The history of the development of nuclear technology and the subsequent protest against its use is hidden in the office buildings, universities campuses, apartment buildings, parks, and streets of New York City. The city’s role as an international center of business and scientific research also made it the epicenter of numerous visible protest movements. The dark side of this prominence is that New York also came to be seen by many as a potential target for nuclear attacks.
By looking at spaces within New York City and the way that people have projected nuclear fears onto the city, this archive aims make the sprawling story of the nuclear age more manageable while bringing to light the hidden story of “Nuclear New York.”
New York was the stage for events that ranged from local to international significance. There were protests to keep a nuclear fleet from being docked in New York Harbor and protests that demanded an end to Soviet nuclear testing. There were small Quaker vigils and mass nuclear freeze demonstrations. People occupied Wall Street and marched to the U.N. and demanded that Con Ed shut down its nuclear power plant. They rallied for peace, for safety, for the environment. But protests are ephemeral; one goal of this project is to reinvest these scattered sites — New York’s nuclear geography — with their particular history.
Similarly, bland office and university buildings obscure the important decisions made within. The first headquarters of the Manhattan Project, uranium-importing companies, and nuclear research laboratories at Columbia University all were located in New York City buildings, but you would never know by looking at them. The military and research establishment that mobilized to invent the atomic bomb and change foreign policy forever made decisions and scientific breakthroughs all over New York. The buildings in which these decisions occurred might not seem remarkable, but serve as a way to access the history of the most destructive weapon in human history.
New York’s City Council has passed many resolutions since 1956, seeking to influence policies on nuclear weapons and nuclear power, notably declaring itself a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in 1983. This archive aims to collect in one place all of those resolutions, which have long been hidden in off-site archives and on micro-fiche.
This archive is also a place to learn about images of New York City in popular depictions of nuclear apocalypse. New York holds an outsized place in many imaginations. The city is often characterized as a place where people flock to make their dreams come true, but it can also be a place of nightmares. New York’s global position and great population density led many people to see it as a potential target of a nuclear attack. Imagined descriptions of what would happen to the city abound.
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By Catherine Falzone, 2012. Adapted from Nuclear New York archive with permission.