New York City and the Staging of Disaster

August 9, 2020   •   By Andy Reischling

IN HIS 1972 NOVEL Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino imagines a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, who has ordered the explorer to visit the outer reaches of his empire and report what these distant places are like. The 55 cities Marco Polo describes are unusual, sometimes imaginary, each taking the form of a thought experiment, as if the city were the infrastructure of an idea. For example, what would it look like for a city to be built above an abyss between two cliffs on a support system that inches closer to breaking every day? What about a city in three parts — one for the unborn, one for the living, and one for the dead? Or a city that replaces all of its materials every day so that it’s bounded on all sides by an ever-increasing pile of garbage?

Calvino’s strange little book offers a way of thinking about how the shapes and forms of cities both express and encourage human ideas and modes of living. Or, as the author eloquently puts it: “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” To believe that a city is somehow willed by human “desires and fears” is to grant our buildings power over us; they encourage certain forms of behavior and ways of thinking at the expense of others. When Stalin redesigned the Moscow skyline from 1947 to 1953, he had his towers built with wide bases that tapered into sharp pillars at the top. It was an aesthetic choice but also a propagandistic one: the buildings were meant to symbolize the communist dictum that the masses support those above them.

The symbolic shape of a city extends beyond politics. In his famous work on environmental mapping, The Image of the City (1960), Kevin Lynch writes about city plans in North China that were strictly organized by a religious system of orientation — north was associated with evil, south with joy and life. The buildings were constructed to face south, and directions would be given by reference to compass points rather than rights and lefts. The philosophical tradition has spurred architectural changes as well: in 18th-century Europe, the Enlightenment, with its rationally ordered systems of grids and streets, brought an end to the Baroque city, which cared less for reason and more for decoration.

Ideas are inseparable from the worlds they create. Though cities are seldom planned and executed from scratch like those that populate Calvino’s novel, the form of a city incubates and develops particular modes of social interaction, establishing a kind of harmony between inner and outer worlds. If we’re rational people, shouldn’t the layout of our cities encourage us to think rationally? But this austere levelheadedness is a bit cold, a bit boring, and that’s without even considering the more alarming possibilities of social control that something like Stalin’s architecture suggests.

A quite different example is New York City, a cluster of islands whose central philosophy could be as simple as trying to stuff as many people as possible into its small landmass. Famously labeled “the culture of congestion” by Rem Koolhaas, the city has a history that vacillates between a veneer of grid-inspired rationalism and the occasionally absurd inventions that undergird it.

This urban program began in 1853, when New York hosted its first World’s Fair. Elisha Otis, an American mechanic who had worked in a bedstead factory in Yonkers, was desperate for attention for his fledgling but failing company, so he scheduled an exhibition at New York’s Crystal Palace, a facsimile of the London building of the same name. As part of his publicity stunt, Otis stepped onto a platform and was promptly raised to the ceiling by a system of cables and pulleys. When the platform reached its peak, his assistant handed him a knife on a velvet cushion. Otis then slashed the cables as the audience looked on aghast, assuming that the platform would come crashing back down. But nothing happened. The platform stayed afloat, buoyed by an invisible safety net, and Otis lowered himself back to the floor to rapturous applause. He had just performed the newest miracle of industrialism: the first appearance of an elevator, the invention that would allow New York City to expand upward and become a metropolis in the sky.

Otis’s showmanship was also one of the earliest instances of a mindset that would come to define the growing city. As Rem Koolhaas argues in his 1978 book Delirious New York, Otis’s demonstration was the epitome of “Manhattanism”: “the anticlimax as denouement, the non-event as triumph” — averting, at the very last moment, certain catastrophe in a masterful display of technological innovation. This mindset also informed the city’s burgeoning entertainment industries. During the early 20th century, visitors to Coney Island, then one of the most densely populated areas in the world, could partake in any number of staged disaster scenarios: they could witness the destruction of Pompeii, the San Francisco earthquake, or the burning and saving of a New York City block, and could experience the “Leap Frog Railway” in which two full train cars, about to collide on a single track, are separated at the last minute as one train “leaps” above the other.

