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On the road to Survival City, Tom Vanderbilt maps the visible and invisible legacies of the cold war, exhuming the blueprints for the apocalypse we once envisioned and chronicling a time when we all lived at ground zero. In this road trip among ruined missile silos, atomic storage bunkers, and secret test sites, a lost battleground emerges amid the architecture of the 1950On the road to Survival City, Tom Vanderbilt maps the visible and invisible legacies of the cold war, exhuming the blueprints for the apocalypse we once envisioned and chronicling a time when we all lived at ground zero. In this road trip among ruined missile silos, atomic storage bunkers, and secret test sites, a lost battleground emerges amid the architecture of the 1950s, accompanied by Walter Cotten’s stunning photographs. Survival City looks deep into the national soul, unearthing the dreams and fears that drove us during the latter half of the twentieth century.“A crucial and dazzling book, masterful, and for me at least, intoxicating.”—Dave Eggers“A genuinely engaging book, perhaps because [Vanderbilt] is skillful at conveying his own sense of engagement to the reader.”—Los Angeles Times“A retracing of Dr. Strangelove as ordinary life.”—Greil Marcus, Bookforum...

Title : Survival City: Adventures among the Ruins of Atomic America
Author :
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ISBN : 9780226846941
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 240 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Survival City: Adventures among the Ruins of Atomic America Reviews

