Setha Low: Behind the Gates Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America. New York 2004. 288 S.

The term 'Gated Communities' (GC) has become a more familiar term in recent years, especially in the vocabulary of US citizens. Millions of Americans have moved into gated residential communities: according to the 2001 American Housing Survey, 7,058,427 households live in communities surrounded by walls and fences and 4,013,665 of those households live in communities where access is controlled by means such as entry codes, key cards or security guard approval (p.15).

That accounts for around 7 percent of the total households, a figure that is growing fast. The increasingly popular process of moving from a traditional 'open' community to one behind gates and guards is marked by a tension between lifestyle choice and a change in socio-economic structures within society. The growth of this phenomenon and the impact and implication that it has had on US society has engendered academic interest from various disciplines including urban studies, geography, sociology and political science to name but a few.  
Although by no means an absolutely new concept - for example, ancient walled towns used to protect inhabitants and their property - it would seem that the development of gated communities particularly over the past twenty years has had a great impact on those behind and outside the gates. GCs that are being developed today in many parts of the US are "residential areas with restricted access in which normally public spaces are privatised" (Blakely and Snyder 1999: 2), for example, streets, pavements, parks, beaches, rivers, trails and playgrounds.  It has been argued that the growth of GCs stems in part from the transformation in the political economy of the late 20th century urban America.   The social, political and geographic fabric of communities underwent dramatic changes during the economic restructuring and 'Reaganomics" of the 1980s (p.17), and gated communities is seen as one of many manifestations of the changing economic order.  The change in 'economic order' can best be described as the shift from Fordist capitalism based primarily on mass production and consumption, to a more neo-liberal capitalism which encouraged a sharper ideological focus on free-market capitalism.  This has resulted in increasing mobility of capital, the marginalisation of the labour force and the dismantling of the welfare state.  These changes have subsequently led to a widening gap between rich and poor, an intensified fear of crime and increased class anxiety.   
Existing accounts of GCs have reflected on their internal socio-legal foundations, such as Blakely and Snyder (1999) described above, and of the governance of GCs, in the work of McKenzie (1994).  Setha Low, Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Psychology at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York has pursued her own personal interest with gates and walls to produce a fascinating account of life inside GCs in her book 'Behind the Gates Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America'.  Low goes beyond the superficial analysis of how and why GCs are developed to use an interpretist framework to look at the life choices underpinning why so many people have decided to live in gated communities and examines "how they make sense of their new lives behind gates and wall as well as the social and spatial consequences of these residential choices (p.10).
The book comprises eleven chapters and an extended appendix listing in-depth methods and techniques. Low first of all contextualises her specific interest in this topic in a personal prologue describing her own often exclusionary experiences of 'gates', walls and the communities 'protected' or imprisoned behind them. It is clear from this prologue that underpinning Low's approach is the assumption that segregation in general, and gated communities in particular are negative phenomena. However her anthropological training allows her to look beyond her own experiences to convey the situation from the point of view of the residents of GCs. The first part of the book concentrates on exploring the existing theories relating to GCs, drawing on the experience of interviewees to highlight and explore opposing views.  The second part of the book explores the empirical material organised the themes of community cohesion, fear and security and financial investments, each examined within the context of theory and personal accounts from the interviewees.
Rather than relying on a single voice throughout the book the author utilises three different narrative voices - a personal voice, the voices of the interviewees and a professional voice - to present residents' lives, motivation and concerns, and often illustrates her point by making use of a wide variety of pictures.  A broad range of residents was interviewed for the research, ranging from families with young children to people of and beyond retirement age. The first two chapters give a useful history of gated communities, and the different theories of gating. These dynamics are distinguished between theories which focus on ideas relating to supply side dynamics of gating, with an emphasis on the financial benefits to developers and builders who drive gating in opposition to those theories which centre on demand-side dynamics of home-buyers preference. This chapter is invaluable to any novice to the subject, as it lays out in understandable terms the debates surrounding the topic. Each subsequent chapter focuses on a different aspect of how residents make sense of their new lives behind the gates.  
These chapters are always started with a personal vignette by Low, which is then followed by a personal story belonging to the various residents of GCs.  The author subsequently considers the evidence collected throughout her fieldwork to illuminate for the reader the way in which the individual choices made by these families are often determined by structural influences such as political and economic situations - as well as personal experiences.  
Being a cultural anthropologist, Low's field methods are mostly ethnographic, allowing her to attain a mass of rich qualitative data and sympathetically convey the real concerns of her interviewees.  Other qualitative methods included participant observation within and around each community being studied, interviews with key informants such as the developers, architects and real estate agents behavioural mapping, and the collection of marketing, sales and advertising documents.
