By Jordan Petty
Ever feel locked out? University of Calgary students Ira Wells and Jordan Petty sat down with English professor Dr. Harry Vandervlist to discuss the phenomenon of gated communities. Aside from teaching poetry and critical theory for the English department, Vandervlist recently taught a course exploring urban spaces in contemporary English literature.
Wells: There are now 20,000 gated communities in the U.S. and that number is increasing.
Vandervlist: The thing that I find shocking about gated communities is how naked they are in their exclusion: usually you have to figure out that you’re excluded. For example, there’s no one waiting for the bus in Mount Royal unless they’re a domestic servant, right? If you’re a bus-riding person, you kind of know you don’t belong-but there’s no gate that says, “don’t come in here without a magnetic card.”
W: And what’s the one deciding factor of whether or not you live there? Your income. One of the big attractions of living in a gated community is knowing that a poor person can’t live next to you.
Petty: Some argue, however, that it’s actually the middle class who are moving to such communities, not the rich-so therefore it can’t be exclusionary. Ultimately, that’s a weak argument though, because comparatively, the Western middle class is significantly wealthy, historically and geographically.
V: It’s the idea that substituting inclusion of every kind for inclusion based on the market means it’s open to everyone. The only criteria is money. So there you go-it’s not really exclusive. It’s assumed that everyone has equal opportunity-that everyone can participate in the market. Although, markets have always been a way of keeping people out.
P: So doesn’t this exclusion impose a sense of sterility on the community? It is like saying, “We like these sorts of people, in these sorts of homes, in these sorts of situations” and then putting a fence around it. It’s applying the cultural prescriptions of the ’50s-an idealized image of the family and what a community should be-an image that didn’t even exist at the time.
V: Yeah, it was a fantasy back then and now it’s even more of a fantasy-a self-conscious fantasy. The knowledge that it’s a fantasy makes us even more belligerent in our desire to impose it. We’re imposing someone’s idea of purity. These suburbs are the residential equivalent of the private car as opposed to public transit. You know you won’t have to deal with any strangers-not even your neighbors.
W: And the single-family dwelling is fundamentally central to the “American Dream.” We take it a step further by imposing architectural controls-imposing a physical reality onto the ideology. Think about what happened in Quebec City last year. People became enraged when they were denied access to a public space and yet they don’t seem to realize that they’ve lost access to other public spaces under the guise of “gated communities.”
V: In Ontario, you can actually work in your controlled access high-rise, and then you can take a controlled access elevator to a controlled access parking garage, drive on a toll-road (that others can’t afford to use) and drive to your gated community. I mean, you’re not really on the same planet as the rest of us. You can imagine a sort of comedy about someone who never has any contact with “non-members.”
W: You breathe the same air, but that’s about it.
P: It’s a manifestation about how the rich need to shelter themselves from the negative consequences of their own prosperity. Is it a reflection, on the local level, of North American isolationism?
W: Kind of like keeping out the Third World in our own cities?
V: The affluent feel threatened, like there is someone we have to keep out-someone who is not us. Isn’t it tragic that those in power have given up on the sense of something shared? The democratic, inclusionary ideal is gone.
P: These gated communities might actually be seen to be a harkening back to royalist aristocracy-the very thing that the Americans did their best to dispense with in their grand revolution. They called the Kennedy administration “Camelot” and you could certainly call Hollywood America’s “royalty.” Aren’t gated communities, then, a transparent attempt at reestablishing a concrete class division?
W: Supposedly the number one reason people “buy in” to the gated community is the rampant crime on the “outside.” Of course this assumption ignores the fact that the majority of suburban crime-vandalism, and petty theft-is actually committed by idle teenagers, teenagers who live in these communities in the first place. The gate, in this case, keeps the crime in.