Keepers of the Gates : Are Neighborhood Barriers Balkanizing Los Angeles?


On a quiet hillside near Griffith Park, residents of the predominantly white and Asian-American neighborhood of Los Feliz Estates want to install gates to keep outsiders off their streets.

Nearly 20 miles away in a South-Central neighborhood bordering the Harbor Freeway, the largely black middle-class neighborhood of Athens Heights has already shut off some of their streets, and hopes to close more.

And in a predominantly blue-collar community on Clemson and Corbett streets, not far from Culver City, residents also want gates.


Now, it seems, an unprecedented number of Los Angeles neighborhoods want to control who walks or drives down their streets, and bureaucrats overwhelmed by the demand have asked the City Council to establish a policy on when such barriers should be allowed.

Saying they are tired of crime, traffic, parking and other urban problems, 22 neighborhood groups, from the Wilshire area to West Hills have applied for barriers.

Some also admit that if they can gate their communities, their real estate values could climb as much as 40% in 10 years.

The council has decided such requests case by case, mostly approving them, in a process that can take from two to 10 years.

Public Works Commissioner Dennis Nishikawa recently told members of the council’s Public Works Committee that staffers who process applications are “overloaded,” expect many more requests and need “some direction.”

“There’s a larger philosophical question here,” Nishikawa said. “We are developing into a gated city.”


Already, about two dozen neighborhoods are closed off. Some are private developments, such as the stately Fremont Place, constructed in the early 1900s near Hancock Park. In recent years, more than a dozen tract developments have been built along Mulholland Drive, in West Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley, with gated entrances to private streets.

Other communities, such as the 4,253-apartment Park La Brea complex in the Wilshire area and Laughlin Park in Los Feliz, have built gates within the last three years, after decades of being open.

“We need to ask ourselves why,” Nishikawa said, “and is this the way to go?”

Councilwoman Rita Walters, elected last year and now head of the Public Works Committee, does not think so. “It contributes to Balkanization of the city,” she said. “We talk about our diversity but we’re walling ourselves off either by race or economics. . . . I think it’s taking us in the wrong direction.”

But gating also has its supporters on the council.

Councilman Marvin Braude thinks the concept is fine “if there’s a showing of consistent support in the community, and if people will commit to pay their share of it,” said his spokesman, Glenn Barr.

Residents allowed to put up gates receive city services, officials say, but they must agree to shoulder the cost of the gates, street maintenance and liability insurance. The city also requires that police and fire officials be provided access through the gates, which can work electronically, with keys or be operated by guards. Gates, depending on how elaborate they are, can range from $6,000 to $120,000, according to various community groups.

The city has also allowed the installation of simpler barricades such as pipes, which cost as little as a few hundred dollars each. In 1989, residents in Lafayette Square, south of Hancock Park, installed metal barriers along their southern borders on Washington Boulevard. In 1990, apartment owners in a crime-ridden Sepulveda neighborhood constructed barricades.


The 22 communities range in size from three homes on Beeson Drive, near Beverly Hills, to the 1,060-home Baldwin Hills. About half are in higher-priced areas near Beverly Hills, in Marina del Rey or the Hollywood Hills. But a number include different ethnic groups and income levels, such as Windsor Village, a mixed area of gracious 1920s-era homes with condominiums, duplexes as well as apartments, and the 5,000-apartment Baldwin Village, where monthly rents run from $500 to $625.

Community groups became interested in gates particularly during the last five years, as unwanted intrusions seemed to become more frequent. One man told of beer-drinking outsiders parked at the end of his remote cul-de-sac late at night and the frightening confrontations when homeowners protested. Another talked of prostitutes engaging in sex with clients on the dark, quiet streets of his neighborhood. A third spoke of motorists speeding down his neighborhood streets to avoid traffic on increasingly congested thoroughfares.

