The “Unimaginable” Has, in Fact, Often Been Imagined

“Unimaginable!” That is the word we have screamed, out loud and in our heads, since last Tuesday. It is the word we heard survivors and witnesses say over and over: It was simply unimaginable that the World Trade Center towers were attacked like this, and that they collapsed into oblivion. Not even the 1993 underground bombing of the World Trade Center prepared anyone for this air assault. Unimaginable.

But in fact we have been imagining this for years, even decades. This past summer, New York and its World Trade Center were repeatedly destroyed. The Japanese animation movie, “Final Fantasy,” portrayed a devastated lower Manhattan beneath a dome, to protect it from the assaults of virus-like aliens. In “A.I.”, the child robot finds himself drawn to a forbidden zone, called Man-Hattan, overflowing with water. He makes his way, a child searching for home, past the almost-submerged Statue of Liberty, back to the laboratory that created him. It is all that is now left of the World Trade Center. Not long ago, in the movie “Deep Impact,” massive waves rose over the World Trade Center, crushing all in their path.

Over the years, American culture has returned repeatedly to the theme of New York’s destruction, almost as a Freudian tic we can’t stop. In movies and literature, painting and photography, software and advertising, New York has, lietmotif-like, been destroyed — by fire, by bomb, by flood, by riot, by earthquake, by wrecking ball and by monsters.

In Joaquin Miller’s 1886 book, “The Destruction of Gotham,” a great fire engulfs the city as lower-class mobs violently attack the homes and stores of the wealthy. Only when Manhattan has burned and burned and burned to the very bedrock is Miller’s apocalypse complete. In the paintings of Chesley Bonestell from the 1950s, atom bombs repeatedly devastate the city, with smoke and fire enveloping all of lower Manhattan. The final image of a buried Statue of Liberty is what remember from the original “Planet of the Apes.” In “Godzilla,” the monster topples the Chrysler Building on its destructive march through the city. And in the SimCity software, users have been able to choose what disaster will strike New York or can just watch as past disasters play out before their eyes.

In “Here is New York” (1947), New York’s greatest celebrant, E.B. White, imagines in the fate of a single tree the nightmare of an atom bomb dropping on New York: “If it were to go, all would go — this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.”

In the millions, we have watched these movies and played these games, all to get a charge from watching the skyscrapers of Manhattan toppling. We 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 in our existence.

As E. B. White also wrote, “New York is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village — the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying the way is up!” The white plume we saw on Tuesday was the billowing debris of two massive towers, taking with them as they fell thousands of lives. This was shrewdly achieved by the terrorists to make our fantasies horribly real, to turn a gleaming symbol of the city into a burning sign of terror.

But, as usual, E.B. White was right: New York will remain the way up for us all, the home of our ideals, and the place to which the world looks, for money, for ideas, for art and for a new start.

Max Page is an Assistant Professor of Architecture and History at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, the author of "The Creative Destruction of Manhattan" (University of Chicago Press), a writer for the History News Service.

September, 2001