Duct Tape Nation: Land Use, the Fear Factor, and the New Unilateralism

Andrew Ross

In the fall of 2002, a pair of snipers brought terror to the suburban strongholds around Washington, D.C., claiming as many as ten victims over several weeks. A striking consequence of their shooting spree was the spectacle of suburbanites driving to urban gas pumps to fill up their tanks, ostensibly because they believed the city was the only safe place to get out of their cars in public. It was an image that spoke volumes about the geography of safety in the U.S. now, especially if you consider how heavily racialized that geography is. Not long after the snipers were apprehended, Patricia Williams wrote an incisive column in The Nation comparing the media speculation about them when they were still at large—that the shootings were the work of a white Lone Ranger, probably an ex-Marine, and therefore a canny maestro of guerilla tactics and weaponry—and the resulting media coverage when it transpired that they were black—which suggested that they had been incompetent, committing blunder after blunder in their trail of mayhem.

Suburban profiling isn’t exactly geared toward African Americans. In that neck of the woods, when bullets start flying, the finger on the trigger is usually white-skinned. Downsized middle managers, with nothing to show for twenty years of deferential service, or repressed school kids, allegedly under the influence of figures like Marilyn Manson, are more and more likely to be the suspects of choice. Accordingly, the psychological roots of the snipers’ motivation have not generated any of the national soul-searching and hand-wringing that followed the Columbine High School massacre. In the imagination of white America, it’s more or less taken for granted that black folks dream of taking potshots at white targets and that these fantasies would come to be realized on occasion. Even so, the prospect of a guerrilla race war in the suburbs is too far-fetched, or else too terrifying, to contemplate, so the racial dimension of the shootings was easily dismissed as an aberration.

The spectacle of anxious SUV owners at the gas pumps is another story, however. For one thing, it is a much more articulate image than that of the World Trade Center crumbling. It speaks directly to the high cost of maintaining the culture of suburban land development, driven, in part, by fear (of the city) and built around an infrastructure that is utterly dependent on the free flow of cheap oil. By force of habit, we think of the urban skyscraper as the most characteristic American legacy—or trademark. In retrospect, the Twin Towers have often been cited as the quintessential American target. Yet arguably the more distinctive emblem of American civilization has been its postwar suburban landscape—the formulaic subdivisions, with their cookie-cutter quarter-acre lots, arterial road systems, and ever-mutating strip malls. After all, the U.S. was an urban nation only between the 1920 and the 1970 censuses. However energy efficient it was during these years, as a majority suburban nation for the last three decades it has far outrun all other countries in unsustainability.

Usually it is up to urbanists to make the connections between the skyscrapers and the subdivisions, but the petroleum-happy Bush administration has been doing that job with aplomb ever since 9/11. Though the Twin Towers would hardly have benefited from such protection, the new Department of Homeland Security took the step of advising homeowners to wrap their houses in plastic sheeting and duct tape. This ludicrous tip resulted in a hysteric run on Home Depots (or Home Despots as they are known in my household) that are the retail bastion of every respectable suburban mall. One bittersweet Internet parody had Christo wrap the White House. But the current prime occupant of that building is the mouthpiece of what many see as a much larger program for consumerism. The intentionally vague profile of Bush’s infinite war against terrorism now guarantees a truly permanent war economy in a way that the Cold War version could not. 

Why is this so important? It’s a given wisdom that U.S. consumers are the patrons of last resort for the world economy. But no consumer in the world is more reliable than the US military, whose budget has been a paragon of stability for fifty years in an economic system prone to overproduction and underconsumption. When Eisenhower issued his famous warning about the power of the military-industrial complex, he was cautioning against the overt influence of the military lobby in politics, not about its crucial role as an economic stabilizer. Without the Pentagon’s budget, after all, none of the R&D for the information revolution would have been undertaken at the expense of American taxpayers. In retrospect, the New Economy of the 1990s—when technological innovation was financed by private venture capital—may have been a brief interregnum between two long phases of military Keynesianism.

