BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) - The new status symbol in Buenos Aires is not a luxury car or a Disneyland vacation. It’s a clump of conspicuously unlocked bicycles in front of a house in a gated community.
Flaunting how safe your neighborhood is — by refusing to lock the childrens’ bikes, the car, or even the front door — shows you have made it in greater Buenos Aires, home to 13 million and one of the world’s 10 most populated urban areas.
Since 1994, an estimated 300,000 people have fled high-density, high-crime, high-priced Buenos Aires and its traditional suburbs near the city core, to live far on the outskirts in pastel houses along idyllic artificial lakes, with 24-hour security guards screening visitors at the perimeter fence.
“”We’re trying to recreate living conditions from 50 years ago,” said Jorge O’Reilly, co-owner of Eidico, a developer of gated communities. “The world trend is to get out of the city. People want security, a peaceful neighborhood, their kids bicycling on the street.”
Gated communities have mushroomed from Cape Town to Los Angeles and critics have dubbed them “the architecture of fear” saying the rich barricade themselves from contact with the poor.
In few places is the lifestyle so prevalent as in Buenos Aires where more than 400 mostly very new private neighborhoods line highways built in the 1990s, sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder with slums and up to an hour commute from downtown jobs. Gated communities now cover more land than Buenos Aires proper.
Polls show crime continues to be an overriding concern among Argentines, many of whom express exasperation with the country’s police and justice system which they accuse of being corrupt.
New dwellers behind the gates in Argentina say they wrestled with the notion of moving far from cultural events and family, but said safety won out.
“My intellectual life has dropped to zero. But the place is beautiful. We are living in peace and enjoying the greenery that’s the absolutely positive part,” says a woman who asked not to be named, who lives in a 700-square-metre (7,500-square-feet) house in a “country,” as high-end gated communities are called.
The popularity of private neighborhoods is rooted in the elite Buenos Aires “polo” lifestyle of the first half of the 20th century.
Then upper middle-class families built weekend homes in country clubs with hefty fees to maintain polo fields, pools and club houses, often with membership discriminations against Jews, Koreans and other minorities.
A new kind of gated community catering to anyone with the money to belong to it began spreading in the 1990s. Prices range from less than $100,000 for a modest home, to more than $1 million for a marble-floored mansion with a cavernous entry hall and a big lot.
Sociologist Maristella Svampa, who wrote a book on gated communities, says the new developments, which manage their own internal roads, lighting and often even water treatment plants, are an extension of the economic transformation of the 1990s when most state enterprises were privatized under President Carlos Menem.
The new communities face few zoning restrictions and really took off after the 2001-2002 economic crisis, when a rash of kidnappings terrified the middle class and a currency devaluation sent construction costs plunging in dollar terms.
“You can sell your 100-square-metre apartment in the capital and build something much bigger on your own land in a nice community,” says Paul Reynolds, owner of a real estate company.
Reynolds said concerns over crime were the deciding factor for his family move to Nordelta, the biggest planned private city in Latin America, a $400 million complex of multiple gated communities including office buildings, clinics and shopping centers about 35 km (22 miles) north of the capital.
“Country” life has become a cultural fixture. Argentines joke about stereotypical gated kids who don’t know what to do at a traffic light and the way people move to gated communities only to gripe about the rules, such as no Saturday lawn mowing.
A best-selling novel “Thursday Night Widows”, is a scathing insider’s view of closed-minded life behind the security fence. The Argentine version of America’s ‘Desperate Housewives’ television series is set in a gated community, and a new movie, “Cheese Face”, is about growing up in a Jewish “country”.
Argentina’s two main newspapers publish weekly supplements dedicated to homes and intramural sports in gated communities.
Elite private schools have established branches inside the gates and the home delivery industry has flourished to cater to the whim of residents who find themselves far from supermarkets, dry-cleaners, cobblers and Blockbuster.
But ultimately, reality has a way of penetrating the bubble.
Residents of older gated communities complain about gangs of rebellious, privileged teenagers who vandalize, use drugs and steal, taking advantage of the fact that police do not patrol gated communities.
And when a 51-year-old woman was found dead recently inside a semi-gated community in Cordoba, Argentina — strangled with the tie of her robe and with fresh semen inside her body — the press went wild with stories about how the rich are not even safe from each other.