Building Barriers

A few months ago, I came across an article by an anthropologist who was trying to make sense of the enthusiasm people displayed  for Trump’s border wall. If I were still teaching, I’d have used the article to reinforce a couple of important lessons: (1) most issues are more complex than most of us realize, and (2) cultural attitudes are the product of multiple elements that may seem unrelated but really aren’t.

We need to connect those dots.

The anthropologist’s investigation was triggered by a conversation at a trade show.

The border’s like our back door,” a concrete salesman named Chris told me in January 2017. “You leave it open, and anyone can walk right in.” It was the day of Trump’s presidential inauguration, and we were chatting on the exhibition floor of a trade show in Las Vegas, called World of Concrete. Circular saws, cement mixers, gleaming new trucks – it was an unusual place to talk about the politics of immigration.

But the simple promise of a concrete wall between the US and Mexico had flung a business tycoon into the White House, and I wanted to understand what this was about.

Chris was a millennial from a small town in western Ohio. With a trim beard and short, sandy hair, he projected an air of casual self-sufficiency. “I don’t really like neighbors,” he quipped, speaking with a dose of wry humor about how far he chose to live from other people.

The author was perplexed by the appeal of what he termed “the fantasy of sealing off the country with a stark, symbolic barrier.”  What he discovered in his subsequent investigation was that walls and barricades appeal to so many Americans because they “resonate with familiar boundaries in their daily lives.” He concluded that cultural and economic forces have operated to divide insider from outsider, fueling political polarization in ways we don’t always realize.

He focused especially on America’s ubiquitous gated communities. And when I say  “ubiquitous,” the data bears me out: one out of every six American houses in a residential community is secured–gated– by community walls or fences. 

Contemporary gated communities build on a century of intentional segregation and suburban white flight. Suburban interiors were designed as “escape capsules to enable their independence from the outside world”, architectural historian Andrea Vesentini has shown, built as shelters from the unpredictability of urban life. The pandemic has magnified the appeal of such distance and defense, with more features like security cameras, video doorbells and HEPA air filters built into new houses than ever before.

These histories have profoundly reshaped how Americans live in relation to each other, as much as where. So much of everyday life and leisure now takes place in secluded spaces. The front porch sessions with neighbors and passersby that once epitomized American social life have given way to more private gatherings on the backyard deck, or time with the television and other screens indoors. These changes lessen the chance for happenstanceconversation with neighbors and strangers.

There’s much more in the article, detailing the various ways today’s Americans wall themselves off from their fellow citizens. (Drive a Hummer?? Talk about separating yourself…)

I was particularly struck by the discussion of gated communities, because early in my academic career I became fascinated by the literature about social capital–especially the distinction between bonding and bridging social capital.

Social capital refers to the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society. Bonding social capital contributes to the “us versus them” phenomenon so pronounced in today’s America–it refers to the “bonds” formed within a group or community. Bridging social capital–essential in a diverse society– refers to the weaker but extremely important connections between people in different social groups.  

I wanted to research a “chicken and egg” question: did the people who chose to live in gated communities make that choice because they had already developed “us versus them” tendencies, or did the experience of living in such a community inculcate such attitudes? Unfortunately, I discovered there was no intellectually-honest way to conduct such research. Too many variables and much too much subjectivity…

The author of the article notes that our fractured media has deepened the existing fissures of American society, helping to shield us from exposure to uncomfortable ideas, unfamiliar people and perspectives. As he says, 

There’s a deep and pernicious history at work here. Longstanding patterns of neighborhood racial segregation have inflamed the prejudice against outgroups, bolstering stereotypes…. When such divisions are reproduced at an everyday scale, the gulf between self and other widens even further, and everyone becomes a potential outsider.

As my architect husband has taught me, the built environment matters, not just aesthetically. It profoundly shapes–and reflects–the culture.