Few people remember—unlike Eisenhower’s caveat—Harry Truman’s more persistent warnings about the influence of the real estate lobby, a formidable coalition consisting of the trade associations of petroleum producers, auto manufacturers, road builders, homebuilders, land developers, real estate brokers, tire makers, and several other industrial players. The coordinated power of this lobby ensured that the development of cheap farmland into a conventional suburban landscape would prove a dependable engine of consumption, year in and year out. Nor was this process any less subsidized by the state, which backed every aspect of the package in a politicized bid to boost private homeownership almost exclusively, in its definitive phase, for white families. (William Levitt, the grandee of Cold War suburbanization, famously said, “A man with a plot of ground of his own is not fodder for the Communist Party or the American Labor Party.”) To this day, the tax exemption for single-family-home mortgage holders is the third biggest federal money sink, next to the military appropriation and payments for Medicaid and Medicare.

While another petroleum war continues in the Middle East, it would be callous to ignore the implications of those policies that linked Cold War militarization and suburbanization. They were the twin economic anchors of the Pax Americana, and, to the degree that they still are, they are a clear and present danger to anyone unlucky enough to get in the way of the fuel that supplies their energy needs. From the perspective of Kyoto-abiding citizens elsewhere, resistance to Dubya’s invasion of Iraq has boiled down to a very simple question. Why should the rest of the world be held hostage by the energy budget of the three-car American suburban home? It is a question that cuts through much of the thick fog generated by the miasmal debates about the new geopolitics of unilateralism preached by hawks in the Bush Administration.

That said, no serious scholar should let pass the crude generalizations that are ritually made about the shape and content of suburbia. The landscape, the population, and the folkways are much too various these days to admit loose talk about a singular “suburban way of life.” Even so, urban studies are still permeated by an anti-suburban prejudice, sorely reflected in the lack of literature that looks the subdivision squarely in the eye. Ethnographic studies of suburban life are scarce compared to the voluminous accounts of inner city communities and urban subcultures. An egregious case in point is the population of gated communities, which has registered the most rapid recent growth among U.S. settlements—from four million in 1995 to roughly seventeen million (over 6% of the U.S. population) in 2001. In some regions, one in ten people lives behind gates. This phenomenon has elicited exactly one scholarly book to date, Fortress America, Edward Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder’s fast-moving typology of the variety of gated forms.1 Now, with the recent publication of Setha Low’s Behind the Gates, we have an ethnography that focuses on the psychology of the residents themselves.2 Does her method offer a better understanding of the appeal of these fortified havens and the external factors driving their mercurial growth? 

In following the vogue for multi-sited ethnography, Low forsakes the detailed “thick” description of a single setting for a range of different locations: some on New York’s Long Island, several others near San Antonio, Texas, and one in Mexico City. This choice turns out to be fruitful. Whatever profundity she loses from a close residential study of a bounded community is outweighed by the insights about regional differences that her research uncovers.

In the politically liberal Northeast, for example, where taxation is widely accepted as a fact of citizenship, she finds that the primary motivations of gated residents are attaining social status and reducing conflict in their lives to a manageable minimum. With their own management contractors and homeowners’ associations’ rules, these communities are prized as smoothly running vehicles of impersonal governance. In the conservative Sunbelt regions, where income tax is regarded as the spawn of Satan, gated communities are favored as the most efficient and cost-effective way of providing services. Regions drawing on a tax base limited by a rightwing political climate cannot readily cope with rapid growth, and so they look to land use mechanisms like the gated community to take on the job. In the Mexico City location, where the state cannot guarantee public policing let alone reliable services, the gates are the only way, for residents who can afford them, of securing both. Even at that, the closed condominium is vulnerable to the temptations of its own workers, as one resident reported: “People would go to church, and when they came back they would find their house empty” (BG 128).

