How Fear Took Over the American Suburbs

Historians in the News
tags: racism, political history, suburban history

Something goes terribly wrong at a nuclear power plant. The response is muddled by corporate greed, and the public is threatened by (but ultimately spared from) massive environmental catastrophe.

That’s the basic plot of The China Syndrome, a movie starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon released on March 16, 1979. It also happens to have strong parallels to the real-life accident at Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that partially melted down only 12 days after the film was released. The fake nuclear disaster plot primed the public to be fearful of — and outraged by — the real thing. Not only did these coincidentally timed events trigger a backlash to the nuclear industry, they helped create an atmosphere of suburban anxiety that continues to have political consequences today.

In his book, “Neighborhood of Fear: The Suburban Crisis in American Culture, 1975-2001,” Kyle Riismandel, a senior university lecturer in the Federated Department of History at the New Jersey Institute of Technology/Rutgers-Newark, argues that suburbanites of this era engaged in “productive victimization,” using their imagined and real fears as a means to hoard power and exert local control. It’s a phenomenon he observed growing up in the suburbs of Wanaque, New Jersey — 30 miles away from New York City, 12 miles away from Newark, “but in many ways a world away” — later, at graduate school in D.C., and now, from his home back in the New Jersey suburb of Montclair.

Over those three decades, cultural and political phenomena served to make suburbanites feel less like they were living in a bucolic paradise, and more like in a land constantly under assault — with threats ranging from toxic waste and cancerous household products; to burglaries and kidnappings; to satanic cults and explicit music. Riismandel traces the reaction to these perceived threats, through the weaponization of the environmental movement as a means to offload hazards to poorer communities, the rise of NIMBYs who feared overdevelopment in their backyards, and the advent of vigilantism as a response to crime and disorder. The book captures what Riismandel identifies as a growing anxiety that undergirded white suburban life. “Things aren’t necessarily happening” to suburbanites of the time, he says, “but there’s always a sense they they will.”

Bloomberg CityLab spoke with Riismandel by phone to discuss the culture of suburbia that was created and solidified in the late 20th century, and how it helped shape today’s patterns of segregation and the creep of suburban surveillance technology. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why choose this time period, from 1975 through 2001? What changed in the suburban conception of itself at this time?

Part of it comes from growing up in the suburbs and seeing these events unfold, and — particularly as a child — not being able to understand them. But also seeing as I got older, and I was in college and graduate school, that all of these things were eliciting  so much fear amongst people who had power and privilege, who were largely white, largely college-educated homeowners. They were scared, or seemed to be scared, and were reacting in these outsized ways. They were trying to grapple with these fears that seem to be more visceral, more local, and more threatening than the larger idea of the government taking too much of your taxes, or racial integration, which had been the main fear of the ’50s and ’60s. And that's not to say there was not fear of racial integration in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, either. But they get folded into what I’m calling the “neighborhood of fear.”

A lot of the book deals with that gap between the perception of a threat and the threat itself. Can you talk more about that discrepancy?

So it’s a number of things that relate to the politics and culture of today. One is the sort of overwhelming sense that there is a victimization happening on any number of fronts to white people. That civil rights and other kinds of gains are actually losses for a broad white populace. 

Read entire article at Bloomberg CityLab

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