After the Flood: Old New York Catches Up with the Anthropocene

On realizing a favorite cultural nightmare: the destruction of NYC

November 24, 2012

    SUPERSTORM SANDY’S WORST SURGE stopped a little more than a block from my home. The hurricane pushed enough extra water into the tiny Gowanus Canal to raise sea level by more than 10 feet, inundating surrounding homes, businesses and warehouses. A line of detritus — sticks and boxes but also a trademark rainbow oily sheen — showed the high water mark.

    In the days after, I encountered families walking under downed tree limbs held up by sagging cable lines, shop owners snapping insurance pics before removing sandbags and stepping out of the way of escaping muck waters, and even young folks suited up in brilliant white Tyvek hazmat suits to clean out a flooded compost lot and rain garden. That's resilience.

    But, in a sense, Sandy realized one of American culture's favorite nightmares: the destruction of New York City.

    When did that fantasy begin? Is it as old as New Amsterdam, which was obliterated, at least in name, by the more militantly naval English? Is it even older than that: old Mannahatta "destroyed" for some Dutch trinkets? For Whitman, the city seems to have always existed inside the "aboriginal" name. A century and a half later, Whitman’s Mannahatta is uncanny for its timeless accuracy:

    …nested in nests of water-bays, superb, with tall and wonderful spires,
    hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships — an island sixteen miles
    long, solid-founded,

    Numberless crowded streets…

    A time before the city — and the nagging potential for destruction — is almost harder to imagine than a time after it. There have been attempts to resurrect in words the meadows of Harlem or waterways of Canal Street, linking them to a future long after the city is gone (I’m thinking here of books like Eric Sanderson’s beautiful Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City). But Sandy was more convincing than any book. The surge revealed the potential for pre-history’s return — flooding those parts of the city made by man, the filled up places like Battery Park City or the pestilential swamp surrounding the Gowanus Canal.

    Flood is probably the oldest fantasy of destruction — a narrative informed by the original Biblical flood, perhaps some dim oral memory of the catastrophic sea level rise that breached the Bosporus and created the Black Sea, and certainly drowned coastal habitation on every coast. That includes the Americas, where the land bridge that helped our original immigrants arrive at these shores sank beneath the waves, along with countless villages, some of which can still be found by marine-equipped archeologists.

    Noah's Ark in the Anthropocene has a new look to go along with updated mythologies: the engineering fantasy of a sea wall or tidal barrier to hold back the encroaching sea. Here in New York Harbor, this sets us on the same watery path followed by our Dutch forebearers in their subsiding river delta homeland. Red Hook's current Waterfront Museum — the old Lehigh Valley No. 79 working barge — could have served as an ark-like refuge for some pair of stranded Brooklynites perhaps, floating up to the undrenched floors of the Civil War-era warehouse on the waterfront and docking at one of the new condos' storm-shuttered windows. Red Hook's drowned fate would be mimicked by those communities outside any future sea wall's shelter and what New Yorker will mimic the little Dutch boy and stick his or her thumb in the dike when the engineering fails?


    If not flood, then surely fire. Breezy Point burst into flames while swamped by encroaching seas during Superstorm Sandy, proving that the apocalypse need not confine itself to a single mode of attack. Whatever started the devastating blaze, it reduced homes to rubble and even blew up cars like some bad Hollywood action movie, according to survivors' reports. Yet, the city as a whole has not burned since the Revolutionary War, confining itself to these local, horrific tragedies, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory conflagration that killed 146 young women, some of whom jumped to their deaths on the sidewalk below thanks to locked stairwell doors.

    It's jumpers that haunt my own New York City apocalypse, the falling man of Don DeLillo's novel. "These are the days after. Everything now is measured by after," DeLillo explains what is true for all of us who lived through 9/11. After that terrible perversion of two airplanes turned to missiles, bringing down the towers and coating the city in fluffy gray dust that smelled of burnt plastic and death. The suicidal mania of those few pilots set off a chain reaction prompting yet more desperate leaps, such as those who leapt to their certain death to escape the flaming towers and the psychic scars for all of those who saw them, repeating down through history since 2001.

