If you were here for the very real destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11, you probably thought you’d never care to see a fictionalized depiction of the demolition of New York City. But Max Page figures you’ll get over it, if you haven’t already.
Page’s book, The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction, outlines the city’s rich history of getting leveled in print and on screen, from old sci-fi thrillers through movies like Fail-Safe and The Day After Tomorrow.
Page believes that many of these destructive fantasies are “love letters” to the city in some way: We love New York, he says, so seeing it wrecked makes us feel that love even more. And films like I Am Legend suggest to him that we’re at last ready to enact these bizarre ritual destructions again.
Page, an associate professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says New York became a favored target for fictional destruction because it represents everything that is great about this country.
“New York remains our most important city, symbolically, but also economically and culturally,” said Page. “If you want to celebrate the city, celebrate something about America, it’s in New York… By picturing the destruction [of New York], we’re sort of putting our worst fears on the screen.”
For a few years following 9/11, such destruction was absent from the screen, though it had been readily available in the days just before. In fact Page developed the idea for The City’s End while researching his first book, a history of real estate development in New York from 1900-1940. After finding numerous examples of the city’s fictional destruction, Page developed a museum exhibit on the subject, and finalized his proposal to the New York Historical Society on September 10, 2001.
Naturally he was forced to shelve it the next day. But Page has noticed that the attitude that kept borough-based destruction offscreen in recent years is fading. A desire for normalcy mixed with defiance, he says, has taken its place. In fact, some people have come to see the avoidance of such imagery as “a sign of letting them win, the terrorists,” he says.
Since then, a number of movies have included the WTC, and programmers at Microsoft even restored the buildings to the popular Flight Simulator game after the company removed them. Last year movie-goers saw a full-blown return to apocalyptic form in the empty shell of New York that served as the backdrop for I Am Legend.
“There was a very clear feeling of ‘no, we want that back,'” says Page. “And, frankly, they returned to destroying New York.”