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Crack wars, inner-city violence, urban flight: The political debates and media of the 1980s and ’90s were saturated with images of urban chaos. As TV shows like NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street played in the background, Time magazine sounded the death knell for two of America’s largest cities with headlines such as “The Rotting of the Big Apple” and “Los Angeles: Is the City of Angels Going to Hell?” A Newsweek/NBC poll found that most respondents viewed cities in “negative terms.” Gated communities invited city-dwellers to abandon the grind of urban life for a more tranquil and safer environment, and President Clinton’s crime bill, calling for 100,000 more cops on the street, sailed through Congress.
All are symptoms, says Steve Macek, author of Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City, of a crazed national terror over the American city, one perpetuated by right-wing and neoconservative theorists that “became a defining feature of every level of American politics in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.” Cities across America have been depicted as immoral, crime- and drug-ridden places unfit for families, a perception that he blames for the middle-class exodus to the suburbs, home to safe schools, less crime, and low unemployment.
True as Macek’s observations may be about a heightened awareness of urban problems during this period, he never really addresses whether this “moral panic” was justified. The anti-urban hysteria of the times clearly coincided with a rise in urban crime rates, which gave credence to conservative theories that cities are plagued by violence and chaos. And the escalating crack epidemic during this period inevitably set off alarm bells. Can you blame city-dwellers for seeking a safer haven? One with better public schools and services? And never mind that since 9/11, it’s apparent that cities are also terrorist targets.
Though Macek concedes that suburbs are safer than cities (he refers to FBI statistics from 1999 that showed that a majority of cities suffered from higher murder rates and robberies than suburbs), he blames the root of the craze not on rising crime and crumbling infrastructures, but on right-leaning intellectuals and politicians such as Charles Murray, Dinesh D’Souza, William Bennett, and others who have blamed the decay of inner cities on the welfare system, called for more stringent law and order, and questioned the benefits of aid to the poor. And Macek links their explanation for the plight of the urban poor—single mothers and absentee fathers—to the Reagan–Bush legacy and, from there, to severe cuts in local-government aid and support for public housing, and, then, to the rise of relatively conservative, tough-on-crime mayors such as Rudolph Giuliani in New York and Richard Riordan in L.A. in the early ’90s.
The conservatives’ rhetoric trickled into the news media, where newscasts often reported on the squalor of the inner city. Despite the media’s long-standing reputation as a bastion of liberalism, Macek argues that in the past two decades, the mainstream press has intentionally focused on the “urban crisis” and neglected to shine a spotlight on more positive aspects of urban communities. He refers to studies conducted by now-Princeton professor Martin Gilens that found that stories about poverty on the three major TV networks “substantially exaggerate” the number of blacks among the poor. Another study Macek cites found that newscasts relied heavily on conservative (and, according to one study, white and male) talking heads, while ignoring the “voices of the urban poor and their advocates.”
And the press, apparently, isn’t the only culprit in the mediasphere. In following chapters of Urban Nightmares, the author also faults Hollywood and the advertising industry, claiming that both succumbed to the “alarmist” theories of the conservatives, basing many of their films and TV shows on the images depicted in television news reports: “Hollywood films have tended to define the ever-more socially heterogeneous American city as a police problem, an unruly place overrun by dangerous, amoral, usually minority undesirables from whom the rest of society must be vigilantly protected.” A flurry of advertisements for home-security systems were rampant during this time, and Macek also describes Hollywood’s penchant for violent, gritty films, which frequently depicted cities as abnormally dangerous, citing New Jack City, Batman, and Seven as examples of this genre.
But again, the author doesn’t consider that high crime rates might just have made home-security systems and car alarms worthwhile investments for many. And there is nothing new about Hollywood’s use of violence in films and television shows. As Macek himself acknowledges, urban areas have been portrayed as crime-ridden and unsafe in movies long before the “moral panic” developed. Oddly, the author also points a finger at African-African filmmakers—the likes of John Singleton and the Hughes brothers—for catering to typical conservative stereotypes of the inner city. He refers to a scholarly article that claims that films by Singleton and the Hughes brothers (specifically Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society) “echo the themes of television news and play to the prejudices of the suburban middle-class spectators by constructing the inner city as ‘a harbinger of violence, danger and chaos.’” Of course, the filmmakers would retort that they are simply portraying the reality of the inner city. Though Macek describes Boyz N the Hood as an “unapologetically oppositional, black-identified interpretation of the inner city,” does he still suggest that such African-American filmmakers tone down their films to conform to liberal notions of how inner cities really aren’t that bad?
Despite his book’s few faults, Macek, an assistant professor of speech communication at North Central College in Illinois, does succeed in highlighting how right-wing critics have waged war against the American city, as well as how the right’s insistence on blaming the underclass and its lack of “traditional values” for nationwide problems gained considerable attention in the press. He’s spot on in suggesting that this campaign has led to an ever-widening “socioeconomic gap between the country’s affluent (usually white) suburbs and increasingly isolated, ever more impoverished, black and Latino inner cities.” And Macek makes an impressive enough case for “those committed to fighting urban inequalities” to counter negative depictions of inner cities and the urban poor.
Yet he doesn’t dwell on the fact that, in recent years, many revitalized American cities have offered plenty of reasons to do just that. D.C., for instance, has reduced its crime rates to a fraction of its early ’90s crack-war peaks, refurbished several once-notorious neighborhoods, and staunched its population exodus with an influx of mostly white former suburbanites. And it’s not as though Hollywood or the media haven’t noticed. How else to interpret the success of shows like Friends and Sex and the City, which idealize city living, or the number of magazines that publish “Best Cities” lists every year? When even CNN declares, as it did this June, that “cities are hot again” and there’s a “reversal of the post-war urban flight to the suburbs,” you have to think that the urban nightmare might just be over.