The fastest-growing type of housing in America is the "gated community." It's a typical cluster of attractive suburban homes along streets with cheery names like "Butterfly Lane." A golf course, babbling brook, and neighborhood park are often part of the package.

But what makes them especially attractive to homebuyers is the gate itself. Next to it is a security shack, where a guard will check that you do, in fact, live there or have a very good reason for visiting. Just to emphasize the point, there's often a wall around the entire community.

People have flocked to these places because they're afraid of crime and imagine they'll find what Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson calls "a kind of idealized Norman Rockwell past." Norman Rockwell was a 20th-century illustrator who drew cheerful magazine covers showing contented Americans in carefree, small-town scenes.

But as City University of New York anthropologist Setha Low discovered while studying gated communities for ten years in New York and Texas, living in these enclaves is not so ideal after all.

She found that they have almost as much crime; lots of drugs; rules, rules, and more rules about how you may decorate your home, who can visit you, and how much noise you can make; and exactly the kind of isolation from one's neighbors that people moved there to escape. Gated communities can be modern-day fortresses, beautiful, but fortresses nonetheless.

There's an old saying that "the grass is not always greener" in places you think you'd rather be. In this case, that's not true. The grass usually IS greener in a gated community. But the people and the lifestyle may not match your dream.

Setha Low has written a book about her research. Titled Behind the Gates, it's published by Routledge Press.