By Andrew Parsons
In 2014, New York news blog Gothamist noted that New York City has the distinction of being destroyed more than any other American city in Hollywood movies. Take 2007’s I Am Legend, 2008’s Cloverfield or even 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, which featured a plot about a sunken and glaciated NYC on an earth ravaged by sudden climate change.
But it’s hardly a new phenomenon. The truth is, we’ve been destroying New York in our imagination for a while. That’s the point that UMass-Amherst professor Max Page wanted to prove with his book The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction.
“There are so many thousands of variations of destructions of New York fantasies in every variety imaginable,” says Page. “There are floods and earthquakes and scientific inventions and bombs and riots…every generation has found a value in destroying New York.”
Back in the late-19th century, the fear was that as New York became a world city, increasing numbers of immigrants and a wide inequality gap would cause class warfare. Page points to one 1890 book that touches on that tension called Casear’s Column. In it, a radical Italian immigrant helps overthrow the monied elite. The title refers to a towering stone column containing all the bodies of the dead rich. The city just burned around it.
In the 50s and 60s, the concern was the atomic bomb, expressed not just in horror movies about giant radioactive creatures a la Godzilla, but in magazines and instructional videos that taught the nation how to respond to nuclear fallout by imagining a bombed-out New York.
By the 70s and 80s, as the real city faced high crime rates and possible bankruptcy, imaginary New Yorks were destroyed by rampant crime and urban decay. The classic example is the film Escape from New York. The action starts in 1997, when the city had been turned into a giant open-air prison. Despite the real world New York’s reputation for grit and decay at the time, Page notes that it was in fact in better shape than many other American urban centers. The movie’s shooting locations exposed a grand irony, says Page. “When they wanted to show an American city in total disarray what did they do? They went to St. Louis and they filmed a lot of this movie in St. Louis.”
But of course, the real city has also faced mass destruction. In the wake of 9/11, fictionalized portrayals of the city in peril became a much more sensitive topic. Page’s own exhibit at the New York Historical Society on fictionalized destruction of the city was canceled. There was a sense, he says, that even thinking about a damaged New York was inappropriate. “Everyone from the right to the left predicted that we’d have a change in our culture, less violence in general and certainly we’d stay away from New York.”
Clearly, that didn’t hold, and the New York Cities of America’s imagination continue to take a beating. So, why has the prospect of destroying New York appealed to Americans for so long? Page says that first of all that for many around the world, New York is seen as a symbol of America, and “if you want to make a critique on where the country is you show it through New York.”
But most importantly, there’s a certain feeling you get when the book or movie has ended and you know that in the real world, the city is still there. It’s a relief. It’s appreciation. And that’s the feeling Page says many of us are after. “I came to see really by the end of working on this book is that so many of these fantasies are odd love letters to the city.”
Be sure to check out BackStory’s entire show on the different ways we’ve envisioned America’s futures, THE FUTURE THEN: VISIONS OF AMERICA YET TO COME.