Soiled City on a Hill
“When a country goes mad, it has the right to commit every horror in its own walls.”A city or civilization that is destroyed after growing so complacent, hubris-laden, and/or corrupt that it is beyond redemption. Usually the agent of destruction is divine retribution or a scourge of God but also can be the result of karmic justice, nature's revenge, Knights Templar, or even human error. Often, the Soiled City was once a Shining City or Utopia but, humans being who they are, it fell victim to arrogance and moral degeneration. In fact, before destruction, the Soiled City can still look like a Shining City even though by then it's really nothing more than a whited sepulcher with a shiny gleaming exterior concealing the rot and vileness within. Almost always a Wretched Hive. Can also be a City Noir. The opposite or (as mentioned previously) the corrupted version of the Shining City. This trope often overlaps with Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair! and is used as An Aesop. The Shadow Land of Arcadia and the Ghibli Hills; many a Farm Boy who went expecting the Shining City was lucky to escape with his life, if at all. Water is a common means of the Soiled City's destruction. The name refers to the City on a Hill, an early symbol of American Utopia. Compare with After the End, Cataclysm Backstory, And Man Grew Proud and Götterdämmerung.
open/close all folders
Films — Live-Action
- In Batman Begins, there's the League of Shadows which is an ancient secret organization that takes upon itself to destroy societies and cities that, according to their standards, have become too corrupt and decadent. ("The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome. Loaded trade ships with plague rats. Burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.") Next on their list: Gotham City. And then they show up again years later, trying to do the same thing, under the command of Ra's al-Ghul's heir Talia and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
- No Name City in the film version of Paint Your Wagon.
- Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels shows signs of this, as does the Old Republic generally. At least, according to the Empire's propaganda. To be fair, the fact that they could and circumstances surrounding their willingly voting in the empire and its new and oppressive system does, ironically, illustrate it nicely.
- Texas City, CA in Breaker Breaker. An abandoned mining town re-incorporated by what the film, at first, seemed to hint was a band of traveling gypsies (but later just turned them in to 70's-style corrupt hicks), and funded by bootlegging and hijacking 18-wheelers. Gets destroyed in the end by a band of vengeful truckers responding to a distress call on behalf of the film's hero, JD.
- In the film Kung Fu Hustle by Steven Chow, Chow plays a petty thief-lockpicker named Sing initiate of a vicious triad named the "Hatchet Gang". Sing intialy tries to intimidate the tenants of a Slum tennament block nick named the "Pig sty alley". Little did Sing know, that most of the residents are skilled martial artists including the landlady and her husband. Who don't take kindly to Sing or his gangster friends. They culminate into an epic battle in which much of the apartment block is destroyed through super natural means.
- Númenor in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion. After Sauron is taken captive by the Númenóreans, he takes on a role as The Corrupter, and by the time he's done Númenor was so corrupt that it had become an militarily expansionist Evil Empire that treated its conquered peoples as slave chattel (and it was this horrible treatment that drove many Easterling and Haradrim groups to side with Sauron later on), Melkor (a.k.a. Morgoth) worship went so far as to include regular Human Sacrifice, and pretty much nobody among the populace save for the few dissenters who escaped being sacrificed batted an eye when The Emperor Ar-Pharazôn decided to marry his first cousin against her will. The final straw was when Sauron tricks them into sailing to Valinor and violating the Ban on setting foot there. As a result, the Valar call upon Eru Ilúvatar and he destroys Númenor with a giant wave, sinking it beneath the sea.
- Andre Norton's "Operation Time Search". In our real world, Atlantis fell under the control of evil rulers and was destroyed. The actions of the hero prevent this, and as a result history is changed and Atlantis survives to the present day.
- The city of Brussels, Belgium, appears this way in retrospect to Marlow in Heart of Darkness.
- The Emerald City in Wicked. Even in The Wizard of Oz it has shades of this—although the people aren't unhappy or corrupt, the Wizard in charge is a phony playing the whole city for fools (and the city isn't even really emerald; the Wizard just makes everyone wear emerald-colored glasses so they think it is). But like everything else in Oz, the depiction is even worse in Wicked. Booze-soaked nightclubs, whores on every corner, chamberpot contents in the street, the Unionist church's KnightTemplars running unchecked, and a brute posing as a wizard cheerfully exploiting all of it to keep in power.
- The Thran Empire, particularly the city of Halcyon, that served as Precursors to the main setting for Magic: The Gathering is shown to be one of these in its titular novel, The Thran. Even before Yawgmoth started pulling their strings, they practiced Fantastic Racism against the goblins and other species, were much more concerned with aesthetic beauty than people's safety or comfort, created a massive undercity of caves where all the undesirables (both criminals and people who merely disagreed with the way of doing things) and had a superstitious understanding of disease (which they believed was caused by evil spirits....granted that was sometimes true in Dominaria, just not most of the time. After Yawgmoth...
- Charn from The Magician's Nephew, the prequel to The Chronicles of Narnia. The civilization (and the entire universe in which it existed) was destroyed by the Empress Jadis, who killed every single living organism just because she couldn't be queen. She kept herself preserved as Sealed Evil in a Can until two kids from another universe freed her from her slumber (they had been tempted by the Schmuck Bait-laden mechanism used to awaken her). Then she hitched a ride with the kids back to their universe, and eventually to Narnia, where she became known as the White Witch.
- Danu Talis, better known as Atlantis, from The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel.
- The city of Shadukiam in The Orphan's Tales. In "The Book of the Sea" we learn about how its rich inhabitants care about nothing but aesthetics and money, devouring ridiculous delicacies made of jewels and forcing their species minorities to live in ghettos. In "The Book of the Storm," we learn of how the city met its terrible end, lost its anchoring in the world, and became the hollow nightmare city of Marrow.
- New Babylon, by virtue of destiny, becomes this in the Left Behind books.
- Magrast in The Chronicles of Magravandias. The city is pretty much the concentrated corruption of the entire Magravandian empire, and the palace in particularly bad.
- In the Discworld novel Moving Pictures, this sort of divine retribution is rumoured to be what happened to the civilisation that once existed around Holy Wood Hill. It's been suggested that if the gods wreaked hideous vengeance on corrupt and depraved cities, they'd certainly have done it to Ankh-Morpork by now, but it's possible they did and no-one noticed the difference.
Live Action Television
- Sunnydale on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was doomed from the start, founded to be an epicenter of a Hellmouth and its citizens meant to be prey for demonic beings. Buffy's biggest accomplishment in early seasons, it seems, is to make the citizens realize the danger, even as it gets worse. Eventually, in the seventh season, supernatural activity becomes worse than ever, and the human populace finally have the sense to evacuate. Soon after, the showdown between the Scooby Gang and the First Evil in the Season Finale (the last season shown on television) results in the town being obliterated, reduced to a smoldering crater as the Hellmouth is closed.
- Doctor Who gives us Gallifrey, home of the Time Lords, as a planet-wide example of this trope. As early as the classic serial The Deadly Assassin, Gallifrey was established as having fallen into decadence and corruption long ago. By the end of the Time War, the Time Lord High Council had tried to destroy the time-space continuum to save their sorry hides. In hopeless desperation, the Doctor actually set out to destroy Gallifrey for the good of the rest of the universe. Fortunately, he decided at the last minute to shunt Gallifrey into a Pocket Dimension instead, but given how problematic the Time Lords' return would be, they might not be coming back for a long while.
Religion And Mythology
- The Bible features the following examples.
- The antediluvian world before The Great Flood is arguably the Ur-Example.
- Sodom and Gomorrah is an obvious one. The destruction of these cities is the subject of the 1852 painting by John Martin that's the image for this page.
- Even Jerusalem itself. God's chosen people on Earth started off well but became so corrupt and decadent that God let the Babylonians and other civilizations conquer them to snap them back into what they needed to be doing.
- Speaking of which, Babylon is another biblical example.
- Also, in the Book of Revelation, the world gets a lot more rotten before it's destroyed during the end time.
- In the Mahabharata, the city of Dwaraka (a.k.a., Dvārakā) sinks into the ocean after becoming corrupt.
- Atlantis became one of these before it sank into the sea.
- The sunken city of Ys in French folklore and Celtic Mythology. It was built below sea level and surrounded by a dike with a gate that was opened to allow access for ships during low tide. Ys was destroyed by being sunk under the waves as punishment for the Princess Dahut-Ahès's and the other inhabitants' debauchery. (Although, in one version of the legend, Ys sank as a result of the Princess Dahut-Ahès getting drunk and opening the gate at high tide during a storm.)
- The medieval city of Vineta was, according to legend, a rich and powerful port on the Baltic Sea located near the present-day border of Germany and Poland. The sinfulness of its inhabitants led God to destroy it with thunderbolts and sink it underneath a storm tide.
- In The Book of Mormon, the city Ammonihah is destroyed by an army of the Lamanites after they rejected the words of the prophet and killed those that did believe. They were pretty sure God couldn't destroy their great city in a day as prophecied if they didn't repent.
- More broadly, the Nephite and Jaredite nations near the end of them. They did pretty deplorable things at the end.
