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New York: A Documentary Film

Other // Unrated // September 25, 2001
List Price: $139.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted March 11, 2002 | E-mail the Author

On the six month anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center it's important to take a look back at what happened and what it means. Tributes like CBS' excellent 9/11 and the photo exhibit "Here is New York" give some solace to the families of the victims and some context to those who live outside of the immediate reach of the horror. This is a look at Ric Burns' seven part film New York: A Documentary Film which, by spending a lot of time explaining what it is that makes New York special, helps make the tragedy that much more clear.

You wake up in the morning and step outside with your dog. The first thing you see is the Prospect Expressway, a curiously located highway that runs right through your front yard. You walk to Prospect Park, a beautiful cut of landscaped nature where you spend every morning. You go to work on the subway, dense with people speaking different languages. You walk past the Flatiron building and gaze up at the Empire State building in wonder before you head up the stairs to your job. You live in New York.

The history of New York City is so complicated and so layered that it would be completely impossible to sum it up in a regular-sized documentary. Filmmaker Ric Burns spent nearly a decade trying to assemble a comprehensive history of the city and came out with New York: A Documentary Film, a monumental 14 hour work that covers a tremendous amount of the nearly four hundred year history of the great city. Of course there are omissions and biases, but what is there is fascinating and makes the case that the history of New York is nothing less than the history of America.

As a long time resident of New York, (I grew up in Manhattan during what I later realized was a dark period for the city and, after a few years in Baltimore, I now live in Brooklyn) I watched New York: A Documentary Film during its initial run on PBS with an eye for history: The dizzying list of advances (technological and social, financial and achitectural) that this one place has produced, the enormous highs and devastating lows of life in the big city. I marveled at the innovations of Wall Street, the architectural battles that drove builders first outward, then upward, the political upheavals that threw the city into chaos and then paved the way for social reform in the entire country.

Basically, I watched it as history, extremely dynamic and thrilling, depressing and tragic. I felt slightly removed from it even as I was drawn in by the figures, the drama, the madness of it all.

Then September 11th happened.

I was not as near to what happened as those whose stories you've read in the papers and seen played out on TV. My life was not, it turned out, in danger at any point. But it felt like it was. I watched the towers burn with my own eyes. When I couldn't take it anymore I tried to clear my head with a walk around the block. I was rushed with a cloud of soot and paper. I ran home to turn on the TV and discover that the first tower had collapsed and that the dust that covered my body was the last breath of a great building and all those in it.

So, yeah, my perception of New York history changed. Everyone's did.

New York: A Documentary Film doesn't include any mention of the tragedies of last September. It barely even mentions the World Trade Center, and never by name. The building of the towers barely figures into its final hour, and even then as a footnote. By the time they were completed the glorious history of New York was in the middle of a half-century lull from which it still hasn't really recovered.

But the towers are there, in countless shots of the city. Shots at night, during the day, at dawn and dusk. At night they look like jewel boxes, the same way they looked the year that I lived at their feet and stared up at them at night in awe of their massiveness. It is impossible to watch New York: A Documentary Film without thinking about September 11th. Sure, there are long segments that don't have obvious parallels, but some of the standout moments cut so close to the heart of our current situation that it's stunning.

The first instance of historical premonition comes no sooner than the very founding of America. New York is not necessarily known as a significant site during the Revolutionary War, but that's because General George Washington suffered devastating and demoralizing defeat at the hands of the British here. The battle of Brooklyn and subsequent retreat handed New York back to the monarchy and Washington headed across the river. As it would be innumerable times in the future, New York stood at the forefront of conflict, absorbing some of its most destructive blows. During the war New York was ravaged by neglect and a huge fire that consumed much of the city, then still huddled around lower Manhattan. The description of the burning of Trinity Church is so eerily similar to the collapse of the World Trade Center that it caused chills to run up my spine. As the spire of the church, then the tallest structure in New York, was engulfed by flames it collapsed in on itself, descending into a mountain of rubble, the original Ground Zero. Trinity Church, rebuilt on the same spot, sat at the foot of the World Trade Center and currently serves as a homebase for relief efforts.

Soon after the end of the Revolutionary War another striking parallel appeared. Since New York was on the forefront of the battle it bore the brunt of some of the gravest destruction. When the new government was drafted up Alexander Hamilton suggested that one of its first acts be for the federal government, then housed in lower New York, to pay down the war debt that each state had accrued. New York, due to the level of damage the city sustained, had the largest debt. Immediately southerners were outraged that they would have to help pay to rebuild New York. Thomas Jefferson reluctantly agreed to Hamilton's proposal under the condition that the federal capital be moved from Manhattan to his own territory, northern Virginia. While this was ultimately the best thing for New York since, as the film suggests, it freed the city up to represent only itself and not the rest of the nation, this sort of reluctance (or flat-out refusal) to help New York has been pervasive throughout time. After September 11th several southern senators actually suggested that the multi-billion dollar aide package proposed by New York's senators was actually a form of pork barreling, a funneling of national moneys to local pockets. Once again, New York was at the forefront of national struggle without the support of some of the rest of the nation. Thankfully this resistance was shortlived and this time the rest of the country has rallied around New York in a way it has never done before. (It was only a few decades ago when the Daily News' headline read "Ford to City: Drop Dead" after that unelected president refused to assist the financially devestated city in any way, so the paranoia is tough to shake off.)

