The suburbs are once again experiencing something of an identity crisis. Last spring, as protests against police violence spread to virtually every city in the country, Donald Trump made a crude pitch for the white suburban vote. Increasingly his rallies focused on a single theme: a vote for Joe Biden would be a vote for crime and anarchy, “socialism” and disorder. Only he would defend “all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream,” he tweeted. Trump’s strategy failed, however. Suburban voters decisively backed Biden in November, after favoring Trump in 2016. A consensus emerged among pundits: increasing racial diversity in the suburbs, combined with college-educated whites’ liberal social views, have put the suburbs on a new path.
This is all a far cry from the textbook story of metropolitan history. Classic works like Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis — still a staple of college courses nearly 30 years after its first publication — showed how federal policy-makers excluded people of color from accessing decent jobs and livable housing, while subsidizing white flight through highway construction and government-backed mortgages. At the same time, white homeowners defended their privilege by depicting poor people and people of color as threats to property and safety. If Trump’s racist appeal to the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” failed, does this mean that historians have got the suburbs all wrong?
Even as the suburbs have changed, the allure of the suburban good life has only grown. According to a 2020 poll, more than half of Americans consider their surroundings to be suburban. Even among people who live within their census area’s hub city, 47 percent identify as suburbanites. Suburban identity remains a source of power — or at least pride — for tens of millions of Americans. The “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” lives on, in other words. To understand why, requires confronting the politics of fear and desire in the suburbs.
In Neighborhood of Fear: The Suburban Crisis in American Culture, 1975–2001, historian Kyle Riismandel explores how white suburban homeowners became convinced of their own endangerment. In the years following World War II, upwardly mobile whites left crowded cities for sleepy cul-de-sacs in record numbers. Once arrived, they embraced the ability to retreat from the problems of society, which they dismissed as urban aberrations, while defending that choice as a straightforward expression of American values. In the mid-1970s, something changed. Suburban towns and cities appeared as “pale imitations of their parents’ sitcom suburbs.” The heterosexual nuclear family appeared threatened from environmental and social contagions within their own world, from violent video games to home invasions.
To restore the suburbs’ promise, residents combined electoral muscle with consumer power. They stood down developers, researched household chemicals, installed home security systems, formed neighborhood patrols, and lobbied Congress to regulate children’s entertainment. Decades of government policy had entitled white heterosexual suburbanites to a level of cultural power that cities lacked, which families then leveraged through what Riismandel calls “productive victimization.” When it came to managing their fears, however, this strategy backfired. Coping with contagion only further convinced residents of their looming peril, while staying perpetually vigilant caused psychological distress. In their pursuit of freedom from victimization, suburbanites helped bring about the neighborhood of fear.
The book’s early chapters examine the “Not in My Backyard” movement, through which well-to-do residents opposed the siting of such nuisance properties as landfills, jails, and sexual health clinics. There were also suburban campaigns against nuclear power, which both responded to and capitalized on the 1979 film The China Syndrome. In the film, starring Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Jack Lemmon, greedy power plant owners deceive regulators and ordinary citizens until their cost-cutting measures cause a catastrophic meltdown in Southern California. The film’s timing could not have been more auspicious. Twelve days after its release, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pennsylvania, came dangerously close to a meltdown. When the company sent a spokesman to perform damage control, Middletown residents essentially ran him out of town. “What are you going to be doing to protect my family?” one heckler demanded to know. While in reality it is Black, Latinx, and Indigenous households in cities who are disproportionately exposed to environmental toxins, such “Nimby” protests showed concern only, as the name would suggest, for their own backyards.
Neighborhood of Fear hits its stride in its discussions of crime control. In the crime-obsessed Reagan era, few news stories drove as much ad revenue as the 1981 disappearance of six-year-old Adam Walsh from a mall in Hollywood, Florida. The Walsh case provoked an exceptional amount of media attention, inspiring a TV movie, a federal law, and even a stranger-danger board game that looks a bit like Candyland. Walsh’s whiteness, manifested in a freckle-faced Little League photo displayed endlessly in the media, made his case relatable to the white-dominated media industry and the suburban consumers that advertisers wanted to attract. When more than two dozen Black children disappeared in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981, neither the police or media paid much attention.
While media coverage cast white children as paradigmatic victims, Riismandel argues that suburban crime narratives depicted burglars and kidnappers as “race-less actors.” TV shows like America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries encouraged Americans to suspect the people whose identities made them appear to belong. Everywhere they went, residents and visitors encountered street signs, window decals, and bumper stickers reminding them of the potential for crime. “You used to think that because you lived in a suburb you would be O.K.,” a woman in Fairfield, Connecticut, remarked to The New York Times. “Now you have to be alert no matter where you live.”
To guard against these fears, suburbanites invested in gates, cameras, and alarm systems. In 1983, the home security industry’s value grew to more than $1 billion. These technologies caused problems for homeowners and police, however. Police in tony Weston, Connecticut, received 80 false alarms in a single month. So often did officers respond to an alarm only to find a pet, child, or careless spouse was to blame, that many municipalities began to hand out fees to offset the cost of responding to non-emergencies.
