Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb is the product of Rachel Heiman’s fieldwork in a suburban town centre in New Jersey, United States, pseudonymously referred to as “Danboro.” Clearly written and argued, this ethnography explores what it was like to be a middle-class American in the 1990s. It is a time that, according to Heiman, is important to study to better understand how the post-war American dream came to an end as well as to “think deeply about how to create a new American dream that will be more sustainable and equitable than the last” (xii).
One of the contextualising arguments for Driving After Class is that neoliberal government policies in the United States created new opportunities for the expansion of middle-class and upper-middle-class wealth and, at the same time, undercut the institutional basis for a secure middle-class existence. More specifically, Heiman argues that neoliberal political and economic conditions created a dominant “common sense” or habitus in places like Danboro. It was this neoliberal habitus that drove the people Heiman worked and lived among to make decisions, investments, and consumer purchases that both asserted their class position within America and jeopardised their personal resources. As Heiman herself puts it, “the central argument of the book is that rugged entitlement – a product of neoliberalism and its limited commitment to the public good – participated in furthering conditions that intensified middle-class anxieties in the first place” (4). In other words, the ruggedly self-serving entitlement that residents of Danboro felt about their own luxuries and their own status privileges walked in lockstep with the degradation of the public sphere that made it harder for Danboro’s residents to hold on to their privileged way of life.
Driving After Class is broken into seven chapters: the introduction frames the arguments and historical context of the book; Chapter 2 explores the exodus from Brooklyn that many Danboro residents made along with the “post-Brooklyn” [End Page 303] sensibilities that help to explain the class anxieties many residents felt; Chapter 3 describes a debate Heiman witnessed at a local zoning commission about a new resident’s proposed six-foot-high fence; Chapter 4 examines the pervasive cult of the sports utility vehicle (SUV) in Danboro and places like it; Chapter 5 describes and analyses the conflict and debate surrounding the school redistricting that Danboro residents were involved in while Heiman did her fieldwork; and, finally, the conclusion provides thoughts and suggested directions for public anthropology and future research.
Heiman’s exploration of the urban (mainly Brooklynite) roots of Danboro’s residents allows her to describe what was gained and lost for these Americans in the transition from their working-class, or lower middle-class, backgrounds lives in the “big city” to their newly acquired middle-class to upper-middle-class existence in the suburbs. Many of the people Heiman spoke with missed the “spontaneous” community they lost by moving away from a denser urban centre (45). At the same time, Heiman uses historical context along with ethnographic vignettes to show how Danboro’s residents generally exalted in the greater space they found in the suburbs and, in particular, the racially and class ordered spaces of Danboro. As one of her informants puts it, “It’s [Danboro], it’s very pretty. It’s, it’s just like very, everything’s like taken care of and everything looks like so . . . nice. Like well cut” (68). Heiman’s chapter on post-Brooklyn life in Danboro also highlights how an appreciation for the ordered neatness of suburban spaces, together with a fear of the disorderly social proximity of urban spaces creates anxieties about the loss of spatial, class, and racial order. As Heiman puts it, “the same aesthetic of display that provides people in Danboro with an illusory sense of security and momentary relief from class anxieties and urban fears ended up creating a disciplinary community with unnerving surveillance and exposure” (68). Heiman argues this dynamic characterised the paradox of suburban American life in the 1990s...