Island Fever

Photo by Keith MayThe neighborhoods of Lido Isle are like something you'd find in Leave It to Beaver, if Ward had a better job. It's old Newport Beach at its finest, with a yacht club, a tennis club, a junior sailing club, a women's club, a men's club and tons of year-round activities for the kids.

Exclusive? Lido is a mile-long island with only one way on and off—a bridge on the west end that connects to the peninsula. But these days, that may still not be exclusive enough.

That is, it doesn't have a gate.

Gateliness being next to godliness in Orange County, the residents of Lido Isle recently wondered among themselves whether their lives might be a little better if they lived behind a set of those swinging things, preferably large, ornate and locking.

They held a debate. They scheduled a vote. Some residents argued that Lido desperately needed a gate at the island's bridge. They were concerned that among the influx of unchecked people who make their way onto the island, some might be riffraff crossing the bridge to steal, rape, murder . . . or linger.

Others, however, were appalled that this countywide obsession with gates might ruin or just cheapen the distinctive quality of life in a waterfront enclave that has enjoyed free passage since it was developed in 1928. These residents don't just drive across the bridge; they skate, cycle and run across. To some, the idea of having to go through a gate midjog sounded like a really massive hassle.

The deliberation over the proposed Lido Isle gate underscores the implications of the gates and fences that surround communities throughout OC. Basically, half the population of South County has to remember a PIN number or a special code or the name of that dude in the kiosk—Morris? Norris? Doris?—or where the hell they put that damn keycard just to get home every evening. What have these gates come to mean to people? Is life behind them really better and more secure?

Realtors report that some clients instruct them to find homes behind gates. One client already had an expensive Huntington Beach home but couldn't stand all the strangers parking on her block to get to the nearby beach. After a couple of interminable summers, punctuated by Fourth of July parades and surfing contests, she decided she wanted a tidier lifestyle. She was determined to find it in a house behind gates, where she would know the people walking past her property and at least recognize the gardener's car. Now she thanks her God for Codes, Covenants & Restrictions while basking in the absence of boats and RVs parked in driveways and along curbs.

But do gates and the neighborhood-association regulations that go with them really bring better law enforcement along with the increased order? Or do gates simply suggest a sense of security, the same way they imply status?

Nobody can argue with a better night's sleep, no matter how you get it, but there's also no guarantee that a gate will protect anybody from crime. Even if a gate could keep all outsiders out, it provides no defense from bad-intentioned insiders. Sure, with gates come security guards—who, by the way, are unarmed. But although these guards work as access patrol at the gate and drive around the community eyeballing everything, their actual response to problems is about the same as yours or your neighbor's—they call 911. And you don't need a gate to hire a guard; plenty of gateless communities employ the same security companies to patrol their streets.

The point is gateless neighborhoods get the identical service without the walls.

Another debate about gates is going on around Jeffrey-Lynne, a working-class district near Disneyland in Anaheim. Although it's usually not so bluntly stated, the argument in favor of gates at Jeffrey-Lynne seems to be a certain kind of incarceration, a human spin on the zoo solution. Police have already used several other tactics in the crime-besieged area, where residents have endured massive sweeps and blanket parking restrictions. The latest idea—to just gate them all in (and throw away the key while you're at it, fellas)—came courtesy of a local developer.

Jeffrey-Lynne residents won't get to vote on their gate.

Meanwhile, back at Lido, the warm-weather holidays provide the kids with parties where island moms volunteer in various booths to paint faces, make crafts or play games. There was one in May, when the yacht club had its annual opening day. There was another on July 4, when everybody donned red-white-and-blue duds and joined in an island parade, followed by a party at the clubhouse.

Yes, it's hokey. But most Lido residents see such hokiness as a bonus that comes with their unique neighborhood.

Gates, however, are not hokey. They are anti-hokey. They are suspicious, calculating and grim, maybe nervous, often angry. And from the moment someone suggested building a gate on Lido Isle, those characteristics began to infiltrate all that neighbors held hokey. One resident who was staunchly against the gate began his own mailing campaign, sending post cards crammed with frightening information about crime levels in gated communities. Others who were for the gate argued its necessity by citing wild tales of things they had seen, heard or just feared. Even in the abstract, this gate performed its function: it defined people and separated them.

While at the neighborhood park, one woman who moved to Lido in 1998 was stunned to hear other moms talking about how the property values would shoot up $50,000 the minute a gate was erected. She would cringe when others would chime in to rave about how thrilled they would be when outsiders couldn't get past the gate—how much better all island lives would be.

A line had been drawn in the playground sand, and she was definitely on the other side of it. As they spoke, this woman pushed her 2-year-old boy on the swing and thought, "How much better can this get?"

The gate was a stupid idea from the start. It made comfortable neighbors feel vulnerable. It led to a knee-jerk obsession with crime and the silliness of everyday people spouting off "part I and part II crime stats," as though they all moonlighted as watch commanders.

But the gate turned out to be a sad idea, too. It exposed some of the self-important elitism that Lido Isle residents usually keep hidden, along with pathetic examples of lack of perspective.

The good news? The gate was overwhelmingly voted down in an April 8 referendum in which more than 75 percent of the Lido residents cast ballots.

The not-so-good news? The issues raised by the proposed gate will linger. The same week the gate was rejected, a car was stolen from an open garage at the end of the island. You would have thought a triple homicide had occurred. The police responded with at least six squad cars, two helicopters, a law-enforcement boat circling the island and sniffing dogs. Policemen lined the bridge and questioned all drivers leaving the island.

A serious manhunt was on, and the man being hunted on Lido Isle might as well have been trying to escape Alcatraz. After abandoning the stolen car on the island, the suspect hopped on a dock and attempted to steal a boat to escape. It didn't work. The cops caught him—and he turned out to be a friend of a neighbor kid.

When it was over, some people tried to use this kid's short, soggy joy ride as evidence that voters had erred in rejecting the gate. "If there was a gate, this wouldn't have happened," they said, ignoring the fact that this thief would most likely have been allowed onto Lido anyway because his friend gave him access.

The incident is proof of something else: Lido Isle doesn't need a gate. It already has a moat.


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