  • Matt
    2018-12-04 16:38

    When I stumbled across Tom Vanderbilt’s Survival City, I got pretty excited. I’m in the midst of a Cold War reading binge, with an emphasis on nuclear weapons and strategy. Vanderbilt’s book promised an entertaining tour through the architectural legacies of the Cold War, from abandoned missile silos to an underground school to the Congressional bunker at Greenbrier, located in a swank hotel in the Allegheny Mountains. Not only did the topic sound fascinating, but so did the style. Survival City is what I call a Historical Road Trip, a literary sub-genre combining history, travel writing, memoir, and journalism. Authors currently practicing this craft include Sarah Vowell and Tony Horwitz. At its best, the Historical Road trip does several things at once. It teaches you; it introduces you to interesting people; it derives meaning from our past; and it’s fun. Survival City does not necessarily fail in its goals, but it also doesn’t entirely succeed. You can argue this makes it closer to a failure than a success. I’m not sure myself, to be honest. There are some polished nuggets in this book that I really liked. There is also a lot of digressionary flotsam that I did not. There were sections that I totally tuned out. There were also sections good enough to make me reevaluate the whole, after I had finished. Vanderbilt’s self-appointed task is to travel among the vanishing ruins of Cold War archaeology that still dot our 21st century landscape. The titular location – Survival City itself – is the Nevada Test Site, “a 1,350-square mile landscape of fear, created by federal edict in 1950” to test the effect of nuclear explosions on domestic structures. The work done at the NTS comprises some of the most enduring – and terrifying – iconography of the Cold War. Over the…years, the nation’s eyes would turn here, first to see the technicolor plumes of atomic tests from the predawn rooftops of casinos, then to see the epochal, Zapruder-like frames of images played out in a sequence that would reside forever in the American subconscious: the wood-frame house, first illuminated by the flash of the bomb, captured in an otherworldly light by armored camera, standing like a frontier house on a dark moonscape; then curls of black smoke creeping up the charring wood of the façade; then a brief clearing, the smoke gone, the damage visible, a momentary respite; and then the blast wave striking, the front buckling in, pieces of the roof peeling off; then the front disintegrating and the roof torn back; then the entire mass swirling in a torrent of splinters.Atomic blast at the Nevada Test SiteI liked Vanderbilt’s visit to the NTS. He is at his best as a tourist, going to an interesting place and describing it. This holds true for his pit-stops at locations both well known (such as the North American Aerospace Defense Command headquarters, buried in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado) and obscure (the Abo Elementary School and Fallout Shelter in Artesia, New Mexico). These visits give you an inkling of the existential fear that drove governmental policy during the Cold War years. Buried command bunkers, Minuteman missile silos, and underground schools are obvious examples. Just as telling are the lesser-known relics, like Nike Missile bases stationed outside major cities to shoot down enemy bombers. Some of the notions bandied about, such as “ribbon cities” that would be long, narrow, and more protected from an airburst, are madness. Yet they go a long way towards showing the contemporary headspace of various politicians, military leaders, and civilian planners. It should be noted that Vanderbilt’s descriptions of these places are greatly aided by photographs of just about every location. The photos are interspersed throughout the text, rather than relegated to a center-of-the-book inset, which is how it should be done. The problem, as I see it, is that Vanderbilt never developed a theme. He went to all these places, took notes, started writing, and produced a book, all without ever seeming to decide what it meant to him. Accordingly, the narrative sort of meanders all over the place. The structuring is disorganized and the content does not flow. This is a very short book (209 pages of text, with a lot of pictures) that reads long. For instance, in a chapter dealing with the targeting of cities, he goes into a long, rather turgid meditation on aerial photography that starts all the way back in the 19th century with observers going up in hot-air balloons. North Portal of Cheyenne Mountain, near Colorado Springs, COI am not against asides by any means. To the contrary, there’s nothing like a good detour, if it’s for a worthwhile reason. However, Vanderbilt’s writing style makes it harder to abide. He is a good writer, but maybe too good, which is to say, a bit pretentious. His style can be high-flown and needlessly complex. At times, obnoxiously so. When I was in college, I took a class on the history of American architecture, and this often reminded me of that textbook. Rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts – like how many psi a hardened silo can withstand – he drones on about abstract meanings. Vanderbilt is far more interested in aesthetics than in concrete realities. It’s not that I wanted to know exactly how to build a fallout shelter (actually, I sort of did), but I definitely don’t care all that much about how a fallout shelter makes me feel. (According to Vanderbilt, it should make me feel “spatial anxiety”). This is a book missing the human touch. It is so busy quoting Le Corbusier and focusing on concepts such as pitting the “utopian impulse” against the “architecture of doom,” that it never gets around to the role of humankind. Vanderbilt talks to a bunch of folks, but none of them stand out in terms of personality or intelligence. There isn’t a single memorable person who stands out in terms of what they know, think, or feel. Vanderbilt himself remains for the most part hidden behind his own verbiage. Interestingly, the most personal section comes as a postscript dealing with September 11, 2001. (This was published in 2002). Vanderbilt was in New York that day, and he makes a powerful impact with a brief survey of his chosen topic as viewed through the prism of 9/11. As I watched the endless replays of the plane hitting the towers, I could not help but think back to the historical footage from Survival City, where the repeated images of an atomic blast wave sweeping away a house, however distant they seem, were as emblematic of their time as the Trade Center images will now seem to ours. In the era of atomic anxiety, the city was presumed untenable, people worried about going to work in tall buildings, and architects worked in vain to fashion a bombproof architecture; in the end, neither precept proved viable, nor desirable – and after all, what life was worth living underground, or among radioactive rubble? Now, as I write, there are military jets roaring overhead, and a cloud hangs over the tip of Manhattan like a stalled weather system. The city has been shaken again, and architecture has provided an uncertain shelter, and those same impulses, reborn – to leave the city, to construct buildings capable of withstanding attacks – are ultimately just as untenable now as they were fifty years ago, for what would life be without cities and without architecture that promoted the positive values of civic life?This passage exemplifies for me all that is missing in the main body. In the postscript Vanderbilt finally discovers the connective tissue between then and now. He also writes with feeling, with an emotion that is otherwise lacking in a narrative that oft resembles a college seminar. There is one observation that Vanderbilt makes towards the end that will stick with me: “There is no safety in walls.” That was in my mind recently as I attended a wedding in Kansas City, Missouri. The wedding was held in a beautiful old Catholic church on a bright and beautiful summer Saturday. My wife was part of the wedding party. My kids were flower girls. Everyone was busy. Except me. I had no official duties, other than staying out of the way. Bored, I roamed the church grounds while taking sips from my wedding flask. (Weddings make me thirsty…also they make me drunk). As I did so, I came across a Fallout Shelter sign. Fallout shelter located in a Catholic Church in Kansas City, MOIntrigued, I went down the crumbling steps to see if the door would open. It did! I stepped inside, briefly imagining a room filled with hardtack, drinking water barrels, and those brown drums filled with sanitation supplies (checklist includes: toilet tissue; can opener; commode liner, polyethylene; gloves, polyethylene; siphon spout; and commode seat). Instead, what I discovered was…a church basement. In fact, a church basement being used by the bride and her attendants, who looked as though they wanted to strap me to a Titan missile and launch me to Murmansk. Disappointed, I beat a hasty retreat. Obviously, if that basement/fallout shelter had ever been stocked, those supplies would have been discarded long ago. Still, it occurred to me that the rest of the architecture of the church hadn’t changed one bit. This “shelter” really was a basement. It would have been no use against an airburst such as the one that leveled Kansas City in the famous television movie The Day After. Its utility against fallout depended entirely on it being below ground and behind brick. Nothing about it, even had it been stocked, encouraged me that people ever could have used this spot to survive. It was hardly the “stronghold of national security” that our government wanted our homes and institutions to be during the Cold War. This underlined a recurring theme I’ve noticed while reading about nuclear war planning. The tension between both unleashing nuclear war and containing it. It can’t be done. There are no walls high enough, bunkers deep enough, or enough church basements in the world. The lesson, of course, is that in war – nuclear or otherwise – it’s worth looking into Plan B – the one that avoids war in the first place.

