Way back in the autumn of ’06, I was towing the end of a funeral procession with my father as it snaked its way across town to the graveyard. People’s relative distance from the occasion can be gauged by their physical distance down the line. We were about three-quarters back, where the density falls off and conversation is allowable.
As we passed the frequent new housing estates we shucked and hummed at the god-awful ugliness of new houses — a regular gripe. And on the most recent developments: a high brick wall with iron railings and electronic gates.
My father talked about a recent day of lectures he’d attended (he was a city planner) on the importance of public space for society. About how traditionally city spaces had always been the stage of public dissent. A vital tool for upheaval, whenever corrupt or ineffectual or uncharismatic leadership made it necessary. For centuries the town-folk had gathered at the town square, on the city streets, to chant or march or fuck shit up.
By the early 21st century the withdrawal from society had already begun in earnest. The proliferation of gated residential communities. The privatisation of commercial districts and their migration to huge shopping centres outside towns. The de-sanctification of city squares as demonstration spaces. It was all part of the same trend: our retreating inside our homes and handing our public space to entities with an interest in protecting our spending potential. We were losing the gaps, between shops and between houses. He was worried, abstractly. I was worried listening to him.
Of course, all these concerns seem laughably quaint these days. The gates of our housing complex remain locked at all times. At night we post four guards at makeshift balustrades behind the walls. They hold rifles or shotguns and solar lamps. We rotate every six hours. Three years ago everyone who was able spent the summer deepening the ditches and raising barbed wire fencing on the unwalled sides of our five acres.
We have no need for public spaces. For city squares. What would we protest? Who would we march against?
Gated communities did make us safer, of course, in the end. As a concept they were ahead of their time. All that was missing were shotguns and the armies of poor and hungry who actually wanted to hurt us. But they turned up, by and by.