Perhaps the most visceral and gripping reminder of September 11th, however, comes with the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Since New York was the center for manufacturing of just about every kind it was also home to one of the largest workforces in the world. With so many workers and no real governmental oversight of private businesses these sweatshops were filled with nightmarish working conditions. This century long situation came to a head when a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. With the exits locked to prevent employees from leaving and union organizers from entering, and with the factory filled with highly combustible materials stored in haphazard ways, the fire spread quickly and voraciously. The circumstances do not resemble the World Trade Center, buildings so well made that they withstood the full impact of huge jets for over an hour, allowing thousands to escape safely. But the description of the carnage does. Scores of young women working in the factory tried to escape by jumping out of windows, falling to their deaths. The efforts of the fire department were hampered by the height of the building (the ladders only reached the sixth floor, the fire was on the eighth and ninth), and the horror expressed by onlookers, hypnotized by the insane violence of what they were seeing. It's impossible to not be moved by the account of this disaster and, in a way, the results were equally dramatic: Many of the work safety and child labor laws currently on the books were initiated in response to the Triangle factory fire.

There are many sides to the history of New York and Burns covers a great many of them. His narration calls the city the great "experiment to see whether all the peoples of the world could live together in a single place." The cacophony of souls, portrayed with eye level long-lens shots of the disparate conglomeration that is any given sidewalk of New York, is key to understanding this place. Even if it isn't always a peaceful melting pot (and much of New York is devoted to conflict) there is always a sense that things are being worked out. Sometimes it gets messy, but it's the mess of life. The contradictions are built in to the city. The film, with chapters like "Sunshine and Shadow," "Order and Disorder," and "The Power and The People" understands this and tries to make a little sense of the whole glorious, chaotic jumble.

Key events are given special attention, like the draft riots of the Civil War era, an honest expression of outrage at the classist draft policies that excused anyone with money from fighting that quickly turned into one of the most shameful moments in New York's history, complete with lynchings and murder. In fact, the dark side of diversity is given a great deal of attention. New York's inconceivably huge role in American immigration forced the city to play home to the widest range of ethnicities, nationalities, and religions in the world. But the conflicts that arose are equally tremendous, from the marginalization of blacks, both enslaved and free, to the Irish gangs of the Five Points area in Manhattan, to the mind boggling flood of Europeans and Jews, to the influx of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans that continues today. As a port, New York has hosted everyone and, no matter where it was in its physical growth, the southern tip of Manhattan, with its ever expanding cluster of buildings, has served as a beacon for passengers and sailors for centuries.

That expansion of infrastructure comprises some of New York's most fascinating material. The city is, and has been, home to an absurd number of humankind's great structures: The Flatiron building, the Woolworth building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station, the original Pennsylvania station, the Chrysler building, Central Park, the world's oldest and most intricate subway system, the Empire State building, the Tribrough bridge, the World Trade Center. What the film does that is so ingenious is it puts faces on many of these monuments. From the moment that Dewitt Clinton saw the rapid expansion of a city that then crowded around the southern tip of Manhattan and commissioned the grid plan to plot out every street and corner in advance, one of the most brilliant visions of urban planning ever, New Yorkers have been obsessed with the way their city is laid out. Understanding the insane complexities of John Augustus Roebling's building of the Brooklyn Bridge (a pursuit that killled him), which linked what were then the first and third biggest cities in the country (in 1898 Manhattan and Brooklyn, along with the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island were consolidated to make up the five boroughs of New York City) helps make that magnificent structure all the more impressive. Following Frederick Law Olmsted as he landscaped and designed Central Park turns what looks like a bucolic swatch of preindustrialist countryside into the artistic man-made masterpiece that it is. Listening to Robert Moses, perhaps the largest man to leave his thumbprint on the city, describe his self-appointed job of tearing down entire neighborhoods to build highways as "swinging the meat axe" makes his projects (at first innovative and forward thinking, later devastating in their stupidity) as real as life.