Crime is another reason. Hugh Wilton, a Los Angeles police officer living in Windsor Village, spoke of neighbors whose cars had been stolen, of strangers who urinated in his front yard and of gang members doing dope deals in a park.

Wilton grew up in the south Wilshire neighborhood. “This place is really not that livable anymore,” the 43-year-old detective said. “I end up being a cop 24 hours a day. I won’t look out my front window anymore because I don’t want to see something.”

Many city planners do not believe the gating phenomenon is a positive trend.

“There’s a general concern among planners that gated and walled communities are not in the best interest of the city overall,” said Gordon Hamilton, senior planner with the city Planning Department. “From our point of view, we’d rather see neighborhoods opened up.”

Urban theorist Mike Davis, author of “City of Quartz,” a social history of Los Angeles, believes gates are a negative solution to urban problems and threatens to “Brazilianize Los Angeles, like middle-class neighborhoods in Sao Paolo that are walled and gated.”


Davis said gating should be “outlawed.”

“You begin to do this and the city begins to cease to exist as a city,” he said. “What you’re doing is destroying the democracy of public space. If you’re going to allow some communities to block themselves off, why don’t you allow all? Why don’t you just fortify the city, turn the city into living cells connected by freeways?”

But John Friedmann, head of planning at the UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, said he understands “the logic behind it.” Gating, he said, shows “the lack of trust in public order, so people become very defensive about their little life space.”

Given the reality of the thinly stretched police forces, many homeowners say they are entitled to the security measures now routine in apartment complexes or gated subdivisions. Under the city code, developers do not need permission for gating if they build tracts with private streets.

“If there’s nothing to stop a new development from having security gates, why should there be anything to stop an established neighborhood?” asked Robert Glushon, an attorney representing Bel-Air Skycrest homeowners off Mulholland Drive. “Are homeowners in new developments more worthy of security?”

“Why are 195 separate homes different from 195 individual apartments with a gated garage?” asked Brad Ross, a leader of the gating effort in Los Feliz Estates.

Many see gating as a last resort.

“We had no choice. It was either do that or leave,” said Kwasi Geiggar, homeowner association president in Athens Heights, an area built during the late 1950s in South-Central Los Angeles. That community began seeking gating approval six years ago, for traffic and crime reasons, Geiggar said. So far one permanent gate and three temporary barricades have been installed.


Crime has dropped in Athens Heights since barricades went up last year, said Officer Mark Caswell, of the Southeast Division. Compared to surrounding neighborhoods, he added, “burglaries have substantially dropped, and so have street robberies.”

But the issue has been divisive. Pharmacist Neodros Bridgeforth, who lives on the other side of the barricades, said Athens Heights solved its problems by making traffic problems in adjacent areas much worse. “This is eroding our quality of life,” she said.

There is also division within Athens Heights. “I call this the Berlin Wall,” said Jake Humber, a retired sheriff’s deputy. “Within a mile of my community, I still consider them my neighbors, and they feel we think we’re better than they are.”

Elsewhere, residents of Lafayette Square readily admit that their area went through a bruising 10-year internal struggle that, for some, did not end when barricades were installed in 1989. Nor is there unanimity in Los Feliz Estates, where Charlotte De Armond, a 28-year resident, said she had sent letters to all 194 neighbors, begging them not to gate.

The Los Feliz gating effort has taken 10 years, and the City Council is likely to decide the issue within a few months. De Armond said she is in the minority, but is still fighting.

“I don’t want to live in a gated community,” she said. “This is America.”

Opponents of gating claim that supporters are merely trying to improve real estate values, and sometimes inflate crime or other problems to gain approval.


Asked about crime in Los Feliz Estates, Officer Bill Sollie of the Hollywood Division said: “That area is not crime-infested.”

But to Los Feliz Estates homeowner association President Hrand Simonian, the crime problems in his neighborhood are intolerable.

