“Anxious Urbanism” in Cold War America”

In his “Disaster and Decentralization: American Cities and the Cold War,” Matthew Farish defines the notion of “anxious urbanism.” According to him, urban decline and suburbanization in the Cold War-era were a consequence of the fear and panic caused by the risk of impending nuclear disaster. Thus, spatial containment served as means to neutralize both the threat and the fear of the atomic bomb.

In particular, Farish references the “suburban nuclear family” as the “locus of normality – and thus of the burgeoning civil defence programme.” He relates this to the processes of urban decline by stating that “the comforting base of the family was paralleled, at larger scales, by urban and national imaginaries.” Indeed, both the ideal of the nuclear family and that of the suburban household were associated with the notion of security: they were constructed as a ‘bastion’ to shut out the threats of the ‘Other’ and of the ‘city,’ two uncontainable and thus suspicious entities. Therefore, both ideals were considered as central to the American life, regardless of personal circumstance (Farish names them “universalizing constructions”). Their purpose was to contain and neutralize the fear of the possible nuclear threat through the illusion of safety and control.

This fear of impending threats, typical of the Cold War, has gained relevance in contemporary popular media. In many ways, the paranoia and panic produced by the imagery of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Cold War is echoed by images of the falling Twin Towers today. While both evoke possible disaster scenarios, the imagery of the Twin Towers is arguably more powerful, since New York is a city central to the American identity. Thus, the narrative of the threat becomes more familiar and more relevant to other American cities.




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