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The Beauty of Dead Cities

I took a taxi ride late last night through Lower Manhattan, which New Yorkers are beginning to call the “deadzone”. It was eerie and beautiful, with many streets lighted only by the colored flashes of passing police cars. These photos [3] by my friend Justin L. Jeffers give some idea of what the city looks like in deep night. You can even see the stars (the effect is heightened in the images by the use of a light-receptive lens).

Some disaster tourists have compared the experience to post-apocalyptic films. As we cruised without slowing under darkened traffic signals, I thought of “Escape from New York,” but also W.G. Sebald, the late German novelist who became the poet laureate of dead cities. In Rings of Saturn [4] and The Emigrants [5], especially, Sebald explores the peculiar dread that characterizes abandoned urban environments. It’s not the decay that gets you. It’s the darkness, and the silence.

The lights are scheduled to go back on tomorrow. Soon after that happens, most of Manhattan will return to its familiar bustle. That’s good. Hundreds of thousands, particularly those who live in high-rise buildings, have spent the week under very difficult conditions. And the repairs and improvements that New York needs have to be financed by a strong economy.

Despite the risk of enjoying a cheap holiday in other people’s misery, however, I’ll be a little disappointed by the return to normalcy. Unlike areas that were really devastated, including the Jersey Shore and large parts of Staten Island, life in Manhattan this week has been like a trip to another dimension that looks almost the same but is governed by a radically different logic. It hasn’t been a pleasant journey, exactly. But it has brought the unperceived structure of the ordinary into foreground, something like the negative of a photograph.

The New York I saw last night is not a vision I want to see again. But I hope never to forget it.

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#1 Comment By Justin L Jeffers On November 2, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

Thank you for linking to my photos and site. Well written piece and what you say is true about how it is in the dead zone. To clarify, I did not use any type of light special lens, just a regular dSLR camera. I just exposed the photos for a while to allow for more light to be shown. Stay safe.

#2 Comment By Samuel Goldman On November 2, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

Sorry for mischaracterizing your technique, Justin. However they were made, the photos are spooky and wonderful