Hearing the words “gated community,” most people in this country probably think of America — and not with admiration. The phrase, after all, denotes privilege and exclusion, fear and distaste, not unlike those more heavily freighted labels of the past, “pale” or “ghetto.”
Some critics of President George W. Bush’s administration have even written off the whole country as a kind of gated community of the mind. But apparently that’s way off the mark, as some creative dissenters in Los Angeles showed last week.
Last Sunday morning, a group of architects, artists and urban planners calling themselves Heavy Trash put up bright orange, 4-meter-high viewing platforms outside the gates of three of the city’s elite private neighborhoods. The idea was that ordinary folk outside the wall might like to clamber up and take a peek at the well-to-do going about their affairs inside. The action was short-lived, since the platforms were gone by Monday. And it was largely symbolic, since people can see into those neighborhoods from outside anyway. But the point was brilliantly made: Walls and gates are controversial.
According to its Web site, Heavy Trash’s mission is to create “disposable art objects that draw community and media attention to specific urban issues.” In 1997, it installed a staircase to provide access to a Los Angeles park that had been fenced to keep out homeless people. In 2000, it put up billboards advertising a fictional new subway line that would connect the city’s downtown to wealthy neighborhoods, close to the beach and museums, that had agitated to keep out mass transit. The group’s actions are clever and amusing, but above all they are serious. The point, members say, is to generate public discussion about what they see as burgeoning urban problems.
In last week’s effort, the focus was on the proliferation in U.S. cities of gated communities, which Heavy Trash calls “walled fortresses, dividing neighborhoods and blocking off what would otherwise be public streets and sidewalks.” Ten to 20 years from now, one member said, “people will realize that the gates are anathema to a democratic, open society, and that they instead make for a more fearful society.”
Whether one sympathizes with Heavy Trash’s rhetoric or agrees with its radical assessment of the social costs of enclaves, the group certainly is right about the trend. In 2000, some 8 million U.S. residents lived in gated communities, which remain the fastest-growing form of housing in the country. From California to Florida, for whatever reason, more people are choosing to live behind walls.
Less recognized is the fact that it’s not just happening in the United States. One doesn’t notice it here in Japan so much, where the phrase “gated community” is as likely to bring to mind the Imperial Palace or a U.S. military base as a residential neighborhood. (Though let’s not forget the medieval jokamachi, or castle town, which a Harvard historian of landscape has pinpointed, in all seriousness, as a forerunner of the modern gated community, since it also “secured its inhabitants against everyday lawlessness by walls and guarded gateways, and by gates closed after nightfall.”)
But if it is not a major feature of life in modern Japan, the U.S.-style residential enclave is booming just about everywhere else. From Johannesburg to Sydney, Accra to Buenos Aires, Paris to Mexico City, many of the rich are rushing to barricade themselves against the riffraff. Lima, the capital of Peru, has so many gated communities it has been described as “a city of cages.” The trend has taken off in Asia, as well. There are locked and guarded districts in the Philippines. And in China, all new residential developments are required by law to be gated, putting that country on track to surpass the U.S. within a few years for having the largest number of residents living in such communities.
The activists in Los Angeles are naturally focusing on the effects of the trend in their own city. But their actions last week shone a spotlight on gated communities everywhere. It is possible, even probable, that people have good reasons for wanting to live behind walls — urban crime being the obvious one. Heavy Trash simply asks them, and city leaders, to ask whether there might not be less divisive solutions to such problems. The group’s Web site directs people to Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” which includes the famous lines:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down!
Frost wrote that in 1915. It’s still a good question.
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