In fact, Moses, who began his tenure as head of just about everything under celebrated mayor Fiorello La Guardia and continued for half a century, poses one of the most complex figures in New York's history. But the complexities of his work, which spans several episodes of New York can only begin to be appreciated with the time and detail that Burns devotes to it. Some have grumbled that the film is too critical of Moses but, all things considered, it is actually very generous. As a man who began his career really beautifying the city with parkways and green expanses as well as uniting the city with the masterful Triborough bridge (actually a series of bridges considered by some to be one of the finest architectural devices of the modern era), Moses really became a villain, with his Cross Bronx Expressway virtually destroying that entire borough and his superbuilding housing projects uprooting many thousands of people from their unique neighborhoods and sticking them in disgusting boxes. Moses is to blame for many of the problems that the city faces today and if other plans of his detailed here had been completed it would have been far worse. Burns' coverage of Jane Jacobs and her crusade to stop Moses' bulldozing of Greenwich Village is a highlight of New York's fight to maintain its small town atmosphere while continuing to expand as the world's capital.

It's a great history, and a terrible one, just as New York is a great city and also one that has witnessed immense suffering. There are moments when those interviewed sound like their are expounding on the hugeness of everything just a little to poetically. They may just be caught up in the Burns family style, that booming dramatic resonance. But then you step back and just try for a moment to take in the full scope of the story and you realize that it's impossible. Burns' fourteen hour film could have been ten times that length and still the immensity would have left out vital information. Some topics are barely touched and some are ignored. The mafia and its influence on the city is completely absent. New York's considerable contributions to sports and music are largely shunned. Authors Walt Whitman and F. Scott Fitzgerald are quoted at length, but Edith Wharton is not. The 1993 attack on the World Trade Center is not mentioned. Rap is given lip service but no real insight is delivered. I'm sure that KRS-1 or Afrika Bambaataa would have been happy to sit in for an interview. After all, those old Bronx breakbeats are basically the grid plan of today's global music. Still, even though fourteen hours is a woefully short amount of time to tell this story, it's a good start. Burns' film makes a lot of New York's forgotten history real. How many people crawl into today's Penn Station in the basement of Madison Square Garden and think about how magnificent the building used to be? How many people appreciate the African burial ground fenced off in the heart of Wall Street, sacred ground today even as its property value has reached immeasurable heights? How many people look up at the beauty of the Empire State Building and think "what if that building weren't there?"

The history of New York is a fluid thing. Usually the city is in control of its own destiny, knocking down its own buildings to try to put something better up, right or wrong. But now we all know that we are living in history and to not learn from it is to doom ourselves to ignorance. So now when you wake up and look at the Prospect Expressway, you see how Robert Moses reshaped your neighborhood, changing its face and character. And when you walk to Prospect Park you understand Frederick Law Olmsted's vision for a paradise accessible to city dwellers. And then on that one day when you stop in your tracks on the way to work and look up at the tallest building in the city on fire and you breathe the dust of desks and phones and fax machines and you dare not think what else, you realize that history is unfolding before your eyes. And you know that you are in New York.

The video is full frame and mostly looks fine. The filmed interviews are well lit and the original footage of the city, including the fantastic helicopter shots, is great. The archival material also looks very nice. The only real flaw is nasty pixillization that pops up from time to time. I noticed about four instances during the film. It doesn't seem like much but the set is expensive enough that this shouldn't be.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is well mixed (and David Ogden Stiers narration is brilliant, as is the beautiful score) but, again, minor technical glitches pop up. The first few minutes of the final disc were plagued with bits of noise. Although this is minor in terms of the running time, it is distracting and it hurts the experience.

The extras are appended to the first and seventh disc. They consist primarily of additional archival footage, interviews and unused segments, plus a Charlie Rose interview with Ric Burns. Some are interesting, some aren't. The most incredible, however, is a segment that didn't make the cut detailing an incident from the mid-forties when an American military plane, lost in dense fog, crashed directly into the Empire State Building. The description is very similar to the September tragedies and, while the deaths were pretty limited, this eerie occurrence shows that the past is never too far from the present.

Like this review, New York: A Documentary Film may seem to some a touch too dramatic at times. But the subject matter leaves no other path. New York City is not like other cities. Its existance is crucial to the country and to the world. When the financial wizards of New York shudder, the wealth of the world falls. When the artists of New York work, culture everywhere shifts. When New York is in turmoil socially, it is the turmoil of people everywhere made immediate. To live here is to love it and to hate it at the same time. The subway may be a glorious system, studied by subway engineers all over the world, but it's also a royal pain in the ass. Through the daily business of doing our lives there isn't often time to step back and take in the big picture. But even there New York has a solution, on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, the greatest building in the world. The World Trade Center also offered a unique perspective and it is from these vantage points that the hugeness of the city can be glimpsed. When F. Scott Fitzgerald first visited the Empire State Building, while the city and the nation were in financial ruin, he wept at the new point of view. Quoted in New York, he lamented that for the first time the endless world of his city appeared to have limits. But that there ever was a question tells a story all its own.

Email Gil Jawetz at [email protected]

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