Skip to main content

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT