“Gated communities for the rich and poor”

A sociologist who has studied gated communities in Puerto Rico discusses gated communities across the socioeconomic spectrum:

The concentration of class and racial privilege in suburbs, fortressed enclaves, securitized buildings, and private islands takes place alongside the spatial concentration of poverty in ghettos, favelas, and barrios. Residential gates for the rich have also led to the rise of gates for the poor—in favelas in Brazil, South African townships, peripheral urban migrant settlements in China, and even in some public housing developments in the United States. The built environment sorts and segregates people, physically and symbolically distinguishing communities from one another. Whether one is locked inside or kept outside is determined by one’s race, class, and gender. In both kinds of gated communities, controlled access points restrict movement in and out. However, living in gated communities of the rich and poor are vastly different experiences.

The privileged gates of Extensión Alhambra offer a retreat into a secure, idyllic community; newly privatized street and sidewalks are restricted to sanctioned, paying community members, who can decide who is allowed inside. In the impoverished community of Dr. Pila, in contrast, government and private overseers control the movement of residents. So while the gates of Extensión Alhambra permit their affluent residents to exert greater political and social influence over their home turf, in Dr. Pila they have the opposite effect, diminishing residents’ power. In privileged communities, gates lock undesirables out; in poor communities, they lock them in. In both cases, gates are erected to serve the interest of the upper classes, who are primarily white. In other words, gates reproduce inequality, and cement or—to use Michel DeCerteau’s term—“politically freeze” social distinctions of race and class.

The same types of structures, different purposes and consequences. This reminds me of the debate regarding the design of public housing projects in the United States: if high-rises hadn’t been the primary choice and public housing agencies instead went with low-rise buildings or New Urbanist type structures, perhaps major problem would not have developed. But, in the case of public housing and gated communities, they can exacerbate existing issues but it is more difficult to claim they cause the issues in the first place.

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