Dead Cities/Out of Ground Zero: Case Studies in Urban Reinvention

Dead Cities
Mike Davis

New Press, 2002

Out of Ground Zero: Case Studies in Urban Reinvention

Joan Ockman, editor

Temple Hoyne Buell Center & Prestel, 2002

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, a new city rose in place of the old one almost as quickly as everything had burned to the ground. Developers, bankers, and even the city government were so excited to get their hands on the 1,800 destroyed city blocks and start rebuilding that there was no time to waste building a memorial or even prosecuting those responsible for the conflagration. The Loop came to be worth far more with no buildings in it than it had been fully occupied. In just two years Chicago was rebuilt with eclectic, unstable investments no more fireproof than their predecessors. These speculative, provisional buildings would not last very long themselves and central Chicago would be rebuilt twenty years later.

In the wake of the partial destruction of lower Manhattan, opportunistic publishers released a flurry of books to cash in on the disaster. Each presents interpretations and representations of the void in the city. Bookstore shelves were lined with editions of photographs, new theoretical works, architectural appreciations and first person narratives long before the question of rebuilding was pondered in any significant way. The Great Fire reminds us that other ground zeroes existed before Manhattan requisitioned the term. The Chicago story is recounted in a recent compilation of urban reconstruction case studies. Each examines how a number of other cities have dealt with comparable blows.

Another conspicuous release in recent months has been Mike Davis’ Dead Cities. The title alone cashes in on the vogue of urban calamity. Over the last decade, Davis has become the great dystopian interpreter of the American City. His passionate Ecology of Fear is The Jungle of our day. Chronicling Los Angeles’ impending doom, it gave me nightmares about urban decay and natural disasters thousands of miles away. What might happen when Davis turned his attention East, to my own hometown, New York City?

In the first of many disappointments, one discovers that Dead Cities is not about New York at all. Upon opening the book, its real title is revealed to be Dead Cities and Other Tales, the other tales being in fact reprints of articles Davis has published over the last twelve years, some updated for the occasion with little postscripts. The book’s preface reviews in a rather cursory fashion the destruction of New York and then goes on to question how the country’s new sense of heightened alert effects the future of the city. While fear and loathing have always gone hand in hand with our image of the city, the new technologies designed to combat these real and imagined threats are dramatically altering the forms of the city. In the process they may make the city obsolete. Davis’ reminder of all the firms that fled New York City post-9/11 for corporate office parks sends shivers down one’s spine. After that comforting analysis, Davis and Dead Cities mercifully turn their attention to the West, leaving New Yorkers with the modest comfort that things could be worse. They could be Angelenos.

The West has long led the way in unsound urban development and ecological disaster. Davis takes us on a tour of Western wastelands and high growth areas, spaces which sometimes overlap, to reveal dead cities we could never have imagined. The essay Berlin’s Skeleton in Utah’s Closet is a tour of the remains of “German Village” on a military base outside Salt Lake City. In World War II, it was part of a five-square mile replica German and Japanese towns constructed solely to test the best methods for burning down the real cities on which they were modeled. The complex was meticulously designed to share the same kind of wood, moisture levels—even drapes and furniture—as workers’ housing in Berlin or Hamburg. Then the miniature city was firebombed and rebuilt several times. The Utah experiments helped the U.S. and British armies successfully incinerate numerous German and Japanese cities and the people who lived in them. The vast expanses of the American West provided a cover for all sorts of military malfeasance, from nuclear tests whose effects continue to affect downwind populations, to toxic waste dumping which continues to this day. Salt Lake City’s suburban fringe is now creeping out towards these ravaged landscapes, precipitating a collision between two kinds of American progress.

Much of Dead Cities centers on Los Angeles, where we review Davis’ work on its follies. Los Angeles is the model of the bad city, the one he loves to hate. His criticisms are no longer unfamiliar: disinvestment in the center city, or very selective investment which subsidizes high rent office buildings over public spaces and affordable housing, the disappearance of jobs and social services for urban residents, escalating violence fueled by police brutality and jail culture, and institutionalized racism manifest in a growing "spatial apartheid.” Terrorist attacks are not the only way of inflicting wounds on a city. Promises to help rebuild Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots in 1992 were quickly forgotten. The city dies a little every day, and though each tragedy is small, the cumulative effect far surpasses that of a sixteen-acre hole. But we need this sort of catalogue of horrors to make us see and to ensure that we won’t forget.

Davis gives free reign to his apocalyptic visions, imagining scientifically the dead cities in our future. He envisions our great cities entirely abandoned. Structures collapse and are reclaimed by nature. Some plants and animals thrive in the waste we leave behind us, in this Twenty-Second Century Wild America. These apocalyptic fantasies have their precedent in nineteenth century stories of wild London (and Blade Runner). But Davis brings to these fictions an air of prophecy, and loses us with his extremism. His indignation, his almost gleeful despair alienates this great cultural critic from his public in this often heavy-handed book. Davis is furious about so many things that they start to become confused. He rails against Southern California’s military-industrial complex, then complains that base closings and “the end-of-Cold-War shrinkage of the conventional military has closed the single most important employment option for ghetto and barrio youth.” It is sad and surprising to see Davis give up on the city, as if it were already a lost cause. After Davis has spent his career fascinating us with the city’s mysteries and charms, this renunciation is unconvincing. We’re left all wound up with no place to go.

