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Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic over the City

Steve Macek
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Urban Nightmares
    Book Description:

    In Urban Nightmares, Steve Macek documents the scope of alarmist representations of the city, examines the ideologies that informed them, and exposes the interests they ultimately served. Macek explains how Hollywood filmmakers, advertisers, and journalists validated the right-wing discourse on the urban crisis, popularizing its vocabulary and mobilizing fears of a perilous urban realm.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9600-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. INTRODUCTION: A Landscape of Fear
    (pp. VII-XX)

    TwoTimemagazine covers from the early 1990s reflect what many contemporary observers agreed was a growing climate of apprehension surrounding the American city. The first, for the September 17, 1990, issue, features a painting of a dark New York City composed entirely of hive-like apartment buildings, adult bookstores, X-rated film theaters, and looming skyscrapers (see Figure 1). In the windows of these buildings can be seen silhouettes of people fighting, crying, brandishing knives, shooting up drugs, and holding pistols to their heads; on the streets, the illustration shows someone being mugged, a bum drinking while sprawled out on the...

  4. CHAPTER 1 The Origins of the Crisis: Race, Class, and the Inner City
    (pp. 1-36)

    The anxiety over deteriorating social and moral conditions in America’s cities that seized the public imagination in the late 1980s and ’90s did not materializeex nihilo. Rather, the escalating urban paranoia of this period was a confused response to a set of interlocking demographic, economic, and social changes that polarized our metropolitan regions along lines of race and class. In the postwar era, the mostly white upper and middle class largely abandoned the central cities for the suburban fringe and with them went many of the businesses that were once the foundation of vibrant downtown economies. At the same...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Inventing the Savage Urban Other
    (pp. 37-70)

    In the 1980s and ’90s, as central-city deindustrialization and growing racial and class segregation thrust the urban poor deeper and deeper into crisis, William Ryan’s “art of Savage Discovery” flourished as never before. It became, in fact, the defining feature of mainstream political and intellectual commentary on the plight of the nation’s metropolitan centers. In articles, speeches, policy papers, and best-selling books, critics, social scientists, politicians, and policy analysts repeatedly traced the troubles of America’s cities to the growth of an “alien, dysfunctional” inner-city minority population marked by—on neoconservative economist Isabel Sawhill’s definition—“violent crime, drug abuse, teen pregnancy,...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Catastrophe Is Now: The Discourse on the Underclass
    (pp. 71-138)

    As the conservative counterattack on the gains made by the civil rights movement and other democratic mobilizations of the ’60s and ’70s (the women’s movement, the welfare rights struggle, and so on) gained momentum, the demonization of the inner city became increasingly central to right-wing thought and political strategy. Building on Banfield’s theory of the “lower class,” conservative intellectuals during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years posited a violence-prone, amoral, self-destructive “urban underclass” as the wellspring of all the city’s problems and attacked liberal social programs, from homeless relief to food stamps, for normalizing their deviance and “bad behavior” (MacDonald...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Crack Alleys and Killing Zones: News Coverage of the Postindustrial City
    (pp. 139-198)

    The alarmist, pathologizing discourse on contemporary urban reality promoted by conservative politicians, pundits, and intellectuals—and endorsed by their “centrist” imitators—has not been confined merely to the sort of policy debates that unfold in magazines of opinion, academic journals, and the op-ed pages of theNew York Times. On the contrary, it has been embraced wholesale by the entire spectrum of the mainstream news media and informs their coverage of issues from street crime to homelessness to “welfare dependency.” It would be shocking were this not the case.

    Media critics and scholars have long recognized that most journalism relays...

  8. (pp. 199-256)

    Consider the following scene from director David Fincher’s hugely successful and critically acclaimed 1995 thrillerSeven.¹ It is nighttime and it’s pouring rain. It is almost impenetrably dark. We see a seedy boulevard that looks vaguely like it belongs on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (see Figure 14). Detective William Sommerset (played by Morgan Freeman)—a dour, weary-looking old man wearing a trench coat and fedora—is shown dashing from the door of his apartment building, past a couple of grubby homeless men sharing a bottle, to hail a cab. He sighs upon entering the vehicle and gazes out...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Wouldnʹt You Rather Be at Home? Marketing Middle-Class Agoraphobia
    (pp. 257-290)

    Home computer giant Packard Bell’s breakthrough 1996 national advertising campaign spoke volumes about the cultural pervasiveness of the moral panic over the city in late twentieth-century America. Handled by M&C Saatchi at an estimated cost of $20 million, this was Packard Bell’s first concerted effort to “build its brand” and establish an identity in the minds of consumers around the country—and it certainly did. The ensuing campaign produced one of the most memorable and visually striking TV spots of the 1990s. The ad, “Home,” opens with images of a postindustrial rabble, most dressed in rags, some clutching torches, all...

  10. CONCLUSION: Awakening from Urban Nightmares
    (pp. 291-306)

    If the argument in this book has done nothing else, it has demonstrated that the dominant representations of the American city circulating through media and public discourse in the 1980s and 1990s framed the poverty-stricken centers of our urban areas in ways that obscured “the actual causes of our discontent” (Beauregard 1993, 324), and in the process shifted blame for the deplorable conditions in our metropolitan centers onto those suffering under them. It has critiqued the conservative ideological premises and flawed theoretical concepts on which those representations rested. It has drawn attention to the way such representations pandered to and...

  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 307-310)
  12. APPENDIX: Selected National Television News Stories about the Urban Crisis, 1989–97
    (pp. 311-316)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 317-324)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 325-350)
  15. Filmography
    (pp. 351-354)
  16. Index
    (pp. 355-372)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 373-373)