The Design Observer Group


Posted 01.14.10


Beth Weinstein

The City's End


Atta Kim, Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, 2006. 
(O, New York) How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth (of thine bedrock) and height (of thine skyscrapers. 
I flatter you with poems, films, and I ♥ everything. I love you because you are the expression of my greatest hopes for mankind).                   
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning (sort of)

New York City's narcissism can be counted in its many depictions. We become its icons by sporting foam lady-liberty crowns. We reminisce about urban pasts we never knew, leafing through thousand-page documentary tomes that chronicle each building and street, every great figure and robber baron who ever trod there. Adoration of the great metropolis is found in every possible media. The city and its representations reflect our highest aspirations for our selves and our society. And as its achievements reflect our own, so too its fall is tantamount to the fall of civilization. Thus embedded within the imagination of the city's destruction, its causes and aftermath, is a registration of the anxiety of the generation that is imagining the city's end.

Representations of the demise of New York City, in literary works, graphic media and moving pictures, and what follows that demise, are the subject of Max Page’s most recent book, The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction [Yale University Press, 2008].

Page sets the stage by exploring "disaster porn" — that peculiarly American genre obsessed with destruction and rebirth. New York, he argues, is consistently the most popular locus of epic-scaled depictions of destruction, largely because the nation's cultural and economic capital is the most obvious focus of such American issues as " . . . ambivalence towards cities, the troubled reaction to immigrants and racial diversity, the fear of technology’s impact, and the apocalyptic strain in American religious life." [p. 4]



Louis Guglielmi, Mental Geography, 1938.

Each epoch or generation's rendition of New York's end is here presented as a social-psychological barometer, a measure of mass fears and fantasies. Anxiety about the city's readiness to cope with attack long predates the events of September 11, 2001. From the 18th century to the present, Page points out, preparedness, as concept and reality, has been an always ungraspable goal, given the city's escalating and diversifying population as well as the rise of increasingly unruly means of destruction, in the hands of real or imaginary enemies. These enemies — roughly categorized as foreign or domestic strangers, beasts, natural phenomena and mankind's own inventions — shape-shift across time, ranging from warships to airships and UFOs; from the Horrible Huns to diverse ethnic others to Martians and post-nuclear mutants; from earthquakes that topple buildings to global-warming-caused tsunamis that inundate them. Through portraying and narrating the city's destruction, and the life that emerges from the ruins, the diverse works referenced here give voice and image to contemporaneous fears; and by suggesting the degree of destruction required to begin anew, they also implicitly critique the ills of the society that was destroyed.

In the decades around the dawn of the last century, diverse fears were fueling the creative fires. These include the potential of foreign attack by the then-new technology of the airplane, as portrayed in H.G. Wells's War in the Air, of 1908; the eruption of race and draft riots at home, seen in works by such writers as W.E.B. DuBois and Arthur Vinton; the toppling of Tammany, portrayed in Thomas Nast’s 1871 cartoon Something That Did Blow Over, and the crashing stock market, symbolized in the teetering skyscrapers of Jose Clemente Orozco's 1931 Los Muertos. In fantasy, nature would also take its toll on the city. Great beasts (such as King Kong, in both the original 1933 movie and the '76 remake), meteor showers (in W.E.B. Du Bois's short story The Comet), and floods worthy of Noah's Ark (in Deluge, another '33 film) — all these would wipe out the evils of the great metropolis, permitting an elite few to survive and to found a new, inevitably purer, more ethical society upon the city's ashes or in the greener pastures beyond the Hudson River.
Thomas Nast, "Something That Did Blow Over," Harper's Weekly, 1871.

In the 1940s and '50s, both high and low forms of cultural production drew upon the fears of the atomic age. In the 1952 sci-fi movie Invasion USA, a hydrogen bomb is dropped on Midtown Manhattan, destroying Rockefeller Center, among other targets. An early episode of Rod Serling's TV series The Twilight Zone grappled with the more invisible enemy of nuclear radiation. And Ralph E. Lapp's somber 1949 book, Must We Hide?, tolled a death knell for American cities, with its proposal for a planned decentralization that might "reduce the attractiveness of our cities to a point that they are not worthy of an atomic bomb." [p. 125]. Page insightfully — and poignantly — links popular representations of a post-apocalyptic or declining New York, in movies like Planet of the Apes (1968), Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) and Escape from New York (1981), to the city’s economic collapse and racial tensions of the '60s and '70s, and the resulting white flight to suburbia. These depictions of New York as a dangerous, abandoned wasteland blurred reality and fiction. Yet even in recent years, despite the disappearance of visible threats and the resurgent population and prosperity, the drive to destroy the city persists, whether by the green slime of Ghost Busters or the malevolent aliens of Independence Day.

To track the abundance of cited poems, novels, newspaper illustrations, essays, paintings, films and both printed and animated comics, Page provides for the curious a thorough index and ample notes at the end of the book. The City’s End is also extremely well illustrated, with both black-and-white and color reproductions from diverse works. But its very wealth of material can be overwhelming, and in navigating Page's Rabelaisian thicket, one finds redundancies from chapter to chapter, as though each were developed in isolation and not reworked as a single, fluid text.

Throughout the book — threading together the discussion of fears and fantasies across the generations — Page references the time he spent airborne in the Microsoft flight simulator, and describes the allure of flying his virtual Cessna around and between the city’s skyscrapers, into the towers. This prepares the ground to address the always hovering topic of the real destruction that occurred on September 11, 2001, in the context of the irrepressible urge to destroy the city in film, comics, literature, painting, et al. Inevitably one asks: How have the production and nature of post–9/11 fantasies been transformed by those truly destructive events? Cease they did not; such fantasies were perhaps momentarily silenced, or diverted (as was Page’s own plan to curate an exhibit titled Destroying New York). Disaster-porn thrives, at once an expression of American optimism (and perhaps naïveté), of our can-do attitude and ultimate belief in fresh starts and the super-hero-style fulfillment of one's potential in Gotham City.
Ralph E. Lapp, "Before" and "after" illustrations from Must We Hide?, 1949.

An implicit question emerges as one reads: Why New York, and not Rome or Tokyo or Paris? Rome was famously sacked and re-emerged, so there’s no fantasy to be had there. Tokyo and Paris are both too flat; they've got no tall buildings, except the Eiffel Tower, for super-heroes to leap over or supporting characters to fall from (as is suggested in Laurie Anderson’s O Superman). New York — with its density, its heights and depths of ambition and achievement, its ego, wealth, and skyline — creates a dramatically varied setting for heroic action. More important, perhaps, through the experience of film, literature and diverse popular media, we are all New Yorkers. We walk its streets weekly on crime dramas and sit-coms, we ride its subway trains in music. Whether real or vicarious New Yorkers, we identify with the city's glory and with its downfall.

According to Max Page, anyone who has spent enough time in New York to see some once-familiar place torn down and replaced is, by definition, a New Yorker. Our love and attachment to the great city grows stronger with the loss of some neighborhood joint or iconic building and the creation there of something new. Our New York is always being ripped down and updated, offering up new sites upon which to construct memories and fantasies. New York is in a state of perpetual reconstruction. It's said that O Henry quipped, "This city will be a great place if they ever finish it." To keep it a work in progress, some part of New York is always being undone.