Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh: The Muted Apocalypse

Adi Tantimedh writes for Bleeding Cool;

So Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of America and blew through New Jersey and New York.

New Yorkers can be infamously jaded and blasé, so none of them expected it to be as bad as it got. Both New York and New Jersey neglected to invest in improving defenses against rising tides despite the past decade's worth of scientists predicting this would happen. As such, New Jersey is wrecked, taking the brunt of the storm like a shotgun to the face. And while the outer boroughs of New York, especially Staten Island and Far Rockaway were horribly hit and in desperate, dire straits with thousands without food, water, heat or power, New York City itself has been relatively unscathed.

Yes, there are still pockets of desperation in the city – Alphabet City in the East Village is flooded, also powerless and without heat or water, isolated incidents of fires, a building collapse and there's a lurking sense of horror that the homeless people living in the subway tunnels may all be dead and undiscovered for days if not weeks, over 30 people in the city killed from trees falling on them – but New York herself still stands, bruises and waterlogged hair barely tousled as she covers it all under a fresh dab of make-up.

While New Yorkers have been sufficiently freaked out by the magnitude of the hurricane, the sense of the Apocalypse has been fairly low-key rather than an anxious, panicked fear that the world was ending. This has been at least as big an infrastructural crisis as 9/11, but that was also a national psychic wound that unleashed a wave of geopolitical fear and paranoia. This is more a bloody nose on the city. After all, there's no ideological enemy attacking the country. It's more a wake-up call for the realities of climate change. The city itself is still standing despite the pockets of horror. Manhattan was divided into two cities: Uptown where life and tourism continued as if nothing happened, and a dead zone below 34th Street without power or light.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1t3CTzlrvAw[/youtube]

The first sign that this was going to be worse than anyone in New York expected was the transformer at the power station on 14th Street blowing up like something out of every disaster movie you've ever seen or imagined. Shortly after that, Downtown went dark, the subway tunnels were flooded and the bridges were closed. The loss of the subway system was probably the biggest shock no one was expecting.

The next few days saw a New York City that was like a SEX AND THE CITY movie and an Abel Ferrara movie playing side-by-side at the same Cineplex. The city below 34th Street was a dead zone, completely dark after sundown and eerily quiet. It was the kind of atmosphere where you might imagine the zombie apocalypse erupting, of gangs running riot in Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS (itself an imagined apocalypse of 1970s New York), John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and Italian urban Mad Max rip-offs like 2019 – AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK, of horrors lurking in the shadows ready to attack as you wandering with only a flashlight in a survival horror game, of festering, unspeakable, Lovecraftian horrors.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMWC_-k-EOs[/youtube]

And yet, it was none of those things. All in all, the Lower East Side, despite the threat of scary, unexpected crime it was known for in the 70s and 80s, remained fairly tranquil and civil. No reports of looting came out of Manhattan, which was surprising. This is a far cry from the riots of London in the summer of 2011 where it really felt like the place was going up in flames and angry kids and people who felt no investment or belonging in the community quite logically looted and burned everything in sight. That's London, which so many people consider the pinnacle of Civilisation while New York has lived with an increasingly outdated myth of a crime-ridden dystopia that started in the 1970s and has shown itself as being selfless and united in weathering a city-wide crisis. It wasn't the blockbuster conflagration of a crass Roland Emmerich movie so much as the surreal disquiet of a J.G. Ballard novel. THE DROWNED WORLD comes to mind, especially with the images of all those flooded subway tunnels.

Manhattan is Pop Culture's capital City. More than any other city in the world, it has lingered long in the mind of movies, TV and fiction as the archetypal city in which the end of the world visits first and foremost. Los Angeles, London, Paris don't carry as much symbolic charge when they get destroyed. It's always New York in the minds of not just Americans or Hollywood but the rest of the world. This is probably because New York has been seen as the first truly modern, and Modernist, city, embodying technological progress, technological advancement and the glamour of artistic endeavours borne from new technology out of the soil of immigrant cultures blending together. New York City has always been where people flocked to when they wanted to make art and money, a centre for culture and money.

Granted, Japan has a more intense and surreal relationship with the Apocalypse, having been nuked twice so they actually faced the prospect of their world ending, and they've made more movies, comics and anime about it than any other culture, but in the eyes of the world, it's always New York City. As Maria Popova pointed out in her review of Max Pages book THE CITY'S END: TWO CENTURIES OF FANTASIES, FEARS AND PREMONITIONS OF NEW YORK'S DESTRUCTION, writers and artists have dreamed of apocalypses for Manhattan for a long time.

And yet New York City has defied all premonitions and predictions of dystopian collapse this past week by displaying a magnanimous outpouring of activism and volunteer work to help the most vulnerable and needy in the way of Hurricane Sandy, as if in defiance of all scenarios of its demise. Occupy Wall Street has risen again, reiterating its relevance by organising relief efforts all over the city and outer boroughs faster and more immediately than FEMA and the Red Cross have done, days before The National Guard could be mobilized to distribute water and food. Other local grassroots volunteer activism were popping up like The Bicycle Habitat's campaign to bike supplies over to Staten Island and Rockaway.

Things are still messed up, politicians still have things to answer for, there are still people in trouble and rip-off artists out to make a buck, but in an era when increasingly banal and clichéd dystopian visions like REVOLUTION are dominating the pop culture landscape, the people of New York City has acted the contrarian again and stuck two fingers to dystopia by being defiantly plucky and generous. Things could still get worse, but the local communities are daring to contemplate social utopias, which is more than can be said for Hollywood.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rj04n3vxA6Y[/youtube]

If you're in New York City and want to donate goods or volunteer, check out https://recovers.org/communities for specific areas and needs.

Considering all apocalypses at lookitmoves@gmail.com

Follow the official LOOK! IT MOVES! twitter feed at http://twitter.com/lookitmoves for thoughts and snark on media and pop culture, stuff for future columns and stuff I may never spend a whole column writing about.

Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh

About Rich Johnston

Head writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world. Living in London, father of two. Political cartoonist.

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