Saturday, August 04, 2007

Escape From New York

Back in the late 1970s, John Carpenter wrote and directed a movie based on the premise that Manhattan Island would be abandoned and turned into a maximum-security prison by 1997.

"Escape from New York" (which has a highly recommended Wikipedia article) nicely sums up the pessimistic attitudes people had about our cities only 30 years ago. The movie was actually filmed in East St. Louis, where a massive urban fire had reduced hundreds of downtown blocks to rubble. The city had suffered one of the nation's worst cases of white flight, and its bankrupt government had no objections to its streets being used as a post-apocalyptic movie set.

Mort Gerberg cartoon from the New Yorker, 2002.
Fifteen years later, Giuliani was Disneyfying Times Square, and urban desperation had followed its manifest destiny westward to Los Angeles. "Escape from LA" came out in 1996, following the Northridge earthquake, the Rodney King riots, and OJ Simpson's terminal celebrity. The movie's plot, about a religious fascist who rises to power when "the big one" floods the San Fernando Valley, both exploited and mocked the 1990s' national hatred of Southern California.

In 2007, we still have spectacular urban disasters: 9/11, Katrina, the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. And yet (with the possible exception of New Orleans) these disasters don't elicit fantasies of abandoning/escaping our cities. In the real-life 21st century, the closest thing we have to "Escape from New York" is a weekly section of recommended vineyard tours and golf resorts in the Times.

In fact, most of our 21st-century penal colonies are actually being built in economically-depressed rural hinterlands. Perhaps "Escape from Berlin, New Hampshire" could be a part of Kurt Russell's retirement plan?

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