  1. I was born in Costa Rica and I visit every year, I see how many “expats” (legal and many illegal immigrants) from the United States come and buy properties near the beach and almost immediately build a gate community. When I ask them if it is for security, many say yes, but they add that we do not want the locals to visit us. It makes me sad to think that these Americans live in fear of the whole world.

  2. In the (really wonderful) musical Hadestown, there is a song that absolutely nails it (and the song was written at least a decade before the 2016 election). It’s structured as a call-and-response (so it sounds like something you’d hear in a religious context) and as a children’s counting song (where each line is added and then the previous lines are all repeated), with a circular structure (like “there’s a hole in the bucket,” illustrating the sense of futility). Hades is absolutely recognizable as a corporate fat-cat type, and he leads the company in this song.

    Why do we build wall, my children, my children?
    We build the wall to keep us free,
    That’s why we build the wall,
    We build the wall to keep us free…
    …The wall keeps out the enemy
    …The enemy is poverty
    …Because we have what they have not
    …Because they what we have got

    What do we have that they should want?
    We have a *wall* to work upon!
    And the work is never done!
    And the war is never won!

  3. Once again hypocrisy reigns among us. We, Americans, celebrated the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. A GOP President demanded it to be done. And then years later, another GOP President wants to put one up in America. Is it racial, that Germans were white folk, the superior race to some, as opposed to the Latinos at the southern border. Or is it because it is now in our backyard and not a country thousands of miles away.
    Again I say, hypocrisy raises its ugly head.

  4. “The border’s like our back door,” That quote fit into my thought on today’s blog before I had read it. My thought was Trump’s wall was like locking the back door to prevent burglaries but leaving the front door and all windows open. The area is only a portion of our southern border; the physical and psychological protection it provides issues an invitation to come in via the open contiguous border surrounding us. Remember one of our states is located in another country and one is an island far off our western shore.

    About those “gated communities”; not all people who can afford to live within them are honest neighbors, the law of averages would show them locking themselves in with those who would benefit by being locked in.

    Intruders and criminals will always find a way around, over, under or through any wall erected for protection; safety is a figment of our imagination today. The biggest fantasy we are witnessing today is that of the Republicans that being Republican will protect them from any and all forms of the current pandemic. Not even their case numbers and death rate of the unvaxxed and unmasked convinces them otherwise.

  5. Roberta, the Soviets actually built the Berlin wall after the Potsdam Conference in order to stop people in the Soviet occupied part of Berlin from escaping to the western parts that were occupied by the US, UK and France. East Berliners kept escaping to west Berlin for a better life.

  6. I have recently become aware of another, more important, barrier in my life; am wondering if others have the same situation in theirs. The political separation within families, friends and neighbors is one we are aware of but the Pandemic brought about a physical separation within families, friends and neighbors to prevent spread of the coronavirus. Recently I became aware of a lack of communication contact; I must claim a mea culpa myself in that regard and am trying to E-mail, text, Facebook messenger and Facebook contact more to return to the only safe contact available.

    Barriers are not only or always physical and developing the emotional and written contact barrier will be difficult to break. I believe this barrier is one that is encouraged and increased by Trump’s unending control, not only in politics but we have returned to his pictures and his rants on all media. He is a scourge on this country and one we must not lose sight of or allow to erect barriers which may become permanent. If he is allowed to return his Fascist, dictatorship form of government; we will be lost; democracy is a delicate balance between freedom and anarchy.

  7. As someone who is about to move into a gated community just south of Jacksonville, Fl, I was fascinated by this column. We did not buy the house because it was “gated;” we went to see it because the house plan and the photos on an on-line listing appealed to us. When last Spring, we sold our last house (in the western part of the Florida Panhandle, it was listed on a Monday, four families toured the place on Tuesday, and we accepted an offer on Wednesday. That is what the housing market is like down here. After making offers on a couple of other houses, with no success, we were glad to be successful with this one. I don’t know how many people find the “gate” concept appealing, but it did not factor into our decision.

