If We Lost It All

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

How completely does Gelernter see a city like New York being mirrored? He imagines a three-dimensional image scanner where, by chance, "a butterfly wanders into the in-box and (a few wingbeats later) flutters out—and in that brief interval the system has transcribed the creature's appearance and analyzed its way of moving, and the real butterfly leaves a shadow-butterfly behind. Some time soon afterward you'll be examining some tedious electronic document and a cyber-butterfly will appear at the bottom left corner of your screen (maybe a Hamearis lucina) and pause there, briefly hiding the text (and showing its neatly folded rusty-chocolate wings like Victorian paisley, with orange eyespots)—and moments later will have crossed the screen and be gone."

Now consider that long after our town has ceased to exist, daily life in Mirror New York is flourishing, with the annihilation that ended real New York having been tweezed from the program.

Taking this to a logical extreme is Tulane University astrophysicist Frank Tipler, who argues that humanity is the seminal consciousness of a universal mind that will one day summon up all that has come before—every drop of rain on every world.

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.

At what point do we accept the reality of loss, that brevity is part of the butterfly's beauty?

A DNA analogy for describing New York's ambitious new map isn't so far-fetched, simply because DNA itself is more limited than popularly imagined. Don't put faith in the Jurassic Park vision, cautions Oliver Ryder, a geneticist at the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species, part of the Zoological Society of San Diego, whose mission is to bank the DNA of creatures that might vanish tomorrow. Even if the complete genetic material from a member of an extinct species could be implanted into a living cell (a process called nuclear cloning), we'd produce a scientific curiosity, not the animal as we understand it. Ryder asks us to imagine a future generation trying to bring back the rhinoceros.

"You'd know rhinoceroses had an odd number of toes and a horn, but you'd never know that ox peckers live on their backs, eating ticks from their ears. Or that cattle egrets perch on their backs for a good vantage point, and that when they get agitated it warns the rhino, which has poor eyesight, that something is coming," Ryder explains. "You lose the richness of the creature."

Of the map, Ryder says, "This complex application is a kind of irreplaceable documentation, a chronicle or description of what New York was or is, but you can't re-create New York from that." Banking cells and mapping the city, he broods, might both be attempts to "deny to ourselves that we can't really reconstruct this. . . . The ultimate scenario of being able to reconstruct them is, I think, illusionary. Sadly, it's far easier to document what we lose than to truly plan on how we can save things."

Life is certainly more than a byproduct of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine—or for a city, brick, glass, steel, and concrete—hypnotically recombining in ascending sequences. "The future will appreciate whatever we save with the blueprints for these things, like a city or a creature," Ryder says. "But we are not really saving what we appreciate about them right now."

That doesn't obviate describing cities in organic terms. They are as alive as any towering termite mound. The suburbs that sprawl out around them have been likened to kudzu or, yet more condemningly, a ravenous cancer. But these expansions are only the most visible ways that urban settlements preserve and promulgate their essence. Something of the genius that was Athens and the order that was Rome at their heights thrived later in Renaissance Florence and again in today's New York. Without Leidner's map, surely the films of Spike Lee, the music of Lou Reed, the writing of Isaac Singer, and the paintings of Keith Haring could reseed some of New York's ubiety—its ineffable, undeniable sense of place—in a dead hole smoldering at 41 degrees north latitude and 74 degrees west longitude.

An avant pop group like They Might Be Giants may be New York's house band, first performing in Central Park in 1982, but their sonic take on this community commands airtime on college radio, and fills venues grand and podunk whenever partners John Flansburgh and John Linnell go on tour. High school kids across the nation hear in They Might Be Giants the promise of a city where it's OK to be quirky and smart, and in that way they hold some piece of this place.

Pondering Leidner's map, Flansburgh says, "Piet Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie is a conception of New York that's as real to me. It's not just about the splendor of the physical space; it's the idea of where New York takes your mind." In that abstract painting, congested blocks of yellow, red, and blue jostle in tight lines, blending visual rhythm with coveted patches of openness. It's a mapmaker's hell, but it feels true.

In life, chaos strives toward creative, efficient cooperation, a phenomenon explored by Steven Johnson in his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. A New New York could look in some ways quite different from the metropolis of 2002. "One thing that would clearly happen, if you just took the grid and basic geography, is that the relationship to the rivers would be completely different. I imagine the city on this island being developed from the beginning with residences all along the outer surface and services and commercial buildings inside," Johnson says. "It would be a very different kind of feeling."

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