Big Apple Apocalypse: 200 Years of Destroying New York City

What is it about New York that compels us to see it obliterated in fiction over and over again?

A powerful wave destroys New York City in the disaster film Deep Impact (1998)
A powerful wave destroys New York City in the disaster film Deep Impact (1998) Deep Impact

Futurist thinkers have rarely been kind to New York City. In fact, writers and artists have spent the better part of two centuries destroying the Big Apple. Whether by flood or fire, nuclear explosion or alien invasion, New York more than any other city bears the brunt of our most apocalyptic futures. And perhaps no historian understands this better than Max Page.

In 2001, University of Massachusetts-Amherst history professor Max Page started work on what was supposed to be a fun, light-hearted project. Working with the New York Historical Society, Page was assembling an exhibit proposal about the various ways New York had been destroyed in various works of fiction. He put the finishing touches on his proposal on September 10, 2001. Of course, the very next day real world terrorists would put some of futurism’s most horrific visions of destruction to shame.

Years later, Page realized that his exploration of apocalyptic New York was still a worthwhile endeavor — it would simply require a more reverent touch. His book, The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction was published in 2008.

I reached Mr. Page by phone and asked him what it is about New York City. Why New York? Why not Chicago, Los Angeles, Des Moines, Tulsa… what is it about New York that compels us to see it destroyed in fiction over and over again?

“It’s interesting because there are disaster fantasies about lots of different places. Los Angeles has got its share, especially in the film world of the 20th century. And there’s fantasies of Paris and London and Tokyo, of course. What I was struck with is that New York has remained the predominant focus for literally close to two centuries,” Page said.

“It came to be the symbol of the city — not just the American city, but the city itself — with skyscrapers in the early 20th century. It remains the most important American city despite the rise of Chicago at one point, and Los Angeles and D.C. At least for economics and for culture, New York is still the capital and has been, really from the 1830s onward,” he said. As an Angeleno, I’m reluctantly inclined to agree with him.

“And then, there’s the simple aesthetics. Destruction looks better in New York.” Perhaps this is the real clincher. Aesthetically, New York is a gorgeous city; a city of steel and glass reaching toward the sky in a decidedly 20th century American ode to modernism. But the destruction of New York almost always has a purpose, political or otherwise. It’s rarely just a jangling of the keys distraction or traditional disaster movie extravagance like in the screenshot from the 1998 film Deep Impact above.

Take, for instance, the 1890 novel Caesar’s Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century by Ignatius Donnelly. The story takes place in the futuristic world of 1988 and New York is destroyed by a terrorist/”liberation” group called the Brotherhood of Destruction. In this case, the destruction is political and hateful, as Donnelly’s anti-semitism is apparent when the Brotherhood states its purpose of destroying a Jewish-led oligarchy that controls every aspect of New York life.

From Caesar’s Column: “The shops had all been broken into; dead bodies lay here and there; and occasionally a burned block lifted its black arms appealing to heaven. As we drew near Union Square a wonderful sight — such as the world had never before beheld — expanded before us. Great blazing bonfires lighted the work; hundreds of thousands had gathered to behold the ghastly structure, the report of which had already spread everywhere.”

The past two centuries have seen New York destroyed in an almost cyclical manner. Fire, flood, monsters, revolution, aliens, rinse, repeat. But there is one method of destroying New York that only saw rise in the mid-20th century: the nuclear bomb.

Max Page explains to me the unique method of destruction brought by new technology as distinct from the more historically relatable stories of floods: “The climate change film in 2004, The Day After Tomorrow, that is partly about a flood. And then we have flood stories back in the teens and we have flood stories back in the late 19th century. Obviously some things, like nuclear disaster, is one of the main methods that obviously relied on new technology.”

This new technology was on spectacular display in the pages of Collier’s magazine in the 1950s. As I’ve written about before, the August 5, 1950 cover of Collier’s displayed in vivid detail a haunting mushroom cloud over Manhattan. The accompanying article, illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, gives a breathless account of an Associated Press reporter on any-given-Tuesday who is trying to learn about the devastating destruction of New York City.

The uncomfortable fact is that there’s something almost beautiful about these horrific visions. Divorced of the real world pain and suffering, we’re drawn to the most powerful weapon in the futurist’s arsenal — naked, unapologetic spectacle. In fact, I have that Hiroshima issue of Collier’s framed in my apartment right next to a mid-1960s nuclear power propaganda pamphlet called “The Atom, Electricity and You.” It may be an achingly obvious joke about the conflict between our fear and hope in futuristic technology, but even stripped of context these images are somehow objectively beautiful in their scale, aesthetic and hubris.

Reveling in destruction is, of course, a rather macabre affair. Made all the more unseemly when such fantastic, unbelievable devastation has reached our shores. But we can’t help it. Watching the destruction of the Twin Towers was surreal, but not unimaginable. And of course we couldn’t look away. I remember turning on the television on September 11th and seeing surreal images of the first Tower smoldering, while CCN talked with Tom Clancy over the phone. His 1994 novel Debt of Honor included a character who flew a commercial plane into the U.S. Capitol building. Life was somehow imitating the darkest of art.

Max Page explains, “That day we had the sense that we had seen this already in a movie.”

Indeed we had. And we’ll likely see it again in movies, TV and books for many generations to come.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.