The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York's Destruction

Review of The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York's Destruction, by Max Page (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)

Whether by tidal wave, space men, mutated contagions, machinery of war, or giant baby, New York City has been destroyed or depopulated time and time again.  Max Page, in his book The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York's Destruction traces these destructions in this appealing book.

Cover of The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction by Max Page
Cover of The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction by Max Page.

Page explains he conceived the idea for this project in the days and weeks immediately following September 11, 2001.  He was struck by the Janissary nature of the reaction that the attacks were both unimaginable and just like a movie.  While Americans recoiled in horror at the sight of the World Trade Center collapsing, Page writes that many had already seen the destruction of New York City in campy movies, dramatic disaster flicks, and political propaganda.  Others have played games in which the player could personally participate in the destruction. Indeed, Page recounts an old flight simulation video game in which he himself flew a plane into those very towers when he was a kid. 

These cultural depictions of New York's demise form the core of the text.  In examining roughly two hundred years of comic, filmic, propagandic, and literary portrayals of the end of New York, Page has found remarkable similarities across time and genre.  Destruction by fire, water, foreigner, and plague have remarkable resiliency, as does the destruction trope itself.

Page places this resiliency within the human psyche.  Humans need vicarious disaster, he argues, because it gets our attention, provokes us to sort through the empire of images that forms our world, and to foster understanding of that world.  They help society work out fears of urban blight that hide in the splendor of urban delight. Page argues that the representations of New York's destruction are fraught with cultural and social concerns born of living in a major metropolis: 

Would foreigners overrun the city and sow the seeds of destruction? Absolutely, as the early, racially charged issues of Superman illustrate.

Would the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and man's inability to communicate result in the end of the city?  Invasion, U.S.A. is the campy tale of unprepared citizens and an atomic explosion.
Would nature triumph over humans and bring a watery, fiery, catastrophic demise?  Certainly, there are dozens of texts and films to examine, such as W.E.B. DuBois' short story "The Comet" in which a comet's gas kills all but two people in the city.

Or would man's technology run amok and eventually take over, destroying human society and its icons in the triumph of the machine? Of course! Watch A.I.

And what of otherworldly creatures- would they ultimately try to take down Gotham?  Yes! See Ghostbusters and its Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.  Page recounts these examples and many more throughout his text.

More than finding the continuity of socio-cultural concerns that underpinned the phantasms of New York's destruction, he also finds that those concerns shaped how survivors tried to move on and rebuild the city that never sleeps.  Just as anxieties formed the manner of devastation, they also dictated the lessons society needed to learn to recreate the city on the ruins of its predecessor. 

Poignant or piquant short stories, novels, and films all testify to the need for humans to learn from the past and their mistakes to recover from disaster, either natural or human-wrought.  For example, can the two survivors in "The Comet," a black man and a white woman, learn to move beyond racism to save themselves and humanity?  King Kong asks if humans can curb their greed and learn to co-exist with nature.  In the wake of the Second World War and in the midst of the Cold War, could Americans take a moment out of their post-War prosperity to focus on preparedness for a nuclear catastrophe, as Invasion, U.S.A. suggests was necessary? Page explores the anxieties and morals to be gleaned from films, short stories, novels, comics, essays, and paintings.

Page examines these artifacts with relish.  As he writes, he has long been obsessed with New York.  The interest in the city itself has carried over into a fascination in the ways people have imagined destroying it.  It is clear that he has a significant appreciation for the material and a knack for finding unusual (and often delightful) sources.  His examples are numerous and varied.  For every time-tested classic like King Kong or Superman, he has found a more obscure essay in Collier's, a campy cult novel or an hysterically bad film.  His prose is lively, and he has included a range of illustrations, ranging from film stills, promo posters, cover art, and museum paintings. 

He arranged his text chronologically, starting with the 1800s and continuing into the early 2000s.  This organization allows him to illustrate both the continuity and change in the destruction scenarios and the tensions that underlie them.  For example, demolition via flood and fire (with their Biblical overtones) are enduring modes, but they have some different concerns shaping their usage and different science that informs the disaster.  Today, the destruction by flood is influenced by scientific reports of global warning, and visual images often borrow from the real life flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Destruction by water in 1909 was motivated by concerns of urban land mismanagement, and influenced by new science that allowed geologists to uncover a fault line running through the city.  Both scenarios are also informed by human political manipulation that contributes to or causes the destruction.

My one desire in this book would have been to see Page contextualize his analysis of urban destruction beyond New York, perhaps an unfair criticism because he explains why he focuses on the Big Apple in clear terms; the uniqueness of this city, its early emergence as the preeminent American city, the 200 year history of artistic visions of its demise, and his own personal interest all contributed to his decision.  Recent decades have seen many treatments of destruction of cities across the US; Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Orleans, San Francisco have been ripped by earthquakes, buried under volcanic ash, flooded, besieged by vampires, or blown up by nuclear weapons.  What about international cities?  London, Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, Prague and others have been treated to annihilation culturally via disease, bombs, anarchists, and Golems.  Is there stability in international treatments of cities' ends?  Are the socio-cultural concerns at the heart of these destructions similar to those for New York?  And what lessons do the survivors need to learn?  What messages are we, the audience, meant to take away? 

While Page does delve into some comparison in the text, particularly in the conclusion, more throughout the book would have added another dimension to an excellent study.  When he does this comparison in the conclusion, in considering how the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina have played out in imaging New York's destruction, his observations and analysis are sharp and demonstrate the ebb and flow of the cultural trends and concerns that are the heart of his investigation.  Regardless, the book is an engrossing read, punctuated by illustrations that range from high culture artistry to pop culture kitsch. The book is a pleasure to read; the wealth of images is the Art Deco cherry on the Chrysler Building.