A row of red houses, all the same. Beyond that, another row of houses, same as the red houses, but white. A third row of houses, same as the first two except in blue. Everything’s neat and tidy, in primary colors. Safe behind a stockade of popsicle sticks. The wall looks solid. But one stiff breath, and you might be able to blow it down.
The piece — titled The New American Dream — lies at the heart of “Walls,” an exhibit of artwork by Liz Antle-O’Donnell that deals with gated communities, in which millions of Americans currently live. Through the details of Antle-O’Donnell’s work, the exhibit, on view now through July 6 in the Ives branch of the New Haven Free Public Library on Elm Street, proves itself adept both at encapsulating the criticisms of gated communities and at playfully moving past those criticisms to ask why people choose to live in them in the first place — and whether they’re getting what they expect.
Gated communities began appearing in the United States in the 1980s, as the helpful accompanying text (much of it from the book Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, by Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder) informs us. The communities typically look like any other more recent suburban development, with the added feature that walls are built around the entire neighborhood. There’s some sort of security, from a swipe card to a guard house, that you need to pass through to enter and exit this neighborhood. As Blakely and Snyder put it, “millions of Americans have chosen to live in walled and fenced communal residential space that was previously integrated with the larger shared civic space…. The phenomenon of walled cities and gated communities is a dramatic manifestation of a new fortress mentality growing in America.”
In a sense, gated communities aren’t the manifestation of a new idea so much as a new combination of old ideas. Planned suburban communities stretch back at least to the end of the 19th century in the United States; by the 1920s they were a staple of suburban growth and proceeded in successive waves all the way to the present, with the rise of all-too-easily-mocked McMansions. The idea of securely living behind a wall, with or without guards (possibly armed) reaches back to the dawn of civilization and the construction of walled towns. It’s familiar to anyone who lives in a building with a doorman who ensures that only people who are “supposed to be” in the building get in.
Gated communities marry these two ideas in a way that makes them sitting ducks for a lot of people to criticize. The most exclusive urban dweller living in a secure penthouse suite can deride gated communities for being suburban and tacky. Anyone who lives without security, from apartment dwellers to suburbanites to farmers, can ridicule gated communities for their security, which can smell a lot like some combination of attempted exclusivity and fear of the outside world. Conceptually, gated communities can’t catch a break — except for the fact that millions of people vote with their dollars and choose to live in them, and like them.
Antle-O’Donnell pulls from a potent section of Fortress America: “There is growing fear about the future of America,” Blakely and Snyder write. “Many feel vulnerable, unsure of their place and the stability of their neighborhoods in the face of rapid change.” They fear rising crime, whether or not crime rates are actually rising. They seek gated communities as a refuge. These places “reflect the notion of community as an island” — perhaps most dramatically, trading public services for private ones. Instead of calling the town when you don’t like what your neighbor is doing, you call the owners’ association. Instead of calling the police, you might call security. You’re less a citizen, and more a customer, and maybe that makes you feel safe.
Except that it’s unclear how real that safety is. Blakely and Snyder quote Marty Hall, the executive director of an association overseeing a gated community in California called Canyon Lake.
“The gates give people a false sense of security. Some of our residents tell me that they relax as soon as they get beyond the gate,” Hall says. But “there is no 100 percent security…. We have drugs and other issues to deal with here too. The gates don’t keep out the world outside.”
Antle O’Donnell’s art dives into the tension between what the residents of gated communities might expect and what they actually get. Welcome Home has an appealing sarcasm built into its title, as the houses behind the fence seem less welcoming than hiding, hoping they won’t be noticed at all, much less lived in.
Aerial View portrays the gated community as castle, the houses huddled within it, the gatehouse defending the only road in or out, the wall keeping everything inside. Perhaps most effective, however, is Antle-O’Donnell’s decision to place the gated community in a forested wilderness. For the residents, it’s a wild world out there. Though in most cases, the “wilderness” is just the surrounding town, the people in it, that the residents of the gated community seem to think they need protection from. A companion piece, Beyond the Wall, drives this point home, showing the world outside as little more than a sidewalk and a telephone pole. What is there to be afraid of?
Though Ives Subdivision A gets at some of the positive reasons why residents might like gated communities. The way she has set up the piece, visitors can effectively enter the subdivision, stand in the middle of it, and look around, almost as if visiting the neighborhood itself. Perhaps some gated communities can be colorful yet orderly, with enough stability to feel safe, yet enough variety to stay interesting.
But O’Donnell often returns, with a good sense of humor, to an elusive but fundamental absurdity built into gated communities, that residents are buying into an ideal of security that can never really be fully realized. The title of Are We There Yet? allows you to imagine residents in a toy car, driving endlessly around the neighborhood expecting to arrive somewhere but never getting there — even as they realize that parts of the gated community are off-limits even to them.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Walls, however, is that Antle-O’Donnell, a New Haven native, would be interested in doing a project like this at all. Gated communities are part of the landscape almost everywhere in the United States, in a broad sense. But they’re not really part of the landscape of New Haven or even of many of its suburbs. You have to get pretty far outside of the city limits to find a proper one. Antle-O’Donnell’s art points out that by the time you get to one, it can feel like another country. Are places like New Haven precisely what the residents of nearby communities are hoping to separate themselves from? And if so, is it working?