From Meteors to Marshmallow Men, New York has a Future.

By Bruce Cherry

Bruce Cherry looks at future visions of our fair city, and shows us how even killer tsunamis and unkillable politicians can’t kill what makes New York special.

Future CherryWhat does the future hold for New York City? This is a question endlessly speculated on by everyone from scientists to filmmakers, and their answers tend to break down into two categories: idealistic utopian visions, and apocalyptic nightmares. The idealistic visions tend to come from the scientists, while apocalyptic nightmares are more the province of moviemakers. This works out well, since it would be very disturbing if scientists were seriously predicting that giant mutant lizards would soon emerge from the East River to begin devouring New Yorkers. Conversely, nobody wants to watch a movie about happy people bicycling around a city powered by smart renewable energy sources. To be sure, there are plenty of scientists who predict a dour future if we don’t mend our ways, but they generally also offer a version of an eco-friendly paradise as an alternative, to entice us into changing our act.

Utopian visions of the New York of the future have changed over the years. In the ’50’s and ’60’s, future New York was portrayed as a technological marvel, in line with the confident hope that people of the eras to come would invest in scientific progress. The dominant modes of transportation, therefore, were to be either Jetsons-style hovercraft or the ubiquitous jet pack.

I’m all for flying vehicles, but I’m not sure I want them in the hands of New York City cabbies — and if they are, then they better have horns. And it’s never been made clear where these flying cars are going to park. Knowing New York, vast areas of the airspace over the city of the future will be zoned, “No hovering, 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., except 11:00 p.m. Sunday to 8:00 a.m. Monday, loading or unloading only. Alternate-side airspace cleaning regulations in effect.” As for jet packs, I’ve almost been killed enough times by restaurant delivery guys on bicycles. I don’t want to be mowed over at 1,500 feet by a guy with a rocket on his back carrying an order of chicken vindaloo.

Today’s utopian visions of future New York tend to focus more on the environmentally friendly aspects of tomorrow, as befits our more ecologically aware society. In these scenarios, many long-buried streams and springs throughout Manhattan have been restored, creating recreational space and another place for homeward bound nightclubbers to urinate. In today’s conceptions of tomorrow, everyone seems to get around by bicycle or streetcar, making me think that the world of tomorrow will bear an odd resemblance to the world of 1890, minus the bowler hats and handlebar mustaches. Actually, since the energy is generated by windmills, there’s an element of New York circa 1690 in there as well.

One thing the future visions from the 1960s and today have in common is that everybody seems to be deliriously happy. Whether they’re pedaling past a restored stream on the Upper East Side or jet packing to work at Spacely Sprockets downtown, everyone looks like they’re ready to party like it’s 2099. In the future, evidently, we’ll have already invented something to relieve the angst that radiates from the faces of present-day New Yorkers.

Cinematic depictions of New York’s future tend to be less benign. New York has been destroyed on film by everything from a poorly rendered beast from 20,000 fathoms to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s been struck by tsunamis, meteors, and a combination of flood and freezing that turns Manhattan into a skating rink punctured with skyscrapers. On film, future Gotham has become the stomping ground for melanin-deprived zombies, warrior gangs, and a grotesquely over-acting Kurt Russell. In that film, 1981’s “Escape from New York,” Manhattan has become a maximum security prison, home solely to immoral, hardcore criminals. That vision of future New York came true to a degree, but it’s just lower Manhattan, and the criminals work for Goldman Sachs.

My favorite futuristic depictions of our city are the ones in the History Channel series “Life After People” that show what would happen if all human beings suddenly vanished, from moments after the disappearance to several million years down the road. In the case of New York, the first effect would be no more lines at Whole Foods. Next, subway trains would stop running almost immediately. Wait — I think that’s already happening.

After two years with no people at all, the rent on a one-bedroom apartment would finally drop to under $2,000. Dogs would revert to the wild, so within a few years the Upper East Side would become home to roaming packs of shih tzus and bichon frises. Within 50 years, the city would become a decaying shell of abandoned buildings and collapsing infrastructure—kind of like the New York of the 1970s, but without the great bands.

After 250 years, the knishes on the abandoned food carts will begin to decay. The nice thing is that 500 years from now, work on the 2nd Avenue subway line will remain roughly on schedule. Styrofoam literally lasts forever, so ten million years from now that stack of white containers beside the deli steam table will still be there. If you ask me, so will the rigatoni. Finally, no matter how far into the future you go, Michael Bloomberg will have amended the term limits law to allow himself to remain as mayor.

Last 5 posts by Bruce Cherry

Posted on 20 Jul 2010 at 4:02am
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