All City is the story of a climate disaster already in progress: a vision of a near-future New York where wealth inequality has become ever greater, even as the city itself has become increasingly exposed to natural disasters. Business as usual for the wealthy has subtly shifted, with most older people living outside the city while their risk-seeking children are the only ones able to afford the city’s astronomical rents, living their gentrified lives right up until the storm warnings hit, and then leaving for safer locations while the city suffers. Storms have become common occurrences and the city has already survived one superstorm. Now, the city’s remaining poorer residents are hunkering down for Superstorm Bernice. From the perspective of Makayla, All City’s main point-of-view protagonist, Bernice is something to be taken seriously, something that will likely keep her indoors for a couple of days at her friend Jaden’s well-stocked apartment, but she doesn’t believe it’s going to become an unprecedented event in her life. As the speed and the scale of the disaster come into focus, however, Bernice will create an opportunity whereby the foundations of political order could be challenged by those who have suffered most from the storm’s effects.
We witness Bernice itself, and its immediate aftermath, through Makayla’s eyes, in an opening section that takes up almost a quarter of the book. It begins with a random act of vandalism as Makayla gets angry at a gentrified shop selling dog treats full of “traveled” ingredients, now in the space once occupied by a bodega where she used to feel welcome, and ends just before she is raped by a stranger who has offered her a ride to check up on her grandmother. If the latter scene feels like an unnecessarily heavy-handed way of damaging Makayla’s already tenuous trust in others, it does at least bookend the powerlessness and entrapment that the storm exacerbates. Witnessing trauma upon trauma hit Makayla without any break from her perspective means that it’s her account of the storm and of the city she lives in which shapes our responses to everything that follows, and the length of this opening section reinforces the sense that this is a frame for what comes next. Perhaps because of this, Makayla’s “on-page” relationships also come across most strongly, from her developing connection to Jaden to her de facto adoption of Alejandro, a Latino boy orphaned by the storm, who starts to overcome his own trauma while in her care and Jaden’s.
Once the tight focus on the storm and its immediate aftermath broadens out, we are introduced to two more point-of-view characters, who offer counterpoints to Makayla’s experience. The more important of these is Jesse, a genderqueer anarchist who had been living with their friend, Lux, a trans woman, and two other anarchists before the crisis. Jesse’s experience in the aftermath of the storm is shaped by the trauma of Lux being stabbed on the street, and then effectively disappearing when they take her to hospital. When they try to get her airlifted to safety, they are asked by staff whether “[it wouldn’t] be better just to let her never wake up” (p. 86). Jesse’s path converges with Makayla’s when they and their friends end up in the same building: an abandoned condo which attracts a group of survivors seeking an alternative to the dangerous, poorly resourced official shelters. This building, and the social organization that springs up around it as the survivors organize and plan their collective survival, becomes the story’s central focus, with Jesse’s introduction bringing a more explicitly anarchist praxis to its politics. Having been homeless even before the storm, Jesse’s perspective on what the building represents is more hopeful than Makayla’s, although they remain clear about the challenges, both in a practical sense, and in terms of matching it against a potential anarchist utopia.
The other character given point-of-view sections experiences the crisis very differently. Evann is one of the city’s young wealthy elite, living in a “quaint” ground floor flat in a version of New York that’s clean, full of art and luxury condos, and contains no homelessness or poverty so far as she can see. Like the other characters, Evann has lived through some of the storms (including one that destroyed her signed first edition of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, just in case we needed to be any more on-the-nose about how different Evann’s priorities are), but unlike Makayla and Jesse, she has the option of retreating to her father’s “in-state compound” whenever the situation gets dangerous, and for the last superstorm she did just that.
What’s interesting about Evann’s portrayal is how, while much of her character—from the signed Fountainhead to the use of italicized French in place of slang to describe things she likes (which thus become “choux,” “beau,” or “magnifique”)—comes across as faintly ridiculous, DiFrancesco otherwise plays her character’s emotions relatively straight. It’s clear from her introduction that Evann suffers from depression, and the impact of that on her life is well documented, though the impact it has on her pet dog is tough to forgive. Her passion for art, and her sense of loss and violation on discovering that her ground floor flat doesn’t survive the flooding, as well as subsequent changes in the social contract in New York, are told in terms that are, while simplistic, hard not to identify with on some level. Making Evann into an empathetic character ultimately makes her role in the plot even more monstrous, as the effects of her entitlement, her ignorance, and her access to power through her father, all combine to turn her post-disaster wishes into a direct threat to the other characters. Ultimately, her misinformed desire to protect the elements of New York which she deems worth saving directly lead to the destruction of the community that Jesse and Makayla had worked to create out of the wreckage of disaster.
Also instrumental in this downfall is All City’s fourth narrative voice: a nameless street whose presence is felt throughout the book through interstitial pages, offering their poetic perspectives on the storm and the changes to the city in its aftermath. Many of these vignettes involve the artist’s murals and street art, which are portrayed as almost magical events as they spring up on buildings and objects around the city. Some images are of rejuvenation, or hope: paintings of saints, and sunsets, and “fruit like the people in the city could not find wherever they looked” (p. 151). Many more offer reminders of the city’s worst aspects, from scenes of warring skeletons from hospitals which saw death when the storm came, to a poignantly absurd reimagining of the death of a boy from police violence, “a gun with a banana instead of a barrel.” Through these brief, distantly third-person sections, we see the violence and hopefulness, and the brutal reassertion of the status quo which the building’s community goes through, writ large upon the city. Within the story, the beauty and power of these murals is ultimately what brings the building to the attention of the elite (specifically Evann), when one shows up on the side of the structure.
