He Who Controls The Gate Controls The City

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Back then, this mattered. I saw it with my own eyes.

I never knew what the city of my grandfather looked like. We only had a picture of his house. It was a small two-story country villa built beneath a horizon of hills. It stood alone, triumphant, defiant.

My first thought was, given those traits, how would anyone not expect my father’s father to look at those hills – actually a ridge of small mountains – and wonder, “What’s beyond them? What’s on the other side?”

Truth be told, if he ever did venture deep into the valley below his house and up those mid-sized mountain ridges, here’s what he would have discovered upon reaching the top: larger mountains in the distance.

No doubt, curiosity would have gotten the better of him and over those mountains he would go, and over the land beyond that, and over the sea beyond that, until, upon coming up to and through the Gates of Gibraltar, he’d go over the ocean before landing on yet another mountain, this one filled with coal.

But that’s another story.

What really struck me the first time I traveled to Fontecchio, my grandfather’s place of birth, was not his home but the medieval city that emerged upward from his front door.

You see, the view of the house I grew up with – that painting done by my father’s godfather, who was Chairman of the Art Department at Rhode Island College and who summered in Fontecchio – showed the perspective from the front of the house. All I saw were those empty, albeit enticing, massive hills of green behind it. I never imagined what was in front of the house.

Until I saw it with my own eyes.

A wall of protective masonry stone wrapped around this small town in the Province of L’Aquila in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Outside this solid rock shield stood a solitary building, my grandfather’s house.

Built by his father and grandfather far from either gate of Fontecchio’s wall, it clearly sacrificed safety for arable land. Granted, the early twentieth century didn’t require a fortress for protection as was needed a half millennium earlier. That made the land more valuable than the stone surrounding the town.

But not valuable enough to keep my grandfather from migrating to America. In fact, not even that stone wall could keep dozens of paisons from venturing to the shores of the promised land, only most of them came through Ellis Island, not Philadelphia like my grandfather.

It’s a funny thing about gates. Not only can they keep marauders and ne’er-do-wells out, they can keep the citizens in. But when you unlock the gates, travel can occur in either direction.

Gates used to be an important thing, as attested not only by the civil engineering required of Fontecchio’s municipal design, but as far back as well before the Bible itself.

In Genesis 22:17, when speaking to Abraham, the Angel of the Lord said, “That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.”

This is the King James version. The New Catholic version loses the metaphor at the end and bluntly states: “Your descendants shall take possession of the cities of your enemies.”

Between the two readings, though, we get the true sense of the adage “He who controls the gate controls the city.”

Recall that stone wall girding Fontecchio. If you were to attack the city, scaling that wall might prove a bit precarious. On the other hand, if you could break through either gate, you’d be in the city in no time. The gate, therefore, represents both the most strategic and most vulnerable aspect of the wall.

At least in military terms.

Incidentally, as I walked around Fontecchio, I noticed several decorative cutouts in the wall shaped liked crosses. They weren’t everywhere, they were only around the gates. I asked my father’s godfather (who acted as my guide the first time I visited Fontecchio) why these “windows” were shaped like crosses.

“The design is called Balistraria,” he said, “and they aren’t windows. They’re arrow slits. The cross-like shape gives archers greater protection and greater latitude to aim up and down as well as left and right.”

“Cool,” I said, “But why are they only by the gates?”

“Nobody ever attacked the walls,” he said. “They only attacked the gates.”

In modern parlance, the military significance of physical gates has waned, but the term “gatekeeper” finds itself often used in tales of marketing and business stratagems.

The “gatekeeper” represents the obstacle between you and your objective. It’s the classic non-decision making middleman who answers the phone or sits at the desk guarding the door of the office containing the actual decision maker.

For a lot of reasons, we’ve seen the business gatekeeper evolve over the years. Given today’s technology, we’re less likely to see a person (e.g., a secretary or an assistant) act as a gatekeeper. That’s too archaic for today’s hip business owners.

Instead, decision makers have increasingly used third-party service providers to serve the role of intermediaries. When you call the customer help line, rarely do you get someone from the actual company. In its place, you get a call center, often in some foreign time zone with accents that make you cringe when they try to speak “American.”

Entire business models have been predicated on providing this gatekeeper protection. This is the role played not just by call centers, but by industries such as publicists, agents, and almost any kind of broker you can imagine.

They control the gate. They control the city.

That’s not good either for the person trying to get in or the person trying to avoid the person trying to get it. The former has no authority. The latter, if he’s not careful, will find himself losing the authority he worked hard to attain. He’ll devolve into a mere figurehead, someone who simply rubberstamps what the gatekeeper tells him to rubberstamp.

Do you see why hip, young business owners avoid the use of gatekeepers. They want to speak directly to their customers.

At least until they get too big and go corporate.

That’s when someone eventually comes up to them and says, “What happened to you, man? It used to be about the music. Now I don’t even know who you are.”

We might not know who they are anymore, but we know who they aren’t. They aren’t in control.

That’s the gatekeeper’s job now.


  1. […] But what does this tell you about modern business? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “He Who Controls The Gate Controls The City” to learn what exactly might be holding your profits – and possibly your career – […]

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