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Florida's problematic gated communities

By Bonita Burton, Special to CNN
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Wed March 28, 2012
The gated community of The Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida, is where Trayvon Martin was shot.
The gated community of The Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida, is where Trayvon Martin was shot.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bonita Burton: Gated communities in Florida create an insidious fortress mentality
  • Burton: Residents living within the perimeter of such places revere active vigilance
  • She says a neighborhood watch member like George Zimmerman can get carried away
  • Burton: To have a diverse society, we need less segregation of living spaces

Editor's note: Bonita Burton, a journalist living in Orlando, Florida, was a deputy managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel and a vice president of the Society for News Design.

(CNN) -- "Be as paranoid as possible!"

The screed from our homeowner association manager arrived in our mailbox printed inside a cheery holiday border. The message continued: "Our neighborhood is as safe as we make it. Make no mistake about it, you must be on your guard! Report suspicious behavior or individuals that do not belong in our community."

The call to arms echoed the strident sentiment of neighbors left nervous by the robbery of our home the day before. While we slept unaware at the back of an upscale gated community in Windermere, Florida, intruders came through the front door, took our big-screen TV, laptops and all of the presents from under the Christmas tree.

Bonita Burton
Bonita Burton

No matter that we hadn't activated our security system and most likely forgot to lock the door. Hysterical efforts to fortify the perimeter were in full swing.

An 8-foot iron fence was installed to seal the breach in the back wall used to circumvent the electronic entrance gate. An evening patrol was hired to circle in our eight-block subdivision. The developer sent apologetic champagne, and the homeowners association sent repeated encouragements to "keep an eye out for anything unusual!"

Martin's father: 'Trayvon is the victim'
'Stand Your Ground' law under scrutiny
Competing views on Martin shooting

Heavily marketed as havens of prestige and a sure footing on the social ladder, gated communities in Florida also create an insidious fortress mentality.

Inside the enclaves that boast exclusivity and safety as their primary features, security means not just freedom from crime, but also protection from annoyances such as solicitors and strangers of any kind. You know, individuals that do not belong in our community. In other words, minorities and other less desirable social classes.

This is the paradox of Florida's famed gated lifestyle, into which Trayvon Martin walked, was shot and tragically died. And within such communities, a neighborhood watch member such as George Zimmerman can get carried away.

While we don't know what exactly happened in the encounter between Zimmerman and Martin, questions about racial profiling, vigilantism and police prejudice were slow in coming partly because of Florida's penchant for enclave living.

The forting-up phenomenon that began in the 1960s shows no sign of slowing, ranking Florida as second only to California in the number of walls, street patterns and barricades that separate people from each other. Even though these features do not necessarily deliver on the promise of lower crime rate or more stable home value, they remain highly desirable. Their popularity complicates the debate over whether Martin or Zimmerman deserves the benefit of the doubt.

"For residents who aren't expecting people to be passing through, to be in their space, attitudes can be taken to the extreme," Eliza Harris, Orlando's representative at the Congress for the New Urbanism, told me.

Fenced in against their own insecurity, residents living within the perimeter revere active vigilance. Those who want to play border patrol and muscle outsiders around can easily do so unchecked.

"When you discourage drive-through traffic and pedestrians, it becomes abnormal to see someone walking. And now you've created a situation where two people alone are hazardous to each other because there's no one else around, no cars driving by, no eyes on the street, " Harris added.

Today's cameras, fences, walls and gates do little to create an atmosphere of openness, which is an essential element in a diverse society. When segregation of our living spaces becomes the wallpaper we no longer see, communities become brittle, unable to prevent and shut down the most dangerous behavior.

Our children deserve to grow up in a culture of responsibility that doesn't stop at the neighborhood gates. As the design of our communities becomes more divided, the "as paranoid as possible" citizens living in fear of those lurking outside of their walls too often overlook the more distressing attitudes within.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bonita Burton.

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