Forbidden City (1997)

“Well for our purposes we define gated communities as any residential are where normally public places are privatized by restricted access.”

The Forbidden City was the name of the Chinese Imperial Palace–an impressive compound of 100s of buildings located in the centre of Beijing, and the term forbidden referred to the fact that no one could enter without the Emperor’s permission. Surrounded by walls, guarded by towers and accessed only by a number of fortified gates, the Forbidden City was a city within a city–exclusive, protected and segregated from the riff raff.

How appropriate that Matt Ehling’s short documentary film examining the phenomenon of gated communities in America has the title Forbidden City, and it doesn’t require a great stretch of the imagination to connect the implications of the ancient Forbidden City to the gated communities popping up all over the country.

The film, made in 1997 is just under 30 minutes long, and that’s not much time to pack in all of the aspects & history of gated communities, but in spite of the film’s brevity, there’s a lot of information here, and a great deal to mull over long after the film concludes.

Concentrating on a handful of gated communities in Las Vegas and Southern California, the film explores the features that draw people to buy these homes–the buzz words used in the sale catalogues, and the idea that there’s a “type” that lives there. The film was made over 10 years ago, and of course, we’ve since had the real estate bubble (and are now experiencing the subsequent collapse of the market), but the film mentions in several places that homes within these communities begin at 300,000 and soar to over a million. No doubt that seemed like chicken feed during the gluttonous housing boom.

Using the comments of salespeople, gated community homeowners, employees and experts, the film offers a fascinating look at this growing housing trend. As the film points out, gated communities are nothing new, but they are sprouting up at an alarming rate all over the country.

If you think safety is the only argument for gated communities, then think again. Funnily enough, and this was something that gave me a good laugh, there are gated communities within gated communities. So if you own a multi million dollar mansion, not only are you assured that the street riff raff can’t riffle through your dustbins, but you can also feel extra exclusive knowing that the yahoos whose homes cost a mere fraction of yours are locked out of your more exclusive zone.

Gates within gates is perhaps one of the most fascinating ideas within this documentary. After all, this throws the raison d’etre of the security aspect of gated communities into question. All the houses are already walled off, and people can’t enter without permission, so why do you need even more gates from your less-well off, but let’s remember, still exclusive neighbours? Of course, the answer is the notion of hierarchy. The gates within gates reinforce the notion of hierarchy.

I don’t live in a gated community–I probably wouldn’t last a week before a resident called security to haul me off, but I could certainly see that if someone has been the victim of violent crime, they would be drawn to live somewhere with added security. Of course, this idea leads to even more questions–what’s our society like if we have to take refuge inside vetted communities so we can sleep at night? What about us peasants who live outside the walls? Has the state malfunctioned to such a point that it’s necessary for the affluent to pay for private security compounds? The residents of these gated communities have, in essence pooled their collective resources to buy protection–what does that say about life on the other side of the walls? Are these communities a good thing? They emphasize the fact that the rest of the outside world is an undesirable, unsafe place, and these walled compounds certainly create segregation.

One of the interviewees, Mary Gael Snyder, the coauthor of Fortress America, funded by the Brookings Institute notes that gated communities are a symptom and a sign of the “increasing polarization” between rich and poor. Synder, who interviews very well, explains the attractions of gated communities and the underlying message of lifestyle, prestige and image.

The film also draws analogies between gated communities and military bases, and I think the filmmaker has a point. I’d never thought about comparisons between the two before, but after watching the footage, I could see the similarities.

After the film concluded, curious, I did an internet search and looked at homes for sale in Lake Las Vegas “resort.” I picked this ‘community’ simply because it seems somewhat absurd with its golf courses and 320 acre lake slap bang in the middle of the desert. There are currently 19 neighbourhoods with a range of prices–at the low end, houses range these days from just under 500,000, a mere bagatelle for a modest little abode to 14 million for an ostentatious mansion in the posher section that might very well belong on the Vegas strip. But it looks as though, in spite of the walls and extra security, a flood of foreclosures have breached the walls here too.

Forbidden City is available at

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