Neo-Catastrophism

Eric Klinenberg

  • The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea by Thomas Bender
    New Press, 287 pp, US $30.00, September 2002, ISBN 1 56584 736 9
  • Dead Cities: and Other Tales by Mike Davis
    New Press, 448 pp, US $16.95, October 2003, ISBN 1 56584 844 6

In the 1990s New York was the capital city of America’s economic boom: now it is the epicentre of urban insecurity. The city is familiar with crisis, however, and no one could say it had surrendered to the new and old dangers it faces. Although disaster experts warn that a dirty bomb could result in the evacuation of millions of panicked residents and require the demolition of contaminated buildings and streets, the demand for real estate continues to escalate and housing prices are higher than they were in 2001. After 11 September, architecture critics warned that the age of the skyscraper had ended, yet dozens of new highrises are under construction and whichever design is ultimately chosen for the new Trade Center complex, it will surely feature one of the world’s tallest buildings. City Hall has slashed social assistance programmes, closed fire stations, raised train and bus fares and introduced hefty property and income tax increases to eliminate a projected $5 or $6 billion budget deficit, but local leaders are still proposing to use public money to build new athletic stadiums as part of a bid for the 2012 Olympics. Is New York in denial or is it simply entering another stage of what the historian Max Page sees as a continuous process of creative destruction, refusing to let any obstacle block its path?

Thomas Bender and Mike Davis are two of America’s leading urban scholars. Bender is a cultural historian known for his accounts of the intellectual and aesthetic life of US cities, and for tracing the distinctively metropolitan influences on American arts, letters and politics. He has been living and studying in New York for nearly three decades, and was at home writing on 11 September. The Unfinished City is prefaced by a note about the disaster that nicely captures Bender’s civic humanism: ‘However tragic, the event had its inspiriting moments. Those who gave their lives seeking to save others, and those many who in various ways expressed their solidarity with the victims and the rescue workers all honoured themselves and the city.’ Davis wants none of this. As America’s most incendiary urban critic – part political ecologist, part historical materialist, part radical ironist – he has been a relentless chronicler of social violence, racial domination and environmental devastation since the Reagan Presidency, consistently exposing the underside of neo-liberal American culture and politics (in Ecology of Fear he called the opulent 1990s the ‘funeral decade’), particularly in California and the new South-West. In Dead Cities he carries his scalpel from London to Hawaii to New Zealand, but makes his first incision in Manhattan. The preface, ‘The Flames of New York’, expresses his familiar apocalyptic sensibility, suggesting that New York has become a ‘black utopia’, a place where skyscrapers collapse into infernos and the repressed roots of urban fear return with spectacular fury. ‘It’s conceivable that bin Laden et al have put a silver stake in the heart of the “downtown revival” in New York and elsewhere. The traditional central city . . . is not dead yet, but the pulse is weakening.’

Bender is particularly concerned about the dangers of political fragmentation and parochialism, the absence of city-wide deliberative institutions and the ascendancy of market values; and he worries that the old terms used to describe places – urban and suburban, centre and periphery – have lost their meaning in an age of sprawl and globalisation. But included in the book are earlier essays designed to illustrate the dynamic and resilient character of New York’s distinctive culture, not to catalogue its social problems or speculate about its demise. The result is at once a native intellectual’s tour of Manhattan’s iconic buildings, paintings and neighbourhoods (there are 54 illustrations alongside the text), and a history of the way different generations of artists, architects and scholars have represented the city.

Bender begins in Washington Square, reminding us that the vibrant public park of today’s Greenwich Village ‘was born in death’, serving as a potter’s field for the indigent and criminal classes between the cholera epidemic of 1798 and 1828, when the Square officially opened. Remarkably, the Village and the Square resisted both the massive commercial and residential development of Manhattan during the 19th century and the vertiginous high-rise construction of the 20th. The city’s elite raced uptown to build apartment buildings and townhouses, largely skipping over the area, and, after the elevated railroads went up in 1869, the middle classes, too, leapfrogged the Village. The wide avenues and numbered streets that reorganised the city bypassed the Square and its environs, leaving behind an ‘isolated’ and ‘old New York’ of small apartment buildings, intimate clubs and winding, named streets. The Village would ultimately become famous as an incubator of Modern and Postmodern cultural experimentation, but its aesthetic and political achievements emerged out of local struggles against Manhattan’s modernisation.

