Publication Date

January 1, 2000

Editor's Note: This review of New York: A Documentary Filmis based on the first five episodes screened by the time of writing; a sixth episode is planned for broadcast in spring 2000. The film was first broadcast over several PBS stations in November 1999.

Title photo courtesy Thirteen/WNETNew York City has been one of the world’s largest and most dynamic cities for about 150 years. At any time in that period, there have been “a million stories in the naked city.” New York has also connected with the rest of the world. It served briefly as the first capital of the United States and from the last third of the 19th century, as Kenneth Jackson has put it, as the “capital of capitalism.” In the 20th century it has been an international art and entertainment capital as well.

To produce New York: A Documentary Film, filmmakers Ric Burns and Lisa Ades had to fit the great city into five or six two-hour programs. They faced many challenges. In the demanding visual medium of television, how could they carry the city’s history from its first Dutch settlement to the mid-19th century, a period for which there are precious few authentic original images or physical remnants? What could they do with the music, the art, the religious tracts, the broadsides, the newspapers, and the pamphlets produced in the city? Should they develop a consistent, continuous narrative, and if so, from what chronological, political, and cultural viewpoint? How could they engage and hold an audience large enough to justify 10 hours of prime television time and substantial investments by Chase Manhattan, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Ford Foundation, and other funders? In general, the filmmakers sought to meet these challenges by enlisting the responses of celebrated writers and journalists to some unchanging ideas of New York City, and to a sort of “top ten” list of its most famous people, tourist sites, places, and events.

The Nielsen ratings, hits on the web sites ( and, and sales figures for the companion volume (New York: An Illustrated History, by Ric Burns and James Sanders with Lisa Ades), the soundtrack CD, and the five-cassette home video will answer the last of these questions. Historians who hope that history can continue to command public attention and justify major corporate support can only cheer them on—and learn, perhaps, from their commercial successes and failures. As teachers and researchers, historians can also ask what choices Burns and Ades made, and how they might use the project in their teaching.

A Literary and Journalistic Meditation on the City

New York: A Documentary Film is a late-1990s literary and journalisticmeditation on ideas and images evoked by New York City. One of the film’s most striking features is a series of statements, often compelling, from poets, novelists, and journalists, both contemporary and past. From the present and the very recent past its (mostly male) literary protagonists include Caleb Carr, E. L. Doctorow, Brendan Gill, Allen Ginsberg, John Steele Gordon, Alfred Kazin, Tony Kushner, Fran Lebowitz, Philip Lopate, Peter Quinn, and Luc Sante; also prominent are the popular journalists David McCullough, Pete Hamill, and Robert Caro. These mid- and late-20th-century writers provide much of the film’s interpretation of New York’s 18th- and 19th-century history as well as its history in the first third of the 20th century. The film also relies on extensive readings from the works of Washington Irving and, most notably, Walt Whitman and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and on very brief quotations from Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Frances Trollope, Emma Lazarus, Abraham Cahan, Thomas Wolf, Sherwood Anderson, Randolph Bourne, James Weldon Johnson. Curiously, Edgar Allan Poe, Margaret Fuller, Lydia Maria Child, O. Henry, Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton, Lincoln Steffens, and Dorothy Parker make no appearance at all.

An Uneven Use of Sound and Visual Materials

Reinforcing the literary theme, almost the only sources that the film identifies are quotations from writers and on-screen commentators. By contrast, it identifies almost none of its visual materials. This is a particularly doubtful decision for the first episode, which deals with the long span of time from 1609 to 1825. Many of the images used in this episode appear to be 19th- and 20th-century illustrations of stories and histories about 17th- and 18th-century people, places, and events. Although it bills itself as a "documentary," the film nowhere addresses the fact that much of its visual material consists of imagined reconstructions, not contemporary evidence.

The film does make good use of hoardings for Barnum's Museum and of Thomas Nast's classic political caricatures of "Boss Tweed," though it fails to note the anti-Catholic aspects of Nast's images of Irish immigrants. Once photographs become available, the film makes extensive and often very effective use of them—especially in long segments illustrating four of Whitman's poems, and in a striking presentation of Jacob Riis's flash photos of slum dwellers in the late 1880s (ignoring, however, Riis's close ties to Protestant charity). And it makes excellent use of some early moving picture film, and of photos of construction, street scenes, and disasters. Apart from an excellent account of the draft riots during the Civil War, the film does not use contemporary illustrations with the impact of writings about the city, and it does surprisingly little with paintings and drawings. Except for its somewhat heavy-handed emphasis on the "sunlight and shadow" genre in the middle and later years of the 19th century, it says little about the changing perceptions of the city and its people reflected in the works of its 18th- and 19th-century artists and illustrators.

