Trauma Centers

Trauma Centers BY CHAR MILLER The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster Edited by Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella Oxford University Press 376 pages, $24.95 exas is a disaster waiting to happen. Come to think of it, the disaster has already occurred, and repeatedly so. Just flip through a century’s worth of the state’s major dailies for a gruesome tally of death and devastation—you’ll discover plenty of it. Galveston heads the list: In 1900 a murderous hurricane churned across the Gulf of Mexico and smashed across the island, killing an estimated 6,000 people, the worst such loss in U.S. history. In subsequent years, the bad news just kept rolling in. Corpus Christi was torn apart by a 1919 hurricane; two years later, in Flash-Flood Alley, San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos, and Austin disappeared beneath surging flood waters that swept away scores of citizens and made inhabitable large stretches of the built landscape. Goliad (1902), Waco (1953), Wichita Falls (1979), and tiny Saragosa (1987) have been among the many communities that have imploded when swirling, black-funnel clouds touched down, leaving indescribable havoc. And then there is Texas City. It was vaporized in 1947, along with 576 residents, after the SS Grandcamp, packed with ammonia nitrite, erupted in a fireball. A chilling echo of that deadly moment came this past March, when a unit of BP’s local refinery blew up, killing 15 workers. The list could go on and on and on: The Lone Star State is one dangerous place. Yet what is striking about this catalogue of woe is not that it happened, but where it happened. Always the city is our frame of reference, the backdrop for and the scale by which we measure the weight of what we dub “natural disasters.” There is nothing particularly natural about them, for what we are really describing is their impact on us. Who notices when a Gulf Coast hurricane veers away from Brownsville and whips into little-populated Kenedy County? An earthquake that merely uplifts the desert sand is not nearly as riveting as the December 2003 temblor that within seconds reduced the ancient Iranian city of Bam to dust; a tornado that rips through a ranch has none of the clout of a twister that levels a trailer park (though flying cattle would be something of a photo op). Yet even such a bucolic curiosity does not qualify as an act of God—to achieve such a venerated (and uninsurable) status requires staggering, heart-rending human loss. It is the same the world over, a point implicit in The Resilient City. Would anyone write for, or read, a volume dedicated to rural resiliency and the plucky farm families who rebuild their barns, mend their fences, and give chase to an airborne longhorn? But editors Vane and Campanella are correct in that there is something remarkable about the capacity of cities and their citizens to suffer great misery and then rebound. Between 1100 and 1800, for instance, only 42 cities “were permanently abandoned following destruction,” a number that might have increased as in those same years “Baghdad, Moscow, Allepo, Mexico City, and Budapest lost between 60 and 90 percent of their populations due to wars.” But they were rebuilt. Why? That question animates this collection of essays, which grew out of a post-9/11 conference called to explore how past civilizations persevered when confronted with catastrophe, an exercise at once “scholarly and therapeutic.” And if you like your therapy grim, this is just the book for you; the traumas it recounts are every bit as chilling as the politics of recovery are ugly. Consider the case of Tangshan, China, where nothing happened in the early morning hours of July 28, 1976. That, at least, was the initial reaction of the People’s Republic: A 7.8 Richter-scale quake, which in three seconds obliterated the city of one million with a force “roughly 400 times that of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima,” had not occurred. Two years later, the ruined city remained off-limits to foreigners. The government continued to shroud the death toll, conceding only that this earthquake had been “the deadliest in four centuries of Chinese history.” When finally it estimated losses at 240,000 people, few believed the figure. Scoffed one resident: “Not one single building escaped earthquake damage. How can government officials say that only one-quarter of the Tangshan population perished in this disaster?” They did so by employing the same top-down authority that allowed them to impose their will on the post-quake city. Tangshan’s original spatial design, writes Beatrice Chen, had been “crafted in the image of doctrinaire Maoist industrialization,” wherein housing and factories were situated in dense proximity so that one need only walk to work. That streetscape had disappeared with a jolt, and following Mao’s death, the new premier, Deng Xiaoping, determined that a new Tangshan must arise from the rubble. Rebuilding it with a wider street grid, more open space, and a segregation of workplace and residence was essential, planners believed, to creating a more earthquake-proof community that lost none of its economic productivity. By this scheme, Deng hoped to demonstrate “China’s ability