Friday, July 14, 2006

Fuck the rich

New York Times Sunday Style Section:
WHEN Irena Medavoy decided to build her dream home, on two flat acres above Beverly Hills, one thing was really important. "I wanted it warm, cozy, informal," she said, before demonstrating how the living room converts into a screening room. At the push of a button, a 20-foot-wide screen descended from the ceiling and three huge speakers rose from beneath the wood parquet floor. At the other end of the room, a floor-to-ceiling bookcase sank — Batcave-like — revealing a projection room hidden behind it.

By the standards of North Beverly Park, the gated community where Mrs. Medavoy and her husband, the Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, live, their home — 11,000 square feet in an East Coast traditional style — actually is cozy.

That's because other houses in this intensely private, security-obsessed community for Hollywood potentates, business tycoons and movie and sports stars are even larger, more on the order of small hotels: 20,000, 30,000 or, in a couple of cases, more than 40,000 square feet. When Eunice Kennedy Shriver visited the Medavoys during a reception for President Vicente Fox of Mexico, she said of their spread, "I didn't even know they built houses like this anymore," her hostess recalled.

In an age of gilded real estate excess, massive homes are nothing new. Still, the scale of Beverly Park is striking, with one palacelike home next to another like a billionaires' Levittown. East Coast visitors often react with wonder-cum-horror at the neighborhood, while even in Hollywood's monied upper echelons, some consider Beverly Park to be too much.

"You won't find anywhere a concentration of such large homes," said Joyce Rey, who heads the estates division for Coldwell Banker on the West Side of Los Angeles. "You'll find a large estate in Bel Air, or a few large estates. But you won't find a concentration of houses, and new houses, with such large square footage."

How did it happen? "We've had a concentration of the rich getting richer, and that's really propelled the construction of these homes," she said.

Call me jealous, call me idealistic, call me a socialist, call me an idiot, but I find this grossly excessive display of wealth disgusting. Holy cow, while I guess I'd like to own my own modest home in a nice place, I wouldn't want to live in a place like these monstrous houses. Do the people who live in them do what the aristocratic British did, and support households full of relatives, friends and artists they were sponsoring? Somehow I think not. Somehow I think that not even Grandma and Grandpa live in these house, just one Power Couple with too damn much money and their 2.1 spoiled children.

But it's not the excesses of the very rich which are most disturbing. In the Times Real Estate section the week before I read that people are buying up perfectly nice houses in the middle-class neighborhood called Gravesend in Brooklyn for millions of dollars, and tearing them down to replace them with mansions. In my own hometown, McMansions are springing up all over the place, and plots that had decent-sized houses are now holding ugly and grotesquely over-sized monstrosities.

The trend is not new -- David Owen noted the beginning of it 15 years ago in The Walls Around Us:

As bathrooms have gotten fancier, they've also gotten bigger. As they have, the size of secondary bedrooms shrank somewhat. (That extra square footage had to come from somewhere.) In the floor plans of many new houses, the children's bedrooms seem almost like an afterthought. Very often they have been trimmed, sometimes severely, to make room for the hot tub and the bidet. This trade-off - the comfort of one's children for the comfort of oneself while brushing one's teeth - might not have made sense to an earlier generation. But it is one of the unstated themes of the big bathroom revolution.

Obviously, the next step from the selfishness of stealing space from your kids for your own comfort is to make your houses so big that everyone inside can be comfortable conspicuous consumers, and to hell with the world outside. It's the same impulse that's lead to the profusion of gated communities -- not just super-duper-upper-class ones like North Beverly Park, but plain-old middle class enclaves which sacrifice commonality for the illusion of security.

The gated community, Blakely and Snyder write, is the latest innovation in the suburbanizing trend toward "ever more privitized residential environments." For the zoning restrictions of earlier suburbs, the gated community substitutes guardhouses, physical barriers, and hired security forces. Its governing body, the homeowners' association, constitutes a private "pseudo-government" that supplants or augments the services provided by surrounding local governments: street maintenance, police protection.

...What these people want, the authors discover, is not community, but privacy and security. No matter how affluent they are, they dread the world outside the gates. Guardhouses, electronic surveillance systems and physical barriers provide reassurance but also reinforce the sense that one is surrounded by a disintegrating society. Crime is an obsession, despite (in most cases) the absence of any credible threat.

Like other fortunate Americans in the late 20th century, many gated-community residents are doing better but feeling worse. Tabloid-style coverage of crime and violent mass-market entertainment undoubtedly promote this anxiety. But so does the managerial ethos that governs so much of American life -- the determination to create a predictable, controlled environment even at the cost of sterility. In "Fortress America" what frightens the residents most about crime is its randomness. The retreat into gated communities is a flight from chance.
Jackson Lears
"No There There"
NYT Book Review (12/29/97)
[review of Fortress America
by Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder]

And with the gated communities and other secure enclaves comes a shadowy, inegalitarian, undemocratic form of quasi-governmental organization which controls many aspects of life inside the community by enforcing the "covenants, conditions and restrictions" attached to the ownership of the property. In Edge City (1991), Joel Garreau documented the scope of the various forms of "shadow governments":

[There are] several forms of private-enterprise governments -- shadow governments, if you will -- of which there are more than 150,000 in the United States. These shadow governments have become the most numerous, ubiquitous, and largest form of local government in America today, studies show. In their various guises, shadow governments levy taxes, adjudicate disputes, provide police protection, run fire departments, provide health care, channel development, plan regionally, enforce esthetic standards, run buses, run railroads, run airports, build roads, fill potholes, publish newspapers, pump water, generate electricity, clean streets, landscape grounds, pick up garbage, cut grass, rake leaves, remove snow, offer recreation, and provide the hottest social service in the United States today: day care. They are central to the Edge City society we are building, in which office parks are in the childrearing business, parking-lot officials run police forces, private enterprise builds public freeways, and subdivisions have a say in who lives where.

