A recent revelation in the Baltimore suburbs is a common story across media platforms: idyllic suburban communities are shocked by hidden deviance and crime that is suddenly exposed.
The hills in Clarks Glen are gently rolling, the homes McMansions. And the lawns are mowed to the near-perfection a country club groundskeeper might envy.
It’s the very model of affluent suburbia, hardly a place where anyone thinks the man next door would be stopped by customs agents on his way to China with the makings of missile detectors in his bags.
But appearances can be deceiving.
Zhenchun “Ted” Huang, a longtime resident of the Clarksville subdivision in Howard County, pleaded guilty this month to federal charges that he tried tofraudulently obtain electronic devices that can be used in fabricating missile detectors and other high-grade military equipment…
In Clarks Glen, the development where he lived for at least eight years, former neighbors were astonished to hear the news. They saw Huang, an electrical engineer, as anything but the cloak-and-dagger type.
Instead, they said, he was a taciturn man who mowed his lawn once a week, whether it was needed or not, and rarely socialized.
On one hand, people in the suburbs are genuinely shocked by such stories. They often move to nice suburbs to escape such issues like crime and international espionage. Nobody wants to think that a sex offender is lurking down the street where they let their kids play. These sorts of things are problems more often associated with cities or less affluent locales.
On the other hand, reactions like this sound like a TV show. Oh wait, is this an episode of The Americans or a Hollywood movie or a John Keats novel about the hidden problems of suburbia? One shouldn’t be completely naive about what can be lurking in any community, let alone suburbs. I’m not advocating for paranoia or hypervigilance – this isn’t the best way to promote social ties or community life – but people everywhere are capable of dastardly deeds. The reactions of neighbors like those quoted above might say more about how well suburban neighbors know each other (often not very well) than the overall actions of suburbanites.
Perhaps the issue here is the overselling of suburban life over the decades. If suburbs were and are often marketed as escapes from social problems (there is a long history of suburban developers suggesting such things as well as suburban residents and leaders), places that are perfect for children and offer private space, the American Dream, then any actions in contrast to that are viewed quite negatively.