226. "Do Fence Me In" The Wall Street Journal, (December 1, 1992), p. A16.
The applications of 35 neighborhoods for permission to erect gates at public streets running through their communities are currently pending in the Los Angeles City Council. Many of these applications predate the riots; they were submitted in response to a sharp increase in crime.
This is not a passing Los Angeles fad. Across the nation, crime has led many neighborhoods, including working-class and African-American ones, to surround themselves with walls protected by private guards or volunteer patrols. Many new development tracts are designed from Day One as walled enclaves.
The new gates have not kept out the critics. Harper’s recently published a biting description of one such development, Green Valley, Nev., about 20 minutes outside Las Vegas. The article scoffs at people who moved to Green Valley to escape violence only to find this supposedly secure haven disturbed by some drug deals and a rape. Similarly, a Los Angeles public housing resident tells a National Public Radio supporter that the new security fence surrounding her project yielded “only” a considerable decline in drug dealing and put an end to drive-by shootings.
Also on NPR, Rita Walters, a liberal member of the Los Angeles City Council, raises the challenge to gated communities to a philosophical level. She asks rhetorically: “If you’re willing to pay the money it takes to wall off you community, to pay for private security, why not be willing to pay for an extra measure of tax that may not be as much, that will benefit the city as a whole and then you don’t have to have these guards and walls?” The answer seems self-evident. Dropping another few hundred dollars into the city’s coffers will not buy much security or peace of mind; gated neighborhoods buy you a fair measure of both.
Critics of walled communities should go beyond the gates and find out what residents think. A Los Angeles public housing official estimated that about 90% of the residents in his project were satisfied with the new arrangements; in another neighborhood, individuals were skeptical when the walls first went up but were delighted to see the results. People feel entitles to spend their money on what is dearest to them: protection of life and limb, theirs and their children’s.
Some argue that the present trend of constructing moats, drawbridges and guard towers around neighborhoods is a return to feudalism. These arguments have their cause and effect reversed: The government was the first to show itself unwilling or unable to discharge its most elementary duty - to protect citizens from violent crime. Only after large sectors of our major cities became no-man’s-lands did groups of citizens turn to various means of self-defense, among which gates are a rather benign one. (Compare this, for instance, to the legion of Los Angeles households arming themselves to the teeth.) If our government ever resumes full responsibility for the safety of these areas, you can rest assured that citizens will find better ways to spend their hard-earned bucks than on walls that slow the traffic and block the view.
There is a danger that gated neighborhoods will keep out people only because of the color of their skin. Or that security patrols will turn into squads of busybodies that violate people’s privacy and try to enforce a moral code - e.g., reporting to wives that their husbands have been seen climbing out of someone else’s bedroom window late at night. In fact, there have been very few abuses of security. As is commonly the case the high-rise dwellings where doormen screen visitors, and in public buildings where lobby security personnel do the same, gatekeepers keep out one and all who have no established reason to visit within, including well-dressed whites.
Harper’s dug up a single complaint from a teenager who did not like the weekday 10 p.m. curfew imposed by the community board. But his quarrel was not with guards exceeding their authority but with parents who don’t want their teenagers roaming the streets late at night. And every study I’ve examined of crime-watch groups, another flourishing community phenomenon, has yet to report one incident of vigilantism, racial discrimination, or undue violation of privacy.
Community boards should set clear guidelines for their security forces, and examine reports of inappropriate conduct if and when such are forthcoming. Such episodes, however, should not be used to keep communities from choosing to safeguard themselves. Sure, we all aspire to a world without walls. But for now the gates provide a much-needed shelter.