If We Lost It All


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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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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