A year before Trayvon Martin was murdered, there was a meeting in George Zimmerman’s gated community. The Twin Lakes homeowners’ association was concerned about the security of their neighbourhood. They asked the local Sheriff to attend the meeting and demanded to know why his office had not been making more arrests in the area. They requested an increase to the local police presence.
Three days after Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin on a street in Twin Lakes, he was asked by police why he had followed the teenager after police had told Zimmerman to stand down, to go home. “These assholes, they always get away,” he said. “Fucking punks.” The Twin Lakes crime rate is half the national average and a third of Florida’s average. When Zimmerman stopped his car to pursue a black teenager who he did not know and who he’d seen commit no felony, he did so in one of the safest areas of the country.
Gated communities put a person’s “front door at the front gate,” says Edward Blakely, the author of Fortress America, which tracks the climb and impact of gated communities in America. They give rise to a security anxiety that makes everyone outside the fence a threat and everyone inside it a vigilante. Living in Twin Lakes, George Zimmerman “thought he was defending his living room when he was actually on a public street.”
Gated communities don’t get much attention in the Australian press. Despite the development of hundreds of fenced-off communities over the past two decades in cities across Australia – four gated communities have been constructed in Cherrybrook alone – they rarely enter our public debate or consciousness.
When they do, gated communities are presented as benign and even pleasant.
An advertisement masquerading as an article in The Australian two years ago called them “gateways to the good life.” “We just love it,” one resident told the reporter, “love going everywhere in golf buggies.” Studdert’s sinister conclusion praised gated communities for keeping residents “safe from the riff-raff of the outside world”. This year, Andrew Winter penned a story for The Daily Telegraph titled, ‘Life’s Great Behind the Gate’. “It is no different from an English village 50 years ago,” he wrote, “where the policeman ruled the community.
Daniel Farinha, a third year Economics / Law student at USYD, grew up in a gated community in the suburbs of Johannesburg. His life was lived within its walls. Farinha’s school was in the gated community, as were his doctor and his friends. He would only travel beyond the fence twice a week in order to see people his family knew.
In South Africa, Farinha says, nobody pretended the fences and gates were about community. They were purely pragmatic. To protect residents from crime, Farinha’s gated community had an electric outer fence, with spikes on top. The only way into the community was through an entrance policed by private guards at all times. Anyone coming in would have their photo taken and their car’s registration details recorded before they passed through the boom gate. Every house had its own security: iron gates and walls too high to scale.
Fences, alarm systems, inquisitive security guards: these are constant physical reminders that threats exist, that there are good reasons to be afraid of what is beyond the gate. In this way, gated communities reinforce and aggravate the security paranoia of their residents.
There is also a “birds of a feather” effect, Blakely tells us. Residents share their anxieties with one another, giving rise to a “club mentality” in which fears become collective.
The investments in security aren’t only social and emotional. The minutes from a March 2013 meeting of the residents of the Terraces on Memorial, a gated community in Houston, show that residents invest huge amounts of money as well. At that meeting,
$11 000 in CCTV camera upgrades was approved, as well as a new front gate with a $17 000 price tag. Households in Macquarie Links, a gated community in Sydney’s south west, are expected to pay up to $8000 per year in security levies.
“It is not only the people you would want to be making decisions on your behalf that do so [in gated communities],” Blakely says. The residents who are most security-conscious and most enthusiastic about creating new rules for the community usually staff the councils that manage the communities. And so the levies go up as CCTV presence is deemed to not be enough and a security guard is hired around the clock.
The irony, of course, is that fencing off the ‘criminals’ on the outside has very little effect on crime rates within gated communities. George Zimmerman’s Twin Lakes community is a statistical anomaly. The majority of US gated communities have no less crime than the region in which they are located. The only crime significantly reduced by the construction of walls and gates is car theft. In fact, a number of gated communities in South Florida and California have been sued for misleading advertising when they claimed they could keep potential residents safe from crime.
