Stories

The art of bouncing back

What New York City can learn from from its history of fictional destruction and resurrection

Approach to the Hugh Carey Tunnel underwater. Photo: Timothy Krause, Flickr

After touring the destruction on Tuesday from superstorm Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg had a message for the city: “It was a storm of historic intensity, but New Yorkers are resilient.”

With those words, Bloomberg managed to evoke one of the most prevalent and compelling narratives of the city’s history: its remarkable ability to recover from disaster stronger than ever.

The concept of resilience itself has become a hot topic among urban planners and academics, with a whole area of study dedicated to “resilience theory,”  the science behind how communities absorb and respond to major shocks. “Resilience theory gives opportunities to prevent symptoms and be able to engage in capacity building that mitigates the impact of disasters,” explained Ky Luu, executive director of the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy at Tulane University.

But New York City’s resilience is not just the rallying call of politicians or the topic of academic studies: It has also provided fodder for countless books, films and comics that captivate New Yorkers’  imaginations and the country’s as a whole. “Our ideas of resilience in our culture, the ideas of trial and rejuvenation have found particular resonance in New York,” said Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Page is the author of two books, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940 and City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction, that explore why Americans have repeatedly indulged in the idea of New York’s destruction and resurrection since the 19th century, positing that these cultural fantasies play an important role in the city and country’s identity.

“America’s writers and imagemakers have pictures New York’s annihilation in a stunning range of ways,” Page writes in City’s End. “Earthquake, fire, flood. Meteor, comet, Martian. Glacier, ghosts, atom bomb. Class war, terrorism, invasion. Laser beams from space ships, topedoes from Zeppelins, missiles from battleships. Apes, wolves, dinosaurs. Environmental degradation, nuclear fallout, “green death.”

But these stories usually have an underlying message of hope, and a message that New Yorkers can withstand adversity and recover no matter what. In the wake of Sandy, images of which are already branded in the nation’s consciousness and a catastrophe that is sure to become a part of the city’s lore far into the future, Page talked to The New York World from his home in Massachusetts.

Q: How far back do you find examples of New York City’s destruction in American popular culture?

A: The first one that comes to mind is a book called The Second Deluge from 1911. And there is a very famous movie the same year as King Kong, also called Deluge, about a huge earthquake that causes a tsunami that covers and destroys New York. It was a big hit at the time and in fact, TV makers and film makers kept reusing those images of all of Manhattan all throughout the 1940s and 50s. There is a great short story, “The Tilting Island,” about a fault line in New York on 125th Street and whole of lower Manhattan falls into the ocean. New York has this amazing contradiction that it has this bedrock so it feels solid; it’s not like New Orleans which everyone knows is a sponge and is below sea level. Yet it’s a waterbound city. It takes very little rise to start flooding.

Q: As someone who has spent a long time looking at fictional images of New York’s demise, what were you thinking as you saw the images from Hurricane Sandy wreaking havoc on the city this week?

A: I spent a number of years immersing myself in fantasies of the destruction of New York, so it’s bizarre. It looks like Deluge. Frankly, I don’t think I’m the only one. What’s so amazing is everyone has seen New York City disaster movies or read about them in comic books. So even on 9/11 people said, “It’s like a movie.” We’ve seen this hurricane before; the most recent example being The Day After Tomorrow.

Q: Can you put Hurricane Sandy into historical perspective for us? How does it compare to previous (real) disasters to hit the city?

A: One thing that is striking about New York is that it’s never had the single one disaster like the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 or Chicago fire in 1871. Yes, there was the Revolutionary War, or flu epidemics, but never a single disastrous event. So the scale of an event is not necessarily directly related to its long-term impact on our imaginations when it comes to New York City. We focus on New York because it’s still our most important city when you add together economics and culture. And, very simply, disaster looks better in New York. I don’t mean to be unsympathetic to the awful things that have happened as a result of the storm. But a picture of a flooded street in New York just doesn’t look the same in Los Angeles.

Q: Does New York City have any advantages when it comes to resilience and rebuilding because of this history of cultural fascination with its destruction and resurrection?

A: Most of these narrative dramas have a resilient aspect to them. Either Godzilla is killed or King Kong is shot down from the Empire State Building. So even if there is destruction, something better comes out of it. There is something deeply redeeming about it. Our ideas of resilience in our culture, the idea of trial and rejuvenation, have found particular resonance in New York. It has a history of resilience.

This interview was edited for length.

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