Sam Feldman

The Great Fear, or, The Green Zone


ISSUE 12 | HOME AND PAIN | JAN 2012

There’s a certain set of formative experiences that children of the upper strata of modern America tend to have for the first time when they visit Europe. They’re mostly not experiences that are unavailable in America; in general they're experiences that the bottom 90% of American youth have, sooner or later, in their own country. But if you’re a child of the top 10%, you might have learned how to go to bars in Europe. You probably learned how to take the bus there, and got used to relying on public transportation and walking to get around. You may have met people from other socioeconomic classes there before you ever met a poor American. You stayed in cheap hostels there when in America you’d only slept in hotels and non-fleabag motels while traveling. In your hostel, or out on the streets, or anywhere, you met strangers with whom you had little in common and had conversations with them, and maybe even met up with them later for drinks. You bought fresh bread from bakers and ate street food. You may have hitchhiked or been pickpocketed.

If you’re a child of the top 10% who didn’t have these experiences in Europe between 9th grade and college graduation, you may have had them in Mexico, or Japan, or China, or India. If you were the child of wealthy immigrants, you may have had them on visits to your parents’ homeland.

It wasn’t always like this. If you’d grown up well-off in America before the ’70s, and especially before World War II, as your parents or grandparents may have, you probably would have had these experiences in America before you had them elsewhere, for several reasons. For one thing, overseas travel was much harder and more expensive, and study abroad programs much rarer. But America looked different in those days too; it was much more a land of buses and bakers, where people lived in public and mingled willy-nilly—at least more so than today.

What changed, between then and today, was the advent of the Great Fear. It arrived not long after the war, in the era when America’s economy was booming as never before, the federal government’s power and responsibility were expanding, and we found ourselves unprecedentedly able to reshape our world and its workings. Our cities appeared to us overcrowded, filthy, and poverty-ridden, so we declared them blighted and destroyed them. We built mile after mile of suburban sprawl so some of us could be safe from the crime, the noise, the crowding, and the differences of the others. In 1950, 23% of Americans lived in suburbs; in 2000, 50% did [PDF]. For those who could afford them, private vehicles became the dominant mode of transportation; in 1960, 64% of Americans commuted by car, but by 2000 88% did. In place of riding the bus or train, or walking, we drove alone. As a culture we edged toward agoraphobia.

But most of all, we became afraid of strangers in America. As a child in 1950s America, you’d spend many of your afternoons playing with your friends in the neighborhood without adult supervision, returning home in time for dinner. The suburban form doesn’t make this easy, since even short trips tend to require a driver’s license, but parental fear of the unknown is an even larger impediment. The child abductor, the back-alley rapist, and the transient pervert, already fearsome figures in the prewar phantasmagoria, became increasingly enemies that could be defeated, or at least driven out of a protected space. Children spent more and more hours of the day under adult supervision. In 1969, 48% of children aged 5 to 14 still walked or biked to school; in 2009, the figure [PDF] was 13%. Postwar developments largely eliminated alleys, and often sidewalks as well. In their place we created what Jane Jacobs called Turf, space that welcomed only those who could prove they had a right to be there. Triggered by periodic moral panics, sex-offender laws became stricter and stricter, until in one well-publicized case sex offenders who’d served their time in jail were actually required by law to live under a bridge, like the Old World trolls that terrorized the imaginations of our ancestors.

More than ever before, luxury became equated with physical isolation. We used our money—both our personal wealth and our collective resources—to draw and police the borders between private and public. Like the Berlin Wall, these borders faced primarily in one direction. Anything open to everyone, from public schools to public pools, became second-class, low-quality, suspect. America’s extended sojourn in Baghdad popularized the term “Green Zone,” for the fortified section of the city relatively safe from the surrounding “Red Zone,” but to many of us it must have seemed like a familiar setup. Americans of means have spent the past half-century making themselves at home in the domestic Green Zone.

What didn’t change in America—what hasn’t changed in Western culture in a long, long time—is the value placed on spending time on the Continent. So our wealthy and well-off send their kids off to Europe (or substitute Europes) for summer trips, language programs, homestays, community service trips, study abroad, gap years, and so on. Europe’s changes have been its own, not ours, so the life these kids taste is much closer to their grandparents’ childhood than the protected sphere of their own experience. In the eyes of their parents, that’s just the European way; it’s not ours, but it’s nice to visit.

Let me be clear: the Great Fear isn’t entirely unfounded. The world is in fact a dangerous place, as we’ve always known. Prewar parents feared for their children, their homes, and themselves, too. What changed was our ability to do something about it. As a Space Age economic superpower, we found we (or at least some of us) could choose other ways to be and live. And we did choose, and our world changed. But it’s a new century now, and we’re not the same Americans we used to be. Increasingly, there are signs that even those on the right side of the walls we erected—even those in the American Green Zone—prefer a different way of living. Especially after a trip outside the walls, they may be coming to realize: you’re never rich enough to buy security without a price.