My City in Not-Ruins

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What is it like to see your city bombed out, like London during the Blitz, yet more or less intact?


Those of us who venture out, because we have to go to work or to Kroger, or because our restless impulses push back against our collective loss of agency by doing the one thing we can do freely and safely – drive around – we see the landscape eerily as it was.  Trapped inside for days, weeks, months, we thought maybe the whole world outside was ravaged, the way we know untold millions of people’s bodies are.  The world is ending.  We hear ambulances more than we used to, but almost everything out there looks exactly the same. 

It’s weird. 

If you drive around these days, you feel like Tom Cruise at the beginning of Vanilla Sky or Will Smith at the beginning of I Am Legend. The weird asymmetry of exactly one protagonist and nothing, in familiar city street scenes from a million New York movies or, in Atlanta’s case, The Walking Dead.  Elephants roaming the streets of Philly without humans in 12 Monkeys.

Parking lots are empty, like Baptist churches at midnight.  Almost every apocalyptic story recapitulates the dawn of time but in reverse, picturing one man entering into the emptiness of the world.  The plague does that to us, at least for a few minutes.

Yet the world is not over. The city is not destroyed by German planes or Enola Gay.  It’s all still here, except for the some of us who have been taken by the virus.  And it’s all still here, except for the some of us who are at home, not working, or just not working.  Almost all of us are gone, in some way, yet everything is still here.

Having been raised on a steady diet of dystopian carnage, most of us find this strange.  There should be zombies marauding and tearing shit up, transformer robots stepping foot on skyscrapers, irradiated wastelands, tangled rebar, or at least some lava.

And how

The uncanniness of it all, though, is not in what we expected but didn’t get – a panorama of destruction worthy of Michael Bay – but, of course, in what we didn’t expect and got.  What we got is a catastrophe worse than an aerial bombing that makes children orphans and homeless.  It’s something worse than a coordinated terrorist attack on the subway and airport could do.  Because those things are tangible, containable, and spatially limited. 

Right now, the sneak attack on us remains muted, and for most people outside a hospital its devastation is still invisible, like a Platonic ideal behind the appearance of the world that is more real than the world.  You look at an empty Burger King, or a senior facility that seems placid and lonesome, when viewed from a normally busy thoroughfare with only a few stray cars on it, and think – the monster is hiding behind the normal mask of the world.  We are under siege without a Blitz. 

Of course, for anyone who is sick or has a loved one who is, or for anyone who works on the frontlines of healthcare, or for anyone whose life is otherwise being thrown into turmoil by the crisis, it is far from quiet or invisible.  I just mean that, for anyone who walks or drives down the street, the eerie quietness and sameness of the world around creates a profound kind of cognitive dissonance. 

We know things are bad and going to get worse.  Many people are going to die.  Many people are going to watch others die.  Many people are going to lose their jobs, savings, homes, and sanity in a hurricane-tsunami of needless human wreckage, as the ramifications of a truly unprecedented crisis work their way through a matrix of economic and political systems too antique or obtuse to know what to do with them.  The sense of the surreal is only heightened by the incongruity of the scale of the crisis with the ominous serenity of the built environment all around us.

Americans – and indeed most people on Earth – are in the greatest crisis we have faced since the Great Depression and World War II, when tens of millions lost their lives and the world teetered on the edge of the abyss.  Most of us have not yet absorbed the shock of how much things have now changed from the way they were before and will continue to change – hence, the cognitive dissonance.  Yet the war today, at least for now, will look, feel, and sound much different than the wars before.

Maybe what we fear when we go out and see our everyday surroundings like they usually are is a dread of what is to come. Everything seems normal, but in a time we know is not normal. We see what we love, our neighborhoods, our downtowns, even our boring office parks, and we know it could go — or it’s already gone, and we don’t see it yet.

In this sense, the wonderful lines from Joan Didion’s exploration of grief, Blue Nights, are turned on their head or turned inside-out:

The fear is not for what is lost.

What is lost is already in the wall.

What is lost is already behind the locked doors.

The fear is what is still to be lost.

Joan Didion, Blue Nights

The fear is, indeed, for what is not yet lost.  But, in the time of COVID, what is not yet lost is in the wall.  What’s not yet lost is still in the empty pavements and elementary schools, the Burger Kings and the soundless apartment complexes.  And it’s creepy.  And we don’t yet know what to do with it.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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