  • AnaVlădescu
    2018-12-02 14:42

    I mean sure, things could have been written a little bit better. But, holy shit, is the subject fascinating. I am absolutely amazed at the information I got out of this work, and I can't tell you how fascinating architecture is becoming to me. There are so many ways in which the spaces around us define and decide who we are as individuals and as a society. Military architecture, Cold War architecture - these have also shaped America into the country it is today. I can't wait to read more on the subject.

  • Gramarye
    2018-12-16 20:15

    A great pity that the author's prose tends towards the purple, the citations are somewhat slapdash, and the chapter structure is on the disjointed side, because the actual content of this book is fascinating. Architectural history is not an approach I would normally think to use to look at the Cold War in America, but Vanderbilt's examples are by turns intriguing and deeply disturbing. (Example: During World War II, the US military consulted architects and designers to improve the US air force's ability to bomb Germany and Japan by taking the flammability of house materials and house design into account -- and then built mock houses to test the theories. The conclusion was that the attics of German houses and the tatami flooring of Japanese houses were the most flammable and vulnerable, so to be most effective the bombs meant for Germany needed to destroy the roof and the ones for Japan needed to ignite the floor. These theories and practical results then fed into the US civil defence planning machine by the time the Cold War started its slow burn.) From abandoned missile silos and government bunkers to the still-active installation at Cheyenne Mountain, Survival City is a fine exploration of the legacies of the physical architecture of the Cold War...though it suffers a little in the written execution.

  • Gwen Burrow
    2018-11-24 15:26

    If you want to explore the bunkers, secret test sites, and abandoned missile silos of the Cold War (that age when "we all lived at ground zero") without stepping outside your front door, this is the book. I have no idea why more movies haven't taken advantage of these blueprints of the apocalypse that never happened. Great setting ideas.

  • Christopher
    2018-12-11 16:27

    This book wasn't quite what I thought it would be but was interesting none the less. Knew some of the locations and facts in this book from other readings; however, it did had places that never knew about. Some of them even hidden in plain site. Would recommend for any Cold War buff.

  • Clif
    2018-12-15 15:31

    In 1969, shortly after the Atlas ICBM program was shut down, I was a college freshman filled with curiosity who more eagerly explored every silo location near the town where I went to school than I did the subjects in my classes. Inactive for such a short time, they were likely to be in pristine condition if only I could find one that was open. Flooded entrances, welded doors and no trespassing signs usually greeted me so how exciting it was when I finally found one that was wide open and with operating electricity! Someone appeared to live there who, probably fortunately, wasn't home. Unlike so many who followed me and vandalized these places, my policy was look but don't touch and leave everything as you found it.It was with familiarity, then, that I read Vanderbilt's account of his own descent into an Atlas site of exactly the same design.Like Vanderbilt, I was always fascinated with the old silos, Nike sites, weapons plants and other military detritus that spoke of great power, huge expense and top security now turned to open ruins left to rot, yet telling a story for the amateur detective to interpret. To think that these crumbling places might have meant The End and that what was now casual climbing might once have meant setting off alarms and being shot by an armed guard.Vanderbilt's book is not a dry description of the specifications of such ruins (though he does seem to be fond of mentioning the number of inches of thickness of reinforced concrete) but a lively account that puts them in place among the ideas and technologies of the Cold War period. Unlike my often clueless speculations on visits to some of the sites, this author has educated himself and brings along others who can expand his knowledge and ours. For me, it's like a dream come true - to visit the places and have along with you knowledgeable company to answer your questions. This investigation is impressively thorough and filled with the detail that his more recent book, Traffic, also shows. Unlike Traffic, the information provided in Survival City would otherwise be far more difficult to come by. He takes his subject and squeezes it for all the juice it can provide. The pictures are an added treat and illustrate the often stark quality one finds in these places.This book gives voice to otherwise mute monuments of man's power to destroy and in Vanderbilt's writing they are quite conversational. Survival City will never come close to Traffic in popularity but I think it's a much better book both for the depth of thought that the author shares with his readers and the compelling nature of the subject.