The extraordinary density, diversity and complexity of New York have engendered forms of eccentricity and distinction throughout the city, as Bender shows. ‘Conceive of a field “overpopulated” with voices, all striving to dominate meaning,’ he writes: this is the precondition for urban creativity. Modern cities are ‘ongoing contests over the possession and appropriation of terrains’, with organised groups – wealthy patricians, non-profit but politically interested institutions, profit-seeking developers, artists, writers and city bureaucrats – fighting to shape the landscape. The proliferation of these groups injects a special energy into the public sphere, and Bender is in good company when he celebrates the city’s exceptional creative output, but it also splinters New York into an impossible polity in which the parochial interests of a well-connected few trump the city’s democratic wishes: hence its uneven built environment (compare the public spaces of Manhattan with those of Queens or the Bronx) and hence its unequal distribution of resources. Manhattan may well be the world’s great cultural centre, yet few of the artists and intellectuals whose work animates it can afford to live there, and Bender says little about the effects of that. New Yorkers in search of cultural innovation are more likely to find it in Brooklyn or Queens, and the banker’s island paradise that young people leave behind is decidedly less vital without them.

Bender makes a strong claim for the role of creative intellectuals in New York’s political culture in his six central chapters. An ambitious essay on ‘Modernist Aesthetics and Urban Politics’ outlines the contest between what he characterises as a City of Ambition and a City of Making Do. The City of Ambition, identified with Alfred Stieglitz and his circle, represents the New York of skyscrapers, velocity, sleek geometrical forms and imposing, non-human physicality. The City of Making Do, associated with John Sloan, is the peopled New York of parks, neighbourhoods and sidewalks, a ‘warm, soft and slightly nostalgic’ alternative to the ‘cool, hard-edged and futuristic’ world of high-powered Manhattan. Art critics may not agree with Bender’s assessment of the 22 images reproduced in the chapter, but by drawing connections between these works and subsequent debates over the development of New York – with Robert Moses’s highways, bridges and office towers pitched against Jane Jacobs’s street life and public characters – he is able to show that there is nothing epiphenomenal about urban cultural production. ‘There is a significant and surprisingly direct translation of artistic visions of the city into public policy, and this in part for aesthetic reasons.’ Although he does not connect all the dots, his argument that New York artists and intellectuals have played an unappreciated part in the shaping of public debate is convincing.

The irony is that the rise of an urban culture industry and an economy dependent on tourism, consumption and services undermines the intellectual vitality of cities. When public culture becomes a marketable urban amenity, Bender argues, commercial enterprises move in to harness it, displacing local vendors and replacing neighbourhood cafes with Starbucks, independent bookstores with international chains. For him, the redevelopment of Times Square signals the arrival of a profane ‘suburban consumer’s republic’ in the sacred centre of Manhattan. ‘What had been a very distinctive public space, recognised in the city, the nation and the world for its role in energising and representing the public culture of New York, disappeared . . . The new Times Square could be anywhere . . . It is an alien intrusion of the culture of sameness.’ Yet unlike critics whose laments about McWorlds and the malling of America read as obituaries for urban culture, Bender finds counter-movements and new spaces emerging on the streets of New York and beyond. Contemporary critics and city planners misunderstand lived experience when they focus on dramatic urban centres and fail to see the ‘local publics’ of small sanctuaries, sidewalk markets and alternative public places created by immigrant communities, political coalitions and neighbourhood groups. Innovative architects are transforming the kind of infrastructural buildings that are usually hidden – water treatment and sewage plants – into visible symbols of metropolitan interdependence. And just as an older modernity produced both Midtown and the Village, globalisation currently helps make possible a ‘new metropolitanism’ that recognises and appreciates the connections between city centres and peripheries, locals and publics. New York will endure.

