Urban Paranoia

Located at the foothills of the New Mexican Rocky Mountains, Roswell belongs geologically more to the west Texan plains than to its native state. Consequently it shares the same flat, boring, sprawling characteristics of any ranch town on the Great Plains. Roswell could be OptimoCity, as described by J B Jackson in “The Almost Perfect Town.” [1]

Like Optimo City and the rest of the Plains, the plan of Roswell is a geometrically inflexible gridiron. From Thomas Jefferson through Frank Lloyd Wright, American tradition has endowed the open and non-hierarchical pattern of the grid with political significance. Occupying one block in downtown Roswell, the county courthouse charges the grid with additional civic accessibility and importance; as Jackson observes, the courthouse square symbolizes the local representative government, not the royalty or religion that centers and binds other nations. Both America’s political and urban structures, whose origins can be traced through white European colonists to the Greek agora of Athenian democracy, are thus summarized by the combination of Roswell’s grid and courthouse. With typical American pragmaticism, this combination provides Roswell its one gesture towards monumentality. An urban tradition unique to New Mexico, “H” shaped electrical utility poles bridging the alley visually frames the courthouse dome in a series of arches. But this moment of urban scenography aside, there is virtually no reason to visit Roswell.

Yet aliens allegedly visited Roswell. According to the now well-established mythology, a UFO crashed here during a 1947 thunderstorm. Or was it two? Or perhaps one that crashed twice, skipping across New Mexican ranches? The stories differ and like any good myth there is no evidence, only witnesses and faith. Roswell’s apostles claim the military (executed by proverbial men in black?) quickly recovered the UFO and its alien bodies, an action concealed by an equally efficient program of disinformation and secrecy. The Air Force, meanwhile, claims this was nothing more than the retrieval of surveillance balloons and wooden dummies dropped to test parachutes. One of these dummies is at the International UFO Museum and Research Center. [2] The clearinghouse for Roswell’s different stories, the IUFOMRC displays artifacts, newspaper articles, sworn affidavits, videotaped interviews and local artwork: a collection of material that fails to add up to a coherent narrative but is saturated with suspicion. The truth of Roswell, if it is out there, exists somewhere in these fragmented accounts and the government’s various “official” explanations.

Roswell New Mexico

I also went to Roswell, crossing the mountains from the Tularosa Basin to the west, following a two-day visit of White Sands National Park and Alamogordo. The National Park, however, is located within the boundaries of “Trinity Site,” the White Sands Missile Range: famous as ground zero of the first atomic explosion, famous for secret rocket tests conducted by ex-patriated Nazi scientists, famous for Star Wars testing. The floor of the Tularosa Basin is littered with the white radar domes and mysterious laboratories of secret research. Overhead, the distinctive black triangle profile of F-117 fighters can occasionally be seen; Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo is home to Stealth fighters. The Basin is home to secret weapons, secret planes. Roswell was once also home to both secret weapons and secret planes. At the time of the mythical UFO crash, the large airfield south of the city, today the terminal location for obsolete jumbo jets, was the origin point for the only Army Air Force unit with the Bomb. In 1947, this corner of New Mexico was the epicenter of America’s atomic power, a convergence of energy that attracted aliens in their UFOs, if one believes the Roswell mythology. Thus the arrival, crash, and secret recovery of UFOs is implicated in the secrecy of other military black projects. (Perhaps the stealth fighters flying overhead are back-engineered flying saucers?)

Paradoxically, this secrecy has made Roswell famous and now supports a healthy tourist industry. Two doors from the UFO Museum, the “Alien Zone” sells T-Shirts, stuffed little green men, toy flying saucers, books and videos. For an extra two dollars one can purchase access to “Area 51,” a collection of dioramas depicting aliens drinking at the bar, skiing in Tahoe and other middle class activities. Another tourist shop advertises “Indian Jewelry, Mexican Imports, Alien Gifts,” commodifying and identifying indigenous and immigrant populations with extraterrestrials. The 1997 movie Men In Black also makes this correlation, confusing illegal immigrants and the INS with extraterrestrials and the MIB’s. As the advertisement and movie obviously suggest, paranoia and suspicion about the secret infiltration of aliens into American culture veils anxieties about illegal immigration from the south and other rapidly changing demographic patterns. [3] Like other cities, Roswell’s political and urban form is inhabited by a diversity of people and ethnicities, whose ideals of community, democracy and justice may differ from America’s Founding Fathers and their Anglo-Saxon children. For some, the government’s alleged concealment of the Roswell UFO crash represents its failure to contain this cultural heterogeneity, and, for others, its failure to embrace it. Roswell suggests that the government might in other ways be undermining the social and political basis of democracy. Might we be living in an alien-nation?

Roswell is therefore the unlikely focus for a culture of paranoia. It is the subject of a new television series on the Warner Brothers network, the hidden pre-history of Independence Day, and a continuing metaphor for the dark conspiracies of The X-Files. As portrayed by pop culture, Roswell is symbolic of a deep mistrust in the government’s honesty and ability to foster citizenship. The dissolution of a common society necessary for democracy begins in this small, unassuming New Mexican town.


