The City's End/The Fires 04.08.11

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Burning, flooding, freezing and nuking ... Why does everyone have it in for New York?

Writers, artists and filmmakers have destroyed New York more than any other city. It has been burned, flooded, frozen, torn apart by mobs, invaded, zapped by aliens, overrun by jungle, nuked, stomped by monsters, deserted, decimated by plague and has even tipped over like a crowded dinghy. The City's End, a comprehensive survey of these fictional and speculative catastrophes, is a testament to human creativity: not only have we built something as magnificent and unlikely as New York, we have also devised hundreds of ways of wiping it out. Written by professor of architecture and history Max Page and out now in paperback, you might expect The City's End to be grim. But even though its litany of calamities has something of the hypnotic, repetitive quality of, say, an effects-laden cinema blockbuster (Kaboom! Splat! Crash! Argh! Pow! Aiee!), the book has more of the feel of a romp, and Page is a consistently entertaining tour guide.

But why New York? At core, The City's End is a study of the meaning of the pre-eminent city of the 20th century, how it serves as an emblem of modernity, a symbol of America and a stand-in for all cities. The imagined destruction of New York is shorthand for the destruction of all America, or even the world. It's also, for some, the product of atavistic doubt or envy in the face of all that success, that verticality, the enormous crowds and wealth and the shining towers – can it possibly last? One realises that the idea of the annihilation of New York is almost as deep-rooted in global culture as the idea of New York itself. The glance of dawn off the steel of the art deco skyscrapers has in it the flash of a hydrogen bomb airburst.

The only melancholy note in The City's End is the pervasive knowledge that all these fantasies of tumbling skyscrapers and streets filled with panic were in part realised on 11 September 2001. Page devotes considerable space to 9/11 from the very start of the book, never being either maudlin or ghoulish – instead, he demonstrates that an act described by many as "unimaginable" had in fact been thoroughly imagined. It's a pity that the book terminates just before the release of Cloverfield (2008), when New York had bounced back sufficiently to be properly trashed once again.

Filmmakers of the 1970s wanting to depict a devastated New York didn't have to build studio sets. At that time, large areas of the city itself, particularly in the South Bronx, lay in ruins. Whole blocks were burned out and deserted by their residents. The bankrupt city was close to the kind of surrender that Detroit is now contemplating – the wholesale abandonment of large quarters to let nature do its thing.

How did it come to this? In The Fires, Bronx author Joe Flood tells the story of New York's Nixon-era flirtation with collapse through the eyes of the city's fire department. As the post-war boom years wound down in the 1960s, New York found itself increasingly strapped for cash – a situation worsened by its own planning policies, which discouraged blue-collar industries. As the city declined, it burned, experiencing a baffling epidemic of fires – so bad, the fire department called the period "the war years". Enter the RAND Corporation, a military think tank. RAND promised that its statistical analysis and computer modelling could let the city tackle the fires while still closing fire stations. Result: the kind of urban pandemonium described in The City's End.

Although it's focused on the fire department, The Fires tells the whole story of the city's decline and near-fall. It's a resonant and now almost unbelievable tale of technocratic hubris and nemesis – a valuable warning at a time when government wonks are hacking at regulations and inviting us to do more with less.

The City's End, by Max Page, Yale University Press, $25

The Fires, by Joe Flood, Riverhead Books, $26.95




The City's End/The Fires



William Wiles

quotes story

The idea of the annihilation of New York is almost as deep-rooted in global culture as the idea of New York itself. The glance of dawn off the steel of the art deco skyscrapers has in it the flash of a hydrogen bomb airburst

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