While this regional variation is illuminating, Low finds more predictable features widely shared. Some of these, as it happens, rest on an entirely mythical foundation. For example, Low reports that no statistical evidence exists for the universal belief that homes behind gates retain their value better over time (BG 24). Nor does she find any evidence to support the notion that gates deter crime. Crime rates behind gates do not differ significantly from those in ungated neighboring communities. On occasion, the high visibility of the security measures actually engenders crime. As Low muses, the gates “may contribute to placing residents at increased risk by marking the community as a wealthy enclave where burglary is lucrative” (BG 224). But for the most part, where crime rates are lower, it is because gated communities tend to be located in areas where crime is already rare. In other words, there is no immediate environmental rationale for the siege mentality that thrives behind the gates. Even in the cities, crime rates have been dropping for a decade in inverse proportion to the tabloid media’s deepening addiction to fear-mongering headlines (“if it bleeds, it leads”). So what lies behind the phobic tales collected in this book? Why on earth, when the actual statistics about child abduction by non-family members are so low, are middle-class parents so concerned about their tykes being snatched that they would discourage them from leaving the house at all, even in a gated community with professional security patrols?

The easiest answer to this conundrum is that perception is everything. The raw psychosocial material that feeds off imagined threats is all too easily manipulated into phobic forms. In the kind of “risk society” that Ulrich Beck has written so well about, social status is earned and maintained by establishing immunity to risk.3 Privilege is defined not by your assumed wealth and power but by your perceived level of invulnerability to risk, and every little detail adds up. National security is this immunity writ large, and especially when the state policy of the world’s only superpower increasingly expresses the same aspiration on behalf of all its citizens. With the advent of the so-called war on terror, the U.S. government’s legitimacy no longer derives from its capacity or willingness to ensure a decent standard of living for those citizens; it depends, instead, on the degree to which they can be successfully persuaded they are on the verge of being terrorized. In this scenario, threats are much more valuable than assets. After all, a nation bent on monopolizing power for itself needs foes (concocted ones if necessary) much more than it needs allies, and, in the shadowy figure of the modern terrorist, hawks have found a perfectly pliable one. 

Just as the proliferation of weaponry generates new anxieties about vulnerability (do we really have enough to fight two major wars at the same time?), the gates around a community can act as a worry catalyst rather than as a pacifier. In Low’s survey, some residents confess that what they worry most about is the false sense of security provided by the gates, i.e., it is actually more vexing to live with the illusion that you are safe than to live in a truly unsafe environment. In fact, when all is said and done, it might be more psychologically reassuring to do it on the cheap; faux gates (without guards) are sprouting up all over suburbia, creating the mere appearance of security, or status, for the gateless. Or it may be more effective to go anti-gate, as New Urbanists have done. 

In the course of the year I spent in Disney’s town of Celebration, collecting material for my book, The Celebration Chronicles, I heard a panoply of stories about the relationship between design and security. As an ostensibly New Urbanist town, Celebration has a physical plan and a citizenly ethos committed to a public culture that is the antithesis of the gated community. Yet most people who had heard of the town automatically assumed it was gated, and many of those who visited concluded that the security, even if it was invisible, was still massive. In fact, the police presence was light and there were no downtown cameras; it was community self-surveillance that was all-powerful. Despite the town’s come-hither to utter strangers, the crime rate (with the possible exception of “domestic abuse”) was not notable. Many residents had moved there from gated communities, and they fervently wanted to prove that their families would develop a healthier social attitude toward others in a pedestrian-friendly environment where folks looked out for each other. Their evangelical belief helped to make it so, perhaps more than did the physical design of the town.

Low is careful to note that when her informants talk about security, it often means different things: privacy, physical safety, community, emotional shelter. She devotes a good deal of attention to the latter, especially to the thesis, which she seems to favor above all, that residents are trying to recreate the protective havens of their childhoods. Yet this comes off as her least persuasive line of inquiry, in part because it is mixed up with a subnarrative, running through the book, about her relationship with her own sister, who is a resident in one of the Texas gated commun- ities. This narrative thread is driven by a fairly predictable question; how could the sisters have ended up wanting such different things from life? The tug of wills between the two runs throughout the book and ends on the very last page with exactly the confession that Low seems to want to hear from her sibling: “The irony is that we are trapped behind our own gates, unable to exit. Instead of keeping people out, we have shut ourselves in” (BG 232). Rhetorically cute as a last judgment, the comment does not, however, do justice to the rich psychology of the gate suggested at other points in the volume. 

