The Gated Menace of "Private Cities"

Neighborhoods are the building blocks of a metropolitan area. But neighborhoods are not identical units, such as bricks; quite dissimilar, they...

Neighborhoods are the building blocks of a metropolitan area. But neighborhoods are not identical units, such as bricks; quite dissimilar, they range along a continuum from opulent and ornate to run-down and dilapidated. The ethnicity of residents often delineates a neighborhood's borders. These enclaves sit side by side, static, while their residents--continually crossing borders from home to work to school to the grocery store--serve as mediators among them. But what happens when the communities involved decide that they find that interaction distasteful?

Take Sun City, Arizona. This retirement community of 50,000 boasts well-groomed lawns and picture-perfect houses in coordinated colors. Its residents are, for the most part, senior citizens, so nary a bothersome child is at hand to disrupt the serenity--or require schooling at taxpayers' expense. Sun City is a prime example of a "private city"--one demarcated by property owners, rather than the government. Though private cities generally are not separate municipalities, their residents wall themselves off all the same.

Rosenthal professor of law Gerald Frug, a specialist in local-government law, worries that private cities are moving America toward a starkly segregated, isolationist society. Though towns cannot legally exclude undesirables, American law today allows any community to banish the poor with ease. "All you have to do is build houses of a certain kind, and you've fixed an income level," says Frug. "If you don't have that, you can't get in. Walls can be physical--or not." In his book City Making: Building Communities without Building Walls (Princeton University Press), Frug draws a grim picture of the compartmentalized America that awaits us if the fragmenting trends continue.

Gated communities, Frug says, are a type of private city. Because one developer creates the entire community, new residents often have to sign a contract before moving in. Above and beyond the indirectly enforced minimum income, residents may also live under restrictions that govern what color they paint their houses, where they park their cars, and what type of bushes they plant in the front yard. That's not all. Often residents must pay "assessments" to the community--different from property taxes, but spent on things like sanitation and security guards.

In addition to voting in civic elections, residents of a gated community vote in its homeowners' association. There, instead of allocating one vote per person, the rule is one vote per home owned, regardless of family size. So gated communities, in essence, operate under their own laws, collect their own taxes, and hold their own elections--at least, that's how their residents see it. Hence, some are seeking tax relief from their surrounding municipalities--asking to receive tax credits, for example, for assessments paid to the private property-owners' association. The idea, Frug says, is that "we pay for ourselves, and forget everyone else."

To give in to these requests, he argues, would be a fatal misstep on government's part. The exemption would only increase the incentive for the wealthy to seek refuge behind gates, since they would no longer have to help pay for those less fortunate than themselves. If gated communities can wall themselves off any place they choose, it becomes only too easy to partition a once-interwoven city into discrete camps of haves and have-nots.

According to Frug, urban sprawl lies at the heart of the problem: if moving out of the central city becomes a desirable escape, those left in the city will have no incentive to revitalize it--making it even less desirable. Highways are also to blame, since they displace public transportation, an important opportunity for interaction across neighborhood lines. "In a subway, you are in a group of people you didn't choose," Frug explains. "It's a public moment."

Historically, there is a long tradition of what Frug calls "privatized forms of public cities"--places like Beverly Hills, which is incorporated separately from Los Angeles, or Piedmont, California, a municipality within Oakland that is "a very prosperous white dot in a black sea." But the modern drive toward gates and walls could create "an America in which each region is like a series of separate countries," Frug says, noting that it is ordinarily nations, not cities, that protect their borders. In such a partitioned dystopia, Frug suggests, people would drive each day "from a gated community to an office park, which is also private, to the mall, which is also private, without ever having to enter a public space."

The chief danger of a city fragmented into homogeneous parts, says Frug, is that it engenders fear of "the other"--and the fewer people one encounters, the larger the pool of "others" grows.


Read more articles by: Elizabeth Gudrais

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