constrained by a soft economy, and as our society ages and the allure of “self-governance” prevails, a culture of fear will continue to play on the American psyche.