The Insecure American: How We Got Here and What We Should Do About It

The Insecure American: How We Got Here and What We Should Do About It

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520945081
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/24/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 392
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Hugh Gusterson is Professor of Anthropology at George Mason University. He is the author of Nuclear Rites and coeditor (with Besteman) of Why America's Top Pundits Are Wrong, both from UC Press. Catherine Besteman is Professor of Anthropology at Colby College and the author of Transforming Capetown (UC Press).

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The Insecure American

How We Got Here and What We Should Do about It

By Hugh Gusterson, Catherine Besteman


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94508-1


A Nation of Gated Communities

Setha M. Low


On our first visit to my sister's new home in San Antonio, Texas, my husband, Joel, and I are amazed to find two corral gates blocking the entrance to her development. I push an intercom button on the visitors' side. Getting no response, I hit the button repeatedly, finally rousing a disembodied voice that asks whom we want to see. I shout Anna and Bob's last name. The entrance gate swings open, and we accelerate through onto a divided drive enclosed by a six-foot wall covered with bougainvillea and heavenly bamboo.

Inside, large homes loom beside small vacant lots with "for sale" signs. The houses are mostly southwestern stucco painted Santa Fe colors with terra cotta tile roofs. There is a sprinkling of brick colonials with slate shingles and wood trim. Uniformly attractive with neat lawns and matching foundation planting, they look like a scene from the movie Pleasantville. It is not just peaceful, wealthy, and secure but unreal, like a doll's house or a planned development in Sim City. Everything looks perfect.

Even before we see men playing golf, we are jolted by speed bumps announcing a right-of-way, and we stop as two twelve-year-old kids cross in their shiny red golf cart. We drive up and park in front of an enormous Scottsdale-style house, sea foam green with a dark tile roof and two-story, glass entrance hall. Anna and my niece, Alexandra, stand dwarfed by the scale of the building.

"I am so glad you are finally here," Alexandra says, pulling away from her mother and throwing her small arms around my neck. She takes my hand and starts dragging me toward the door. "Come and see my room."

Inside, the bright sunshine filters through the closed shutters. My boot heels clatter on the marble floors and echo down the long hallway. I see the green slate kitchen floor from the landing as I walk up the white carpeted stairs to the guest room. Everything is huge and out of scale, giving the impression that I have stepped into a five-star hotel complete with a guest suite, master bath, and walk-in closet. Each room is more spacious than the next, with tall windows, ten-foot ceilings, wide hallways, and long vistas from one part of the house to the other, and on the second floor a view of the golf course and cottonwoods beyond. A stucco wall encircles the house, blocking views from the first floor.

The next morning I get up early to have a cup of tea. I go downstairs to the kitchen and start water on a glowing glass-covered burner. Shimmering sunshine draws me to the window, through which I can see a brick patio with a wrought-iron table and chairs surrounded by a high wall. Imagining how pleasant it would be to sit outside, I unlock the French doors and slowly push them open. With no warning, a harsh wailing disrupts my tranquillity. For a moment I panic, wondering what I have done, and then realize it is the burglar alarm.

Anna comes running from her bedroom. "What are you trying to do?" She shuts off the alarm. "Trying to wake the neighbors and call the cops?"

"I wanted to enjoy the morning air," I protest. "It never occurred to me that you leave the alarm on when you are home. Why do you need it living in a gated community?"

"You don't understand," she says.

"You're right, I don't," I reply.

Ever since that visit I have been fascinated by why Anna and her family want to live behind gates with a guard who watches them enter on a video camera, in a place where they are regulated by a thick book of rules dictating everything from the color of Christmas tree lights to the size of their trash can. This chapter draws upon ethnographic research that I undertook to answer this question.


This chapter examines the dramatic increase in the number of Americans moving to secured residential enclaves—sixteen million people, or about 6 percent of all households. Gated communities now include high-rise apartment complexes for the working and lower-middle classes; townhouses and garden apartments for the middle class; retrofitted housing projects for urban poor; and single-family enclaves for the upper-middle class.

To understand the allure of gated communities, I spent ten years studying six gated communities in the city and suburbs of New York City and San Antonio, Texas. I identified gated housing developments located approximately thirty to forty minutes' drive from their respective downtown city center. Each has its own regional style and distinctive design features, but all are enclosed by a five- to six-foot masonry wall or iron fence broken only by entry gates and monitored by a guard or video camera from a central station. The gated developments included apartment complexes in Queens, New York; townhouse developments in San Antonio and on the border of New York City; and large single-family homes in the San Antonio northern suburbs and suburban Long Island.

I found that people move to gated communities for safety, security, "niceness" and community; they talk about a fear of crime and other people and express a deep-seated sense of insecurity about the world and their everyday life. These issues are not new, but in this American dream with a twist security is gained by excluding others and providing services privately. This version of the dream embodies a politics of fear that justifies gating as well as private governance, increased social controls, and surveillance. Gated community architecture and its accompanying politics threaten the viability of public spaces through increasing enclosure and separation of people in a rapidly globalizing world.