  8. JoAnn, thank you for expressing many of my fears as well. It is difficult for me to reach out to friends and family members who choose to support trump. I long for the day when our news cycle no longer covers his statements and rants.

  9. One thing that I have noted more of late is that too many people don’t like people. Most of my neighbors are right wingers, but I recently had a problem and the neighbors were there for me. They checked in on me, made sure the mail and newspaper were picked up, took care of just about everything and even helped move in and set up a new chair. How could anyone not like people who would do that? I once told a neighbor that the best way to have good neighbors is to be a good neighbor. I believe that more now than I did then. Get off of your couch and go introduce yourself to a neighbor. We alone can fix this problem.

  10. Furthermore, per Peggy, what kind of neighbors go to the Olympics giving symbolic support to a hateful regime? What kind of neighbors leave those neighbors in Afghanistan who helped them to starve? I could go on. Values must be modelled by those at the top…this is “unvirtue” signaling.

  11. Walls are symbolic,

    Jefferson used the term wall to describe the separation of church and state. He said to build the wall high.

    As Sheila mentioned, the key here is separation. Unlike Pascal, most people choose to live in a gated community because it separates them from the others.

    If you look at the ancient cities, the wall concept was the norm. Babylon was walled, Jerusalem was walled, most cities were walled off. Later on, castles became mini cities and were walled off. The wealthy lived in the castle which was walled off and or surrounded by a moat. The farther away from the castle revealed the caste of the citizen. Those of the lower caste were often cannon fodder for those trying to invade.

    In the grand scheme of things, self-reliance never works. Everything is too linked together. Build a bunker? Live behind a wall? Stock up on weaponry? For the most part the average citizen or those living behind walls cannot produce the weaponry or ammunition or the food for that matter to survive but a short period of time.

    It’s become evident that our present society has developed the mentality to kill your way out of situations. Not just separate, because, as we know, humans are pretty good at circumventing security.

    History shows that the walled communities, IE cities castles and such, didn’t survive a sustained attack anyway. They were starved into submission or disease ran rampant behind those walls. Did walls prevent the black plague? People behind those walls spread the black plague amongst themselves faster than those living in rural areas out and away from the general population.

    Can humanity actually tear down walls to build Bridges? A vast majority cannot.

    I will say, the apostle Paul actually made a very valid point to the congregation at Philippi, concerning getting along with others, at Philippians 2:3 it reads, “do nothing out of contentiousness or out of egotism but with lowliness of mind consider that the others are superior to you.”

    What does that mean? Obviously, if you are considering others feelings and emotions, but come off feeling Superior to those individuals, they are going to feel threatened and unsure.

    The apostle Paul also said to be all things to all people. And, if we do that, we can reach out to everyone and truly love your neighbor.

    Cultures and traditions only separate humanity, humanity likes to fear what it does not understand. Language differences, food preferences, religious practices, manner of dress and the like.

    I enjoy talking about the different cultural aspects of what my neighbors believe. I find it interesting. And, I find those neighbors that are from different cultural backgrounds are actually the most reliable neighbors.

    The apostle Paul also said in his letter to the Galatian congregation, at Galatians 6:10, “really then as long as we have time favorable for it, let us work what is good toward all.”

    It’s easy to hate, it’s much more difficult to cultivate love. But in the end, the love aspect changes hearts and minds, the hate aspect creates enemies.

    It’s really not complicated, it’s actually quite simple. I do my best to practice what I preach and I found it’s much more enjoyable than my former self.

    And because of current technology, lol, I can speak to friends across the globe. Even speak in real time while it’s being translated back and forth. Folks that I’ve known for a long time and love. I could never go back to what I was before.