More convincing are the book’s ruminations about the privatization of services that ensure the basic security of citizens. The recent escalation in the promotion of fear by the media and the government may bear little relation to reality, but it has helped neo-liberals shift the costs of securing services out of the purview of public provision and into the private sector. (The exceptions are those sectors of government activity subject to militarization, viz. the new empire of appropriations carved out for Homeland Security.) To hasten this transfer of responsibility, the state has needed to present itself as overburdened and inadequate in the face of spiraling obligations and expenses. Every step of the way toward the fully marketized Nirvana has been paved by warnings about an alleged surplus of demands made upon the state, and each reduction of services has been accompanied by homilies about the superior virtues of individual responsibility. The result has been rapid class polarization, and its geographical mark is enclosure. Historically speaking, the U.S. has not been a land of fences. Under the pressure of privatization, the walled    compounds once the sole preserve of the wealthy are now working their way into the lives of the middle classes. In each part of the country, the rationale for the enclosures has taken different forms, depending on the local political climate. Though Low does not develop this argument, the regional variation—from Mexico to New York— that she detects may turn out to be a rough geographical sketch of the uneven development of neo-liberal privatization, whose most dramatic penetration so far has been in Central and Latin America (see Teresa Caldeira’s revealing study of São Paolo in City of Walls).4

If that is the case, then perhaps we need to further modify our earlier parochial assumption about the presumed culpability of the American suburban home for the current state of global instability. Condemning U.S. consumers for their profligate lifestyle is a rather ancient sport, and a tolerably honorable one at that. But it is also a lazy game and, like some strains of anti-Americanism, a distraction from understanding the structural sources of the unsustainability of a market civilization. Just as the gated community has helped create insecurity in the minds of its residents, so too we need to see how the steady, if patchy, march of neo-liberal policies is creating insecurity throughout the world, by enclosing the commons, shifting public goods and resources into private treasuries, and sacralizing property value at the expense of all other citizen rights. These policies are no more a response to real threats than the gates are, but the manipulation of fear and instability has made them into brutally efficient vehicles for the redistribution of wealth. 

A less obvious way of exploring these conjectures about security would be to look at another mercurial growth pattern in U.S. exurban settlement—the rise of the mobile home. Despite the fact that, by 2000, mobile homes accounted for 30% of all new single-family houses sold nationwide, the trend has elicited hardly any serious study.5 On the face of it, the obverse of the gated community should be the trailer park, as it is still commonly known, despite strenuous efforts to change the nomenclature (manufactured housing is the preferred phrase of the mobile home industry). Stereotypes about mobile homes die hard: They are still widely regarded as wobbly boxes incapable of retaining property value, home to transient ne’er-do-wells (“trailer trash”) with their resident pathologies (“hotbeds of sex and violence”), and—as firetraps and tornado magnets—unsafe at any price. Built, sold, taxed, and financed like cars and parked on leased land, they have the status of personal (not real) property and so have neither the legal surety nor the solid manif- estation of security evinced by the more palatial residences in Low’s book. So what does the booming popularity of this housing stock have to say about the neo-liberal obsession with security? Does it undermine our assumptions about the reasons for the rise of gated communities, or is it just another story about the increasing unaffordability of the fully equipped American Dream? 

John Fraser Hart, Michelle Rhodes, and John Morgan, authors of a recent study, The Unknown World of the Mobile Home, are not particularly interested in questions like these. This is unfortunate, given the scarcity of literature on the mobile home phenomenon. Their workmanlike survey of its history and currency is primarily aimed at hosing away the barnacle-like stereotypes. The story they tell is of the mobile home’s rise to respectability: from its origins in the recreational trailer of the 1920s (“a wooden tent on wheels”) to its Depression status as a last resort for shelter, its wartime function as reliable source of semi-permanent residence, and its gradual postwar ascendancy from dependable, affordable housing to the upscale, fully customized mini-mansion. With a peculiar but unmistakable air of pride, Hart, Rhodes, and Morgan report that today’s mobile home category stretches to cover $300,000 multisectionals with indoor swimming pools and that some mobile parks are themselves gated communities with all of the luxury amenities enjoyed by high-end property owners. In this same boosterish vein, they allege, insistently, that pride of ownership runs high among many mobile dwellers, that mobility is a misnomer (since most homeowners never shift locations), and that the sense of community is often much stronger than in the more elite residential enclaves that the industry now seeks to emulate. When you put the case so cheerfully, who would plump for the high sticker price and the property taxes of a site-built home? Mobile home builders could hardly have hoped for better PR from a scholarly book.