Unfortunately, people are not necessarily safer in gated developments, nor do they enjoy any greater sense of community there. And while residents say they feel safer and happier in their secured enclaves, they worry about having a "false sense of security" There are also many negative repercussions: children may feel more afraid of people outside the walls, greater costs are involved in maintaining the infrastructure, taxpayers' costs soar when the development is turned over to the municipality, residents surrender their freedom of speech through private contracts, and outsiders to the community see the walls and gates as insular and threatening.


I climb into Felicia's Volvo station wagon, carefully setting my tape recorder on the dashboard. Outside, the twisted junipers and gray-green cottonwoods of San Antonio flash by. The six-lane highway posts a seventy mile per hour speed limit, but we are doing eighty. New gated developments with partially constructed houses and bulldozers leveling wild grass fields stretch as far as I can see. Then they suddenly disappear, leaving countryside that looks untouched for the past hundred years. The small town past contrasts with the suburban present as we speed north.

Felicia is a tall, thin woman in her mid-forties who sits straight upright in the driver's seat. Her long fingers clutch the steering wheel as she drives, telling me about her college and graduate degrees. Despite her educational qualifications, she decided to stay home to take care of her seven-year-old daughter. She and her husband moved from California because of her husband's job and the opportunity to have a more comfortable life with a bigger house. They now live on an attractive cul-de-sac in a two-story, four-thousand-square-foot Scottsdale model located within a gated subdivision on the northern edge of the city.

She is articulate and gets right to the point. When she and her husband were shopping for a house, they did not look specifically for gated residences; school district and aesthetics were the important considerations in their decision making. In fact, she had some reservations about living in a gated community because it would have only one exit if there was a fire. But now they feel good about their choice because they feel safe when their child goes outside to play; as Felicia puts it: "We're near San Antonio, and I believe the whole country knows how many child-nappings we've had. And I believe that my husband would not ever allow her outside to play without direct adult supervision unless we were gated" Their choice of residence allows them the freedom to walk around the neighborhood at night, and their daughter and her friends from nongated neighborhoods can ride their bicycles safely.

Yet Felicia also thinks that the gated community produces a false sense of safety. The guards aren't "Johnny-on-the-spot" and anybody who wanted to could jump the gate. Residents could be lulled into a false sense of security "if there was ever an attack" For instance, when she walks in the community, she does not look to see who is coming out of a driveway, as she would on an open city street or in another suburban area. "You don't rely on your own resources so much," she adds.

The development is made up of people who are retired and don't want to maintain large yards, or people who want to raise families in a more protected environment. There is a lot of "fear flight": people who have moved in the last couple of years as the crime rate, or the reporting of crime, has become such a prominent part of the news. She knows people who are moving in because they want to get out of their exclusive subdivisions that don't have gates, and she mentions one family that was shopping for a house in her community because they had been robbed many times.

Her neighbors are upper middle and middle class, white, Christian (apart from one Jewish family), and quite homogeneous—mostly businessmen and doctors, with stay-at-home wives who have no college educations. On their street, she and her husband know everyone by sight and visit with neighbors who have children, but they no longer have a party when new people move in. The houses are "very pretty" architecturally designed and custom built, though she worries the new ones will not be as tasteful or beautiful.

Felicia feels safe inside the community but expresses considerable anxiety about living in San Antonio:

When I leave the area entirely and go downtown, I feel quite threatened just being out in normal urban areas, unrestricted urban areas. Please let me explain. The north central part of San Antonio by and large is middle class to upper middle class. Period. There are very few pockets of poverty. Very few. And therefore if you go to any store, you will look around and most of the clientele will be middle class as you are yourself. So you are somewhat insulated. But if you go downtown, which is much more mixed, where everybody goes, I feel much more threatened.

Felicia's daughter was four years old when they first moved, and I wonder about the psychological impact of moving from a rambling, unfenced Californian suburb to a gated community. Felicia says her daughter feels threatened when she sees poor people because she hasn't had enough exposure: "We were driving next to a truck with some day laborers and equipment in the back, and we stopped beside them at the light. She [her daughter] wanted to move because she was afraid those people were going to come and get her. They looked scary to her. I explained that they were workmen, they're the 'backbone of our country' they're coming from work, you know, but ..."

So living in a secured enclave may heighten a child's fear of others. It is unclear, though, whether Felicia's observation reflects many children's experience of growing up in a gated community or simply her daughter's idiosyncrasy and modeling of her mother's anxiety.