Out of Ground Zero, focusing on the sad fates of cities other than New York, allows for a similar sigh of relief at the suffering of others. The urban reinvention case studies in the book were compiled from a series of lectures held last spring at Columbia University’s School of Architecture in an attempt to see what lessons New York City in 2002 could draw from urban disasters past. How, these stories ask, do cities cope with and move beyond the disasters that befall them, or that they bring upon themselves?

The story of Chicago, with which we began, had its own happy ending, in that the shoddy reconstruction immediately after the fire served as a lesson to the architects like Daniel Burnham, John Root, and Louis Sullivan who would soon step in to replace a speculative, transitory Chicago with their solid and fireproof one, making the center city one of beauty and permanence which persist today.

Three essays in the book discuss cities damaged by World War II bombings. They were the real results of the simulated wars Mike Davis describes in the American West. While German and Japanese villages could be bombed and then immediately reconstructed by a team of engineers and Hollywood set builders, Rotterdam, Hiroshima, and Plymouth were on their own. The damage to all these city centers was devastating, and aerial before-and-after images are still painful to look at, particularly now that WWII bombings of civilian targets are the subject of intense scrutiny. But these ground zeroes were also sites of possibility. Sadly, in what is now the same old story of modern urbanism, the new cities satisfied neither architects nor their residents. Plymouth’s “bold and comprehensive” rebuilding dragged on for years. Rotterdam’s rebuilding on a modern plan left large public spaces without purpose and no structures of collective memory.

Memory is famously at the center of the new Hiroshima. The magnitude of the tragedy that befell that city (almost 200,000 dead as a result of the bomb, and still counting) opened the door to new urbanistic possibilities. The postwar competition for a new city promised a new era for Japanese architecture, as did Kenzo Tange’s winning proposal. His design for the Peace City was a comprehensive plan for the city, blending Western and Japanese architectural traditions and his concern with creating a city where living and memorializing could coexist. His Peace Memorial Park was built, but at the center of a banal city shaped by postwar economic forces.

In his contribution, historian Max Page reviews “two centuries of real and imagined destruction of New York City.” In Page’s book The Creative Destruction of Manhattan (Chicago 1999), he did a wonderful job of examining the city’s culture of constant renovation in the early Twentieth Century. Here he expands on this moment to look at New York’s disregard for its own history, and at recurrent fantasies of the city’s demise: precisely what one would have expected Dead Cities to discuss. Page puts the reality of New York City’s current situation in perspective—the city has been tearing itself apart and building back up constantly over the last century at least. The fact that it has always been in Le Corbusier’s admiring phrase, “a city in the process of becoming,” is at the city’s essence, and a crucial part of its appeal. Page also cites a number of disasters overcome by the city, from the Battle of New York (1776, one-third of the city destroyed), to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and, one could add, the city’s bankruptcy and the entire decade of the 1970s.

The fictional attacks on New York which the real one so resembled and our recurrent fantasy of the city’s spectacular demise are reflections of New York’s immense cultural significance. It is not just a haughty symbol of wealth and greatness to be brought down. At the heart of New York is a commitment to public life, and the city still represents diversity and progress as much as multinational capital. "New York," Page writes, “has always embodied the most troubling and longstanding tensions in American history and life: the ambivalence towards cities, the troubled reaction to immigrants and racial diversity, the fear of technology’s impact….” An attack on New York City, an attack on any city today is an attack on civic life. It is essential to realize that, beyond fundamentalists, fires, or invading armies, we are the greatest threat to our cities and to ourselves.

In Out of Ground Zero’s epilogue, Benjamin Barber turns his attention to what has been lurking in the shadows throughout all of Dead Cities, the suburbs. And both he and Davis see the movement of people, capital and political power out of the cities and into the suburbs as our urban centers’ death knell. Mike Davis ultimately blames the demise of central Los Angeles on government-supported movement of jobs and the white population out of the city. For Barber, the problem is more philosophical: suburban culture is “anything but civic and only problematically democratic.” After 2,500 years of the civic world of towns and cities, he continues, “a public existence is not possible in an architecture designed exclusively for private consumption. It is not the commercialization of space but the privatization of space that plays havoc with citizenship.” The world of shopping malls and gated communities grows exponentially, at the expense of the inner cities which Mike Davis prophesied as ruins restored to nature. This apocalypse collides with another when everyone moves away from the cities to live out their lives in safe, clean and homogeneous (read empty and exclusionary) sites. Rather than as the focus of destructive hatred, it is as the victim of neglect that the city will perish and our whole way of life with it.

Suburbanization is real, and has had a real impact on the way we live, but both authors make the same mistake. In their hand-wringing over sprawl and decentralization, in their fixation on the suburbs, which has been the obsession of academics and cultural critics for years, they do the same thing they accuse government officials and the middle class of doing. They too come to turn their backs on the cities—which, contrary to popular belief, are still standing. Even if, as Barber claims, the new suburban culture encompasses more than one-half of the American population—and this is oversimplification to say the least—what about everyone else? People continue to pour into American cities every year, not to mention the growth of cities in other areas of the globe (hardly anybody does). If people have not given up on cities, why must scholars and planners abandon them prematurely? The greatest lesson in rebuilding cities is precisely not to leave them agonizing, not to run for the hills. It is in facing our cities squarely in front of us that we can rise to their challenges.