Russian writer and revolutionary Maxim Gorky visited Coney Island in 1906. His friends took him there to try and cheer him up after a disappointing trip to New York during which he was abandoned by Mark Twain and became the target of a tabloid sex scandal. In tune with the general tenor of his visit, Gorky hated Coney Island. Likening the amusement park to “hell,” he was unsettled by the cheap facades and what he saw as the profoundly vacuous boredom of the tourists; the place was both wildly irrational and completely distasteful, a trick to distract the masses. What particularly disgusted Gorky was the unreality of it all: Coney Island was, as Koolhaas later realized (and celebrated), an experiment in living in a space of pure imagination, from which nature had been eradicated in favor of culture.

In an article for The Independent that he wrote about his Coney Island experience, aptly titled “Boredom,” Gorky fantasized about a cleansing fire that would rid the world of the scourge of the amusement park and make room for something nice and proper, like an actual park. Gorky’s mistrust that the masses could really know what they wanted was the same suspicion that would later come to characterize 20th-century debates on urbanism. In one corner, in line with Gorky’s high-minded diagnosis, was Le Corbusier and his “Radiant City,” a pseudo-utopia of huge skyscrapers spaced out amid a beautiful garden. Centralizing control in the urban planner, Le Corbusier wanted to raze the messy vernacular of major European cities and replace them with something nice and proper, like a huge park. Le Corbusier shared with Gorky a belief that the people, if left to their own devices, would seek out only empty-minded pleasures, so it was up to people like them to create the conditions that would direct the masses to act correctly and desire the right things.

In the other corner stands one of the most influential urban theorists of all time, Jane Jacobs. The spearhead of a series of campaigns against urban renewal in New York during the 1960s, Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a brilliant analysis of what makes a city work that mercilessly derided the utopian fantasies of the popular planners of the era. She became the boogeyman for people like Le Corbusier, whose “Radiant City” she called a “great, visible ego” that, when it comes to “how the city works,” is “nothing but lies.” Against the architect’s rarefied theories, Jacobs offered her street-level understanding, her conviction that, if the people are actually using urban space, then it’s probably working. What so terrified Gorky was also what inspired Jacobs: a vision of the city as a fabricated form of life, unmoored from its natural supports, that gave the masses everything they wanted.

Fears over the loss of nature in the modern city were often wedded to predictions of impending disaster. The city’s vast technological achievements seemed to be constantly teetering on the edge of a spectacular meltdown, in which nature would come roaring back with a vengeance. In a sense, Coney Island’s predilection for staging disaster was merely a sublimation of popular anxieties about its massive crowds and dangerous congestion. Indeed, as the ethos of Coney Island migrated to Manhattan, the city came to be defined by a competition between (in Koolhaas’s words) the “astronomical increase in the potential for disaster only just exceeded by an equally astronomical increase in the ability to avert it.”

Gorky’s article proved to be disturbingly prescient. On May 27, 1911, at around 1:30 a.m., a fire broke out at Dreamland, Coney Island’s largest amusement park. As they prepared for the Memorial Day crowds, some of the workmen knocked over tubs of hot tar, which they were using to caulk water leaks, lighting one of the attractions, appropriately called “Hell Gate,” on fire. The flames quickly spread with the help of a strong sea breeze and malfunctioning fire hoses, and soon the entire park was burning. Workers trying to quell the fire’s spread were also forced to deal with the collection of exotic circus animals — lions, pumas, hyenas, bears, antelopes, and elephants — some of which escaped into the streets, while other burned to death or were shot. By the next morning, the park had been destroyed: $3.5 million in damage had been done, and the owners promptly sold the land back to the city for $1.8 million.

The Dreamland fire was a harsh reminder of the fragility of city life. The specter of disaster has always haunted New York City, whether it be staged disaster, disaster narrowly averted, or disaster that actually happened. Residents of the city have always lived with the vague suspicion that the human triumph over nature might not be so complete, and that the city’s underlying problems ultimately transcend the powers of human ingenuity to solve them.

