How a woman-led citizens’ group beat a Southern political machine by enlisting federal bureaucrats and judges to protect their neighborhood from unchecked economic development
This social history of local political activism tells the story of the decades-long fight to save Green Springs, Virginia, illuminating the economic tradeoffs of protecting the environment, the origins of NIMBYism, the changing nature of local control, and the surprising power of history to advance public policy.
Rae Ely faced long odds when she launched a campaign in 1970 to stop a prison, then a strip mine, in Green Springs. The local political machine supported both projects, promising jobs for impoverished Louisa County, Virginia. But Ely and her allies prevailed by repurposing the same tactics used by the Civil Rights movement—the appeal to federal agencies and courts to circumvent local control—and by using new historical interpretations to create the first rural National Historic Landmark District.
The Green Springs protesters fought to preserve the historic character of their neighborhood and the surrounding environment in a quest that epitomized the conflict in late twentieth-century America between unbridled economic development for all and protecting the quality of life for an economically privileged few. Ely’s tactics are now used by neighborhood groups across the nation, even if they have been applied in ways she never intended: to resist any form of development.
Brian Balogh is professor of history emeritus at the University of Virginia. He was cohost of the popular public radio show, then podcast, Backstory with the American History Guys. He lives in Cleveland Heights, OH.
“Balogh’s gripping tale of one woman’s fight against the odds to preserve her historic community isn’t just an invaluable contribution to the history of land use—it’s also a terrific read.”—Yoni Appelbaum, deputy editor, The Atlantic
“This close and engaging look at a group of citizen activists reveals how NIMBYism has the potential to serve the public good and force federal action on the environment and offers powerful lessons for scholars and grassroots activists alike.”—Lily Geismer, author of Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality
“A masterpiece of historical storytelling written in the rich vein of Faulkner. Balogh shows that everything we need to know about postwar United States history can be observed in one place (Louisa County, VA), and in the fantastic life and relentless organizing of the irreplaceable and magnetic Rae Ely. A must read for anyone who wants to know more about feminism, environmentalism, the tensions between local and federal power, carceral policies, and the nitty-gritty of getting things done.”—Bryant Simon, author of The Hamlet Fire
“Political history as page turner! Follow a feisty heroine as she battles to save her neighborhood, and learn how the legal tools of the civil rights and environmental movements allowed local citizens to forge controversial new relationships with the federal government.”—Sarah T. Phillips, Boston University
“Not in My Backyard is that rare portrait of citizen activism in all of its virtues and complexities. There are villains and heroes here, but they are not always the usual suspects. This is a fascinating work of local history, but one that links up effectively—and sometimes counterintuitively—with a national story. As Balogh demonstrates, politics looks different from the ground up.”—Beverly Gage, Yale University
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