These shadow governments have powers far beyond those ever granted the rulers in this country before. Not only can they prohibit the organization of everything from a synagogue to a Boy Scout troop; they can regulate the color of a person's living room curtains. Nonetheless, the general public almost never gets the opportunity to vote its leaders out of office, and rarely is protected from them by the United States Constitution.

...These governments are highly original, locally invented attempts to bring some kind of order to Edge Cities in the absence of more conventional institutions. Edge Cities, after all, seldom match political boundaries. Sometimes they do not even appear on road maps. Few have mayors or city councils. They beg the question of who's in charge. Are these places exercises in anarchy? Or are they governed by other means?

The answer is -- government by other means. ...

...While highly visible institutions took a beating, thousands of low-profile, small -- and sometimes not so small -- regimes filled the vacuum, taking on power and the responsibility for running daily life. To the extent that means for getting things done became highly dispersed, localized and privitized, they were shielded from the damage to public institutions.

Edge Cities nationwide display an ingenious array of such shadow governments. These shadow governments are usually organized like corporations and given names to do not begin to hint at their power. But they can be broadly grouped into three categories:
  • Shadow governments that are privately owned and operated such as homeowners' associations that can rigidly control residential areas. ...

  • Shadow governments that are quasi-public institutions but have accrued power and influence far beyond their original charter. ...

  • Shadow governments that occupy a murky area between these private and public sectors. They are often referred to as public-private partnerships....

What makes these outfits like governments, scholars say, is the extent to which they have the following three attributes:

  • They can assess mandatory fees to support themselves: the power to tax.

  • They can create rules and regulations: the power to legislate.

  • They have the power to coerce, to force people to change their behavior: the police power.

All governments have these powers. What sets shadow governments apart is that they have these three additional attributes:

  • The leaders of shadow governments are rarely if ever directly accountable to all the people in a general election.

  • When and if these leaders are picked up in a private election, the vote is rarely counted in the manner of Jeffersonian democracy, with each citizen having a voice. Instead, it is usually one dollar, one vote.

  • These leaders are frequently not subject to the constraints on power that the Constitution imposes on conventional governments. ...


The powers of the shadow governments derive from the idea that subjecting yourself to one of them is a voluntary act. When a family chooses to buy a particular home, it is legally presumed that they fully understand what such an association means to their lives.

However, once that house is chosen, membership in the community association is not voluntary. Neither is compliance with the association's rules. Embedded in the deed are "covenants, conditions, and restrictions"... that make obedience mandatory. And the enforcement powers are awesome. "Your peers, the community association, have the power to take your house away from you," Kleine explains. "They also have the power to go into small claims court and have the sheriff go after the TV set. And they have the power, usually, to suspend certain privileges -- or rights, depending on your definition -- including the right to vote. It's like the old poll tax. If you didn't pay your tax, you can't vote."

They can regulate how many pets you may have, what size those pets can be, and where you may walk them. They can regulate whether or not you may live with your children. Charles Keating buried C C & Rs in the deeds of one of his most ambitious Phoenix developments, Estrella, that banned "pornographic" films, books, magazines, and devices from a homeowner's bedrooms. ... [T]he First Amendment does not force shadow governments to allow freedom of the press. ...

..."They are setting up internal courts," Kleine points out. "Due process may be desirable, but it is not required. The Fourteenth Amendment does not apply." ...

Defenders point out that homeowners readily obey and encourage shadow governments. And indeed, such units are very successful at what they do. They control nuisances and unpleasantness and keep the community swimming pool clean. Thus property values rise. These disciples further observe that if the larger society finds the actions of these private governments objectionable, it is not without recourse. The power of homeowners' associations is based on the covenants written into the deeds. In decades past, offensive covenants -- such as those prohibiting house sales to blacks
and Jews -- have been thrown when challenged in court.

Those supporters also point out that shadow governments devise new solutions to the new problems that Edge Cities face every day. If conventional governments had been doing such a great job, people would not have felt obliged to invent new forms, taking governance into their own hands, this argument goes. Perhaps. But such opportunities as arise, these shadow governments certainly seize.


T]he question [is] whether shadow governments are of, by and for the people. Their rights and obligations are almost always defined by property and ownership and money. They bow less to the notion that all men are created equal that to that equally venerable American aphorism, "Them that has, gits."

These shadow governments are democratic to a point. But they rarely have much use for the principle of one citizen, one vote. If your rent your home in a place with a community association, it is generally your landlord who gets to vote, not you. If you are a spouse or a son or a daughter whose name is not on the deed, you usually do not vote. In condominiums, the property principle can be fine-tuned to five digits to the right of the decimal place. In one such place, the owner of a one-bedroom apartment got 0.06883 of a vote, and the owner of a two-bedroom with den got 0.12350 of a vote.

The old saw of Benjamin Franklin's is that "They that can give up give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety," but once people have gotten used to doing exactly that just to buy a desireable house, how can they be expected to understand the price that we, collectively, are paying by allowing the Bush administration to eat away at our civil liberities in the futile cause of illusory security?

But it's hard for me to believe that the people who live in the houses in North Beverly Park give a shit about anything except their own comfort and security. They don't need a guarantee of civil rights, they can afford to purchase them by hiring expensive Dream Teams of lawyers -- if anyone even dares to fuck with them in the first place. So why should they care about the erosion of civil rights, as long as they're not threatened by a terrorist attack? -- which tend to involve masses of people in one way or another, and you can be sure that the people of North Beverly Park don't find themselves on the subway very often.

Ed Fitzgerald | 7/14/2006 01:52:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.

(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.

original content
© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


take all you want
but credit all you take.

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