Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Like the Hunger Games

Imagine a dystopian future. Society has split into two. The wealthy live in armed fortresses that are serviced by their own schools, hospitals, and shopping malls. The poor live in the chaotic, violent OUTSIDE, and have to fend for themselves. Those living in the elite private communities, which go by pretty names such as PARADISE GARDENS, hire unemployed, low-paid contractors to protect them from the so-called OUTSIDERS. These outsiders are feared as potential enemies, destroyers of the comfortable lifestyle that the wealthy have created for themselves.

This future already exists in high crime countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa. These armed fortresses are called gated communities. In Mexico, most of the middle class lives in gated communities to protect them from violent gangs. In Saudi Arabia, Western workers live in gated communities to protect themselves from terrorist attacks.

The one question that isn’t being raised in the Travyan Martin tragedy, is why are so many of us living in these heavily secured gated communities right here in the United States? Do we live in another Mexico? Are we so afraid of the OTHER? Is our country turning into one of haves and have nots?

It is the gated community which created neighborhood watch officer George Zimmerman. We want patrols to be on the lookout for suspicious individuals who might cause trouble. We want schools that keep our kids away from danger. And in many communities in America trouble is a code word for “young black men.” And after awhile, we get so scared, we forget that sometimes young black men just take walks to buy some candy.

Sure, we can take photos of us wearing hoodies. But shouldn’t the first step in creating a better society be to step out of our gated communities and rejoining society?

21 Comments

  1. It used to be that wealth didn’t define a person; one could be wealthy and still (choose to?) be a part of the part of society that included people from all walks of life. But now wealth is so much about us and them. There can be no mingling anymore, for there is a taint upon the poor (or the middle class, or the common working person) that might rub off. So it’s all looking down noses . . . if there is any looking at all. I don’t begrudge the wealthy their riches, but I am disheartened that riches equate with blinders that preclude compassion . . .

  2. Struggling to find words eloquent enough to express how good this post is. Failing.

    I can’t imagine voluntarily choosing to live in a gated community – I just can’t. As a Canadian, I find it hard to reconcile the language & rhetoric of “freedom” I hear from the U.S. media & politicians (especially now, during a leadership race & with an election in the fall) with wanting to live behind bars. It’s a luxurious prison, but you are within four walls nevertheless.

  3. Yes, yes, yes. It’s not even just the gates but the subtle ways we separate ourselves, with fancy schools and enormous vehicles and neighborhoods that don’t have simple ways to walk in and out of and through them. 10 years ago, I made a conscious decision (well, my home buying budget helped, but still) to live in a gritty neighborhood on a busy street where I can watch, from my front window, (very occasional) drug deals and neighbors getting off the bus with their groceries and drunk people walking home at night; from the back window I see my neighbor playing guitar on his back porch and another neighbor working on his garden and my chickens looking for treats in the dirt. Every once in a while an alarm goes up about this or that thief or car prowler or drug house on the neighborhood email list. The more I fear something like that, the less happy I am, so I don’t worry about it and, after much thought, I have realized that property crimes are really such small things. I have had bikes and a jogging stroller stolen from our yard and I have realized that these have been reincarnated into home/transport/storage for homeless people. How can I begrudge this or let it rule me with fear? We replace the thing, or we live without it, and I have survived.

    The more we separate and isolate ourselves from the “danger,” the more we become the danger. It exists inside of us, the fear and the certainty that the OUTSIDERS are there to steal our things and rape our women and we forget that we ourselves are every bit as culpable for the horrors that go on in the every day of the world.

    The more open our gates are, the more one can walk through a neighborhood and see your eyes underneath your hood or your bike helmet or your fancy head of hair, the more likely it is that we will all see each other’s humanity, the likeness we all share to one another. This is what has always been missing in conflicts large and small, we forget that the OTHER is, like us, a child of man and woman, a person with fears too.

  4. Yes. It’s so very hard to understand each other when we can’t even see each other.

  5. Most of South Orange County (a big geographical area) consists of gated communities, and yes I live in one. The gate had nothing to do with why we chose our house or neighborhood – it just happened to be here. The good part? They don’t allow solicitors into our community. Before we moved here, our doorbell was constantly being rung by people at all hours of the day. It IS nice not to be hit up by solicitors. The gate does NOT make me feel any safer/securer from crime – gates really don’t keep anyone out who’s determined to get in. (Just ask our local police force!)

    • I know that much of OC is with gated communities, as is Florida. My mother stays in one when she goes to Florida for the winter. They are great in that there are resources, such as a pool that could be shared by the community. However, there is something sad about the fact that we have to lock ourselves away from others. Even if the gate doesn’t help, it has a psychological affect on the way we view others. It also kills the vibrancy of a city. No one likes soliciters, but that is part and parcel of living in society — the random interactions with the world. But you are right that these gated communities are not only for the super-wealthy. There are middle-class gated communities as well.

  6. Did I really type “securer?”

    Also, I should have added that gated communities in South OC come in many sizes and economic levels. I think gates were just the building trend at the time this area was developed.

  7. I would argue that multiculturalism is dividing us. We used to all be Americans. Now we are hyphenated-Americans. Our various cultures used to be integrated into each other. Taking the best of each one to make the American culture stronger. Now we seem to want to concentrate on our differences rather than on what he have in common. I’d also like to address the way people dress. While this is not a reason or excuse for violent action, the way a person dresses sends signals – good or bad. Hoodies and baggy jeans are, rightly or wrongly, associated with criminal behavior (How many new stories show the robber/mugger/killer dressed that way? Nearly all), and it is simply human nature – the survival instinct – to respond in a defensive manner when faced with someone dressed that way. The color of one’s skin is just part of the equation as it is more than that – it’s cultural differences as well.

    I’m not sure I understand the “Hunger Games” connection though, Neil. The books are more about a dystopian oppressive government than gated communities.

    • OK, maybe the Hunger Games was a stretch. Just trying to cash in on a trend. I don’t know about Hoodies — since I wear a hoodie, and I am as far from gangster as possible — but I do think some dress, such as baggy jeans, makes me more conscious of a possible problem. So I do think that dress plays a role in some way. I would be more concerned about being alone on a subway platform with some white guy wearing a ripped t-shirt with a KKK slogan on it than some black guy wearing a suit. The trouble is we do often associate a person’s color with potential danger, even when it doesn’t exist. Not every black kid is out there to mug you. If I were a parent, I might tell my son to not wear gangster clothes which intimidate the neighbors. But if someone chooses to wear them, it is their right. I certainly don’t have the right to shoot him.

      • Well, I can say just from an experience today, I ate lunch next to a group of young young white “rednecks” dressed in hoodies and baggy pants that put me on ” guard” so to speak. I can’t say for sure it was different from the same feeling I might get from seeing a black kid dressed the same way, but it made me think about where my gun was on my hip and how fast I could get it out if I needed.

        Maybe that is just me, but these days my mantra is “Be civil but have a plan to kill everyone.”

        Some would say it was a sad thing that people have to think this way now but really when you think back on history, isn’t this the way humanity has nearly always had to think?

  8. I understand the correlation you’re trying to make. In my ideal world, the best way to get rid of this fear, this assumption that the young black man in a hoodie is bad, or less, is to stop it those communities. Not in the gated community. You’re not going to change stereotypes, or get rid of fear. But if you give people the opportunity, better yet the same opportunities as those in these privileged gated community, you’re giving them the ability to not live up to those fears and stereotypes.

    This made sense in my head. I hope it found its way to the computer.

  9. Another brilliant post, Neil. Thanks.

    And yes, this is why I choose to live in New York City and why I’m never leaving, why my kids go to public school here. Because here, while there are certainly extremes of haves and have-nots? We all walk the same city streets and ride the same subways together. (I know the uber-wealthy rarely ride the subway, but go with me here, OK, they still walk down the sidewalks next to folks who live in public housing.)

    Gated communities give me the absolute willies. I avoid them like the plague.

  10. I guess what it really boils down to is we have nothing to fear but ourselves. If we could just get past our differences and look to see that deepdown we are very much alike, we could move forward to embracing what sets us each apart. As has been stated many a time, this world would be boring if we were a bunch of cookie-cutter beings.

    Great post, Neil. You’ve got me a’thinkin’! 🙂

  11. I live in a gated community and the gate served a wonderful purpose the night before New Year’s Eve. A drunk driver leaving the neighborhood crashed into the gate at such a high speed, the gate was destroyed. That evening, the gate kept a drunk driver off the streets of my city, for which I’m very thankful. I’m sure a life was spared that night.

    We had three months of being a gateless community while a new gate was being procured, and frankly, I liked not having the gate and was disappointed when its replacement arrived.

    The gate has also kept a particular pair of dogs from getting hit by cars on the busy street, as my dopy dogs have been known to get out and run willy nilly in ecstatic elation at their temporary freedom. So there’s that.

  12. We are in a dystopia in another way, too. In foreign lands US soldiers fight our dubious wars for us, and we are able to forget that these wars are even taking place. Casualties are removed from us and hidden to the extent that’s possible. We have a smaller percentage of citizens as soldiers than we have ever had. Rachel Maddow’s new book “Drift” is instructive in this regard.

