Thursday, July 18, 2013

Trayvon Martin and the myth of the gated “community”

There has been a lot of discussion about what the Trayvon Martin case says about race in America, but less (so far as I can tell) about what it says about space in America – or specifically, the illogical use of space called the gated ‘community’. I’d like to share a few thoughts on this.

First a quick recap of the facts: Trayvon Martin was a 17-year old high school student in Florida. On February 26, 2012, he was visiting his father, who lived with his girlfriend in a gated townhouse community in Sanford. Martin left the gated community on foot that evening, walking to a convenience store to buy candy and iced tea. When he re-entered the townhouse complex, he was spotted by resident George Zimmerman, who was in his truck, patrolling the area as part of a self-organized neighbourhood watch. Zimmerman was carrying a concealed handgun. Zimmerman began following Martin, and phoned 911, reporting that Martin looked ‘suspicious’. The 911 dispatcher collected additional information, told Zimmerman police would be called, and advised him to avoid following Martin further or confronting him. Martin was talking to a friend on his cellphone at the same time, and told his friend he was being followed. Zimmerman ended his call to 911. He confronted Martin, and an altercation ensued. Zimmerman shot Martin dead. When police arrived, Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defence (he was seen to be bleeding form the back of the head and appeared to have been hit in the nose). Police initially elected not to charge Zimmerman with homicide, suggesting they had no evidence to refute Zimmerman’s account of what happened (under Florida law it is legal to use whatever force necessary to defend yourself if attacked. Concealed weapons are also permitted in Florida). Zimmerman was later charged with 2nd degree murder, but was last week found not guilty in a jury trial.

Much of the public discussion has centered on the fact that Zimmerman thought Martin looked suspicious. It does not appear Martin was doing anything except walking home, talking on the phone. The implication is that Martin, who was black, was targeted by Zimmerman, who is not, because of his skin colour and preconceived notions about young black men. I’m going to leave the debate about race to people who know more than me about it and its implications, and focus in on the fact that Zimmerman did not know who Martin was, and therefore challenged Martin’s right to be there in the first place.

This killing occurred in what is called a gated community. There are various types of gated communities, with different layouts, housing density, and socio-economic characteristics. In this case, the gated community consists of between 30-40 long buildings, each split into an average of 6 townhome units, all situated around a central pond and a pool/recreation complex (I looked it up on Google Earth). There are two entry gates to the complex. Martin had entered by one gate on the fatal night, but his father’s girlfriend’s house was closer to the other, meaning he had to walk the length of the complex to get home that night. The roadways, sidewalks, and greenspaces in a gated community are not the same as those elsewhere in the city, which are truly public spaces where anyone is free to come and go. In a gated community, there is a presumption that people using the streets “belong” to the community or have some readily identifiable purpose for being there (e.g. delivery people). Clearly, Zimmerman did not recognize Martin. It is true that Martin was only a guest and not a regular resident, but even were he to have been a resident, it’s likely Zimmerman still wouldn’t have recognized him. After all, if there are roughly 200 housing units and each is home to, say, an average of 2-3 residents, that means several hundred people live in this complex.

This points to a paradox of gated communities: they aren’t ‘communities’ at all. Even though they are spatially restricted areas containing people of similar socio-economic status, people who live in them do not necessarily know or socialize much with other residents. Empirical research by Georjeanna Wilson-Doenges* shows that people living in gated communities are likely to have a lower sense of community – as expressed in social connectivity with other residents – as compared with people living in traditional neighbourhoods.  Further, the sense of community is inversely related to income; in other words, the wealthier the people living in the gated community, the less likely they are to have significant social interactions/relations with their neighbours. It’s no surprise then, that Zimmerman had no idea whether Martin ‘belonged’ or not to his 'community'.

Another paradox about gated communities is that they are not safer than traditional neighbourhoods. Statistically, there is no difference between the two in terms of crime rates. This was certainly the case in Sanford, where the rationale Zimmerman gave for following Martin, and for patrolling the complex in the first place, was that there had been a number of break-ins recently at homes within the complex. If your gated community needs a neighbourhood watch, it’s self-evident the gates aren’t working. Just the same, surveys show higher-income people who live in gated communities perceive themselves to be safe from crime. The idea of gates seems to be psychologically reassuring, even if they don’t really work in practice. This in large part explains why gated communities continue to be popular. In his landmark book Social Justice and the City, geographer David Harvey observed that, if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that people do not like to live near people poorer than themselves. The gated community allows people to sort themselves spatially according to this principle.

If it’s not evident by now, I dislike gated communities greatly. I've seen them here in Canada, the US, and in other countries. They are spiritless, soulless places that appeal to the lower aspects of human nature (e.g. desire to exclude others). In my view, they should not receive any access to taxpayer-funded municipal services. Through layout and design, they are deliberately intended to exclude the public. Trayvon Martin would have had this sensation the moment he left the main boulevard and through the gate. Zimmerman, with his truck, his weapon, and his stalking behavior (Martin was not the first person Zimmerman confronted that day) was there to make sure that strangers knew they were unwelcome. I would not be surprised if Martin felt like he had entered into some sort of an arena, the anonymous streets forming a sort of gauntlet he had to negotiate to get home safely (which he didn’t). If that’s what passes for a ‘community’, we need to re-think our use of the word.

*Georjeanna Wilson-Doenges. 2000. An Exploration of Sense of Community and Fear of Crime in Gated Communities. Environment and Behavior 32: 597-611