  • J.S.
    2018-12-08 17:21

    Author Tom Vanderbilt takes us around the country examining the evidences left by the Cold War, a war which did and yet didn't happen. From missile silos being destroyed to ones being turned into homes, from "proving grounds" to backyard bomb shelters, Mr. Vanderbilt uncovers sites which often sit right in front of us and simply blend into our landscape in spite of their obviously militaristic features. But he goes beyond the aging and disappearing signs indicating "fallout shelters" and discusses how the threat of nuclear annihilation shaped our cities and our thinking. Cities became the targets, and today's suburbs, often denigrated under the label of "urban sprawl," were a reaction to and a defense against the calamities which befell the densely packed cities of Germany and Japan which proved so fatal during the firebombing raids of WWII. Attempts to fortify buildings, strategies for minimizing casualties, underground cities, interstate highways, early warning systems, NORAD, massive retaliation... it all walks a fine line between critical and absurd, interesting and boring. I can't help imagining the puzzlement the younger generation must feel at seeing some of these things. Growing up in the 70s and 80s I only saw the end of the Cold War, but the Reagan years witnessed an increase in tensions with the USSR (do younger people even know who that was or what it stood for?) and I recall some events like the local opposition which prevented the deployment of MX missiles in the Utah desert in the late 70s. It also reminded me of movies I saw as a teenager like "War Games" and "The Day After," or music by Sting ("Russians") or Frankie Goes To Hollywood ("Two Tribes") which reflected the contradictions of a peace maintained by the ability of two nations to assure "mutual destruction" of each other within minutes. And yet that seemed to be the reality of the world we lived in, and I thought this book captured that sense very well. Mr. Vanderbilt ends with some sobering observations on how September 11th relates to this struggle to protect ourselves without falling into a "bunker mentality." Overall, an interesting and reflective look at a fading time, a look at the darker side of the optimism and technological advances of the 50s and 60s, with lots of great pictures (all in stark b&w) although maybe not quite 4 stars.

  • Lara
    2018-11-26 12:28

    I want to rate you higher, Survival City! - but there are a few things that hurt you. The law student in me will start with the nit-picky: Shoddy editing. The writing style is an interesting one, but several sentences conveying gripping ideas or themes are spoiled by a few glaring typos, run-on mouthfuls, or shoddy citing. Mr. Vanderbilt, if you're going to include citations, be sure to cite after direct quotes, not just after paraphrased chunks of sentences. I want to know where you're getting your stuff.Because the content IS good. It's very interesting and informative, and I promise I'll never look at urban sprawl the same way again. Prior to this book, I only knew about America's preparation for nuclear attack from some nebulous references to fall-out shelters or the like. How the government re-envisaged the American landscape is incredibly interesting, and also a monster of a theme to tackle - so overall, while the book doesn't always deliver, it gives a good punch, or at least, at bare minimum, a good overview.The other issue is that the theme is so large. When I first began reading, I wasn't too sure what the book was about; I thought it was going to be focused on the survival cities built in the desert, not a much larger, and perhaps more admirable, analysis of the effects of (potential) nuclear war. The book itself was slow to make this clear: the introduction was over 50 pages, longer than some chapters. It was only after getting halfway through the book itself that I understood how it was set up, and why certain chapters followed one another. Subject matter like this needs a clear road-map for the reader, one which wasn't provided here.I am glad I read this book. I recommend that others read it. I just wish I had enjoyed it more while actually reading it.