  12. For starters-That was NOT a business tycoon, that was a Flim-Flam Man, to put it mildly.
    Aimee- Hypocrisy is U.S….pun intended.
    I’m in a gated community, in Florida, as I was in N.J. for 6 years before moving here, not because we felt we
    needed the gates’ “protection,'” but because, in either case, the homes met other needs. We’re in the same community
    as a High School good friend was, until he died,too early, in 2018. And, we are out of the northern freezes.
    Trump’s wall statement, as he descended (how far down is Hell?) the escalator, was a “throw-away” line, but as any
    demagogue, or manipulator worth his/her salt would, he certainly did not miss the immediate impact it had on those (already
    blind to his MO) gathered there to cheer him on.
    The suburbs were developed, after WWII, to accommodate the veterans, mostly only the white veterans, returning from that war.
    These ‘burbs allowed for, and probably encouraged “white flight” from the cities, away from the “THEM.” Before that, and before FDR,
    I have read, (“The Color of Law”) cities in the U.S. were home to integrated neighborhoods.
    By the way, Donny’s life has been about “ME” and “THEM,” where “THEM” is ANYONE not named Donald J. Trump, and he has
    tapped into the cultural fear of THEM unlike any other so-called leader.

  13. Yes, John. Walls and gated communities are symbolic of having relatively small-sized tribes. “If you can afford to live here, welcome…as long as you fit in with the tribe.”

    Why, for example, don’t we have such “wall” issues with Canada. THAT border is MUCH longer than that with Mexico. Oh. Wait. Canada is populated with mostly white, anglo-saxon people. Mexico? Not so much. So, let us not forget the racism associated with this southern border. Texas has been playing the paradox game since the first European ex-patriots traveled there and pounded in stakes without asking permission. Oh, how they despise those Messicans. “Oh, but they do pick fruit and vegetables really well. But, hey! They’re not like us.”

    Then, there is the drug problem… The drug problem is ONLY a Latin American problem because those in OUR country need to put illegal, dangerous and stupid chemicals into their bodies to feel…well, something. The people banging on our southern doors are, for the most part, running for their lives from the murderous cartels or starvation. The corrupt, compromised governments of Latin America do not set up ways for their citizens to do dignified work, never mind feed themselves. Those governments do NOT address the cartels very well; maybe they’re being paid off too.

    Sorry for the rant, but gated communities are merely an artifact of what humans have always been: TRIBAL.

  14. Mitch D. The first integrated neighborhood in Indianapolis was Butler Tarkington and Meridian Kessler. In the last 1960s blacks were moving in, a few mansions on Meridian Street were being converted into apartments and white flight was starting. Then Indianapolis passed the Meridian Kessler Preservation Act, which said that in the area no single family homes could be converted to multi family homes. And the white flight stopped, those blacks who had moved in stayed, and the area became contentedly integrated. The poor, if not just the poor blacks, have nearly always been kept to certain neighborhoods.

    On the conflict between freedom and community, the problem, probably oviously, is disrespect of difference. In the UU Church I attend (Danville) several of us have discussed and agreed that we don’t feel that tension within the church. UUs don’t, won’t, tell you what to believe or who you should be, and theoretically at least respect who ever enters. Sometimes UU Churches fall short, but happily our church, as far as I have seen in my 10 years there is very welcoming to all. Because I am a member of the lGBT commmunity, and we are very diverse is this community, we also respect people and don’t tell them who they should be. Black Lives Matter is being run by a diverse group of people (no single leader to assissinate) and one of their principles is acceptance of diversity. Some of the main leaders are black queer people of color, and they know that welcoming all is crtical to keep the powers that be from finding ways to divide us and thereby conquer.

  15. We just returned from a short vacation in a charming little town near where we grew up in central NY and it required traveling through farm country that was familiar grounds from our childhood. What struck us was the number of pro-Trump signs we saw and the fact that the structures that we passed repeating our childhood ‘hood hadn’t seen maintenance since then and were downright decrepit, perhaps like we are. These people had seen their chosen lands robbed of all of the richness they had once known while city people had been through the best of times.

    There where, as there always had been, plenty of fences but for livestock, not people. For separation from other people, these people had to rely on plenty of guns and “get out of my space” personalities, though their love for their neighbors was still intact.

