In Gated Communities, Such as Where Trayvon Martin Died, a Dangerous Mind-Set
On the night he was shot, Trayvon Martin walked through an area that he may have thought was public territory. George Zimmerman, on the other hand, saw “a real suspicious guy” walking into what he probably perceived as his private domain. Because the Retreat at Twin Lakes, where the girlfriend of Martin’s father lives, is surrounded by gates with controlled access, the community is not quite public and not quite private space.
Gates convey to those living behind them that their “home” extends all the way to the walls surrounding the compound. Because streets and parks are accessible only to those living within the community, they begin to feel more like private living rooms and are defended fiercely against intruders. When gates blur public and private spaces in this way, these communities can become dangerous for the people inside and outside them — and dangerous for the nation’s ideal of equality among its people.
Proponents of gated communities often say they are safe, neighborly places. But according to my research and that of local police departments across the country, gated communities do not have less crime than the suburbs from which they’re walled off. (One exception is car theft, which my research with Mary Gail Snyder found to be less frequent in gated communities than in non-gated ones.) We also found that residents of gated developments don’t know their neighbors any better than people in other suburban communities.
For many, the guards at the gate provide an artificial sense of safety. In our surveys of more than 1,000 residents of gated communities, many said they chose to live there because they traveled or worked long hours, so they had no time to meet neighbors and used the guards as their home security system. In fact, some responded: Why get to know my neighbors? If there were an emergency, after all, I’d just call security.
Gates and security guards also convey to residents that their preserve is outside the wider community’s laws. It is their kingdom; anyone who enters it is subject to new rules that transfer public authority to private individuals. This creates a tragedy of the commons in which vigilante security can be a result of residents’ mistrust of the suburbs from which they’ve been walled off. All Americans should think about the role gated communities play in a democracy that’s supposed to guarantee equality to all.