- Dungeons & Dragons
- In the Greyhawk setting, the Suel Imperium was the capitol of the Suloise a nation ruled by evil sorcerers thousands of years ago, which was eventually obliterated by the Invoked Devastation which caused the cataclysm called the Rain of Colorless Fire, reducing the Suel Imperium and the whole countryside to a hostile wasteland called the Sea of Dust. Very little is known about the nature of this disaster, but some believe the Suel did it to themselves by accident trying to do something very evil.
- In the Dragonlance setting, the Knight Templar civilisation of Istar finally overreached itself when the Kingpriest demanded godlike powers to remove evil from the world. The gods' reaction to this was the Cataclysm, which not only destroyed the city utterly, it hit the rest of Krynn so hard the calendar felt it.
- The ancient Eldar of Warhammer 40,000 both embody and subvert this trope. Their glittering, technologically dazzling civilization once dominated the galaxy, but their descent into jaded excess and hedonism led directly to the birth of the Chaos God Slaanesh and their near-obliteration during the Fall. The heartlands of the civilization are now the warp-tainted hellholes known as the Crone Worlds, swallowed up by the Eye of Terror that the Fall ripped into the fabric of realspace. However, the one part of pre-fall Eldar civilization that survived and prospered was the dark city of Comorragh - the Eldar's worst den of vice, iniquity and depravity. It survived because it was safely concealed from prying eyes in a pocket universe between the dimensions, and is now the home base for the Dark Eldar, who continue to celebrate and indulge in the kind of vileness that brought their civilization low in the first place.
- In Phantasy Star II, the entire human civilization of the Algo system is dependent on Mother Brain. This leads to complacency, and the world is unable to handle it when she starts going bonkers on them.
- The Kingdom of Zeal in Chrono Trigger.
- Kirkwall from Dragon Age II, best summed up by Varric;
Varric: Kirkwall, "The City of Chains". Long ago it was part of the Imperium, slaves coming from far and wide to work the quarries. Now it's a Free City... but I use the word loosely
- Pathologic features a Soiled City in a Steppe. Depending on the ending you end up with, this trope is more or less relevant.
- In Hector: Badge of Carnage, the villain's plan is to use a Hate Plague on the residents of Clapper's Wreake so that they kill each other, wiping the slate clean and allowing him to create a better city.
- Rapture in BioShock was by all appearances a highly successful attempt to create an objectivist haven where the brightest and boldest of humanity could thrive unfettered from the Wretched Hive- at least until the people who moved to the bottom of the ocean to do whatever they wanted turned on each other. The city has been torn apart by a war between Ryan and Atlas, and the only ones left are insane splicers only interested in finding more ADAM, and a few remaining individuals trying to undo what was done, too crazy to leave, trying to take over the ruins or holed up in private sanctums doing things even Rapture's loose laws frowned upon in private playgrounds or just enjoying the show.
- Interestingly, Bioshock 2 seems to imply that the vast majority of the city actually survived as a functional society for as long as several years after the events of the first game. Most of Rapture simply didn't give a damn, being largely populated by Apathetic Citizens only caring about their own interests and keeping the Bread and Circuses going. Some even find their fortune selling security systems and personal bodyguards to deal with the splicer problem spilling over from the nasty business in THAT part of Rapture and catering to those seeking distraction.
- Columbia from Bioshock Infinite. Sure it's a beautiful city. Sure it has beautiful parks, gorgeous architecture, and the honour system in use at shops. But there's a price to that pretty. And it is ugly.
- Fallout 3: In the decades preceding the game, the Pitt, formerly the industrial giant Pittsburgh, was a lawless Polluted Wasteland inhabited by rape gangs, raiders, slavers, and various horrific mutants. Upon discovering the city, Lyons' chapter of the Brotherhood of Steel initiated the Scourge, which wiped out most of the population except for a few unmutated children who were placed into initiate training, one of which was Paladin Kodiak. After being left for dead in an explosion and rescued by scavengers, Paladin Ashur became the leader of the city.
- Nipton from Fallout: New Vegas was populated by gamblers, thieves and prostitutes, until the Legion laid waste to the town and executed or enslaved the residents.
- The Fallout universe in general is this. Capitalists vs Communists got so out of hand that both sides became extremist caricatures and the world got nuked over real good.
- Ba Sing Se, capital of the Earth Kingdom, was once the greatest city in the Avatar: The Last Airbender world. But over time, thanks to Evil Chancellor Long Feng and his Secret Police, it has degenerated into an Orwellian dystopia where brainwashing abounds, poor people are kept in segregated neighborhoods, and people are forbidden to even mention the war that's been raging outside the city for a hundred years. And just when Long Feng was arrested and things were starting to look up, Princess Azula of the Fire Nation infiltrated Ba Sing Se, got the Secret Police on her side, and finally captured the city and the entire Earth Kingdom. Unusually for this trope, though, Ba Sing Se was never actually destroyed. At the end of the series, it was retaken by the Earth Kingdom, and the Secret Police was brought under heel. The final scene in the series has the heroes relaxing in Iroh's tea shop in the city, while Aang and Katara kiss outside.
