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the city's end
8 february 2019
Max Page's City's End, a chronological tour of all the ways in which creative artists have imagined the destruction of New York City, came out in 2008, but I missed it then and had to wait till I ran across it by chance in a thrift store last year to review it here. It was a lucky break, though, because The City's End is exactly the kind of book I designed lection for, a wonderful discussion of an offbeat but weirdly compelling motif in popular culture.
Of course, by the time Page wrote The City's End, nobody had to imagine the destruction of New York anymore. A vital part of it had been physically destroyed on September 11th, 2001; but even before that, the apocalyptic 1970s had brought the city to the point of imitating art. The city of the '70s, the New York I first knew, was a sinister place out of Charlton Heston's œuvre, channeling Soylent Green on its way to going full Planet of the Apes.
Imagining the end of the metropolis, Page demonstrates, has a history that stretches out long before the 1970s. A character with the apocalyptic name of Nicodemus Havens published, in 1812, a sort of jeremiad in which he envisioned, quite graphically, the demise of the city at the hands of a storm and an earthquake. In 1824, a famous urban legend arose in which Manhattan Island, weighed down by all the development at its southern tip, could be righted by sawing it in half and reassembling the lower bit back to front. A writing duo named Vivian and Bennett picked up the too-heavy motif in 1909 for a story called "The Tilting Island," in which Manhattan splits along fault lines from the strain of so much downtown development. (And you know, watching various tippy-top towers continue to rise south of Central Park even today makes one wonder just how much weight the old island can support.)
But it needed the mid-20th century for the fictional devastation of NYC to really mature. The city was assailed, in fiction, film, and comics, by everything from comets to termites. It fell to invaders, it fell to corruption, it fell to aliens or objects from space. King Kong tried to tear it down before beauty killed the beast. In several different fictions, the social order collapses and a couple or small group, often located with weird specificity in the Metropolitan Life Tower over Madison Square Park, has to recreate society from scratch.
Superman really institutionalized the end of New York, though of course he called it Metropolis. Time and again, Lex Luthor or one of his ilk would come up with a scheme to pulverize, fry, undermine, shrink, explode, or grill Manhattan, and the Man of Steel would have to foil the attempt. Superman comics serve as a touchstone for nearly later every pop-culture rendering of the doomed city, from Independence Day to The Simpsons, and images from Superman (and many another version of "the city's end") distressingly prefigure 9/11.
The nuclear age saw the concentration of all fears. Images in many a magazine (Page finds them dully abstract) superimposed blast radii on maps of New York, choosing Madison Square Garden, the Empire State Building, Gramercy Park, or some other famous point de repère as Ground Zero. (The use of "Ground Zero" to characterize the World Trade Center on 9/11 is a curious example of life borrowing from popular culture; the concept of the epicenter of a mass catastrophe mutated into a nickname for the WTC site, which for all its horrors was tightly localized.)
In some ways, the distinctly possible nightmare of nuclear devastation was too over-the-top for popular culture. The potential effects of a hydrogen bomb exploding over Manhattan, while they may have been a real if minor factor in encouraging 1950s-60s flight to the suburbs, left literally nothing left for the imagination to grasp. The 1964 film Fail-Safe ended with scenes of life in the city, imminently to be cut short by Henry Fonda's Hammurabic decision to destroy it; but the film did not depict the apocalypse.
Instead, pop culture from the nuclear era increasingly found ways to portray a city emptied without being completely toppled. Harry Belafonte took to the streets of a depopulated New York in The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (1959). Escape from New York (1981) imagined a city evacuated of everything but lawless prison inmates, which some in 1981 saw as too campily close to reality for comfort. In fact, as the Cold War eased and the city rebounded, camp became the operative frame for destroying New York, as when the Ghostbusters (1984) inadvertently released the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man on the city.
In the run-up to 9/11, the city was destroyed more computer-graphically and more insistently in films like Independence Day (1996) and Armageddon (1998). In the wake of the real thing, post-9/11 films avoided cascading skyscrapers, but the pace of pop destruction scarcely slackened, diverting itself into ecological SF like The Day After Tomorrow (2004): the world had ended, for many, in fire, but ice was also great and would suffice.
I seem to have summarized Page's entire book, but there is much, much more between its covers, and I strongly recommend it. Yale University Press outdid themselves in the physical production of the book, with lavish black-and-white illustration and beautiful/terrible color plates. The City's End is a book for any fan of monsters, asteroids, invasions, and eschatological climate change. Paradoxically, it is also a book for anyone who loves New York. As Page points out, you have to love a place to conjure up so many images of its obliteration.
Page, Max. The City's End: Two centures of fantasies, fears, and premonitions of New York's destruction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. PS 374 .N43P34