News your connection to The Boston Globe

Welcome back, King Kong

IF YOU ARE WORRIED about New York's future, take heart: The city is being destroyed at a theater near you. The best thing for New York might be the sight of King Kong tramping through the streets of Manhattan on his way to a fateful appointment at the top of the Empire State Building. For if there is one thing that symbolizes New York's preeminence, it is that so many still want to imagine the city's end.

For nearly two centuries, American culture has been obsessed with fantasizing about the destruction of New York. At each stage of New York's development over the past two centuries, the city has been demolished, blown up, swallowed by the sea, or toppled by monsters in every imaginable form of art and culture -- Hollywood movies, science fiction novels, photography, painting, graphic arts, television advertisements, postcards, cartoons, and computer software.

Projections of the city's end have reflected the dominant social issues in New York's past two centuries. Novels of the late 19th century, such as Ignatius Donnelly's ''Caesar's Column," were obsessed with the battle between the classes. Writers in the years leading up to World War I worried about America's military preparedness and pictured what would happen were the war to come to New York's unready shores. In the atomic era, writers and artists imagined what would happen if these new weapons were used on New York. Science fiction illustrator Chesley Bonestell, for example, brought his talents to the alarming portrayal of what would happen in ''Hiroshima, USA," were an atomic bomb dropped on lower Manhattan.

It seems that every generation has had its own reasons for destroying New York.

After 9/11, we heard solemn declarations that our culture would no longer produce works that imagined New York's destruction. It seemed in bad taste to creatively imagine New York's end when the memories of real destruction on 9/11 were so vivid.

How long ago that seems. After a brief pause (when the World Trade Center was digitally removed from movies, or when filmmakers went to other cities to film their disaster films), the projections of New York's end are back in style.

The latest ''Spiderman" and ''Batman" films, the TV movie ''10.5," a new mural for the Brooklyn Museum of Art depicting the submerged city 3,000 in the future, last year's ''Day After Tomorrow" -- all mark the persistence of New York destruction fantasies.

Rather than bemoan the degradation of our insensitive culture, we should celebrate these fantasies.

New York has been destroyed for so long -- since the early 19th century when it came to be America's first city -- that it is somehow reassuring to see the tradition continue. When New York is no longer destroyed, on film, in flight simulator software, video games and paintings -- that will be a sign that the city no longer dominates America's, and the world's, imagination. And if New York is no longer the setting of our worst fears, then it may also no longer be the home of our greatest hopes.

And that would be the beginning of the city's end.

Max Page is an associate professor architecture and history at University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives