Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Nation of Strangers

I made the mistake of looking for too much information this morning on "Gated Communities". Those prophylactic protected neighborhoods that are found almost anywhere you might want to look in this country. The estimated numbers of people living in them varies, but no one disagrees that their growth is on the rise. Or was prior to this recent financial madness.

I do like to have facts to back up my opinions. Unfortunately, the idea of gated communities begins with subjective fears and concerns leaving facts serving as only visible proof of the variety of concerns many Americans have about living among the rest of us. How many and how big can be discerned by looking them up. Why they were created in the first place, only the people who live in them can tell us why. And it seems most reasoning falls short of answers that have any real truth behind them. And I would guess many of them might be breaking some law if they told the truth.

Fear of Crime seems to be the number one go to excuse. Yet the rules for entry into these fenced in sanctuaries have prerequisites that indicate otherwise. And though race is not found in any rules I could find, the overwhelming majority of citizens living behind the walls and fences are white folks. The largest gated community in the US is found in Arkansas. It is 97.8% white. This makes the issue of race a reason to look at. On the other side, there are affluent gated communities in and around Atlanta that are populated by black majorities. Tell me race is not an issue, and I will offer you a bridge not mine to sell.

Gates, walls, and fences are just the physical extensions of a growing mindset in this country. As our culture struggles to find it's way in times that seem more frantic and ugly, people are seeking others of similar station, mindset, or yes, similar race with which to form insulated communities inside the communities already there. Once the restrictive communities were found only at the top of the financial heap, now they can be found catering to middle income people who desire to remove themselves from our great melting pot. Even in the inner cities, the idea of "this is our turf-stay out" is practiced in it's own way.

Some of the newer communities do not want to give the impression of exclusivity with blatant physical barriers. They put up their walls with rules. Associations are formed to weed out undesirables before they come on board. Rules are put in place to tell previous owners that any sale of their home must go through some kind of vetting process before the association will allow the transaction.

Pretty much everything about America fascinates me. We are a very complex society that is still trying to define what we are. I can think of no other nation that has the variety of races and ethnic backgrounds we have in such large numbers. That we even use the word "minority" to describe some seems out of date. That we even still use the word minority indicates we still have a long way to go. But it is obvious our ability to absorb so many people of different colors and nationalities has reached some kind of tipping point for at least some segments of our population. Where neighborhoods used to be all a specific group needed to feel safe and secure, now a growing number seem to feel rules, fences and guards are needed.

I did notice in my brief and wimpy research, that the gated communities for the most part are found in states with large populations. That the largest one is in Arkansas is the exception, not the rule. I tried my best to find one in Maine and could not. But we have them even if they are not surrounded by fences. Some of us consider the Maine Turnpike as one fence. The majority of money and people exist on that side of the state. Small ocean towns with huge ocean front estates wrapped by century old hedges and ancient rock walls. The gated mentality lives here in a less in your face way, but it still exists. Call it old school gate mentality.

What I guess really bothers me is the gate mentality seems to have seeped into our national psyche, breeding loathing and mistrust of others we do not know or feel comfortable with. We appear to be settling for being a nation of strangers rather than a nation of neighbors.

PS - Thanks to TROLL for the spark that started this



BBC said...

Generally speaking, gated communities, or just places that are fenced and gated, are owned by the very well off, wanting to protect themselves from those that have less.

There are such places in almost all countries.

There are also exceptions, my place is fenced and gated even though there isn't much of anything with real value here, not compared to what the rich have anyway.

Still, considering how it is on this planet, I'm glad that it is fenced, not that it can't be gotten into, it's not that secure of a setup, just marks my boundaries is all.

Sort of like saying, "Do not enter without permission." Most days I open the driveway gate, some I don't.

It is my biased opinion that monkeykind is a piece of crap, generally speaking that is. I don't want to be connected to a lot of it.

MRMacrum said...

BBC - Actually I knew that. I dealt with the gated communities of the rich an a fairly regular basis as a mover thirty plus years ago. But now the idea has begun to pop up more and more within the ranks of the not so well off, the middle class. The tendency does not indicate a positive direction for the country.

Randal Graves said...

Interesting post. And I believe you're right, that the idea is manifesting itself in the communal thought patterns of society. Hmm, that was a pompous sentence. I should become a scientician.

I generally don't like most people, but interaction can always be avoided most of the time outside of the workplace, so I'm with you in that this isn't a good, long-term development. I wonder if we're in the minority.