These outsize security systems exposed a central contradiction in suburban politics. Whether they vote Democrat, Republican, or split their ticket, wealthy suburbanites tend to view their own privilege as a product of American meritocracy rather than government policy. Yet the suburban vision of crime control ultimately required an empowered municipal state. Shows like America’s Most Wanted depicted violent crime as endemic without implying a failure of policing. The show treated police as faithful but overburdened public servants who only needed families to step up and do their part. Crime policy thus blurred the lines between public and private responsibility, even as many of the same suburban voters condemned “big government” and the “nanny state.”
Suburbanites’ reliance on government regulation becomes clearer in the moral panic around “mallrats” and other youth subcultures. In the 1980s, malls began to crack down on teenagers who violated the family-friendly shopping environment by loitering, stealing, fighting, using drugs, and having sex. Municipalities passed legislation on malls and addictive arcade games as a matter of public health and safety.
And when they weren’t policing the behavior of other people’s children, suburbanites also worried about their own. Riismandel discusses how concerned parents inspired boycotts, lawsuits, and congressional hearings into the corrupting, even Satanic, influence of heavy metal music. While these episodes are often mocked today, Riismandel argues that they had a profound consequence. By scapegoating the likes of Marilyn Manson and Metallica, he argues, the concerned-parents movement obscured the very real mental health problems that young people faced. This came to a head with the 1999 school shooting at Columbine, outside Denver, in which Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris took 13 lives as well as their own. Though Columbine proved the failure of suburban security culture, parents and policy-makers continued to blame pop culture. In the end, this is how suburban victimization always works. The more that residents looked for safety “in a world tailored to their needs and desires,” the more the suburban environment appeared “beyond their control.”
With Neighborhood of Fear, Riismandel helps explain how spatial privilege became irreproachable in US politics. Among suburban histories, the book stands out in its insistence on taking popular culture seriously. By examining suburban victim narratives, Riismandel reveals how some of the most privileged Americans have continually leveraged cultural power into political gain. With their way of life seemingly endangered, suburbanites advanced their political desires as “commonsense, necessary, and nonideological.”
Riismandel’s cultural approach is not without its flaws. The choice to focus on pop culture means that readers must fill in the era’s social, economic, and political trends on their own. Without this context, it is perhaps too easy to take suburbanites’ motivations at their word. In discussing suburbanites’ fear of crime, Riismandel dismisses the role of racism: “Racial outsiders,” he contends, “were not the focus of suburban crime culture.” The claim is puzzling given everything that historians know about the centrality of anti-Blackness to “law and order” rhetoric. For instance, Riismandel never discusses the Willie Horton ad created by supporters of George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. The 30-second spot detailed how Horton, who is Black, raped a white suburban woman after failing to return from a weekend prison furlough in Massachusetts. Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis was governor at the time of the murder. The ad became a turning point in that election: marking Dukakis as “soft on crime” and demonstrating to historians how fear of “racial outsiders” galvanized white voters.
The most valuable insights from Neighborhood of Fear come from Riismandel’s coinage of “productive victimization,” which has reemerged with a vengeance in US politics. Take Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who pointed firearms at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their palatial home. In an appearance at the 2020 Republican National Convention, they repeated Trump’s claim that Democrats would “abolish the suburbs.” (The “St. Louis gun couple” lives well within the city proper, a fact that underscores the power afforded to keepers of the “suburban” dream.) Only under a Trump presidency, they claimed, would they be able to “play in the backyard without fear.” But experts predicted that this message would fall flat among today’s suburban voters, who turn their noses up at Trump’s boorish and divisive rhetoric. When Democrats triumphed in November, it seemed to confirm that the suburbs — and white suburbanites — had overcome their history.
Neighborhood of Fear is a sobering corrective to that optimism. The McCloskeys’ talk of “Marxist liberal activists” coming for their castle is irrational, but theirs is not an endangered worldview. Rather, the couple is living the unresolvable paradox of the “suburbs”: the pursuit of security in a world that is designed for their every advantage yet appears out of their control.
Moreover, the typical suburban moderate is not as far from the McCloskeys’ position as pollsters imagine. Many suburbanites are capable of condemning racism while believing fervently in their own victimization by a racialized “mob.” Consider the woman in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, who appeared to say she would vote for Trump despite expressing support for Black Lives Matter. “I fear for what will happen in major cities if we get Biden in office,” she told a reporter. Democrats can’t be trusted “when it comes to the police.” On police and other local issues, most suburbs haven’t changed much since the days when Joe Biden fought against “forced busing.” Even in solidly “blue” suburbs, many progressives fail to see the contradiction in supporting racial justice from a place where zoning policies prevent the average Black or brown household from moving in.
Right now, the progressive movement can’t afford to misunderstand the suburbs. The apparent softening of outright hostility to progressive policies in affluent enclaves is not enough to bring overdue change. Until we take the history of suburban fear seriously, the gap between suburbanites and the real victims of American policy will only grow.
David Helps is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan and a historian of policing, cities, race, and migration. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Cleveland Review of Books, The Metropole, and other publications.