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How Fear Took Over the American Suburbs

The new book “Neighborhood of Fear” shows the rise of suburban vigilantes and NIMBYs in the late part of the 20th century. Author Kyle Riismandel explains how those groups still wield power today.

“Neighborhood of Fear” argues that a new era for the suburbs began in the mid-1970s, where “new local threats undermined the expectations and understandings of suburban life as tranquil, safe, and family friendly.”

“Neighborhood of Fear” argues that a new era for the suburbs began in the mid-1970s, where “new local threats undermined the expectations and understandings of suburban life as tranquil, safe, and family friendly.”

Photographer: Paul Taylor/Stone via Getty Images

Something goes terribly wrong at a nuclear power plant. The response is muddled by corporate greed, and the public is threatened by (but ultimately spared from) massive environmental catastrophe.

That’s the basic plot of The China Syndrome, a movie starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon released on March 16, 1979. It also happens to have strong parallels to the real-life accident at Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that partially melted down only 12 days after the film was released. The fake nuclear disaster plot primed the public to be fearful of — and outraged by — the real thing. Not only did these coincidentally timed events trigger a backlash to the nuclear industry, they helped create an atmosphere of suburban anxiety that continues to have political consequences today.