Gates of Hell

I live in a gated community. There’s a bar code sticker on my car that opens the security arm at the neighborhood’s entrance, and anyone coming to visit me must be on a guest list.

Even without the gates, I live in one of the safest places on Earth. The idea that the added layer of security provides me with that safety is purely the power of suggestion. We live here because we liked the house itself, and the fact that it was in the right school district for our three children. The gates, in my opinion, just clog up the neighborhood entrance with traffic.

But there’s a more concerning aspect of living in this kind of neighborhood, and that’s the danger of forced conformity, authorized and enforced by homeowners’ associations. In most gated communities, HOAs — which are legal governing bodies in the state of Florida, subject to open meeting laws and financial scrutiny — meet regularly to discuss mundane tasks such as installing new street lights, repaving roads and repairing the stop sign that old Mr. Jones plowed into last week.

But they also meet to pass judgment. What color should Jane Smith be allowed to paint her house? Can the Green family build a new deck? Should we let those new people put up a playset for their kids? (That’s right: We actually had to gain HOA approval to install a swingset.)

More recently, residents of our neighborhood received letters reminding us that it’s time for spring cleanup of our properties. Lawns should be sharply edged, gutters cleaned and dead foliage removed. And then there was this: All children’s toys should be stored out of sight. At that particular moment, I might have been tempted to empty the garage of all the bicycles, tricycles and T-ball sets and place them in the yard, had those items not already been strewn across the front lawn.

That single line made my blood pressure soar, and it clarified, for me, the quiet but insidious dangers of living here: the pressure to suppress who we are, and to shift our daily priorities from taking care of our families to making sure our front yards look stellar.

From that pressure evolves a tendency to skew perspective. Thousands of Syrians face daily bombings from their own government; a resident complains about the type of tree planted in her neighbor’s yard. Jacksonville’s murder rate remains highest in the state; an HOA fines a homeowner for installing a birdbath in his front yard, or painting a mailbox the wrong color.

As the cookie-cutter neighborhood emerges, so does the expectation that the residents, in addition to the properties, should all look and think alike. One of my neighbors recently was actually stunned to learn we differ politically.

This expectation certainly was at play when George Zimmerman chased, shot and killed Trayvon Martin last month. Zimmerman’s critics have focused on their assertion that Zimmerman was racist, and a renegade. More alarming, to me, is the failure to recognize that he lived in a place where the unexpected has become the suspicious, and where the real crime is simply existing in an arena where people have chosen to restrict their comfort zones. All too often, such residents have made a decision — conscious or not — to avoid the complexities of diversity. They want to be surrounded by people who don’t challenge their own life philosophies.

It scares me. This fear is personal, too. My middle child is a boy of Hispanic descent, and one day will be a brown-skinned teenager walking down a street of houses owned by upper-middle-class white people.

I’m aware of the irony here — that I’m casting aspersions on my very own neighborhood, a place we chose to live and probably will live for the next decade. I can hear the naysayers now: Go live somewhere else! To be clear — we enjoy most things about our life here, and even some aspects of life under an HOA — beautiful common areas, for example, and a street void of junk cars and overgrown lots. The problem comes when people inflict their own standards of living on neighbors with differing opinions and philosophies.

For lots of reasons, we are not going to move in the near future. But here’s the main one: We can’t be bullied into changing who we are. We have three children, and our children play with toys. We have a busy life and more important obligations than trimming the hedges. And when a kid walks down our street, perhaps a young man with dark skin wearing a hooded sweatshirt, we won’t call the police. We might even call him into dinner.

Tricia Book

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Twitter @triciabook

Booker is a frequent contributor who blogs at Anne Schindler’s Editor’s Note returns next week.