Gated Communities Are Enemies of Democracy

Article Courtesy of Common Dreams Newscenter

By James RePass
Posted on Saturday, July 22, 2006

I recently attended a meeting here of regional planners to gather input on their forthcoming development plan for eastern Connecticut. It's the kind of meeting that most people do not attend, because it is in the evening, after work. Plus, the subject is pretty abstruse to most folks -- that is, until what is planned actually happens, five or ten years hence, by which time it's too late.

At this meeting, several citizens rose to speak, but one in particular galvanized the room. This man, a dairy farmer of about 55, was hesitant, and seemed shy. He spoke softly about being a farmer all his life, his love of the land and its beauty, the squeeze more and more farmers are in, and what he sees happening to the land.

As I listened, I became aware that rough clothes or not, this was a psychic descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Not since I last read the Declaration of Independence had I been in the presence of such masterful eloquence. The hairs on the back of my neck began to stand up.

This man relayed what had been reported in a local newspaper as good news: the planned construction of a large residential community on what had been a farm -- his neighbor's farm.

"This is a gated community," he said. "Why are they saying this is good? It's not good. It is the end."


The people in the room sat as the darkness gathered outside the Town Hall annex where we were meeting. If we had not soon moved on to another speaker, I think some of those present would have wept.

Because that farmer is right.

More and more, you see the advertisement of isolation, targeted at the soon-to-be retiring Baby Boomers. "Come see our model homes in XYZ Acres -- Privacy! Security! It's a Gated Community!"

That newspaper article, celebrating the appalling news that an old Connecticut farm was being divvied up and turned over to such a use made many feel almost ill. If we don't stop wrecking the region in this way now, it may indeed be the end, certainly of Connecticut as we know it.

Of course, the regressive property-tax system, making selectmen and mayors slaves to the Grand List [a listing of real-estate parcels], forces such use of the land. With the property tax converting fields and hills into the giant slurb of Wal-Targ-Depot, a gated residential community -- of residents who won't be sending kids to the schools, of course -- is seen as a godsend. How awful.

And it repulses me to think that some Americans praise and seek out this kind of land-use aristocracy. We like to think of ourselves as the spiritual heirs to Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who visited America in 1830 and who, by his observations, spawned an entire cottage industry in aphoristic commentary on the American character. What do you suppose he would have said about gated communities?

Well, here's an example of his take on the Americans of 1830. See how you think we're doing:

"Aristocratic communities always contain, among a multitude of persons who by themselves are powerless, a small number of powerful and wealthy citizens, each of whom can achieve great undertakings single-handed. In aristocratic societies, men do not need to combine in order to act, because they are strongly held together. Every wealthy and powerful citizen constitutes the head of a permanent and compulsory association, composed of all those who are dependent upon him or whom he makes subservient to the execution of his designs.

"Among democratic nations, on the contrary, all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another. If men living in democratic countries had no right and no inclination to associate for political purposes, their independence would be in great jeopardy, but they might long preserve their wealth and their cultivation: whereas if they never acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilization itself would be endangered. A people among whom individuals lost the power of achieving great things single-handed, without acquiring the means of producing them by united exertions, would soon relapse into barbarism." (I have added the italics in this paragraph.)

De Tocqueville goes on: "Unhappily, the same social condition that renders associations so necessary to democratic nations renders their formation more difficult among those nations than among all others. When several members of an aristocracy agree to combine, they easily succeed in doing so; as each of them brings great strength to the partnership, the number of its members may be very limited; and when the members of an association are limited in number, they may easily become mutually acquainted, understand each other, and establish fixed regulations. The same opportunities do not occur among democratic nations, where the associated members must always be very numerous for their association to have any power."

In other words, Ben Franklin was right.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that we are indeed our brothers' keepers. The day that America becomes a place where we shirk our duty to help our neighbor is the day that we will have lost this Republic -- handed to us at much risk, after a long and difficult Revolutionary War, by Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest. Those names aren't just faces in pictures. They were real people, with flaws and warts, for sure, but also with amazing courage and a deep, abiding belief in the need to live and work together in some form of rough equality.

Gated communities, by removing interactions among otherwise equal citizens, help to destroy the basis for democracy. They are a chokehold on the free association among citizens that de Tocqueville found so prevalent in 1830 America, and which up until very recent years has been the hallmark of our unique experiment in democracy.

Gated communities are the antithesis of civilization, for they thrive on separateness and inequality. And, like a cancer, they metastasize.

Connecticut, all of New England, doesn't need to build gated communities, to which a single class of people flee and, literally, shut out the world. New Englanders need to remember our origins, and our self-help and wits, and rebuild the places that need rebuilding -- our cities and towns -- and end this mad flight to oblivion.

If we have to get rid of the property tax to regain our freedom, so be it. The replacement would be a graduated income tax, and, like it or not, at least that system is fair.

Public-transit-oriented development -- as has been proposed for the area around New London's Union Station and is happening successfully in Providence -- is one way to fight back. Building in spaces that already exist in our cities and towns -- rather than paving over the farmland that helps make New England what it is -- is the way to go. This tack may also help keep us fed, if transportation costs continue to run up the price of what you can buy at the supermarket, which has been trans-shipped countless times before it gets to you. (Have you shopped lately?)

If we fail to rebuild our cities and towns, by linking them with transportation systems that don't demand use of a mobile cocoon (the auto), when the gates start going up all over the region, you won't want to live here anymore.

James RePass is president and chief executive of the National Corridors Initiative, a nonprofit promoter of improvement in public transportation.