The Death of Gotham
Imagining a world without New York.

 

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THE CITY’S END: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction
By Max Page Gr’95
Yale University Press, 2008. $37.50.

By Nathaniel Popkin | Max Page is the scholarly observer of New York’s destruction, its gleeful and energetic documentarian. In his first book, Creative Destruction (1999), he set out to understand the process by which, in the words of author Jerome Charyn, New York “reproduces itself according to the ideals of each generation.” Now, in the wonderfully illustrated The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction, he examines the fictional destructions of New York, in art, film, and fiction.

This is a carefully researched, artful, and insightful book that belongs on the shelf with other contemporary projects of urban historical exploration, such as Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map (2006) and the novelist Orhan Pamuk’s 2003 memoir, Istanbul. Each book confronts a city’s experience with loss and uncertainty. As in Johnson’s narrative unraveling of London’s 1854 cholera epidemic, Page uses the specter of calamity as a way to appreciate why, in this suburban nation, cities are so important:

All this life explains why we continue to destroy New York in books, on canvas, on movie screens, and on computer monitors: because it is so unimaginable for us, in reality, not to have this city. We have played out our worst fears on the screen and in our pulp fiction because, as the city’s oracle, E.B. White, wrote in the shadow of the atomic bomb: “If it were to go, all would go—this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.”


An associate professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Page guides us through a century and a half of such imaginings. Here are icons of popular culture like King Kong and H.G. Wells’—and Orson Welles’—War of the Worlds and Superman, but also other fictions more remote, like Stephen Vincent Benét’s “Metropolitan Nightmare,” George Allan England’s Darkness and Dawn, Joaquin Miller’s Destruction of Gotham, and artist Louis Lozowick’s Storm Clouds Over Manhattan. Here, in text and film, are the likes of Invasion USA and more recent Hollywood fantasies like The Day After Tomorrow.

Page begins his exploration near the turn of the 20th century, when New York’s economic predominance is at last secure. A story called “Tilting Island” “played on the flip side of the city’s remarkable economic and physical boom in the second half of the nineteenth century. The invincibility of the city’s banks and manufacturing base, its enormous size, its magnificent stone and steel building—all of these only seemed to invite the question: when will it all collapse?”

But it didn’t, of course; New York kept growing, from the seed of its own insensate destruction. As Charyn, in Metropolis, notes, “New York was practical and insane … It decided to grow along a grid, ignoring bumps, ditches, and heights, and the particular bend of its rivers. It would be a phantom grid of 2028 blocks, where anything that was built upon them could be removed at will. So we have the Empire State Building dug into the old cradle of the Waldorf-Astoria. And the Waldorf is shoved into another grid. It reappears uptown, caters to circuses and rodeos, the Rangers and the Knicks, becomes a parking lot, and the Garden is born again over the new Penn Station. It’s an ugly glass tank, but who cares?”

Who cares, indeed. W.E. B. Du Bois, in a little known story from the early 1920s, “The Comet,” wiped out all but two New Yorkers, a black messenger named Jim and the white daughter of an insurance executive, Julia. Here, New York’s demise is used to test and expose intractable racism. Later it would be employed as nativist polemic against immigrants, as fodder for evangelicals fearful of the American Babylon, and by Cold Warriors who saw in America’s decentralized suburbs its salvation from Soviet missiles. (Page links the flight to the suburbs to the fear that big crowded cities like New York were easy targets for nuclear bombs, an assertion that has been underdeveloped in the literature on postwar cities.)

“And yet,” observes the author, “something else is going on here. Percolating through these endless and often aesthetically striking fantasies of New York’s end was something quite different from fear: a new appreciation of the city itself.” So Page turns his narrative homeward, tightens his prose, and confronts the disturbing visual and psychological impact of 9/11.

Here Page betrays a New York insecurity by spending too much time reminding the reader of the city’s dominance. He might have instead enriched the project with just a little global context, backward to gothic narratives like “Devil Bug’s Dream,” the Philadelphia writer George Lippard’s 1845 fantasy of that city’s destruction, and forward to contemporary and emerging targets like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Sao Paulo.

Instead, Page writes: “If New York is no longer the setting of our worst fears, then it may no longer be the home of our greatest hopes. And that would be the beginning of the city’s end.”

It’s a possibility that he quite understandably doesn’t want to believe. But in the midst of an epic Wall Street meltdown and coincident rise of other financial capitals and mega-cities, for this moment, at least, New York’s presence is waning. That alone may not be catastrophic, but rather a recalibration of what it means to be such a “mischievous and marvelous monument.”


Nathaniel Popkin C’91 GCP’95 is writer-in-residence at Philadelphia University and the author of, most recently, The Possible City: Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia [“Alumni Profiles,” Jan|Feb].
 


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