Thursday, April 9, 2009

Classroom Walls

Last week's class was the first, and, as usually occurs in first classes, there was an icebreaker. We shared walls we have encountered in our lives so that we might personalize the topics of this program. The wall I discussed comes from growing up in Gig Harbor, Wa.

Gig Harbor is a fairly average town of about 6,000, but unincorporated Pierce County surrounding Gig Harbor is filled with upper-middle and upper class residents, many of whom live in gated communities, or themselves have gated homes. As a child of middle class origins, I lived outside these communities; thus the wall is erected. Visiting friends was an intimidating excursion through a keypad, phone call, or even security guard. The slow opening of the gate was like waiting to enter a corn maze of landscaping and winding streets with names like Bracken Fern Drive, Hunter Lane, and 131st St. Ct. NW. In contrast, I lived on 58th St. Later in school, once I was driving myself through the gates, they became less awesome and more burdensome. Gates often were left open during the day and shut only after 9 PM. There was usually a mad rush to leave my house in time to beat the closing of the gate so I wouldn't be slowed by whatever security measure the neighborhood had.

One aspect of gated communities I never considered while visiting them was whether they were designed to keep people out or in. I'm sure the designers would say for the former, so it immediately posits an outsider as someone undesirable to enter the community. On the other hand, if they are meant to keep people in, living outside could be living in the freedom not to have your comings and goings documented by a gate opener, or security guard.

The gates forced feelings of an economic separation because they were a physical structure, but even within the neighborhoods there were the same divides as outside, so in principle, the gates did little other than psychological security. Reflecting back, in practice they created a dichotomy between the sheltered and the not, and especially between the desirable real estate and the affordable real estate. Friendships were probably formed, however inadvertently, based on ease of transportation to and from homes. Parental relationships probably held in them underlying biases based on address. This phenomenon is not unique to gated communities though, but the presence of the gate and the rite of entrance is - a physical barrier that forces its designed purpose onto anybody who has to pass through it.

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