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Developers v. NIMBYs: Lessons from “Johnny Guitar”

Watching Nicholas Ray‘s 1954 classic Western Johnny Guitar, I kept focusing on the antagonisms between Joan Crawford’s character Vienna and Mercedes McCambridge’s Emma Small as ones between developers and NIMBYs. The story is psychologically complex, conjuring objectively social and personally individual reasons for both the desire to maintain the status quo and the will to change it.

On the one hand, Emma Small’s security is threatened by change. She’s a big fish in a small pond, comfortably established as a landowner and cattle baron(ess). She has enough social status and power to boss the community’s menfolk around, too. No wonder she resists the changes that development would bring – and development is literally embodied in Joan Crawford’s Vienna.  Vienna runs a saloon where social control lapses and norms break down through risk when patrons enjoy enough alcohol, entertainment, and gambling. Vienna is a risk-taker herself, and she’s not afraid to peddle risk. Like any developer worth his or her salt, she’s taking a huge risk when she stakes everything (including social goodwill) on her main gamble: that the railroad will come to the area. Should she win, she’ll develop the depot and upzone her lowly saloon into a key mercantile hub and infrastructure powerhouse.

Intertwined in that objective description, however, are forces fueled by desire. For example, Vienna has also successfully sold herself as a purveyor of glamour. In one scene, Emma verbally pistol-whips the all-male posse to stop playing with themselves and to hunt Vienna instead. She taunts them for believing that Vienna is somehow better quality, or that they, by associating with her, are improved. In not so many words, Emma reminds the men that Vienna is cheap and that they’re still just cowpokes – in other words, that change (for the men) is an illusion. They’re essentially still swine (reversing Circe’s trick) and should remember their place. Change is for tricksters; real people should be content with their lot, especially if it’s a relatively cozy and secure one. Real people don’t take risks, it seems. If you can avoid risk, you can avoid change.

And here’s where additional psychological complexity comes into play: the change that’s very close to home for Emma Small is a sexual one. Emma has convinced herself that an outlaw named The Dancin’ Kid is behind a stage coach robbery that killed her brother. A not-so-minor detail is that The Dancin’ Kid frequents Vienna’s saloon and occasionally shares Vienna’s bed. It’s through the body of The Dancin’ Kid that Emma’s fear of change multiplies in her own mind, eventually encompassing all change, whether social or personal. As Vienna puts it in answering Johnny Guitar’s question why Emma has it in for The Dancin’ Kid, “he makes her feel like a woman, and that scares her.” In fact, toward the end of the film, Emma puts a bullet through The Dancin’ Kid’s head, literally stopping change in its tracks …temporarily, at any rate.

At its core, the story suggests that change has social and personal drivers – and in every case where we think we’ve identified the “objective” social reasons, there are underlying psychological reasons that drive the actors in individual ways both difficult to identify and to reason with.

Poster for Johnny Guitar
I’ve seen Johnny Guitar a couple of times now, but this is the first time I watched it through the lens of urban development and community consultation.

Bonus: Image of Circe (via Flickr here)
Circe, with Odysseus's sailors turned to swine

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