Young people are frustrated by the high cost of housing in places like San Franscico, and they are doing something about it. Victoria Fierce, for instance, moved to the Bay Area in 2015 from Akron, Ohio, in search of a job in tech. “I ended up sleeping on a friend’s couch until I could find my own place,” she told a Census Bureau reporter. It was a long wait. Chastened, she launched East Bay for Everyone in 2015, a citizens group that says “yes to more neighbors, more housing, more renter protections, better public transit, and better infrastructure in our backyards.”
Fierce is part of a self-identified group demanding more, denser, cheaper, accessible housing, and they have created a very intentional acronym to express their desires: YIMBY, or “Yes In My Backyard.”
A half century ago, activists in neighborhoods across the United States mobilized to protect what they considered to be their quality of life. The threats they battled ranged from traffic to resisting the denser housing that YIMBYs want more of today. The NIMBY ("Not In My Back Yard") politics of the past was often motivated by the desire to protect property values, which in America was frequently infused with racial concerns.
But the growth of NIMBY politics also was motivated by long-forgotten progressive agendas that sought to protect green space, preserve historic resources, and stop highways that threatened pollution and shattered communities.
In fact, it was concern about unchecked development that earned it the NIMBY label. By 1970, advocates for growth, from highway engineers to housing developers, homed in on a single factor in the complex mix of motivations that drove neighborhood activists—their self-interest—and branded those parochial interests with the label “backyard.” By the 1980s, the pejorative NIMBY routinely was hurled at those trying to constrain growth and development.
While YIMBYs see themselves as the opposite of NIMBYs, the similarities between the original NIMBYs and today’s YIMBYs are hard to miss. In both cases, people’s own self-interest has been a major catalyst for shaping their politics. And in most cases today, YIMBYs also pursue central themes of the progressive agenda—just like many of the NIMBYs from an earlier generation.
Of course, that progressive agenda has shifted. So too, its methods. Direct citizen participation was an approach to politics shared by virtually all NIMBYs a half a century ago. Tens of thousands of citizens who previously had not been directly engaged in politics adapted strategies from the civil rights, women’s, and anti-Vietnam War movements. They began showing up at city council meetings, protesting, boycotting, and demanding a say in policies that affected them directly, creating a virtual tidal wave of direct participation in public affairs.
When it came to issues, those policies that promised a better quality of life excited neighborhood activists. For example, when the General Electric Company announced in the early 1970s that it planned to build a new research and manufacturing facility in a predominantly white, well-heeled area of central Virginia—the “Ivy Valley”—a local newspaper asked, “GE Plant: Menace or Manna?” One opponent insisted, “For God’s sake, don’t start industry [in] that beautiful valley,” while an advocate countered: “All I see in that valley is . . . brush. . . . We need jobs. . . . This is dollars from heaven coming to us."
The shared concern for an improved quality of life was most obvious in the many local facets of the surging environmental movement. For example, activists sought to protect Green Springs, a rural historic district in a community near the “Ivy Valley," from a maximum security “diagnostic center” that would have crafted rehabilitation plans for every convicted felon in Virginia. “We only asked to farm our land, to rear our children, to live in peace with our many friends and neighbors, to enjoy the beauty of this God-given valley,” a farming couple wrote to the editor of the local paper. Instead, they warned, they might soon look out on “high steel fences” restraining convicts.
Did they worry about what a prison would do to their property values? You bet they did. Was that concern tinged with fears about the kind of people who might be incarcerated, and their families? Absolutely. But this couple had moved from the Norfolk area where the cost of farmland had become prohibitive due to uncontrolled suburban sprawl. Previously apolitical, the couple entered the political arena to preserve the peace, quiet, and the beauty they now enjoyed.
As it turned out, the prison was not imposed on any community. But in many other battles waged by NIMBYs in the last third of the 20th century, costs associated with large-scale projects often were. And there is no question that whether that cost was a massive highway that literally split neighborhoods in two, or toxic waste, these “negative externalities"—the sanitized term that economists use to refer to those costs—were disproportionately imposed on poor communities and communities that consisted of people of color.
The newly politically engaged neighborhood warriors ran head-on into enraged government officials and long-standing interest groups, that were used to building when and where they wanted to. In 1970, the New York Times quoted highway and public utility officials criticizing “backyard obstructionists.” Frustrated officials working for highway departments and utilities pointed to pressing regional needs that these “backyard activists” were gumming up. “You know what I’ve begun to realize?” the head of the East Hudson Parkway Authority told the Times. “If the [interstate] highway system were just starting now, it couldn’t be built.”
A variety of complex reasons for opposing a project were reduced to “not in my backyard.” An early use of that phrase appeared in the Newport News Daily Press in 1979. It was hurled by a retired Atomic Energy Commission official upset that the “NIMBY” syndrome might derail plans to dispose of nuclear waste. The acronym was soon weaponized—applied to virtually any group that challenged development.
Selfish NIMBYs were blamed for halting progress as the rapid pace of exurban sprawl leveled everything in its path. One rural Virginia resident who stood to profit personally if W.R. Grace & Co. strip-mined in the 1970s voiced a typical charge against NIMBYs. He called mining opponents “a bunch of retirees, living on pensions and watching the world go by.” As for their claims that mining would damage what later was designated a National Historic Landmark (the same vaunted status as the Alamo) the district’s county supervisor told TIME that “Virginia is full of houses like that.”
There are a variety of reasons for the spread of neighborhood activism, but the most basic one was success. Direct citizen participation in politics worked, especially in the wake of Watergate as the demand for transparency in government grew. This politics also was fueled by the recent mass movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, including the ideas of the New Left on college campuses who coined the phrase “participatory democracy.”
The environmental movement’s emphasis on quality of life—clean air, clean water, protecting nature while ensuring access to it—also made protection from toxic insults, or simply the construction of anything that threatened habitat, increasingly mainstream. A new passion for historic preservation embodied in the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 fueled the creation of historic districts that soon protected thousands of neighborhoods against change.
Now, it’s the non-home owners, especially in areas where the cost of housing is sky high, who are fighting back. Progressives, who a generation earlier would have questioned any development, today zero in on the dwindling supply of housing. They blame NIMBYs for that undersupply. Innovative conceptions of metropolitan life are gaining ground far beyond the Bay Area. As Bloomberg’s “City Lab” put it, “In 2023, zoning reform went national, thanks to advocacy by the pro-housing YIMBY…movement.” Back in California, Gov. Gavin Newsome signed 56 bills into law that addressed the housing crisis. After Virginia’s conservative governor promised to reduce regulations to stimulate housing production, the Virginia Mercury asked: Glenn Youngkin, YIMBY-in-chief?
Despite the mutual accusations of self-interest, recognizing their common histories would serve NIMBYs and YIMBYs well. YIMBY members who acknowledge what the landscape might look like had NIMBYS not slowed down America’s rapacious land grab, should throw a little love in their direction. Highway engineers listen to citizens (sometimes) these days; housing developers can no longer build first and ask questions later. NIMBY members must recognize that history is rarely about freezing the past, rather, it is about change. That includes tearing down some of the fences that currently divide too many backyards. For good reason, YIMBYs have sponsored seminars on how to talk to NIMBYs. It’s a matter of self-interest.
Brian Balogh is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Virginia, and author of the recently published Not in My Back Yard: How Citizen Activists Federalized Neighborhood Politics in the Struggle for Green Springs.
Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.
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