to modernize and to affirm the superiority of [his] socialist regime over Mao’s outdated leftist ideology.” The PRI would have loved to have imposed a China-style news blackout on and wielded unchecked power over the recovery of Mexico City in the wake its 1985 earthquake. Although the one-party state imitated its Chinese peers in this respect—it consistently underreported the numbers associated with the disaster—the powerful September tremors, the largest of which registered 8.1 on the Richter scale, actually loosened the PRI’s hold on power. So argues Diane E. Davis, whose extensive writing about Latin American urbanization leads her to conclude that “resilience” is only partly about the reconstruction of the built environment; it must also factor in the human dimension. A telling example emerges in the public anger at the staggering number of sheered-off apartment buildings in the downtown core, many of which the government had constructed. Their decimated state, along with bodies showing signs of torture that were discovered in collapsed police stations, exposed the degree to which the PRI willfully ignored building codes and human rights. As evidence of corruption and malfeasance mounted, the earthquake “conveyed a larger message about the meaning and character of the city itself: Mexico City had been treated too long as a place,” Davis reports, “where privileged people got rich on the backs of modest residents, and where people were abused (even to death) by authorities who acted in collusion with the nation’s economic elite.” The quake revealed social fault lines that undercut the ruling party’s grip on the city, and, because of the city’s powerful role in organizing national life, helped topple the PRI as the sole representative of the nation-state. Nothing is quite so simple, of course, and Davis is deft in elucidating the complicated interactions between urban restoration and political change. So too are many of the other contributors. In his analysis of a certain “steamy southern backwater,” which an inhabitant once described as a “meager village with a few bad houses and extensive swamps,” and another lambasted as a “wilderness, dignified with the name of a city,” Anthony Pitch deciphers the relationship between the restoration of Washington, D.C., following its 1814 incineration at the hands of the British and its increasing centrality in the emerging democratic society. Postwar Berlin was another capital whose rehabilitation was layered with nationalist yearnings, although, as Brian Ladd reminds us, this was complicated by its Cold War bifurcation into East and West. The two cities were “governed by two ideologically opposed regimes, each determined to claim the legacy of pre-Nazi Berlin, to display the clearer break with Hitler,” and, if that was not enough, “to prove its cultural and political superiority.” Which past and present were to be celebrated, which denied or buried, and who made those decisions, shaped the metropolitan reconfigurations, which then intensified with Berlin’s 1990s reunification. “In its slow, episodic, and incomplete reconstruction,” Ladd concludes, “Berlin has seen a unusual degree of resistance to honoring the past in the name of remembering its shame.” Similar tensions have shaped the repair of other war-torn or strife-ridden cities, including Guernica and Warsaw, Beirut and Jerusalem. Each has been weighted down with inflated expectations, each bears the scars of sectarian dispute, ideological conviction, or religious divisiveness, and each underscores just how profound and occasionally perverse an impact urban design and designers can have on the definition of human affairs. “Can’t we just get along?” Rodney King famously pleaded in the aftermath of Los Angeles’ brutal 1992 riots. Apparently not: The recovery of south-central LA has been troubled by a tangle of social forces, governmental agencies, and commercial interests. But LA has nothing on New York City. The squabbling over who should design the 9/11 memorials, what they should look like, where they should be situated, and under what conditions and configurations they should be built, are of a piece with the egregious posturing of each plan’s proponents and their always-vocal detractors—a cacophony that swells as the chattering classes make their case in print, over the airwaves, through television, and online. A little peace and quiet would be nice, and Edward Linenthal found just such a reflective moment when he traveled to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to participate, along with two citizens from Oklahoma City, in a town meeting to discuss how best to remember those who perished aboard United Flight 93. That evening, Linenthal notes, “there was no lofty rhetoric, no evidence of cheap grace, just people moving through a dark time together. Perhaps this modest yet powerful form of resilience is the most honest. Perhaps this, the sober mapping of the struggle ahead, is what Oklahoma City has to tell us about the new normal that awaits.” Char Miller is professor of history and director of urban studies at Trinity University; author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio, he is also editor of Fifty Years of the Texas Observer.

You May Also Like:

Published at 12:00 am CST