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COLUMN ONE : REGIONAL REPORT : Turf Wars Escalate in Southland : Residents are increasingly building walls around their lives and lifestyles. The most visible examples are the gated housing tracts sprouting in the area.

November 18, 1991|PAUL FELDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The turf near the east end of Mar Vista Street is well protected from strangers.

Access to the road and to a neighborhood of more than 50 homes is blocked by a young man dressed from head to toe in blue. Blue chinos. Blue polo shirt. Blue baseball cap.

"You can't go in there," he says, warily eyeing a motorist who had come to a halt outside a set of iron gates and asked to drive in.

Why not?

"Because these people don't want outsiders."

The man in blue is neither a Crip nor a cop. He is a private security guard. And the neighborhood he is watching over--Friendly Hills Estates--is a well-to-do, single-family-home development in Whittier, a city founded by Quakers, who are also known as Friends. It is miles and lifestyles removed from the gang-ridden streets of the inner city.

Across Southern California, gated communities are sprouting up like mini-malls. In Orange County, the Palm Springs area and the San Fernando Valley, almost one of every three new housing developments is closed off to the public, according to one survey.

Such communities, social scientists say, are but the most visible example of the figurative and literal walls that many Southland residents are building around their lives and lifestyles.

Southern California may be the immigrant capital of the nation, they say, but it is less a melting pot than a conglomeration of distinct clusters. Be it for physical, fiscal or psychic comfort, territoriality is increasingly the way the game is played.

"We're living in a society in which people are trying desperately to differentiate themselves from others and differentiate their communities from the urban sprawl that surrounds them," said UC Irvine social ecology professor Mark Baldassare. "Those that can afford to are buying into gated communities, and those who can't are creating their own invisible walls and borders from others."

"We see it increasing, and I'd describe it as sort of turf wars."

The wars take on many manifestations.

In tightknit beach communities, wave-riders puncture the tires on outsiders' cars to scare them away from "their" surf.

In inner-city neighborhoods, street gangs--more than 800 in Los Angeles County alone, by law enforcement count--use anything from fists to Uzis to enforce control over their turf.

In middle- and upper-class communities, homeowners associations employ political muscle, along with zoning regulations and lawsuits, to ensure that low-income and senior citizen housing, day-care centers, health facilities and mortuaries stay out of their areas.

While wall-building can impart a sense of security or belonging, it also restricts freedom of movement in a democratic society, critics say. In other parts of the nation, it is rare that entire cities--such as Rolling Hills and Hidden Hills in Los Angeles County--are entirely blocked from public access.

Social scientists say the emphasis on exclusion reinforces distinctions based on culture, ethnicity and lifestyle. When the only time people encounter someone "different" is outside the security of their walls, they say, prejudices fester.

"There's always somebody to say: 'You're lower down and we're keeping you out,' " said Columbia University Prof. Herbert J. Gans. His works include "The Levittowners," a classic study of life in a post-World War II suburban tract development.

The implications of territoriality are particularly troubling when it comes to solving the regional problems that threaten to choke the rapidly imploding Southland, Baldassare contends.

"Over time, as we're coming across problems that are more regional in nature--such as air quality, transportation, water and growth management--we're dealing with a population that's becoming more locally oriented and more oriented to isolating themselves from the problems of the region as a whole."

Wall-building is hardly unique to Southern California. It has been part of the human experience since biblical times, when physical barriers protected Jerusalem and Jericho, at least temporarily, from invading armies.

As the United States grew, ethnic enclaves such as Little Italy in New York and Irish-dominated South Boston sprang up to provide emotional security for immigrant groups.

In the Southland, experts say, the use of exclusion as an economic statement is being refined to new heights. The walls are both emotional and concrete.

"We are in a region that has gained 3 million people in the last decade," Baldassare said. Older cities in the East and Midwest came to terms with their immigrant influxes neighborhood by neighborhood. In Los Angeles, he said, "we're sitting here watching this process evolve."

The gated community that separates the rich from the rest was introduced in Los Angeles County more than 50 years ago, when A. E. Hanson developed the horsey hideaway of Rolling Hills on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Eventually, Rolling Hills and Hidden Hills, a second Hanson development in the San Fernando Valley, were incorporated as cities, open only to residents and their guests.

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