  13. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be moving into a gated community, and I’ve had mixed feelings about this. This is by no means a fancy neighborhood. It’s not even made of detached houses. Its location, the needs of an adjacent farm and the terrain demand the gate and surrounding fence more than anything. But still, it definitely shuts people out.

    But then I got to thinking about it. Gates and fences aren’t just made to shut people out. They can be opened or climbed over. They are nothing more than a line, a demarcation. Yes, a part of them states “This is mine, not yours,” but so what? We have plenty of those types of boundaries all over the place. It’s just that they’re not as visible. If someone I don’t trust or know gets within a certain distance of my body, there’s a line for that. I keep my front door closed and locked, because I don’t want just anyone to walk into my house at any time. When I use a public restroom, I close the stall door. When I park somewhere, I lock my car and take my keys with me, because it’s mine, dammit, and I’d like it to be there when I get back. There are thousands of ways we use “gates” not out of fear, but out of our innate desire for privacy and security and to be able to keep something just for ourselves. That’s not a bad thing.

    Nope, gates don’t shut people out. It’s small minds and irrational fears that do. Good people live in gated communities. Assholes live in open neighborhoods. (And in this day, when people have less and less choice where they can live, we need to stop making assumptions about someone based on their area or type of residence.) Some of the most judgmental pricks I know are those who make it a point to go “be among the people.” There is little difference between the “Look how fancy my house and car is” smugness and the “Look what kind of neighborhood I live in even though I could do better” smugness. Both people are desperately trying to prove a point. Both people are desperate to save face. And both people judge. No gates necessary for that bad behavior, except the ones they built in their minds.

    Although we can never rid the world of real and irrational fears, we can all do our part to make our communities feel more safe for everyone involved. We can make sure public funds go to the areas that need them, not the areas that are already flush. We can do things to make every neighborhood desirable, welcoming and peaceful. And we can certainly step outside of our comfort zones, no matter who we are, in an effort to understand where other people are coming from.

    The removal of a gate would be a shallow, symbolic action that would accomplish none of those things.

  14. Without property rights we have no society. The have’s are just trying to protect what they have by birth or through hard work from the have-not’s who are that way by birth or their own choosing.

    I worked hard to buy a safe car for my wife and kids and last week I had camera’s installed in front of my house and just last night someone tried to break into that car. Whether or not there were cameras there it’s probably happened too many times to count.

    It’s always been like this and when TV shows like Cribs were popular it game teh (false) impression to every youth that you can have that too – big house, fancy toys, etc. I feel it’s what drives the “me” generation we see today. Why buy music, when it can be downloaded for free, why go see movies when they can be had for free. Why buy that bike when someone else already bought it and I can just take it.

    It’s a messed up world we live in. Don’t flaunt it, and be nice to others.

    Just my two cents worth!

  15. Delurking for a moment to relate a story of the “other”.

    Walking home from the grocery store, I spotted a man sitting on the steps from the parking lot to the sidewalk. Because I had to use those stairs to get to the neighbouring streets and then home, I was initially annoyed. As I approached, however, I figured out why he was sitting there. In front of him, scattered on the sidewalk, was a box’s worth of Cheerios. The man sat there, head in hands, weeping.

    That is what poverty is to me. A person so defeated at every step that he will cry about cereal.

    I have sat in an apartment where the heat has been cut off in January waiting for DAYS for a disgruntled landlord to fix the furnace. I have heard someone being stabbed outside the same apartment, heard prostitutes fighting in the street below my window. Once I was driven from my apartment during a snowstorm because the busboy from the restaurant downstairs had “accidentally” spilled gasoline on the stairs from the basement. There is reason to fear the “other”: they have little to lose. Social programs (at their best) allow for people to retain some human dignity – in their absence and at their worst, they erode that dignity. To the point that a grown man will cry about cereal.

  16. Interesting comment thread.

    One of the best films about urban fears of the “other” is Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon.” Everyone should watch it at least once. Stars Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Steve Martin. Addresses issues of race, class, and urban and psychological divides in a series of intersecting stories. Made in 1991, it’s still relevant today.

  17. reading the post and comments reminded me of a time i went to the public esplanade in boston to sit on a blanket and watch the fireworks on july 4th. people had come early and literally roped off areas for their groups – huge areas, much more than the needed – and had done so such that there was not even a little speck left for a modest blanket for someone like me to put down and watch.

    as a little social science experiment, i asked a few people if my friend and i could put our blanket on the edge of “their” area that was unused, and all answered no.

    and to the rope-people, i’m sure they thought “i got here early to claim my space, why should i give part of it to people who show-up right before the fireworks?”

    that incident forever changed how i think about haves/have-nots/sharing, etc.

    there could have been room for all, if they had just used what they needed and skipped the rope-ing off greed.

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