Locked in, Locked Out: Gated Communities in a Puerto Rican City

Locked in, Locked Out: Gated Communities in a Puerto Rican City

Locked in, Locked Out: Gated Communities in a Puerto Rican City

Locked in, Locked Out: Gated Communities in a Puerto Rican City


In November 1993, the largest public housing project in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce--the second largest public housing authority in the U.S. federal system--became a gated community. Once the exclusive privilege of the city's affluent residents, gates now not only locked "undesirables" out but also shut them in. Ubiquitous and inescapable, gates continue to dominate present-day Ponce, delineating space within government and commercial buildings, schools, prisons, housing developments, parks, and churches. In Locked In, Locked Out, Zaire Zenit Dinzey-Flores shows how such gates operate as physical and symbolic ways to distribute power, reroute movement, sustain social inequalities, and cement boundary lines of class and race across the city.

In its exploration of four communities in Ponce--two private subdivisions and two public housing projects-- Locked In, Locked Out offers one of the first ethnographic accounts of gated communities devised by and for the poor. Dinzey-Flores traces the proliferation of gates on the island from Spanish colonial fortresses to the New Deal reform movement of the 1940s and 1950s, demonstrating how urban planning practices have historically contributed to the current trend of community divisions, shrinking public city spaces, and privatizing gardens. Through interviews and participant observation, she argues that gates have transformed the twenty-first-century city by fostering isolation and promoting segregation, ultimately shaping the life chances of people from all economic backgrounds. Relevant and engaging, Locked In, Locked Out reveals how built environments can create a cartography of disadvantage--affecting those on both sides of the wall.


I do not come with timeless truths. My consciousness is not
illuminated with ultimate radiances. Nevertheless, in complete
composure, I think it would be good if certain things were said.

—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

When I set out to do research in the gated communities of the poor and rich in Ponce, fear was paramount. I grew up in Puerto Rico in the 1970s and 1980s, when carjackings were frequent and yearly murder counts headlined the news. Spaces of the poor, and caseríos (public housing) especially, were envisioned as places to be avoided. What was being ingrained in me during those years was to not venture into the unknown, to stay within the boundaries of my own social and physical circles. And, yet, I embarked on this project, and I set out to visit communities made infamous, communities that I knew only as symbols of everything undesirable.

Soon after I sat for the first time inside the community center of Dr. Pila, a public housing project, in 2003, having been informed that there was an active war between drug puntos (camps), a car alarm began to blare in the background. a rock had been hurled through a car window. Even before this very first day in “the field,” fear—elusive yet obdurate—was a companion. Months into the research, as I approached Dr. Pila’s gates to interview Gisela, a management company staffer and resident of public housing, and walk around the development, she asked me to leave. My field notes that day read: “Hoy no se podia … habían matado a un muchacho de Dr. Pila anoche en Portugués y ya habían herido un muchacho de Portugués. No se sabe quién fué, pero dijeron que tuviera cuidado hoy todo el día. Me dijo que era mejor que me fuera” (It can’t be done today… a guy from Dr. Pila was killed in Portugués last night, and another guy from Portugués had already been wounded. It was . . .

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