If We Lost It All

Cities Die. Should New York Be the First to Clone Itself?

Alan Leidner is bound by a singular challenge. The balding, middle-aged civil servant holds New York City in what amounts to a pickle jar, and he needs to find somewhere to hide it, safe from our worst nightmares.

Over the past several years, the assistant commissioner of Citywide Geographic Information Systems has guided the creation of an immensely detailed, three-dimensional, interactive, constantly updated map of New York City. The digital NYCMap captures the five boroughs down to the square foot, incorporating everything from skyscraper viewing platforms and building floorplans to subway and sewer tubes and ancient faults in the schist below.

Now Leidner, a meticulous, thoughtful man, must squirrel all of this on servers far away in case something more terrible than 9-11 hits. At its simplest, his map is purely practical—a tool for the callused hands that fix water mains and wire buildings, a guide for routing traffic, even a simulacrum for predicting the direction of chemical weapons plumes or radioactive fallout. Viewed another way, though, NYCMap (pronounced nice map) could provide the DNA for a re-created city. In the event of the unthinkable—the kind of apocalypse portrayed by science painter Chesley Bonestell decades ago—it may offer our best hope for a "New New York," but only if it survives.

Atomic cafés: A-bombs explode in the Village and in Queens in Chesley Bonestell's painting for Collier's magazine in 1948.
illustration: Bonestell Space Art
Atomic cafés: A-bombs explode in the Village and in Queens in Chesley Bonestell's painting for Collier's magazine in 1948.

Because his work has become so sensitive, Leidner's not allowed to talk about it much. "We are developing a series of out-of-city, off-site storage for our data, but I can't say anything more than that," Leidner confided to the Voice. Asked for further comment, a spokesperson at City Hall confirmed, "We're not going to have anything to say about that."

It's the job of City Hall to keep spirits up and investors in. As mayors, both Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg have led frequent rounds of self-congratulation for New Yorkers' grit and courage in bouncing back as far as we have. Standing at the margins of our ceremonies are the ghosts of antiquity, reminding us that greater catastrophes can befall a city. Natural disasters have choked the urban flowering of places like Pompeii, and then there are the deathblows our enemies yearn to deliver. Jerry Falwell was right when he said New York is full of "pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way."

All that hurly-burly makes New York unlike any city that ever was. At this moment in history, New York is the kernel of Western civilization, and the nihilists who despise our culture, as unholy as they are, inch daily toward the means of unleashing biblical fury. Our city deserves bold acts to preserve it. Maybe Leidner's map is the start of something.

The gift from Leidner's team comes with profound questions, for never before has a city so clearly threatened had the means to resurrect a clone of its physical self. Could too precise a blueprint for New York straitjacket survivors, who'll need to build a city that fits their purposes and their spirit? And how much of the pollen of New York—our films, music, food, paintings, and literature—secured us continuity by hybridizing other cultures around the globe?

For answers, New York can look to post- World War II Japan, which served as a morbid laboratory for the death and renewal of cities. In the firebombing of Tokyo alone, an area 2.6 times more expansive than Manhattan burned to the ground, resulting in as many as 100,000 deaths. Censorship of artists there prevented that society from fully remembering itself, observes Matthew P. McKelway, an art historian at NYU. The rebuilt city remains wholly alien to its brightest minds.

"When World War II ended, and when we all came back to Tokyo from the places we'd been evacuated to, we could not recognize the city at all," recalls Yoko Ono, the artist and present-day New Yorker. "I was a young child, and I could not believe what I was seeing . . . a flat field as far as our eyes could see. No more Tokyo. Tokyo was gone, gone, gone . . . that's what we thought then. Now the kids don't remember any of that. To them, Tokyo was always what it is now: forests of high-rise buildings and neon lights. I remember the old Tokyo, and that sometimes makes me sad even now. But it is a faded memory."

Leidner's project holds the tantalizing promise that future generations could always walk the streets of today's New York. In Los Angeles, a similar endeavor at UCLA's Urban Simulations Team laboratory began in earnest after the destruction caused by the 1992 Rodney King riots. Users can joystick their way around a representation of that city, with touches as precise as the stars in front of Mann's Chinese Theater.

The New York and Los Angeles enterprises are just foundations for something far greater, if renowned Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter is right. In his 1991 book Mirror Worlds: Or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox: How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean, he describes how whole cities could be re-created as dynamic, vital entities in cyberspace. "A Mirror World is some huge institution's moving, true-to-life mirror image trapped inside a computer—where you can see and grasp it whole," Gelernter writes. "Some chunk of reality, some piece of the real world" can be digitized and added to other chunks until "oceans of information pour endlessly into the model (through a vast maze of software pipes and hoses): so much information that the model can mimic the reality's every move, moment by moment."

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