So alternative and sometimes extreme societies emerge, adopting their own social codes and insulating themselves from the external world. Believing that they were already aliens in this nation, the 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate group committed suicide to join a spacecraft trailing a passing comet. Not surprisingly, the cult was located in Southern California, the usual representative apotheosis of American society and government’s balkanization and fracturing. Here is the largest concentration of homeowner’s and neighborhood associations, many of them located in the “master planned communities” on the fringes and edges of greater Los Angeles. These associations are an alternative and subtle, but not participatory or optional, form of government. Property deeds in planned communities contain the association’s right to levee taxes and penalize violators of its “codes, covenants, and restrictions.” These regulations maintain an external homogeneity of architectural style and, through new forms of exclusionary zoning, an internal homogeneity of class. [4] The urban form of these neighborhoods reinforces this exclusion; cul-de-sacs with feeder roads and gated entries are the norm. Unlike the grid of Roswell, the hierarchical structure of master planned communities’ roadway system eliminates choice of movement. This closed urbanism facilitates policed borders whose limited access points are under constant surveillance. [5]

To enter the neighborhood “Arcadia Falls,” your resident code is required by the front gate computer, which greets you by name and presumably keeps a database of your movements. Not surprisingly, during The X-Files first season of filming in Los Angeles it located the episode “Arcadia” (aired on 03/07/99) in this fictional planned community, which could be anywhere in the LA – San Diego metroplex. [6] To investigate the mysterious disappearances of various community residents, FBI special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully pose as a married couple and purchase a home in Arcadia Falls. As their new neighbors frantically help them unload the delivery truck by the 5pm deadline, Mulder and Scully realize that the residents are overly preoccupied with the community’s regulations. Much to his neighbors’ consternation, Mulder tests the consequences of violating the rules, first by installing a basketball hoop, then by clubbing his mailbox. He also installs a tacky pink lawn flamingo in the front yard, a moment brilliantly photographed in lighting reminiscent of heroic posters of the socialist movement, conjuring up and satirizing images of the American man heroically presiding over his well-tended and chemically controlled lawn. But just as the previous violations are mysteriously rectified, the flamingo disappears. For while in open neighborhoods tending the front lawn is a civic act of participation in the national landscape of suburbia and therefore open to personal expression, in a planned community it is a legal responsibility subject to homogenizing aesthetic regulations. [7] Thus when Mulder begins excavating the front yard his neighbors are quick to state that swimming pools are strictly forbidden, objections Mulder only partially dissuades by stating that reflecting pools are not mentioned in the six-inch binder of regulations. But he is not digging for water, but for bodies; as they have continued their investigation, Mulder and Scully discovered that Arcadia Falls is built upon a garbage dump. The insular and gated community of The X-Files is constructed on society’s trash and detritus, metaphorically illustrating that rejecting the social disorder garbage represents produces the self-righteous perfection of planned communities. Appropriately continuing this metaphor, in The X-Files the garbage also enforces the community’s restrictions, willed to life by the neighborhood association president. But like the previous residents of Mulder and Scully’s house, he becomes a victim of his own creation. He meets his end when handcuffed to a mailbox, clearly violating the aesthetic restrictions of lawn ornamentation.

Arcadia Falls indeed. The paranoia that produces “master planned communities” turns inward. Despite retreating and literally closing themselves from public life, even restricted neighborhoods are contaminated by mistrust and suspicion. The rural simplicity and contentment promised by Arcadia is not possible.  Community can not be master planned and regulated; it is the product of political consensus and participation. If America’s democratic project is to avoid the meritocracy of competing interest groups, we must instead face outward and expand our political and urban boundaries to include those we have neglectfully and willfully excluded.

[1] J. B. Jackson, “The Almost Perfect Town,” in Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, editor, Landscape in Sight: Looking at America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997)

[2] www.iufomrc.com

[3] For a general analysis of the alien-alien relationship see Jodi Dean, Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998). Unfortunately, Aliens in Americais poorly researched and fails to live up to its own promising and compelling thesis. The literary perception of the alien in Southern California is analyzed by Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt and Company, 1998) pp 339-344. A broader analysis of the Roswell / Area 51 culture is Phil Patton, Dreamland (Villard Books / Randon House Inc, 1998).

[4] See Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1991) pp 179-208, for a broad discussion of neighborhood associations; their role in Southern California is described by Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (New York: Verso, 1990) pp 153-219.

[5] A detailed comparison between grid and hierarchical urban structures can be found in Albert Pope, Ladders (New York: Princeton Architectural Press / Architecture at Rice 34, 1996). A significantly abridged version of the book is online via Rice University School of Architecture.

[6] See The X-Files website for a summary of this episode; the screenplay is also online. Other reviews of “Arcadia” have been written by Sarah StegallDan Sobczak, Daniel Wood, and Maggie Helwig. [Most of these sites are inactive as of 10.2002]

[7] This point is specifically raised by Michael Pollan, “Beyond Wilderness and Lawn,” in Harvard Design Magazine, Winter/Spring 1998, pp 70-75. Also see George Teyssot, editor, The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), published in conjunction with an exhibit at the Canadian Center for Architecture.

My thanks to Mimi Zeiger for her editorial advice. Footnotes and hyperlinks are not original to the published version.

Published in loud paper, vol 3, issue 3, 2000 | © 2000 loud paper (reproduced by permission)

[Footnote links updated 10.2003]

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