It must be said that much of the film's use of sound is disjointed and disappointing. This film has a fully developed sound track. Nearly all spoken material is accompanied by music. Yet, particularly in the first three episodes, many musical passages have little to do with the spoken words or the visual material they accompany. Upbeat segments, such as the discussion of the first Jewish settlement in the 1620s, are accompanied by somber, elegiac, even lugubrious tunes—and similar music attends extended discussions of such bloody conflict as the draft riots. Solemn, portentous music does not enhance a somewhat repetitive (yet incomplete) presentation of Alexander Hamilton's ideas about finance and economic development. Several 19th-century segments are presented to strains of Italian opera or Russian ballet, often with a spirit that seems quite oblique if not contrary to the visual and spoken material. On the other hand, the film makes remarkably little use of music from the periods under consideration. It notes that both "Dixie" and "The Sidewalks of New York" were written in the city. But it ignores almost all of the city's history as a musical center, except for the impact of African American jazz on classical music and on Broadway music in the 1920s.

A Remarkably Unhistorical Outlook

New York: A Documentary Film presents itself in a series of historically labeled episodes and deals with a number of events and personalities from the city’s history, but much of it is remarkably unhistorical. The long shots of today’s Manhattan skyline in every episode reinforce its many discussions of the city’s current—and apparently changeless—virtues and challenges. Contemporary commentators include Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, architect Robert A. M. Stern, developer Donald Trump, director Martin Scorsese, and local journalists Pete Hamill and Robert Caro, as well as the literary figures. All this lends a sense of newsworthiness to each section of the film, and provides a degree of unity to the project as a whole. New York, the film argues, stands and has always stood for the dominance of make-a-buck capitalism, and has always aspired—without full success—to toleration; to the accommodation of people from around the world; to separation of church and state; and to religious freedom, civil liberties, and to opportunity for all. New York also stands and has always stood, according to this film, for great and growing gaps between rich and poor, for exploitation of the poor and people of color, for harsh conflict between ethnic groups, and between capitalist and democratic socialist ideals. And New York stands for socialist-inspired efforts at reform, efforts that reach something of a climax in the career of Al Smith, the Lower East Side Irish Catholic Democrat who put together a coalition of Irish and Italian Catholics and Jews to win election as a reform governor after World War I.

To illustrate these points, New York: A Documentary Film covers in some detail both the advantages of the harbor and river as Henry Hudson found it, and the ugly details of colonial New York’s brutal assaults on nearby Indians. It emphasizes the colonial city’s reliance on slavery and the appalling attacks of its Dutch and English leaders on slaves, freedpeople, and their white associates, as well as the close connection of its merchants with the cotton South in the decades before the Civil War. It details the Battle of Brooklyn and the British occupation during the Revolutionary War. It features Alexander Hamilton as the 18th-century city’s quintessential new man on the make, and DeWitt Clinton for his leadership in establishing Manhattan’s grid plan and the Erie Canal. It illustrates the harbor, the grid, the canal, and, later, Central Park and Brooklyn Bridge, and the Empire State Building, with an excellent variety of visual material—though its extensive, leafy, recent views shot from treetop and skyscraper level and from water on bright, sunny, late spring days sometimes undercut its striking point that New Yorkers decided as early as 1811 to replace the natural environment with artificial designs.

In sections explicitly designed for comparison with the late 20th-century movement of African Americans to America's cities, the film strongly emphasizes the Irish immigration of the 19th century, and makes a compelling case for the proposition that the terrible draft riot of 1863 was the worst urban disturbance in American history. In its third episode, the film surrenders itself to the sensational mid-19th-century tradition of the city as a contrast of "Sunshine and Shadow." This episode adds to familiar images of an opulent Fifth Avenue and the overcrowded Lower East Side, child labor and Wall Street speculators; bosses (above all Tweed) and reformers; and a brief discussion of efforts to advance a socialist vision, especially in Henry George's 1886 mayoral campaign. It also features David McCullough's implicitly procapitalist celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge (and, in the fourth and fifth episodes, similar treatments of the subway, Pennsylvania and Grand Central stations, and several famous skyscrapers) as a heroic response to the city's massive challenges.

The final two episodes follow immigrants through Ellis Island, lingering on the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus. They treat working conditions in the garment industry and—as background to the rise of Al Smith—provide excruciating detail about the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire that killed 150 young women garment workers in 1911. While it emphasizes Smith's role in pushing for reform legislation, the film says little about other social and political forces that shaped this legislation, or about its content or impact. Episode five emphasizes Scott Fitzgerald's responses to Wall Street and Madison Avenue in the 1920s, the rise of Harlem, and New York's cosmopolitan, mixed contributions to American culture.