    Do you think that they would want to share what little they had left with brown skinned even poorer folks? Absolutely no way, and that’s one of the things that Trump promised them. They might have been willing to share anything that they had with a neighbor but absolute nothing with a stranger.

    They lived in a de-facto gated community and had been led to their culture by politicians and business leaders living in the other kind of gated community (Mar a Lago comes to mind) using their one connection that the rural community has to the rest of the world, entertainment media. Poverty apparently created the same kind of limited exclusive world as wealth had.

    It was not new for us but quite revealing anyway.

  16. Our courtyards are having a SpringOut outside party this Sunday.
    Walls but no gate. Co-op conversion of military housing overbuilt
    in 1940, my birth year. We both need some maintenance, but the
    yard full of fruit trees helps a lot. Blueberries are ripening…We know
    our neighbors. It’s a community of propinquity.

  17. Anne Johnson; blacks lived in my west side neighborhood, between the original Victory Field Baseball Park and Riverside Park, in the 1940s when I became aware of them. They were not allowed to attend Riverside #44 school which was 2-6 blocks from their homes. They were assigned to School #41 which was near 27th Street and Northwestern Avenue, now MLK Boulevard. Lived in New Whiteland, IN, appropriately named, for 12 years before moving to the Irvington area in 1969 where again, was populated by black families not allowed to attend School #77.

    Vernon, my Democratic yard signs every election did not wall me out from my neighbors until 2016 when I was surrounded by “Trump for President” yard signs. Walls are a state of mind more often than the physical presence of bricks and mortar.

  18. Amen to that brother Vern!

    Absolutely! Walls of any sort never work. If we live our lives and love our neighbors, you have a vast majority of the people who will be decent. And, those who decide to not be decent, everyone works together to expunge those individuals from the society they live in.

    Unfortunately, the evil that men do, they hijack every single vehicle they possibly can, to keep turmoil and hatred in the fore.

    They’ve done the same thing for millennia, and, it’s about to hit overdrive!

  19. Daniel, Roberta, and Aimee,

    Excellent, very excellent comments and information. I enjoyed that immensely.


    Sounds nice! Make sure you go get that tune up, lol! Be safe.

  20. There were good points today. I have heard that our Canadian border is source of significant undocumented immigrants, most who overstay a vacation visa, but the big difference is they are white and not POC, so who cares?

    Walls are huge symbolically, like the battlements on a castle. Like a castle battlements are just about as effective in this day and age.

    The gated community discussion is an interesting one. I think it is poor urban or even suburban planning that allows these type of these type of developments. Only if you can afford the price of admission are you allowed in, until the grass needs to be mowed, or the roof needs to be repaired. I think these planet killing, you have to own a car, type developments are unheard of outside of the US. They destroy the street grid, and force all of the traffic onto a few main roads, making everyone else detour around these exclusive enclaves. Only in the US have we totally rejected the centuries old idea of city development and make everything revolve around automobile accessibility.

    There is something to be said for front porches, tightly packed houses, and picket sized fences between yards. I rented an airbnb for the month in January/February, in a 1950’s era Florida neighborhood, and while the street have sidewalks, all of the yards have privacy fences, there are no front porches, I have only met one neighbor. Just today, the house, a house I thought was empty, I saw the garage door open and the neighbor pull out of the garage and drive away. Talk about building an environment to create barriers!

  21. And there is no sense in trying to make sense out of TFG’s wall adherents. We’ve played right into his hands and plans for ‘22 and especially ‘24 by keeping him visible in print, social media, and on TV. Perfect for him and shame on us!

  22. Sheila while I totally agree with your sentiments, I’m struggling with the statistic you reference that says “…one out of every six American houses in a residential community is secured-gated by community walls or fences.” Even in Texas and Florida, which I’ve seen described as having higher than average amount of them…..I simply have difficulty accepting anything approaching that ratio….unless perhaps the term “residential community” has a definition considerably more restricted than mine. I would appreciate it if you would publish the source of that assertion.

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