Historian Traces Fears, Fantasies about NYC's Destruction
Source Newsroom: University of Massachusetts Amherst
Newswise — There's a reason New York is the "City That Never Sleeps" : from Godzilla to tidal waves, asteroids to zombies, America's premier metropolis has been ravaged time and time again in films, novels, pulp fiction, television and cartoons.
In a new book, Max Page, associate professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explores how visions of New York's destruction were a part of the country's collective imagination long before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks turned fiction to grim reality.
"The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York's Destruction" (Yale University Press) catalogues the countless ways American writers and artists have imagined the city's demise since the 1800s. Through text and many color and black-and-white illustrations, Page plumbs the evolution of a "central theme in American culture."
"The theme traces back to the 19th century when New York became the greatest American city," says Page. Time and 9/11 have done little to diminish the powerful image of the city's downfall, as illustrated by last year's release of the movie "I Am Legend," which pits New York's last human occupant against an army of mutants spawned by a plague.
According to Page, depictions of New York's destruction reflect the prevailing issues of each historic period. In the 19th century, such stories were shaped by worries over racial and ethnic violence and class warfare. By the 1950s, the prospect of nuclear war cast a long shadow over the city, says Page, but now the city faces the fictional onslaught of environmental threats, terrorism and technology gone awry. "These stories play out our fears and social problems," he says.
Page says the city's role as a perennial fictional victim reflects its unique role in the national mindset. "New York stands for America in a lot of the stories," he says. "The fact that we want to destroy it shows how important it is. "¦ In some ways, it's a compliment."
The character and familiarity of the city also give it a prominent place in the disaster genre, says Page. "There was a time when one-fifth of Americans could trace a connection to the city," he says. "The shape of the city—located on an island—and its iconic buildings mean that no place looks better destroyed than New York."
The idea for the book emerged years ago when Page was researching another work, "The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940," which examined the history of real estate development, slum clearance and the tearing down and rebuilding of the city.
"I kept coming across movies, stories and other fictional accounts of New York's destruction," says Page, who collected the materials for a "campy" exhibit titled "Destroying New York." He finalized the exhibit proposal to the New-York Historical Society the day before the 9/11 attacks. "I put it aside for awhile, but 8 to 9 months after the attacks, I revived the idea as an actual topic for scholarship."
In the seven years since the World Trade Center was obliterated from the New York skyline, Page says artists, writers and filmmakers have cautiously added new chapters to the canon of fictional devastation, proof that the city retains its mythic power in the American psyche.
"By repeating the image of the city's destruction, the end result is one long love song," he says. "If New York is no longer the setting of our worst fears, it may not be the home of our greatest hopes. And that would be the beginning of the city's end."