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Barbarians at the gates, or vulgarians behind them?

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2002

It is the ultimate fringe benefit of the well-heeled life. You get to keep the riffraff out of your neighborhood, even if you're not sure they're the riffraff.

It is the ultimate fringe benefit of the well-heeled life. You get to keep the riffraff out of your neighborhood, even if you're not sure they're the riffraff.

I speak of the gated subdivision with a guardhouse out front and a guard who stops everybody who doesn't live there -- and turns them away if they don't give their name, their purpose in visiting.

This will be a shock in certain hushed idylls, but this is illegal, because the streets are public.

You may have paid thousands extra for this perk, the guardhouse, the snob appeal, the works, when you bought your house. If you did, you was -- as the riffraff sometimes say most ungrammatically -- robbed.

Just one man, angry enough and armed with a lawyer, can start a revolution. In the case of the gated subdivisions, that man is Henry Echezebal. He was turned away from a northwest Hillsborough subdivision, Keystone Crossings, when he tried to pick up a dress belonging to his wife that had been mended by a seamstress who lived in the neighborhood.

A Times reporter, Josh Zimmer, checked and found at least three other subdivisions that also turn people away. I retraced some of his footsteps Monday and got friendly treatment at two of the subdivisions -- Bayport Colony and Keystone Crossings. The most they did was note my tag number. At Keystone Crossings, the guard said that even if I had refused to give my name he'd have let me through the gate.

Sure is funny what a little pressure -- Zimmer wrote about it -- will do.

The county is investigating, some county commissioners are aggravated, and Echezebal's lawyer is looking at whether any subdivisions elsewhere in the county or within Tampa's city limits, particularly in New Tampa, also pull the same stunt. The lawyer, Betsy Benedict, says if she has to, she'll file a lawsuit in federal court over what she thinks is her client's civil right to move about freely in public. A suit could have far-reaching implications. Hillsborough is hardly the only place where guardhouses and gates are an issue.

The subdivisions do have a choice. They can ask to have their streets officially declared private. Then they can keep out whoever they want. They'd just have to pay for the upkeep of the streets.

Protection is, of course, what the guardhouses represent. You build enough walls and you pay a rent-a-cop and give him a pen and a clipboard and you create the illusion that you're safe. You think you're pulling a fast one on a would-be burglar. The only person who may be fooled is you.

In one awful instance within the Tampa city limits, four teenagers scaled the walls of gated, tony Culbreath Isles in 1992, broke into a house in the middle of the night and raped a woman who lived there.

I have always thought the gatehouse's stay-out-and-bug-off message does more harm to our sense of community than it does to a criminal's ambitions.

The message is deeply class-oriented. If you're not the right color, or your car is a clunker, or you look like you lack a platinum credit card, you read the signal of that guardhouse very easily: your type not wanted here unless you clean the house or cut the grass.

The message gets reinforced by another feature of the landscape, the ubiquitous walls that back up to the sidewalk, assuming there is even that amenity. You can drive for miles and see nothing but blank walls and dark rooftops. Nobody's walking on the street. The landscape telegraphs the message: Nobody is wanted on the street.

The trouble Henry Echezebal started will not be over soon. Hillsborough officials expect to take a harder look later this summer. Who knows? With some luck, perhaps other counties will take a look at their gated communities and determine who's being a good neighbor, and who's not.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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