View Full Version : 'City Without Fear'

April 24th, 2003, 07:06 AM
April 24, 2003
City Without Fear

An anxious city hangs between fear and indifference. Vague color-coded alert signals flicker in and out of consciousness. Homes are stocked with supplies that seem futile against powerful, unseen weaponry. The dilemma of urbanity weighs on city residents: the traits that make cities desirable also render them prime targets.

The place: New York City. The year: 1954. In the first of a compulsory, soon-to-be annual ritual, the city girds for Operation Alert. In the scenario envisioned in the drill, an atomic bomb hits Williamsburg, in northwest Brooklyn. A three-minute blast of an air raid siren, and the city vanishes into shelters. Traffic stills. At Yankee Stadium, ground crews point water hoses at 17,000 fans, presumably to wash away the expected fallout. Imaginary casualty lists have more than 2.9 million dead.

New York again finds itself living under threat of attack. City officials have again devised a security plan, Operation Atlas, to protect citizens against terrorists. National Guardsmen patrol the subways. There are checkpoints at bridges and tunnels. Yet New Yorkers have not built bunkers or fled Gotham en masse. According to a recent poll, New Yorkers living in the city that's Code Orange when everywhere else is Code Yellow are the least prepared for an emergency among residents of America's 10 biggest cities. The fact is striking, considering which city was attacked 19 months ago.

Outsiders may wonder why New Yorkers, while living with the awareness that a devastating attack is quite possible, continue to immerse themselves in urban life. But New Yorkers of the 1950's when the threat was arguably greater, more ultimately devastating whistled past their atomic graveyard with similar chutzpah. Indeed, the New York skyline today defiantly attests that its residents faced danger not by hunkering down but by building up.

Despite drills like Operation Alert, federal civil defense officials in the 1950's essentially wrote off the city as an inevitable atomic fatality. Its residents were too concentrated, its departure routes too congested, its adequate shelters too few. "The sad fact is," Consumer Reports observed, "that there isn't much that can be done for the vulnerable central cores of our cities." Prophets of anti-urbanism said that the future lay in far-flung "linear cities," away from metropolitan centers.

To guard against nuclear attack, one urban planner, Tracy Augur, suggested that Americans leave the cities, calling them "obsolete" and "economically unsound and dangerous." Those who couldn't be persuaded to evacuate were expected to live under an austere set of aesthetic guidelines. "Unlike the new U.N. building," civil defense officials advised, "atom-resistant structures should have a minimum of glass and decorative stone slabs to limit the dangers from flying debris." If New York had followed these rules, the buildings of the 1950's and 1960's would all have resembled the AT&T switching center in Lower Manhattan, a looming, nearly windowless obelisk of flame-treated granite.

Instead, the city responded with a glass shield, fragile crystal towers that offered little shelter from a nuclear blast but provided a glittering, transparent rebuke to cold-war darkness and secrecy. New York at mid-century saw the reign of the glass-curtain wall of high modernism, expressed in such monuments as the United Nations, the Seagram Building and Lever House, which Lewis Mumford called "a laughing refutation of imperialist warmongering."

In standing their ground, New Yorkers may have been calling the lie on civil defense, the idea that nuclear war was survivable. Or they may have been saying, grimly, stoically, that life without cities was not worth living. Perhaps being a prime target increased, however mordantly, civic pride. It was Mumford who observed that "the riches of cities material, social, cultural have long made them a visible object for collective aggression." Their strategic weaknesses are their very strengths. That these riches are at risk increases their value.

Global dangers have again given New Yorkers the chance to leave for safer realms. Again, they have resisted. New Yorkers may be in denial. But by being New Yorkers, by not living as if under siege even as new walls and guns appear, as they have in all great cities under peril what might seem like denial is an implicit defense. For what civilization ever thrived without its metropolis?

With memories of the 1950's dimming, New Yorkers now reinvoke a deep-dyed, venerable spirit, an inner civil defense. In a city where one has to fight for everything, fighting for survival is second nature. We stock our symbolic survival kits with the enduring idea of New York, which is more resilient than any of its architecture.

Tom Vanderbilt is author of "Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

April 24th, 2003, 07:41 AM

And that ridiculous Civil Defense turtle.

April 24th, 2003, 11:49 AM
Instead of duck-and-cover, we now have "try-and-be-far-away." From Tome Ridge's ready.gov (http://ready.gov/index.html) website (pdf):