Ultimately, Evann’s prominence, as the only member of the wealthy elite who really comes into the plot of All City with a voice of her own, is a major part of what’s so striking about this imperfect utopia: that there is no dialogue between those who have created it, on one side, and the forces that don’t want to see it succeed. In her opening chapter, Makayla lays out the realities of living in gentrified New York as a poor person in stark, angry terms:
But when you’ve slagged all day for smash enough to barely pay your rent and not do much else, there’s the bodegas like Abdul ran, where you can maybe go and get little bits of something, a cup of noodles or a dollar bag of chips, and then there’s places that make you feel like you’re too poor to walk inside. And feeling very poor, being very poor is like going down a street and realizing that all the beautiful places you walk by, places that have wine and good food and music, are locked when you try to walk through their doors. And so, after a while, you stop looking at them and start looking down at your feet, hoping maybe to find a hundred-dollar bill that will act as a key to one of those doors, or a drug or a dream that will make you forget those doors are there at all. (pp. 1-2)
There’s an angry eloquence behind Makayla’s sections throughout the book which I particularly appreciated: following her role as the narrator for the storm itself, she remains the most observant and outwardly focused of the three protagonists, and the details she draws attention to during her time in the city lend themselves to wider thoughts on how poverty, property, and distribution work in their temporary world. Living in the detritus of a vanished yuppie class, things like well-made Italian boots become disposable items, while luxury consumables like bottled water suddenly become survival essentials. Unlike Jesse, Makayla doesn’t have an explicitly anarchist vocabulary to discuss these, and there are growing notes of dissatisfaction between Jesse and Makayla (who largely remain skeptical of one another from afar until near the end of the book) over Makayla and Jaden’s de facto leadership, and Makayla’s control over some of the group’s food stores. These contradictions underline the increasing emotional pressure on Makayla as a character. They also pull the building’s organization into focus, not as some immediate utopia, or something that the politically minded can march in and “fix” for workers like Makayla, but as a fragile work-in-progress whose challenges are exhausting in the day-to-day, but which nevertheless begins to offer a hope for something beyond immediate survival in the storm’s aftermath.
When Makayla’s voice is contrasted with Evann’s good-natured but simplistic descriptions of her own passions and emotional state (on receiving a painting from her father, she notes “this kind of whatever feeling I have a lot of the time disappeared in this wave of colour and emotion ... I couldn’t help but feel so much” [p. 79]), the effect is of a workers’ group who have far more to say and a far more complex grip on the world than their former landlords and gentrified neighbors. To Evann, the world Makayla and Jesse inhabit literally does not exist: “The whole city became nice, and clean ... The poor people went away. I didn’t know where they went, but I guess things must have gotten better for them” (p. 76). The inability to see the city’s poor residents also spurs Evann’s ultimate act of destruction in that the art must be protected from the faceless dangers of the city, and no matter that those “dangers” might be real people for whom the art was made in the first place.
And so, before we’ve even managed to settle into the scenario presented by the building in all its complex potential, the book’s climactic scene is upon us. The mural created as a celebration, and welcomed by Alejandro—whose tentative flourishing under the care of Makayla and some of the anarchists is one of the brightest strands of the story—is immediately recognized by Makayla as the death knell for their community, and soon enough the residents are making the choice between integrating back into the system of unsafe shelters created by the authorities, or making a last stand against those same authorities. Either way, there’s no question of the building itself surviving the contact, or even of a dialogue about what the residents themselves might need. In their desperate last stand, once again narrated by Makayla, All City comes back around to her personal tragedy, showing her desperation and downfall in a way that plays out as both a product of her own choices, and as an inevitable closure of the building itself. For almost all of its characters the penalty for attempting to survive outside a system that is trying to crush them is painful, and leaves no room for further resistance; gentrification and the commodification of the city aesthetic win out without even entering the arena.
All of this makes All City a painful book, with only the barest shoots of hope, in an epilogue centred on an older Alejandro, the only prominent member of the building’s community who survives in any meaningful sense. He has now been given access to the elite artistic community but retains the painful awareness of what (and whom) he has left behind. In different hands, the condo building at the heart of the book would have taken up more pages, the narrative of its characters and their connections spreading into a broader thought experiment; in DiFrancesco’s story, that conversation is over before it ever has the chance to begin. The decision about what is valuable (and to be preserved) and what is dangerous (and to be destroyed) about the experiment is made by those in power, who have no interest in what its marginalized creators might have to say. What it does offer is something angry, urgent, and all too relevant to the compounding crises our own version of the Earth finds itself in right now. There may be no blueprint for resistance, or for overcoming forces of authority secured in their own power, but All City makes it clear that trying to find those spaces of resistance may be the only way we can choose our own future—and that the examples of resistance we create, no matter how hopelessly they end, might be all that others in the future have to go on.