Unless, that is, Mike Davis and the ‘neocatastrophist’ earth sciences he heralds are prophetic (as the dust jacket promises), and an ‘extinction event . . . ruthlessly resets all ecological clocks’, ending urban civilisation as we know it. As Davis has shown in his two devastating books on the political economy of disaster, Ecology of Fear and Late Victorian Holocausts, the combination of untamed capitalist development, indifference to the environment and disregard for disposable, non-white people has already produced lethal crises – famines, fires and floods – that we mistakenly chalk up to ‘natural causes’ or ‘acts of God’. Dead Cities, a collection of articles written between 1990 and 2002, does not limit its concerns to the dangers manufactured here on earth. The chilling final chapters on ‘Extreme Science’ describe in detail how emerging research in astronomy, geology and meteorology identifies the hazards of asteroids, comets and ‘giant impacts’ that are ‘functional equivalents of wars and revolutions in human history’ and could ‘annihilate existing populations’ as they have done in the past. Davis’s readers have come to expect warnings of imminent doom, muckraking accounts of the danger and deprivation hidden in America’s plain sight, and fantastic tales that overstep the limits of credibility (Michael Rogin wrote of his ‘magical dystopian projections’ in a review of Ecology of Fear in the LRB, 19 August 1999). Dead Cities is so fierce and unsettling, one wonders whether Davis believes that a few ‘great comets’ will be necessary to ‘renew the Earth’s fertility and prepare the way for new creations’. His ‘cosmic dancers’ play the role of Bender’s artists and intellectuals: in his explosive ecological history the great forces of creative destruction and change come from the stars, with the military, the energy industry and real-estate developers channelling the power of nature in the most damaging directions.

Dead Cities is not the right name for this collection, in that several of its most disturbing chapters describe the poisoning of deserts and ecosystems. In his political autopsies of Utah and Nevada, for example, Davis calls these prime sites for weapons testing ‘national sacrifice zones’, where ‘secret holocausts’ conducted by Pentagon strategists have made ‘huge areas . . . unfit for human habitation, perhaps for thousands of years’. Anyone who lived through the Cold War is familiar with stories of nuclear catastrophe and toxic tragedy in the former Soviet Union because Western journalists and Soviet activists went to great lengths to expose the acts of ecocide committed by the USSR’s military-industrial complex. In the US, however, ‘most ecologists have underestimated the impact of warfare and arms production on natural history,’ and the local equivalents of Eurasian devastation remain hidden behind images from what Davis calls the ‘“Sierra Club school” of Nature-as-God photography’.

The Atomic Photographers Guild, the New Topographics and other alternative movements in the visual arts get less attention than Ansel Adams, but they have shown how dead animals, military shrapnel and industrial debris represent the Cold War’s fallout on the South-West. Davis takes their images (though he doesn’t reproduce enough of them) in conjunction with brief case studies to illustrate the consequences of using the region as a national dumping ground. St George, Utah, just east of the Nevada Test Site, ‘has been shrouded in radiation debris from scores of atmospheric and accidentally “ventilated” underground blasts’, leaving the downwind population ravaged ‘by cumulative cancers, neurological disorders and genetic defects’. At the nearby Dugway Proving Ground, ‘the Army conducted 1635 field trials of nerve gas, involving at least 500,000 pounds of the deadly agent . . . between 1951 and 1969,’ stopping only ‘after a haywire 1968 experiment asphyxiated six thousand sheep on the neighbouring Gosiute Reservation’. Like many other native populations still living in the deserts, the small Gosiute band clustered in Skull Valley is now a prime target for hazardous waste that no state or county government will take. Expelled from their homelands, deprived of economic opportunities and approaching extinction, the Gosiute voted in 1997 to allow out-of-state utilities to bury 40,000 tons of nuclear waste on their reservation in exchange for cash and cultural preservation programmes.

Storing lethal toxins may be one of the few viable strategies for warding off urbanisation in today’s South-Western boom areas. During the last three decades developers have paved over desert land and built new cities, suburbs and gated communities throughout Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, creating unprecedented, perhaps unmanageable demands for basic resources. Las Vegas is the national leader in unplanned growth and unruly sprawl, with a population that rose 83 per cent between 1990 and 2000 (more than any other American city), from roughly 850,000 to 1,560,000 – and that’s not counting undocumented residents and the permanent population of tourists (about 250,000). Davis is best known for his books about Los Angeles, but he has been mining Nevada’s underside for at least a decade, and in ‘Las Vegas versus Nature’ he shares his findings. As in Los Angeles, boosters in Las Vegas promote their town with an ‘image of infinite opportunity for fun in the sun’, while behind the scenes the big gamers and the politicians who represent them commit ‘environmental terrorism’ against neighbouring residents and regions, which lose water, energy and clean air because the ‘city of sin’ refuses to live within its means. According to the journalist Katherine Eban, Las Vegas residents have not been spared. There is a shortage of 600 hospital beds in the city, emergency rooms are routinely closed to new patients because they lack space and staff, and the metropolitan area – which contains most of the world’s largest hotels and is an icon of American capitalism – would be woefully unprepared for a surge in hospital admissions should disaster strike.

