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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

gated community

(1990’s | businese (real estate)? | “walled town,” “stockade”)

I know what you’re thinking, but gated communities are not always for the rich, though they certainly started out that way. Some retirement communities are gated, and they are not generally set aside for the wealthiest among us. Still, a gated community does suggest a minimum, fairly high, standard of affluence.

It’s a very old idea. Walled cities date back to the ancient world. Pioneers moving west built stockades to keep out Indians and some of the wind. It’s true that a good stout wall and a locked gate will prevent a lot of dangerous people from getting in. Occasionally someone will slip through, of course, and gated communities do little to deter identity theft and other white-collar crime. No sooner do you find a way to thwart violent crime than crime of an entirely different sort, against which walls and gates have little effect, fills the gap. Lovers of irony rejoice.

Gated communities as we know them are a California phenomenon that got going in the eighties, although there were one or two around before then. Outside of California, a few cropped up in Florida that early, but they didn’t take off in the rest of the country until after 1990. The enclaves can be built around whatever perversions the rich may prefer — golf, landscaping, horses — or have no particular core. Their more genteel partisans talk about their love of privacy, but safety and exclusivity, states best guarded by keeping the wrong people from getting in, are the real reasons that gated communities continue to thrive. (Personal privacy — another benefit now more likely to be compromised by someone thousands of miles away than by an intruder sneaking into your basement — pertains to both of those justifications, so partisans like to bring it up early in the discussion.) The point is to control access, repel intruders, and feel secure. Not all gated communities have guards, but they all have walls and restricted entrances. Another feature, noted as long ago as 1983 in the New York Times: “Gated communities tend to be fairly strict. If regular cities would pass some of the restrictions they do, everything would be in an uproar.” It’s not just about keeping the bad guys out; it’s also a matter of preventing residents from doing anything that might lower property values.

There is something fundamentally anti-social about the whole idea of building a walled-off island in the midst of the hurly-burly. This is the sort of thing that leads to private police forces and a deliberate withdrawal from the larger society, especially in urban areas. A small group of people pooling (i.e., hoarding) their wealth and resources — most of which have come out of the rest of our pockets one way or another — and deciding that they will secede, in effect, and avoid responsibility for anyone outside their own very small group. It’s undemocratic, but hardly anyone seems to get too exercised about the startling growth of the gated community — it’s become an unquestioned privilege of the rich, part of their obligation to disregard the common good in favor of their own narrow interest.

The term appears in LexisNexis for the first time in 1979, and it does not seem to have been much in use before then. The most plausible surmise is that it was invented by a real estate agent (like “gentrification“). “Gated” hints at keeping the riffraff out without being too obvious about it, and “community” is what we all want to be a part of, right? A community of people a lot like us, with a lot of the same beliefs and values — people who believe in keeping their standard of living to themselves. No mention of walls or guards or security codes is necessary to get the point across. Realtors are better than anyone else, except possibly ad writers, at softening disagreeable concepts by wrapping them in a mantle of inoffensiveness. (As one source proclaims, “‘Gated communities’ is a euphemism.”) But I don’t have any evidence that a realtor did it, and maybe someone else invented the phrase. It has not developed any metaphorical life, and no poet has leapt up to declare, “No man is a gated community, no man stands alone.”

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