- Sequel Series The Legend of Korra: Though Republic City was founded as a symbol of peace and cooperation, and is perhaps the world's main center of technological advancement, it's also filled with both bending criminal syndicates and a large homeless population, and is run by unelected bureaucrats who aren't doing much with the unequal treatment of non-benders. These tensions eventually erupted into war, with the anti-bending Equalist terrorists managing to momentarily take control over the entire city. It's implied that Republic City has been working on its problems since then, with the introduction of actual elections, though crime and political corruption still are abundant.
- Sadly enough, it's revealed in season three that Ba Sing Se, despite its technological modernization, remains a wretched and segregated hive 70 years after the events of the original series, due to its selfish and tyrannical queen and her Secret Police (the same organization as the original series's). When a band of anarchists assassinate said queen and bring down the walls separating the different social classes, the entire city instantly dissolves into chaos.
- The Empire of Thundera in ThunderCats (2011). The Cats of Thundera are a Proud Warrior Race who believe themselves a Superior Species, and practice Urban Segregation, Fantastic Racism and enslavement of species like Lizards and Dogs. They employ a Fantastic Caste System, where tailed Cats and Specific minorities live in a Fantastic Ghetto that exists below the upper level's Shining City, Bright Castle and gardens of the nobility. The city is conquered overnight by Mumm-Ra and his collaborators the Lizard army and Plundered of all its valuables while surviving Cats hide in the wilderness or are taken as slaves.
- On the Arabian Peninsula, there was Iram of the Pillars—the "Atlantis of the Sands". In Islamic legend, Iram of the Pillars (also known as Ubar) was a city of untold riches that was buried under the desert sands as punishment for defying God. Long thought to be a myth, satellite photos and recent archeological excavations have indicated such a city probably existed until around 300 AD—about 300 years before the birth of The Prophet Muhammad, i.e. long enough for it to become the stuff of legend.
- Rungholt was a thriving German merchant city on the North Sea coast until it was destroyed by a storm tide in 1362. Legend attributed its destruction to the rampant greed of its citizens and acts of sacrilege against God.
- The low-lying Dutch city of Saeftinghe was a prosperous trading center from the 14th to the 16th century until much of the land surrounding it was lost to a disasterous flood in 1570. The city itself was abandoned in 1584 when, during the Dutch War for Independence, Dutch soldiers were forced to destroy the dike that protected Saeftinghe resulting in its sinking into the marshy bogs of the Schelde River. In Dutch folklore, Saeftinghe was an ornately rich but avaricious city that ultimately paid for its greed by sinking into the salty marshlands after being cursed by a merman for refusing to set his captured mermaid wife free.
- Port Royal was an open haven for pirates and smugglers during the 17th century with economy largely based around boozing, whoring, and stealing. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692 that caused it to sink into the sea.
- Perhaps most impressive is the multiple tsunami waves that also hit the city in its destruction. For years scientists thought the accounts of multiple great waves hitting the city must be an exaggeration, until geological surveys of the area showed it was indeed possible for a tsunami to enter the harbor, hit one side, rebound, hit the other side, rebound and repeat.
- Tsarist Russia as a whole fell due to massive economic inequality and injustice, making it a nationwide example of this trope. The New Russia in the nineties was approaching the late-Imperial level of decadence and injustice amazingly fast.
- The incredibly deadly and destructive Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 represents a real-life inversion of this trope. After the quake shook the city for five minutes, most of the population took refuge on the waterfront where, 40 minutes later, a tsunami hit. In the aftermath, virtually everything that hadn't collapsed or gotten flooded was destroyed by fire. Because the city wasn't much of a Wretched Hive and the quake struck on All Saints' Day, it lead to a lot of philosophical exploration of theodicy, i.e., why do bad things happen in a world governed by a good deity? Most of the Enlightenment's great thinkers were influenced by the Lisbon Earthquake, with Kant and Voltaire writing works that discussed it directly.
- Saint-Pierre, Martinique, the "Paris of the Caribbean", was destroyed twice, first by a hurricane in 1780, then more completely by a volcanic eruption in 1902.
- Bayocean, Oregon, founded in 1906, was envisioned to be "the Atlantic City of the West", with a hotel, a dance hall, and numerous homes, but due to concerns with crossing treacherous Tillamook Bay, a jetty was built to calm the bay's waters. Unfortunately, this attempt to control Mother Nature backfired, and the changed bay current began eating away at the sand beneath the city, causing it to slowly fall into the sea. By 1960 it had completely disappeared.