Las Vegas also reproduces what Davis calls the ‘seven deadly sins of Los Angeles and its Sunbelt clones’. Local governments, fragmented and privatised, hoard public resources by refusing to incorporate or integrate with struggling communities; they fail to produce viable public spaces for residents (Las Vegas has one seventh of the recommended national minimum of public parkland); they uphold the reign of the car; and they tolerate extreme inequality by race and class. According to Davis, the city’s biggest gamblers are not to be found in the upscale casinos and gourmet restaurants that dominate the new Vegas, but in the gleaming corporate towers and government offices where financiers, real estate moguls and bureaucrats lay the environment on the line in the hope of short-term windfalls. Unlike the tourists at the blackjack tables, these players leave the room long before the game is over, and they’re not the ones who pay when they lose.

Such tales of greed, brutality and exploitation (of people and nature) on the urban frontier have been the hallmark of Davis’s writing since City of Quartz earned him a dedicated following among academics and activists on the American and European Left. If you have read his work in New Left Review, the Nation and other progressive journals, you may find parts of Dead Cities frustrating, since only a few of the chapters are updated with postscripts, and the fires that motivated some of the older pieces have either taken new shape or flamed out. Sceptics may pass over the chapter ‘Cosmic Dancers on History’s Stage’, where Davis indulges his new interest in astrophysics, geology and theories of catastrophism. But they will have more trouble dismissing his reports on the drought in East Asia, the depletion of marine life in the oceans, the Bering Strait’s failure to freeze and the extreme climatic systems that, in the ‘weather year’ between June 1997 and July 1998, toppled 72,000 miles of power and telephone lines in Quebec (leaving the region ‘without power for nearly a month’), then over-heated Auckland so thoroughly that 120 blocks of downtown ‘became a ghost town’ and ‘scores of businesses were driven to bankruptcy’ as a result of a month-long series of rolling blackouts. In many parts of the world 2002 was even worse. In Australia, forest fires raged through New South Wales, threatening to burn down parts of Sydney, and the country’s chief scientific adviser called the period’s ‘Big Dry’ the continent’s worst drought in a hundred years. Australia’s Reserve Bank estimated a 25 per cent drop in the national economic growth rate due to lost agricultural production, while Melbourne imposed water restrictions on its residents and the famous Queensland beaches turned off their showers. This summer, nearly twenty thousand people died in the record-breaking European heatwave, leaving more than one government acutely embarrassed.

Cataclysmic weather, war and creeping urban vulnerability have revealed dangerous inadequacies in the infrastructures of metropolitan regions. Yet in the United States federal support for city programmes has plummeted since Reagan abandoned them in the 1980s; neither the Bush White House nor the Republican Congress has an urban agenda; and the generous budget for Homeland Security offers little to cities interested in the health and welfare initiatives that would protect residents from the everyday dangers that affect them most. According to the American Hospital Association, the number of hospitals in the US declined by 900 between 1980 and 2000, and 80 per cent of city emergency rooms experience excessive crowding. The executive director of the US Governors Association complains that federal and state budget cuts are forcing local governments to reduce Medicaid eligibility and benefits for the poor, while rising unemployment and the soaring costs of private insurance pushed 1.4 million Americans out of coverage in 2001. Two years after 11 September, Bush’s tax cuts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken money from the government agencies designed to provide social security, and cities throughout the US are paring down their police and fire services, all the while assuring citizens that the new breed of MBA-wielding entrepreneurial leaders are empowering the people to look after themselves.

Mike Davis is a necessary voice in these times of widespread anxiety, political violence and ecological danger. Despite occasional excesses, he challenges conventional accounts of city life in the boom years persuasively, and helps us imagine what more generous notions of national security and social protection could mean. He writes that the radical photographer Richard Misrach ‘reveals the terrible, hypnotising beauty of Nature in its death throes, of Landscape as Inferno. We have no choice but to look.’ The same might be said of Davis himself. The virtue of Thomas Bender’s humanist vision is that it uses history to point out where we might turn next. The Unfinished City is an essential reminder of the metropolitan ideals – open intellectual exchange, social justice, appreciation of difference and vigorous public life – that have long inspired urban cultural production and political action, and are especially important during periods of uncertainty and change. The city is not dead yet.