Demeur said...

It's kind of funny to think that at the turn of the last century (1900s) people from the same countries moved into areas of cities like New York creating China town, Little Italy, Polish town and nobody thought anything about it. They shared their own cultures and unwritten rules about behavior. This was the gated community without the gates. People looked out for each other. Then there were the entire walled cities of the middle ages

I see the same thing happens on large jobs with a multi cultural workforce. They all work together then at lunch they scatter to their own group.

Maybe this is just an indication of the further isolation of the population. It's neither good nor bad but just a process or evolution. I'd venture to say you'll see more of this as the population increases.

Tom Harper said...

Nothing says Anal Retentive like those gated communities. They aren't new (Steppenwolfe had a song on their first album where they complained about "fences everywhere"), but they're sure getting more common.

And the rules. Even if I wanted to join one of those cliques -- they're sort of like treehouses for adults -- those hundreds of laws and by-laws would drive me crazy. How many pets you can have and how much they can weigh, where you can park, how many guests you can have, what kind of trees you can have in your yard -- No way.

Anonymous said...

Walls make good neighbors a la Frost. I agree. Keep the bastards on their side, and I'll stay on mine. Don't care to be around 'em. Nasty people.

Middle Ditch said...

Oases has a nice little song. 'So Many People'. I should say, too many people. The more crowded the space, the less secure one feels. Perhaps that's why there are those gates and not just in your country, here too. The rich need to be protected from the throng, so to speak. Pity them.

Anonymous said...

The gated community goes back to Europe. It's not a new construct. And I quite agree they are intended to keep the riff raff out and being part of that riff and part raff I do resent that a bit. On the other and if somebody wants to wall themselves in why should I care? What ever their reason for doing so pretty much the fact they'd rather live in a micromanaged prison speaks volumes about them and I probably dont' want to associate with them either.


MRMacrum said...

Randal - When I become a sociolagacian, maybe I will understand this intense need to herd so exclusively.

Demeur - Evolution is not just progressing. More often than not, something dies when something new comes on stage

Tom - A special high end suburban McMansion enclave one of my brothers briefly lived in down in Houston had a rule about what type and color the garbage cans you set out once a week should be. Anal Retentive indeed.

PresterJohn - Ah, Frost. But was that really his point?

Middle Ditch - Maybe having gates gives some of us the illusion of what Heaven might be like.

Maldain - I saved my general comment to all the above for you. I understand that the idea of gated communities has been around for like forever. When we first congregated in social groups that ate, slept, and fornicated in close proximity with each other, we surrounded ourselves with some kind of barricades. The World outside made that a necessary survival technique. Large critters, whacked homeys from the villiage next door would have their way with folks if they did not construct effective walls and fences around themselves.

My point of this post which I obviously only partially hit, was the major increase in gated communities in this country points to a social structure that may be coming apart or as Demeur says, evolving into something many of us will not like.

BBC said...

Birds of a feather flock together, that is the way of it.

Uppity people over there, bar people over here, etc, etc, it is simply the way of it.

As the economy gets worse protecting what is yours from thieves becomes even more important.

Even I have here what they can steal for profit or to use, or burn to keep warm.

Right now I'm not very happy that I live on the edge of a town. Ten miles out in the country would suit me better.

But I'm damn if I'm going to move again.

Anonymous said...

Good question, Crummy. It seems like Frost is actually ambiguous about the wall.

For the wall represents the only connection he has with his neighbor. And the neighbor concurs, but for a different reason. Frost doesn't like the damn wall ... but recognizes its duality.

Like all good poetry (in my view) it posits a question, not an answer.

Anonymous said...

I'm SO glad I live in the county. We only need fences to keep the cows on their side of the fence.

And as for Maine not having a gated community? Honey, Maine IS a gated community. Few can afford to live there!

Wish I could, but I'm happy where I am. (good thing, huh)

Kathi D said...

In the California suburbs, the gates are plentiful. It is a joke to think that the gates can keep out thieves and burglars, since so many people, out of necessity, possess the magic combination to get in. So to me it all seems to be about snobbery.

When the fires roared through the huge estates in Montecito, California, the electricity went off and people were trapped by their gates, not knowing how to operate them without power. Interesting to think of the gates holding people in instead of out.

Kathi D said...

P.S. Frost's poem about good fences making good neighbors is actually more of a protest against fences:

"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."

Kathi D said...