Felicia and her husband wanted to buy the nicest house in the best school district, while providing a safe environment for their daughter, one where they could be cloistered from class differences. They consider the neighborhood as "a real community" where you know your neighbors, although they say it is not as friendly as where they used to live. For them, the gated community provides a haven in a socially and culturally diverse world, offering a protected setting for their upper-middleclass lifestyle.

Desires for safety, security, community, and "niceness," as well as the desire to live near people like oneself because of a fear of "others" and of crime, are not unique to this family but are expressed by most residents of gated communities. The emergence of a fortress mentality and its phenomenal success are surprising in the United States, where most people live in open and unguarded neighborhoods. Thus the rapid increase in the numbers of Americans moving to secured residential enclaves invites a more complex account of their motives and values. While to a large extent they want the same things that other middle-class Americans want, the seemingly self-evident explanations for their choice of residence encompass deeper meanings and concerns.

Living in a gated community represents a new version of the middle-class American dream precisely because it temporarily suppresses and masks, even denies and fuses, the inherent anxieties and conflicting social values of modern urban and suburban life. It transforms Americans' dilemma of how to protect themselves, their homes, and their families from danger, crime, and unknown others while still living in open, friendly neighborhoods and comfortable homes. It reinforces the norms of a middle-class lifestyle in a time when everyday events and news media exacerbate fears of violence and terrorism. Thus residents cite their "need" for gated communities to provide a safe and secure home in the face of a lack of other societal alternatives.

Gated residential communities, however, are not safer than nongated suburban neighborhoods; they merely intensify the social segregation, racism, and exclusionary land use practices already in place in most of the United States. Residents acknowledge their misgivings about the possible false security provided by the gates and guards, but at the same time gating satisfies their desire for a sense of security associated with childhood and neighborhoods where they grew up. In many ways gating resolves middle-class neighborhood tensions concerning individuality and conformity, independence and community, and freedom and security, yet it also produces unintended problems. The contradictions in what residents think, feel, and talk about provide an opportunity to understand the psychological and social meaning-making processes they use to order their lives.

This chapter reviews the consequences of living in a gated community, drawing on resident interviews, behavioral mapping, and participant observation field notes. I begin with a history of gating and then use ethnographic examples to explore gating's psychological, social, economic, legal, and political consequences. I conclude with a discussion of "community" as it is being reconceived in the United States through private governance and gating and outline what we can do to ameliorate its negative aspects.


A gated community is a residential development whose houses, streets, sidewalks, and other amenities are entirely enclosed by walls, fences, or earth banks covered with bushes and shrubs. Access to the community is regulated via a secured entrance, usually a gate operated by a guard, key, or electronic card, though in some cases protection is provided by inaccessible land, such as a nature reserve, or even by a guarded bridge. Often a neighborhood watch organization or professional security personnel patrol on foot and by automobile inside the development.

Gated residential communities in the United States originated for year-round living on family estates and in wealthy communities, such as Llewellyn Park in Eagle Ridge, New Jersey, built during the 1850s, and in resorts, such as New York's Tuxedo Park, which was developed in 1886 as a hunting and fishing retreat and was enclosed by a barbed-wire fence eight feet high and twenty-four miles long. Another early resort was Sea Gate in Brooklyn, established with its own private police force in 1899. Between 1867 and 1905 the architect and real estate developer Julius Pitman designed the majority of St. Louis's private streets, borrowing from the English private square to create exclusive residential enclaves for the business elite.


Excerpted from The Insecure American by Hugh Gusterson, Catherine Besteman. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich

Introduction Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson

Part One Fortress America

1. A nation of Gated Communities
Setha M. Low

2.Warmaking as the AmericanWay of life
Catherine Lutz

3. Republic of fear: The rise of Punitive Governance in America
Roger N. Lancaster

Part Two The New Economy

4. Neoliberalism, or The Bureaucratization of the World
David Graeber

5.The Age of Wal-Mart
Jane L. Collins

6. Deindustrializing Chicago: A Daughter’s story
Christine J.Walley

7. Racism, risk, and the new Color of Dirty Jobs
Lee D. Baker

Part Three Insecurity as a Profit Center

8. Normal Insecurities, Healthy Insecurities
Joseph Dumit

9. Cultivating Insecurity: How Marketers Are Commercializing Childhood
Juliet B. Schor

Part Four The Most Vulnerable

10. Uneasy street
T.M. Luhrmann

11. Body and soul: Profits from Poverty

12. Useless suffering: The War on Homeless Drug Addicts
Philippe Bourgois

13.Walling out Immigrants
Peter Kwong

Part Five Insecurity and Terror

14. Compounding Insecurity:What the neocon Core reveals about America today
Janine R.Wedel

15. Deploying law as aWeapon in America’sWar on terror
Susan F. Hirsch

Part Six Insecurities of Body and Spirit

16. Death and Dying in Anxious America
Nancy Scheper-Hughes

17. Get religion
Susan Harding

List of Contributors

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"Highly recommended."—Choice

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