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Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government.

Evan McKenzie New Haven: Yale UP, 1994. xiii + 237 pp. $32.50 cloth $14.00 paper.

IN THE HALF CENTURY since the end of World War 11 and the building of Levittown suburbs have burgeoned in the United States until in the last election suburbanites outnumbered urban voters. Types of suburban development, however, vary widely, and Privatopia analyzes the history and current status of one important form: residential private government or common interest developments (CIDs) -- "walled communities" in common parlance. These are homogenous developments based on the residents' possessing a common interest or attribute (e.g., retirement, common income level), they exclude those who lack that interest (e.g., with restrictive covenants on types of houses and modifications of property, detailed rules for entry, and walls). Residents live under strict rules whose goal is to enforce the "common interest" and assure high property values, and are governed by "homeowners' associations" whose democratic name belies authoritarian and autocratic practices. Evan McKenzie, a political scientist who worked as a lawyer in California on a number of CID cases, has written a rich book that stands on its own as an analytic and interpretive history of CIDs and that also should be useful to scholars in many fields, including utopian studies.

Beginning with their origins in luxury common ownership plans such as New York's Gramercy Park in 1831 and touching on main events up to the first large scale development in 1928, the book concentrates on the history of the post-World War II era and ends with the present, when more than 30 million Americans live in CIDs, real estate developers see them as the wave of the future, and courts and legislatures--as well as citizens and developers--are trying to work out their political and legal status.

The book won the 1995 Award for the "best book in urban politics" at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting. It is excellent social science. The historical chapters are interesting in themselves. McKenzie melds together court decisions, lobbying and legislation, the economics of real estate development, and the role of governmental agencies (especially the FHA) and developer groups, to show how CIDs developed into their current form. Having read widely in the primary sources and in important scholarly and theoretical works, interviewed key players, and been an observer at meetings and a participating lawyer in some cases, McKenzie brings a rich range of sources.

For me, one of the strengths of McKenzie's book is his variety of topics and perspectives. He does a sustained comparison between CIDs and liberal democratic theory in terms of consent, rights (or restrictions), and responsibilities to the community. For anyone who believes in liberal democracy (and, implicitly, in more participatory forms of democracy), McKenzie's cogent analysis is disheartening, as these private governments eschew concern for most rights and the "publick Good" that John Locke valued, replacing them with strict enforcement of limitations on property use and a concern only with property values and the avoiding of liability. Nor are the associations democratic, although the residents' general unwillingness to participate in self-government partly results from the boards' undemocratic structure, authoritarian rulings, and dependence on lawyers.

In another sustained discussion, McKenzie traces legal reasoning and court decisions (and, sometimes, their over-riding by the legislature) in California, to show how the homeowners associations that run CIDs--and that have characteristics of both local governments and private corporations--have frequently been treated so that they do not have the responsibilities of fairness or respect of rights expected and required of governments, nor the personal liability (and thus vulnerability to lawsuits) that can slow even the most predatory corporate boss. The ambiguous political and legal status of CIDs (what exact mixture of private corporations and quasi-governmental actors are they?) is plain from the difficulties faced by state supreme court judges; the CIDs lobbying power is equally clear from their ability to gamer legislation to override unfavorable court decisions.

For some readers of this journal, the book's APSA award carries no weight (or may even be an implicit disqualification). McKenzie's book is nonetheless valuable to many students of utopia, even though he does not fully work out the utopian dimensions. As suggested by the title's neologism that combines "privatism" and "utopia," McKenzie is interested in utopias. He does, trace CIDs back to Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities, and he draws useful contrasts between Howard's ideals and the reality of most CIDs, as garden city dream meets American property developers, with their eye for the bottom line, for high and quick profit, and for insuring demand through marketing. Although McKenzie himself seems more concerned with the contrast (and so develops, I think, a kind of stereotypical "naive ideal versus harsh reality" interpretation), a utopian scholar can derive other interpretations. McKenzie's presentation is specific enough to suggest an alternative reading for the failure of the utopian ideals: the exigencies and speculative aura of capitalistic real estate development mean that, in the extremely pro-private property (freehold) climate of the U.S., any communitarian ideal that depends on real estate developers and freeholds will be warped beyond recognition. From his presentation one can also see the appeals (of green and common land, e.g.) that both garden cities and privatopias share--and thus to see how the marketers play on that shared appeal, and emphasize the mythic (and ultimately ersatz) utopian garden city dimensions of CIDs.

For those who are drawn to utopias by concern about contemporary society-- and who use utopian and dystopian models to understand and criticize the present--McKenzie's final chapter is telling. There he expresses his deep worries--even fears--about CIDs' political and social implications. He sees them as homogeneous enclaves, privatization for the privileged few, highly undemocratic internally, and draining in their demands on larger political systems (where, e.g., they demand tax rebates on municipal services such as garbage collection or snow-plowing that the CID does within its boundaries). This is strong stuff; given how widespread CIDs are, this book is, I think, essential to any student of contemporary society. CIDs are one facet, and a troubling one, of that nexus of suburbanization, the growth of the (private) shopping mall, and urban decay that pose difficult problems for the creation of public space, any regeneration of politics as a constructive activity, and the restoration of even a limited heterogeneity to social interactions. Just as suburbs can be seen as bourgeois utopias and malls as consumerist utopias, so too McKenzie's book allows utopian scholars to see CIDs as privatizing utopias. For the utopian scholar, much work remains to be done about the various utopian dimensions of CIDs; but McKenzie has written an impressive, helpful, and clear historical and analytic study that will serve as an essential beginning for future studies.
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Author:Stillman, Peter G.
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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