I decided to change my identity and expose myself. (in print only)

S.W. Anderson said...

When feet come in contact with hard surfaces for extended periods they become calloused. When people come in contact with large numbers of people they've never seen before and will never see again, they too become calloused.

If you travel to northern Maine, up around Caribou, Presque Isle and Fort Fairfield, you're sure to encounter people who are open and friendly — although some will be sparing with their words. Same thing if you venture a trip to one of Idaho's many smaller communities and even its larger ones.

But spend some time in downtown Boston, New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, L.A., etc., and you're more likely to encounter deliberate aloofness and indifference, especially in people who deal with the public a lot. I encountered that at O'Hare airport in Chicago, asking a kiosk vendor a simple question about one of the items he was selling. He was unnecessarily rude and surly, and I had a pretty good idea why. He just comes in contact with too many people he doesn't know or care anything about, some of them being as surly as he was.

A person can be that way with individual strangers in an environment where they are constantly surrounded by strangers. You tick a stranger off and you don't have to live with the consequences. In a small town where everyone knows everyone else and most of them are related one way or another, you do that sort of thing and you get a reputation that costs not only you, but your family. So, you take more care to treat others as you'd like to be treated.

I think older couples and widows who have money and feel threatened on the street want gated communities. So do folks who by nature are paranoid personalities. Others probably see it as a status symbol. But I suspect many gated community dwellers are simply people who come in contact with too many people they have no interest in or connection with. Their home becomes a refuge from bustling, sometimes surly and aggressive masses of other people they're forced to mix it up with during the day.

Anonymous said...

I'll not concur in the common misunderstanding and reading of Frost's poem as presented here by Crummy and Kathi.

Yes, he doesn't like it, that damn wall ... but he recognizes the necessity.And helps indeed to keep fixin' it.

And what does Frost leave us with in the very last emphatic line? His neighbors view of it all that walls make good neighbors. Go figure.

Kathi D said...

Well, who woulda thunk I would end up in a Frost discussion at half past three in the morning?

I still say Frost is more against than for the wall. His neighbor is emphatically repeating what he heard from his father, "Good fences make good neighbors." It seems to me that they keep repairing the wall just because they have always done it, not because there is anything good about it.

MRMacrum said...

BBC - Simply the way of it? Yes, I guess so. Does not mean I have to like it.

dana wyzard - Not sure what your experience has been in Maine, but if it was just a coastal trip to where all the tourists go, then I would say you are right. But head inland, say to Sanford (pop- 20,000 and some change), the median houshold income is $37K - about $15K shy of the national average. Somehow these folks can afford to live here. And live in arguably the most expensive county to live in in the state.

Kathi D- My interest in our fascination and misguided trust in walls has been with me since my first furniture delivery to a gated community in B-more back in the early 1970s. My thoughts ran just about like yours. Built to repell or contain? That is a question I would ask of anyone interested in building a wall between the US and either Canada or Mexico. What would be it's real purpose?

I did not read much of Frost past what I had to to meet the requirements of Lit teachers in school. But I do remember arguing with the teacher about this one poem. Frost gives his low opinion of walls but also recognizes another person's inclination to view walls in a different way. Which leaves us with the idea of walls being good or bad is dependent on how you look at what they do for you.

SW - No need to travel to "The County" to find good contrary Mainers. They are found all over. Even over to the coast. Portland, Maine is considered a friendly place by city standards. They just got some recognition as being a desirable city to live in if you like low crime and lots of bars serving seafood. I can think of no other urban setting I would rather live if I had to live in a city. Baltimore maybe. But friends tell me to forget it. It is not the same as it was 30 plus years ago.

You are right of course. Close proximity to massive numbers of people does seem to create a yearning to have a place to get away from all the problems that magnify in areas more densely populated.

PresterJohn - You mistook my original comment. I was just repeating what a teacher said to me when I came up with a similar take as you did. Frost personally does not like walls. He recognizes that his neighbor does. He respects that even if he doesn't like it. A very ambiguous piece that allows the reader to take from it what they will. BTW - My (your) argument with the teacher fell on deaf ears. The D on my paper stood. Gotta love the objectivity used in the educational system.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the miscue, Crummy.

Can't count the times I was slapped down for not regurgitating the singsong being shoveled at me as the "correct" interpretation. Be it poetry or not.

Kathi D said...

What a wonderful post to engender all this thoughtful discussion. Thanks!