He said residents woke up one Sunday to discover that 15 cars had been vandalized. A recent monthly report from the community’s private security patrol listed four instances of outsiders engaging in sexual acts, one drunken man found sleeping in a back yard, two abandoned cars, one burglarized vehicle, and shots fired from an empty lot.

“We are concerned,” said Simonian, a retired businessman. “We are not doing this for status. This is strictly for our family safety.”

Walters said her committee will consider a gating policy within the next several weeks. Public works officials plan to submit a report suggesting criteria on which to approve such requests--for example, majority support of residents or absence of major cross-city thoroughfares, a spokesman said.

Councilman Mike Woo, who represents several areas interested in gating, said he supports standardized procedures because of problems encountered in areas like Whitley Heights.


Last year, residents of that Hollywood Hills neighborhood thought they had obtained city approval and installed several gates. Then the Fire Department said it had never given its approval and ordered work stopped. The gate openings were not wide enough to ensure access of emergency vehicles, officials said. Residents are still working to satisfy fire code requirements.

Woo said that situation “made me feel very strongly there does need to be a more uniform set of rules.”

But Woo said he was ambivalent about gating. “I think it creates a fortress mentality,” he said. “I personally would not want to live in that kind of community, although I understand the concerns some have.”

People do not need gates to segregate themselves, he said, but an “absence of gates does not mean it’s an integrated city, that there aren’t major gaps in income status, in racial identity. Let’s not fool ourselves about that either.”

Gated Areas The following areas within the city of Los Angeles have applications pending for street closures or have installed gating. LOS ANGELES

Community Location Number of Units *Baldwin Hills east of La Brea Ave. 1,060 homes Estates *Baldwin Village east of La Brea Ave. 5,000 apartments *Clemson St. area east of La Cienega Blvd. 400 condos, apartments and homes *Windsor Village west of Crenshaw Blvd. about 1,000 homes, condos and apartments *Country Club Park east of Crenshaw Blvd. about 80 homes

Community Year Applied *Baldwin Hills 1990 Estates *Baldwin Village 1990 *Clemson St. area 1990 *Windsor Village 1990 *Country Club Park 1982



*Los Feliz Estates Los Feliz 195 homes 1982 *Torreyson Dr. Hollywood Hills 50 homes 1991 Flynn Ranch Road


*Via Dante Marina del Rey 116 lots / homes 1990 *Silver Strand Marina del Rey 626 homes and condos 1991 *Brentwood Circle Brentwood 66 homes 1989 *Bel-Air Skycrest Bel-Air 96 homes 1990 *Beeson Dr. Beverly Hills area 3 homes 1990 *Wallingford Dr. Beverly Hills area 12 homes 1989


*Redmesa Dr. Chatsworth 290 townhomes 1989 *Canyon Crest Granada Hills 69 homes 1989 *Saddletree Ranch Sylmar 144 homes 1990 *Queen Victoria Woodland Hills 52 homes 1990 Road / Forest Hills Estates *Quiet Hills Court West Hills 6 homes 1991 *Buckingham Northridge about 60 homes 1991 Estates *Cabrini Dr. Sun Valley 863 townhomes 1991 *The Hills Tarzana 56 homes 1987

COMMUNITIES WITH RECENTLY INSTALLED GATES OR BARRICADES (Not including recently constructed private subdivisions)

Community Location Number of Units Year Installed *Laughlin Park Los Feliz 65 homes 1989-91 gated *Park La Brea Mid-Wilshire 4,253 apartments 1990 gated *Lafayette Square near Hancock Park about 250 homes 1989 partly barricaded *Athens Heights South-Central L.A. 350 homes 1991 120 apartments 1 gate, 3 barricades *Whitley Heights Hollywood Hills 200 homes 1991 gates not yet operating


Location/Name Area Year Installed *Operation Cul-de-Sac South-Central Los Angeles 1990 LAPD program, one square mile *Pico-Union four-block area 1991 *Sepulveda 12-block area 1990


SOURCE: Department of Public Works and community representatives