    No one had to jump to escape Sandy's devastation, despite transformer explosions that blacked out lower Manhattan as high as 39th Street. It was a jagged boundary between light and darkness, warmth and cold, except for the oddly malevolent beacon of Goldman Sachs headquarters, which glowed with the power of piratical riches on which New York City has thrived since its earliest days. The blacked out city reminded me of the Friendship Bridge between China and North Korea in Dandong that I visited, a rainbow-lit span disappearing into ineffable darkness.

    Primordial darkness retook lower Manhattan for a few days, while in Brooklyn we fought over gasoline. The world's first electric grid — inaugurated by Thomas Edison himself down on Pearl Street — failed, as did much of the city's aging infrastructure: water, tunnels, gasoline. In the aftermath, fuel tanker trucks merited a flashing police escort through the fast-falling winter nights, past gas lines stretching for block after city block. How quickly modern society falters in the absence of the modern energy to push chunks of steel on wheels around or set tungsten filaments ablaze to beat back the night.

    Still in the throes of the storm, I looked out over our darkened Manahatta and realized: it's the dark city that represents the true apocalypse. For what might come out of the night? Son of Sam haunted the 1977 blackout. The vampires against Will Smith in the most recent film version of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. The faceless running hordes of — is it cannibals? — that would eviscerate one-eyed Snake Plissken in Richard Carpenter's Escape from New York. An iguana supersized by radiation rampaging through Gotham as Godzilla (though the zombie sickness caused by overflowing "Gowanus monster" sewage might be more terrifying). Even the endearing pop culture naïveté of Colson Whitehead's Zone One, as the narrator revisits Manhattan after the undead apocalypse: "It wasn't the Chinatown of old, but in the corners of his perception the pixels resolved themselves and reduced to zero the distance between Old Chinatown and New Chinatown.”

    In the end, New York City endures, perhaps because it is a city like any other real city — a city that will only die when the constant process of becoming ends. What might come out of the night? Just the long night itself, our inevitable future. The beginning and the end for all of us.

    For now, the lights will return, even if many remained without electricity for far too long (see the inundated Gowanus and Red Hook Houses, where stairwells reeked of urine and tossed plastic bags of waste). That is a societal outrage, but the city showed a better side in the response, too, like the Red Hook Initiative or Occupy Sandy effort, which delivered blankets, batteries and food to ensure that no one need fear the night, though a Port-a-Potty and some temporary hallway lighting might have been nice.


    What New York City does need to fear lies well beyond city jurisdiction. While we New Yorkers contribute our share of the greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere and inexorably warming the planet, that is a truly global human undertaking. The billion or so richest people in the world, including all of us living here in Gotham, are right now conspiring to raise the seas again with the ceaseless emission of a colorless, odorless gas trapping heat and warming the world towards a total transformation, from an ice-free globe to yet higher seas.

    So instead of imagining a world without us; try a world because of us. As the tides lap ever higher, the next superstorm will find it even easier to flood into the city, as it did throughout the area known as Zone A on evacuation maps.

    That means those of us in this coastal city's Zone C, like me, must prepare for the flood next time. The power of the ocean here is such that the Hudson River flows two ways, and the tidal surge reaches upstream as far as Albany, 150 miles or so north. It's not if, but when. To sap that power: rainwater gardens or even more street trees, Staten Island's blue belt, electrical pumps protected against the chemical power of salt water in the city's tunnels, pervious pavement, building codes to reduce energy use, plugs or flood doors for tunnels — the necessaries list is long but eminently feasible.

    The rainbow may have been meant to serve as God's pledge to never inundate the planet anew after Noah's deluge — and the day after Sandy I saw a rainbow arched across the sky from the Gowanus Canal — but that appears to be a hollow promise on the local level. Here in New York, as the Bible recounts, "the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered."

    True New Yorkers will never give up on this town-that was clear long before 9/11 — so New York City turns its back on the sea at its own peril.


    Art by Polana Fowdrey, "New York Underwater"


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