If We Lost It All

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

Ono says that's healthy, intuitively homing in on Johnson's theme of emergence. "Healing is part of the growth pattern. So we heal. We cannot not heal," she says. "It is in our nature to go on regenerating, and we will. I don't like the word reconstruction. Reconstruction sounds like trying to repeat the old pattern. We don't go back, we only go forward. Try to go back, and we're in trouble."

The beautiful wooden architecture of Ono's youth passed into memory through black clouds of smoke. Lesson learned, Japanese bureaucrats sensibly embraced the mantra against the "flammable city." But look carefully beneath the whitewash of newness, and ancient quarters are returning your stare.

"The harder Japanese cities were hit during the war, the faster they came back after the war," says Columbia University economist David Weinstein, who along with colleague Donald Davis, wrote an article about Japan's return called "Bones, Bombs, and Break Points: The Geography of Economic Activity" for an upcoming American Economic Review. "Industry by industry, you come back to where you were before. Even being hit by the most terrific of shocks doesn't seem to alter that."

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.

New York will likewise have enough surviving artists, advertising executives, fashion designers, rappers, and oncologists to start again. People stay put in part because cities can't exist just anywhere but must follow geographic patterns, nestling along waterways or in great valleys. Nor are urban areas easily wiped away. "The trains in Hiroshima were actually running a few hours after the bomb went off," Weinstein says. "That may be a testament to Japanese efficiency, but it's also a testament to the difficulty of damaging infrastructure."

At the end of Tokyo's rail lines, red-light districts reappeared, just where they'd always been. Tangled streets vined up again. When cities grow, or regrow, such patterns are their most stubborn quality. In the World Trade Center's aftermath, the consensus is to string the streets of a pre-towers era back into what had been the vacuum of the plaza.

When Japan surrendered, its people knew the destruction was over. Their cities could rebuild with some confidence. Stalked by a shadowy enemy, New York has no such guarantees. There may be a "threshold of terror," Johnson fears. If global centers are repeatedly destroyed, even two big cities in 10 years, the "feedback loop of people who decided to live near each other" could be reversed, he warns. "After September 11, people looked to their neighbors and saw them hanging out, going to the deli. That was a powerful thing. But if next time they see that their neighbors have packed up and left . . . "

The very idea of the city would perish. Still, it's hard not to suspect that something indomitable would remain. Something more than Gotham's DNA in a computer file thousands of miles away. Even in ruins a city can be, as the ailing pope has been described, "a spirit leading a body." Turn to Flansburgh, an avowed optimist:

"No matter what happens, New Yorkers will do a lot more than survive," he remarks. "Any people that . . . can dance on their heads with just cardboard as cushion is pretty well prepared for whatever's next."

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