Another layer of analysis is added to the ethnographical discourse produced in the interviews, by way of a geographical perspective regarding the choice of GCs within the study.  Low selected three communities in Nassau County, Long Island, New York, three communities in San Antonio, Texas, and one community in Mexico City, Mexico.  These disparate locations highlight different geographical reasons for moving behind gates as well social and psychological causes.  For example, in the communities in Texas, the residents interviewed saw not only added security and safety behind the gates, but also the chance to pursue state minimalism, with services such as rubbish collection and street maintenance being carried out within the community rather than being provided by municipal government.  On the other hand, in the more politically liberal north east of America, gated communities held more advantages in terms of conflict minimalisation with an a priori set of rules and regulation that "determine what residents can and can't do with their property" (p.195), and so property investments were, in their view, secured.
These two American examples contrast well with the community in Mexico, where violent crimes are much more prevalent, and gates are seen as necessary by many families to protect them from increasing violence and what they see as 'lawlessness'.  Low uses this comparison to highlight a major point within her text that GCs are becoming more sought after because of the sensational and dramatic coverage of crimes within the American media, and that this sense of fear and panic is to some degree fuelling the demand for high security gated residential developments.  Low argues that urban fear "reflects media manipulation of the public", as in actual fact, crime rates in the US are not escalating out of control, indeed, according to the Bureau of Justice National Crime Victimisation Survey in 2003, violent crime rates declined since 1994 reaching the lowest level ever recorded in 2003, which is supported by the Federal Bureau of Investigations Uniform Crime Reports which suggest during that timeframe violent crime and property crime rates decreased 33.4% and 23% respectively (Bureau of Justice Statistics).  Low suggests that the discourse of violence in the media instils a fear of crime and certain kinds of people, notably those not of white origin, which ultimately combine to form a worldview, of which GCs are a product.  It is at this point, Low argues, that safety seems to have transformed from being a right for all to a commodity to be bought on the market (p.122).  The comparison with Mexican GCs offers a sense of proportion where violent crime and corrupt policing and governance are a harsh reality for the people who live there.  Low implies that newspapers and property developers have a vested interest in propagating the idea that existing policing and security are inadequate, and extra security measures, such as GCs are required. The result is the rise of "purified spaces" where the homogeneity (in terms of income anyway) created makes the monitoring of the 'other' a much more simple process, while at the same time intensifying the fear of 'different' people.  This particular trend is particularly worrying to Low, who suggests an escalating withdrawal from public life of the middle classes through the proliferation of GCs will have the malignant effect of growing paranoia and apathy within the gates, and a sense of abandonment outwith the gates.  
  The themes that are prominent within Low's analysis are plentiful and complex; however the one that I found particularly interesting was that of 'contradiction'.  There are a plethora of paradoxes highlighted by Low as an academic, but also the residents saw for themselves, such as residents accepting limited individual freedom and ease of access for in order to achieve greater privacy and social control for the community as a whole highlighted in chapter 1; residents who were seeking to belong to a discernable community, but at the same time treasure clear segregation and privacy both within and outside the gates, and were not entirely sure what they were looking for in community cohesion anyway as in chapter 3; residents who were living and working in the present, but clearly wanted to live in the past, or at least a romanticised idealistic past, such leaving the back door open and calling on neighbours for help, without being called upon themselves, as in chapter 4; and finally residents who sought safety behind the gates while realising they are at the same time more vulnerable by accepting a false sense of security, and the fact that taking precautions against crime seemed to heighten rather than restrict anxiety, as in chapter 6.
Low set out to gain a qualitative understanding of the people who have chosen to separate themselves from the rest of society and the sense that they make of their lives behind gates, and she accomplishes the task she sets herself with sensitivity and genuine interest that is apparent in the main text of the book and the interviews she conducted.  The main weakness of Low's work as mentioned earlier is its concentration on only communities within America, with the exception of the community in Mexico City.  However, given the prevalence of GCs in the United States and the fact the most people behind gates in the US choose to live there rather than have to live there like in cities in South America and Asian countries as referred to within the book, Low's work provides an excellent insight and useful heuristic by which future research may be guided. While these developments are as yet not widely observable across Europe, the book offers important arguments and empirical detail about the changing nature of housing and residential neighbourhoods in the process of contemporary urban restructuring, highlighting specifically the agency, perspective and motivations of those who (choose to) live in gated communities.
Blakely and Snyder 1999 Fortress America. Gated communities in the United States Brookings Institution Press/Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Washington, DC/Cambridge, MA
McKenzie E, 1994 Privatopia: Homeowner associations and the rise of residential private government Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
Autor: Zhan McIntyre

Quelle: geographische revue, 9. Jahrgang, 2007, Heft 1/2, S. 104-108

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