As the industry tries to move up market, its hunger for larger profit margins is putting the squeeze on the already shrinking availability of affordable housing. Even so, the bulk of mobile stock still lies in the lower income range, and its popularity cannot be disconnected from decreasing financial fortune of the lower middle class over the last two decades. In many parts of the country (and again, the regional irregularity can be taken as a map of neo-liberalism’s irregular impact on the cost of property), middle-class dwellers can no longer hope for more than a mobile home. It is much easier to swallow this bitter pill if you can be assured (as Hart, Rhodes, and Morgan would like to do) that mobile home living is newly “respectable” and that its imitation of the physical and environmental characteristics of site-built houses raises its status to a level consonant with financial stability and social security. Having the patina of security helps to compensate for the lowering of expectations: It also masks the fact that this newfound respectability is actually a clear symptom of the deterioration of the average American’s quality of life. But how do mobile home residents reconcile themselves to this psychology? Is it adequate to their own assessment of the risks associated with their homes? 

Because they tend to avoid non-empirical issues, Hart, Rhodes, and Morgan have little to say about residents’ perceptions of risk. Halfway through their book, however, they mention a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which reported that a disproportionate percentage of police calls for domestic violence came from mobile home parks in the area. The story quoted a police supervisor in an uncommonly revealing way: “You’ve got a different income level here, and some of the mentality is different. People of moderate income are more likely to call the police, while people with money try to hush it up. And the police are more likely to intervene in the lives of poor people” (UW 85). While this comment tells us nothing conclusive about comparative levels of crime, it does give us a taste of the complexity of the circumstances under which such data are collected. The kind of throwaway detail provided by the police source is all the more resonant because it is so rare in The Unknown World of the Mobile Home. What still remains unknown after reading this volume are the varieties of residential psychology that only an ethnographer can expect to plumb. That is regrettable because our efforts to understand the mental and physical landscape of Beck’s “risk society” could benefit just as much from field study of denizens of the trailer park (at least one doctoral thesis beckons!) as from Low’s probing survey of the gated dweller. All the evidence suggests that we will need to know as much as we can about the habitus of insecurity as we enter yet another era of national political life governed by a state of full metal paranoia.

Even with Levitt’s aforementioned comment in hand, it took a while for historians of the Cold War to make some of the most telling links between mass suburbanization and the Truman Doctrine. Drawing on that lesson, we ought to be thinking right now about how the militant shaping of the new unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy connects with the psychogeography of the nation. How pervasive among the citizenry is the obsession with security, and what can the study of land use tell us about its social and emotional mentality? How best to start building a relevant archive? Is it worth focusing even more closely on the rise of the Hummer lifestyle (to give a name to security-conscious consumerism) and on new permutations of homeowner association rules, or should we be looking at less obvious phenomena (trends in furnishing and decor, recreational patterns, obesity statistics, Home Depot marketing)? When placed in a broader research context, details like the advice on duct tape given by the Department of Homeland Security may turn out to yield some enduring significance rather than just go down in popular memory as one of the more ludicrous ideas thrown out by a desperate administration. 

Whichever direction this research takes, residential ethnographies and landscape studies are two scholarly traditions that will prove to be particularly indispensable resources. The former needs to be revived and strengthened, especially in the area of suburbia, where it has fallen off in the last two decades; the agnostic legacy of the latter is all the more useful if we are to follow J.B. Jackson’s example of eschewing moralism. Their insights should be consolidated with those from other disciplinary fields. More hard-hitting analyses of land development à la Mike Davis are required to lay bare the pathways of profit, and regional geographers will have to catch up with urbanists who see cities in the context of a globalizing economy. Critiques of form in design, architecture, and planning need to be integrated with the analysis of daily use pioneered in cultural studies. Then, and only then, will we have a fuller picture of what Davis calls the “ecology of fear” in a country that most of the world’s population, when polled, appears to regard as the greatest threat to global stability. 

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1