No such lawsuits have been launched in Australia, and the marketing strategy of real estate firms has played on the anxieties of potential residents. Macquarie Links is Sydney’s largest gated community, with over 1100 residents. Shortly after its construction in 2004, Monarch Investments began advertising the homes behind its fence. The ads walked buyers through the gates, past “the reassuring face of your security concierge who welcomes you in while keeping unwanted elements out”.
Since its conception, the Macquarie Links community has doubled-down on security. A two-metre high cyclone fence marks its perimeter; a security station at the entrance is manned 24 hours a day and all visitors are stopped upon entry. Security cameras are present throughout the community and back-to-base alarm systems have been fitted in every home. There are proposals to increase the security in the community. All of this despite the fact that the Campbelltown area, where Macquarie Links is situated, has experienced a 60% drop in reported crime over the past decade.
The gated community is one form of imagined community. People arrive with an idea of a neighbourhood that appears to be modelled on the ideal of suburbia: of safety, social cohesion, good neighbours, and friendly kids. Certainly, the residents of gated communities are more god-fearing. Rates of religiosity and marriage in Macquarie Links are significantly higher than the Australian average.
Kristina Yenko, who lived in Macquarie Links for seven years, says the sense of community was strong. “We had communal facilities like a golf course, pools, tennis courts, and BBQ areas, and many locals gathered there.” A newsletter distributed by Macquarie Links management deepens that connection – even between people who had never met one another.
Resentment emerges, Blakely says, among some of those who live outside the gates. Borders drawn with cyclone fencing cripple a sense of community that extends beyond your own home or own street. Parks and streets, once public goods, are now only available for those who have bought a home inside the fence. The very facilities that Yenko says built an idea of neighbourhood inside Macquarie Links weaken any broader community.
A community premised upon the erection of physical barriers between them and the rest is arguably not built upon similarity but difference. The setting of boundaries is an act of exclusion, a political statement of difference. That is overwhelmingly apparent in articles that talk about “the riff-raff”, ads that allude to “unwanted elements”, and the coldness with which Zimmerman referred to the boy he’d just murdered as a “fucking punk.”
It was expected that the Macquarie Links community would be as whitewashed, as Anglo-dominant, as an English village 50 years ago. Led to believe by Today Tonight and The Daily Telegraph that old white people everywhere live in fear of the Lebanese gangs that terrorise them, we thought the fence was motivated by race; that the ‘us’ was white and the ‘them’ wasn’t.
Not so. More than 40% of Macquarie Links residents speak two or more languages at home, almost twice the NSW average. Yenko told us that, “I saw many families there of different nationalities including Bangladeshis, Indian, Chinese, Australian, Greek, Italian, and Filipino.” There is no evidence of a specific race being excluded. Muslim Australians are overrepresented in Macquarie Links. This is a trend not confined to Australian gated communities. Hispanic Americans make up a far greater proportion of the total number of gated community residents than they do of the total American population.
Living in Macquarie Links isn’t about race; it’s about wealth. The income of a family living within its gates is twice the state average and treble the Campbelltown average. As Yenko conceded, “living in the Links was based greatly on income.” Inflated house prices and residential levies are the premiums of exclusivity. She says that her parents wanted to live somewhere that “felt luxurious and reminded them of more wealthy areas.” They make gated communities more valuable to those within and more inaccessible those without.
Farinha told us that even in South Africa, gated communities are no longer as strongly segregated along racial lines. In the post-apartheid era, wealthy black South Africans have fled crime-riddled townships to live with the old white elite behind walls. And those walls exist next to black townships because the maids and cooks and gardeners for South Africa’s wealthy few live close to where they work. The contrast is stark; lucky for some.
There is a line usually attributed to Robert Frost: ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’ That’s the idea that has been the impetus for gated communities. People can choose to live next to ‘good neighbours’, and keep the bad ones at bay.
It was written in Frost’s poem Mending Wall, an elegiac portrait of a lonely figure trying furiously to construct a stone wall around his property.
“Good fences make good neighbours” is the man’s refrain as he works. Frost observes him with melancholy, knowing what the man is missing. “He moves in darkness,” Frost writes; he is unaware of the apple orchard that lies beyond his own fields. Watching on, Frost thinks, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out.”