The City’s End: Two Centuries
of Fantasies, Fears, and
Premonitions of New York’s
By Max Page
Yale University Press, 271 pages, $37.50
It took something like 48 hours to seal over Pompeii and all those Pompeians with pumice and lava and ash; and fewer than 48 seconds to flatten and fry Nagasaki, to begin cancers, to burn kimono patterns into skin like decals ironed onto blue jeans. Those were exceptions, though. Most cities we’ve lost to history were simply used up and abandoned like overgrazed pastures. But tragedies of the commons make for less spectacular and more hectoring entertainments than Pompeii- or Nagasaki-like cataclysms, which is why Max Page has plenty of material for The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction.
A professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts, Mr. Page has assembled practically the most comprehensive collection of worst-case scenarios since the Book of Revelation, or at least the 9/11 Commission recommendations. He covers the obvious catastrophes: the paw prints King Kong leaves on the Empire State’s 102nd floor, the penal colony Kurt Russell has to escape, the example UFOs make of us in Independence Day. But then he excavates and examines, among other nightmares, a W.E.B. Du Bois story where a comet kills every New Yorker except a black deliveryman and a wealthy white woman; the Collier’s magazine spread of “Hiroshima, U.S.A.”; the 1917 poster imploring Americans to buy war bonds or else the Imperial German Air Service will decapitate and then roast Lady Liberty. He’s tried to open every closet, pull out every boogeyman.
It’s bad luck, then, that Mr. Page apparently proofread his final galleys before the release this past winter of Cloverfield and I Am Legend. In Cloverfield, a clique of sobbing shlemiels try and fail to keep out from underfoot when a sea monster that makes Godzilla seem like a well-mannered, tiptoeing houseguest blunders into Manhattan. I Am Legend, on the other hand, is about what happens after our annihilation, the coping mechanisms and daily routines of the last man in a city of dead ruins and reclaiming plant life. The silence in this New York, population one, is about as awful as nuclear fallout.
Blockbusters with budgets high enough to obliterate entire neighborhoods and not just the obvious landmarks, those two movies are human enough, thoughtful enough, to try to figure out what you or I might do in case of end times—which is, for the record, significantly different from what Charlton Heston usually does. Their absence make The City’s End, a book with encyclopedic aspirations, feel incomplete, in need of another draft.
It doesn’t help either that New York these days disproves a big part of Mr. Page’s thesis. “This new uncertainty … might make New Yorkers want to defend their city even more, by starting an era of unprecedented creativity,” Mr. Page writes, as if it’s Sept. 12, 2001, and not seven full years later. “The city that never sleeps because of fear of airplanes, fear of bombs might again become a city that never sleeps because it is too busy creating and telling, building and imagining, eating and singing.”
Except the Empire State Building was started and finished in just 16 months, and at ground zero, they’ve barely gotten around to re-pouring the concrete. In the meantime, look what the city’s done to itself: identical glass towers on every block; a Duane Reade or Pret a Manger or Bank of America branch on every street corner; the same rib-eye entree and gnocchi appetizer on every menu.
That’s not creativity—it’s entropy, a devolution toward sameness. And our taste for homogeneity, newfound or not, is worth keeping in mind before we gift Michael Bloomberg a third term. It’s not that he’s the one, the only, God-blessed individual able to steer New York through this Noah’s Flood of finance; maybe we just can’t be bothered anymore to imagine a different mayor.
MR. PAGE IS SO ROMANTIC about New York that he quotes Rent lyrics to prove a point; he sentimentalizes his resourceful and wide-ranging scholarship, which does it and us a disservice. The City’s End might ultimately have been more fun, and more unsettling, as a glossy, horrid, Taschen-type coffee-table book rather than an academic study with hardly enough illustrations. Mr. Page’s earnestness insulates you from real panic; turning each page should be as masochistic—as gratifying—as touching your tongue against a toothache.
But then, I’ve learned to stop worrying so much about apartheid-imposing super-apes and nuke-smuggling jihadists, about anthrax deliveries and influenza outbreaks and tidal waves taller than Top of the Rock. This is what scares me now: The Statue of Liberty stays upright but the Dow topples over. Pensions and portfolios disintegrate so quickly and utterly they might as well have been hit by Martian death rays; banks devour and infect one another like zombies; the earth opens up and swallows the economy. Sound familiar?
Expect the hedge-funders and money managers—those titans—to elbow onto the first life rafts. At the very least they’ll answer want ads in the Sun Belt or London or Shanghai, pack up their skinny ties and pocket squares, and split. The rest of us will reminisce about Wall Street like it was a mill that closed. Oh, on Fifth Avenue and Broadway below Houston, there’ll still be plenty at street level to tempt tourists out of their euros and renminbis, but the windows second story and higher will all be shuttered, vacant. New York will be a town like Scranton or Utica, where once opulent buildings have emptied out like dead tree trunks. That’s how our city ends. New York will be a place just like any other.
Mark Lotto is a frequent contributor to The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.