  • Artur Coelho
    2018-12-07 13:23

    No mundo contemporâneo assolado por crises financeiras e ambientais, a noção de aniquilação atómica é uma memória distante. A quantidade de ogivas disponíveis ainda é grande e colocam-se perigos de proliferação em estados que inspiram pouca confiança, mas o peso da imagem de destruição total do planeta numa orgia de mísseis cruzando os céus em poucos minutos após uma chatice terminal entre os líderes de duas potências ficou remetido ao estatuto de curiosidade histórica. No entanto, subsistem vestígios: ainda vastos arsenais nucleares e conjuntos arquitectónicos desactualizados.É na arquitectura muito própria da era atómica que o ensaio de Vanderbilt se centra. Visitando antigos bunkers de comandos, silos de mísseis descomissionados e abrigos de sobrevivência improvável à aniquilação total, o autor mergulha-nos na arquitectura de betão reforçado, aço e cálculos de sobrevivência a forças esmagadoras incomensuráveis. O resultado é uma viagem pela arqueologia recente por entre aldeias erguidas para testar os efeitos de explosões atómicas, silos de mísseis que agora são casas chic subterrâneas ou cavernas húmidas onde componentes electrónicos obsoletos se degradam, centros de comando ainda hoje em utilização, sintomas de um vasto complexo enterrado sob o solo americano construído para tentar a sobrevivência perante o impossível.

  • Jeff
    2018-12-03 19:23

    Part of the book - the sections that examine explicitly cold War architecture - are very interesting. While some of the installations examined (Cheyenne Mountain) are well known, others (the Kennedy bunker at Palm Beach, Florida) are not.However, when the author gets into his theories of how flight, strategic warfare and the growth of the modern city are all interconnected....well, while interesting, they are not interesting enough to justify the number of pages the author devotes to repeating himself. If the author had stuck to looking at overtly Cold War architecture and less, for example, about how the use of glass in office towers was somehow a significant insight into Cold War mentality, then this would have been a much more interesting book.One thing I did notice, however, are a few historical inaccuracies that detract from the overall impact of the book. the one that I remember at the moment dealt with Reagan and America's reaction to Chernobyl...in 1982. If that were the case, then the Great Communicator was also precognitive, since the Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986. Oops.

  • mike
    2018-12-04 20:15

    I was torn on how to rate this book -- Did I "like" it? Or was it OK? I went with OK. I found myself racing through the book, flipping page after page and grabbing hold of the odd paragraph, the grainy picture.It would have been better in an "Infinite City" style, with tighter prose interleaved with the often-fascinating visual relics of the Cold War, such as advertisements for bomb shelters, abandoned missile silos and unused fortification bunkers. Infinite City: A San Francisco AtlasThere's fodder here for many dinner-table conversations. While I never condone collapsing books into PowerPoint presentations, this book brings me ever so close to the brink.

  • Alesh Houdek
    2018-12-03 20:19

    Limp, rambling, and pretentious. With chapters like "dead city" and "survival city," the book reads like unenthusiastic writing assignments tied to various google results for a search on "nuclear" and "city." After reading the long introduction and beginning of the first chapter, I jumped around furiously, looking for a foothold that would sustain my interest for more then a page or two, to no avail. Redeemed by fascinating photography and a rushed epilogue, written just after the attacks of Sept. 11th, as the book went to print.I'm sure a complete reading would reveal any number of interesting sections, and I'd be grateful to revisit this book with such a reading guide.

  • Rebecca
    2018-11-24 20:36

    This is an amazing book. This book focuses on Cold War Architecture, meaning, how buildings were designed with the Cold War as a direct influence. This includes bomb shelters (and buildings that feel like them) as well as Cold War military facilities. The author describes many of these abandoned sites in such a way that leave you anxious to visit them for yourself. Everything is well researched and detailed. I would recommend this to anyone interested in Cold War history, architecture, or great non-fiction in general.

  • Ayse Arf
    2018-12-09 14:36

    A little hamfisted in saying "LOOK at the way this CRAZY mentality SHAPED the landscape of the United States," which, I suppose, is the point, but the impression of the tone of the book I'm left with is 'constant wonder,' when I kind of feel like Mr. Author should have left the wondering to me. Also I've had an incredibly hard time finishing this.

  • Michael
    2018-12-02 17:16

    This reads a bit like Mike Davis - in fact, Vanderbilt's essay on the construction of German building types (with the help of Mendelsohn and Gropius) seems to be identical to its coverage in Davis's Dead Cities. Interesting read overall.

  • Richard
    2018-12-19 13:28

    Unlike his later book Traffic, which was excellent, I was mostly bored by Survival City. I think this was partly because the subject wasn't as interesting to me as I had thought it might have been, and I thought the writing was rather quotidian.

  • Squeemu
    2018-12-11 16:32

    3.5 There was less exploration of abandoned places as I'd like, but it was interesting and well-written.

  • Renee
    2018-12-13 18:24

    It starts a bit slow, so you have to stick with it, but it's an excellent read, and it asks some questions not too many treatments of the Cold War bother to ask.