Over the course of the 20th century, the disaster film has taken the mantle from the amusement park ride as the primary popular vehicle for imagining New York City’s destruction. The internet is littered with articles like “Check Out 15 Movies in Which New York City Gets Destroyed” or “10 Best Movie Destructions of NYC.” There is something masochistic about this genre of films, a strange discomfort that this is how we get our kicks, by watching an omnipotent nature avenge itself on prideful humans who dared to build such tall and gaudy things. It’s really quite biblical, evoking the moral concerns that tend to underwrite every discussion about New York City and public safety. Out of step with nature — in fact, a complete escape from all that’s natural — the modern metropolis is essentially a hedonistic hive, an intensification of humanity’s unnatural urges. To the ascetic-minded, the city all but invites disaster.

In recent months, a lot of the things that make New York a desirable place to live have also made it especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. Its high population density, extensive public transportation, and wealth of restaurants, cultural institutions, and shops all encourage crowded interaction and the sharing of bits of one’s life with bits of other people’s lives. COVID-19 is a disaster that has hit cities especially hard, as if all the fears associated with a “culture of congestion” have been realized. Careful not to look overtly callous, conservative politicians restrict aid to city governments, disguising their moral aversion as a political one — why would they want to sponsor a “blue state bailout”?

The pandemic has convincingly shown that, no matter how much the modern city tries to shut out or contain nature, this is ultimately impossible. Like a weed growing through cracks in the sidewalk, nature finds a way to push through even our most airtight defenses. Those staged disasters at Coney Island in the early 1900s probably wouldn’t have been so popular if real disaster wasn’t always a looming possibility. Indeed, our characteristic habit of staging our own demise is just a clever way of incorporating the potential for disaster into the city’s machineries for pleasure-making. Acknowledging the potential for real catastrophe, we’re saved at the last minute in a feat of prodigious human ingenuity, thus sharpening the cathartic release involved in playing so close to the edge of genuine danger.

The rapid industrialization of the 19th century, which led to the growth of hyper-modern cities like New York, also spawned a yearning for a simpler, less adrenaline-filled way of life. In the 1890s, an English court reporter named Ebenezer Howard began proposing a radically different form of human settlement known as the “Garden City,” which was inspired by Howard’s horror upon touring contemporary London. A hugely influential mode of urban planning, the movement that Howard inaugurated called for a mass exodus from huge metropolitan areas back into the countryside. In Howard’s plan, each residential urban core would be capped at 58,000 residents and surrounded by a large circle of agricultural and other green spaces, with commercial and cultural sites in between. Each Garden City would be self-sufficient, controlled by a public authority whose job would be to manage the community such that it could never be developed into a modern city like London or New York. Instead, these would be small pockets dotting the countryside, easing urban congestion and returning people to the natural habitats from which they’d become alienated.

The Garden City movement combined a subtle authoritarianism with a naturalistic creed that saw the built environment as a potential moral scourge. These communities were not meant to change, apart from piecemeal repairs, and economic activity was severely curtailed so as not to outstrip the autonomy of each village unit. Such communities of course required vigilant and intrusive governing to maintain their ideal shape. They were hardly natural in the sense of being organic. Howard might say that nature gives us enough, and that we shouldn’t try so hard to strive for more. Yet while the “Garden City” rejects change, the development of New York City has, as Koolhaas recognized, been characterized by a freewheeling sense of creativity. Coney Island’s staged disasters were merely an exaggerated recognition that, like a perpetually unstable molecule, the city was always on the verge of becoming something else — it was always transforming, sometimes catastrophically.

Ultimately, what New York’s vision of the city provided, beset as it was by legitimate concerns about overcrowding and flimsy technology, was an expanded idea of how we might live together. Against the prescriptions of Howard and his ideological successors, New York refused an austere definition of nature that would prescriptively guide what people wanted and how they settled. In doing so, the city toyed with the limits of its own control, finding disaster never far from the inventiveness that characterized its way of life.


Andy Reischling is a writer and documentary media worker currently at POV on PBS, the longest-running documentary showcase on television. His writing focuses on cultural history and modernity.


Banner image: "MTA Installs Plexiglass and Vinyl Barriers to Protect Employees and Riders During COVID-19 Pandemic" by Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been desaturated.