Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Their Space: Security and Service Workers in a Brazilian Gated Community

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Their Space: Security and Service Workers in a Brazilian Gated Community

Article excerpt

After decades of moving up into urban towers, the Brazilian elite is now moving out to gated subdivisions on metropolitan fringes. In these compounds the wealthy can relax without fear as armed guards circulate on motorcycles and high-tech firms provide surveillance. As elsewhere in the world, developers intensely market to prospective buyers the sense of security the gates provide (Davis 1992; Luymes 1997; Andrade 2006). The gated communities offer a bucolic counterpoint to urban life, and often function as vacation or weekend destinations. The design and isolation of these subdivisions allow families to forego the protective walls that encircle each of their urban homes, and they can display their gardens and homes to the street. They can jog, take walks, and be neighborly, much as they might in the Brazilian interior or, as many say, as they imagine life in U.S. suburbs.

But during the week, when the owners are in the city, the citizens of these gated subdivisions are the hundreds of people who maintain the grounds and clean the homes. Gated communities regulate the circulation of workers with a system that requires renewal of badges and proof of good conduct. But are these workers a challenge to security, or essential to it? How do their freedom and circulation fit into the high-tech image and strategic design that most of the gated communities wish to project? How does their relationship with homeowners square with the image that most critics have drawn of the gated subdivision as a space of social segregation and insulation?

Security comes not only from design and surveillance of space or from the screening of workers by homeowners associations but also from practices that give domestic workers intimate access to homes. These informal practices are largely unregulated by homeowners associations but intensely negotiated by owners and domestic workers. The growing spatial distance between the rich and poor that most literature on gated communities emphasizes would presuppose heightened mistrust, yet one of the most enduring qualities of Brazilian society has been a complex infusion of servility and intimacy in relationships between the rich and poor (Lauderdale Graham 1988; Scheper-Hughes 1992). Such intimacy is found in other countires, (1) but it is pervasive in the middle and upper classes in Brazil and can obscure the social polarization on which it rests. In this article I show that the social polarization inherent in these relationships is reconfigured and negotiated in ways that are specific to these spaces.

The prestige that comes from hiring urban-based professional landscapers, and the regulation of domestic workers in gated communities by homeowners associations, potentially contradict gardeners' perceptions of their own responsibilities, prestige, and power. The displacement of traditional domestic work by new forms of regulation and by professionalization will not do away with this work or destroy the intimacy that pervades it. If segregation--symbolized by gates and walls--epitomizes social polarization, this does not mean that social polarization would disappear in the absence of spatial segregation--symbolized by circulation, intimacy, and proximity. However, the broader spatial context in which domestic work takes place does affect the ability of gardeners and other domestic workers to negotiate their terms of employment, making daily life more livable, and the future more predictable.

The Brazilian elite continues to depend on domestic workers despite the increasing modernity of domestic life--including the use of the newest generation of home appliances--and the incipient professionalization of services that were once entirely the domain of personal service work such as child care and food preparation. Although urban professionals have reduced their daily dependence on live-in nannies and other domestic workers, their need for gardeners and part-time domestic workers will grow as a result of their property ownership in gated communities. …

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