Safety and the Exodus to the Suburbs

In Disaster and Decentralization: American cities and the Cold War, Matthew Farish argues that the suburban explosion of the Cold War era was as much due to a desire to be the ‘average American’ or to ‘fit in’ with the suburban image of America as a desire to separate oneself from the cities. A few pages into the essay, he remarks that “salvation, for some families, meant moving […] ‘beyond the radiation zone'” of the cities. This “radiation zone,” however, represents more than just the radiation from a hypothetical nuclear attack. It embodies the cities’ growing perceived inhospitality for the middle class, for they “are becoming a place of extremes.” The “salvation” from nuclear attacks meant salvation from attack by the ‘other.’ This had the circular effect of concentrating those Americans who could be thought of as ‘other’ in the cities as the white, middle class families fled to the suburbs. In turn, white families also fled the concentrated extremes of the cities, creating a feedback loop of separation between the cities and the suburbs: the more different they became, the more desire there was to separate them. Adding even more to the feedback loop, immigrants tended to settle in the cities, pushing out the white ‘normal, true Americans’ out even more.

The incessant imagery of the twin towers falling on 9/11 has significantly affected the American lifestyle since the attacks. A new and different obsession with safety has emerged, and it is most visible at TSA checks at airports. Just like the urban radiation radius offered no actual guarantee of safety since nuclear attacks could be off-target, studies have shown the TSA checks to be relatively ineffective for stopping terrorists. The TSA checks offer a warm fuzzy feeling of safety just like the suburbs. In addition, a new obsession with immigration has emerged from the fact that the 9/11 attackers were, in some cases, immigrants. Politicians like Trump and Cruz regularly invoke terrorism in justifying what amounts to xenophobia. Overall, the pervasive imagery of 9/11 has created a pervasive fear, from which Americans have sought out elements of society which make the feel safe (but which don’t necessarily make them actually safer).

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