Most of the film's images of New York are familiar: they have appeared in popular fiction and old-fashioned textbooks, and some of them have served as the basis for moralistic sermons and editorials for more than 150 years. New York: A Documentary Film will reinforce these received notions. Because it reflects so many preconceived ideas and emphasizes so many famous tourist attractions, the film may also hold a popular audience. This may help the film communicate notions that are less well-established in the popular imagination, especially about the centrality of race conflict in American history, and about the importance of unrestrained racial and ethnic mixing to the creation of American culture. The film also reflects (more, perhaps, than most non–New Yorkers will welcome) the enthusiasm for the city felt by most of us who have lived and written there, as well as the sense of entitlement to subsidized public services that many New Yorkers continue to feel.

Perhaps an emphasis on unchanging themes is to be expected from such literary and political meditations. This film is organized in roughly historical periods. It offers impressive statements from an excellent variety of historians, notably Kenneth T. Jackson and Michael Wallace, but also Ruth Abram, Thomas Bender, Carol Berkin, Daniel Czitrom, Ann Douglas, Joshua Freeman, Margo Jefferson, David Levering Lewis, Kathy Peiss, Joel Silverman, Gretchen Sorin, Christine Stansell, Jean Strouse, John Kuo Wei Tchen, Craig Steven Wilder, and Carol Willis.

The film includes some implicit discussion and debate—for example, between Michael Wallace and David McCullough over the effectiveness of business leaders, and between Pete Hamill and Martine Scorsese on the one hand and historians who emphasize tough living conditions in New York in isolation from the quality of the alternatives that most immigrants had left behind on the other. But on the whole, the film excludes most debate about historical interpretation and presents a single set of views, offering a curiously static and unhistorical treatment of the city.

Any film that tackles such a vast topic as the nearly 400 years of a city whose metropolitan area now embraces 20 million people must necessarily be very selective. Hence it is not really reasonable to complain that New York: A Documentary Film ignores many topics of great interest and importance. Apart from the events connected with the Triangle Fire and some dancers in the 1920s, its New York is almost a city without women. It is a city whose Protestants oppress but do little else, a city that does not produce competing movements of evangelical social reform. It is a city that develops few Catholic institutions, and in which Catholics do not hold distinctive social or political views. It is a city without conflict between Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Jews. It is a city that develops neither a middle class nor a trade union movement before 1900. It is a city whose largest and arguably most influential immigrant group, the Germans, simply never arrived. It is a city that lacks religious music, a convergence of folk music traditions in the 19th century, vaudeville music, and German classical music. It is a city whose bankers had nothing to do with mobilizing investments from an increasingly widespread American and European public for a rapidly growing U.S. economy. It is a city that never developed the publications, for Protestants and women and many others, that helped create a national market in the mid-19th century. These are topics for other films.

Distorting the Historical Record

But it is fair, I think, to raise some questions about a film whose static images distort important aspects of the stories it does choose to tell. In service of its argument that New York’s Dutch and British authorities—like their successors through all later periods—subordinated all religious, cultural, and status motives to their desire to get rich, this film asserts that the separation of church and state began with Peter Stuyvesant’s forced and reluctant acceptance of Jews in 1626. This is to ignore the Dutch expulsion of Quakers from Flushing 30 years later, the strenuous and effective colonial efforts against Catholics, the sedition trial of printer John Peter Zenger, and powerful and sustained efforts to advantage the Church of England and discourage Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed dissenters. More significantly, it is also to exclude from the film the history of struggle over religious and civil liberties in the city, a struggle that continued long into the 20th century.

In service of its assertion that capitalism arrived with the first ships and that business activity is only about greed, fraud, and power, the film suggests that the Dutch West India Company resembled Exxon "with guns," and entirely omits reference to the Navigation Acts and British Naval Courts. It adds that mid- and late-19th-century changes in corporate activity reflected mere "technical" adjustments. This is to ignore a great deal of historical change. The close connections between the Dutch and English trading companies and their national states were not replicated in the United States after the Revolution. Hamilton sought to use New York State's strong financial and chartering powers for economic development and for the enrichment of those who already held wealth, but through continuing debate the state gave up many of these powers by the mid-19th century. Yet New York State retained more regulatory powers than many of its rivals, and state regulation has continued to play a role in the success of business in New York, including the successes of Wall Street's money markets.

The 19th-century literary and visual rhetoric of "Sunshine and Shadow" that shapes much of this film presents a static (and, I would have thought, an outdated) view of a city that grows to astonishing size but is always characterized by an unchanging contrast between rich and poor. Visually, the film suggests repeatedly that by the mid-19th century New York had become a vast, unknowable warren inhabited by faceless proletarians, always beyond the grasp of the observer. This may accurately have reflected the impression of newly arrived young writers. But in many ways this perspective simply repeats the antiurban, antimodern, anticosmopolitan themes of 19th-century European and American reactionaries, and cuts sharply against the film's stated commitment to understanding and tolerance. In the last two episodes it becomes clear that the treatment of 19th-century New York is foreshortened to serve as a backdrop for Robert Caro's heroic treatment of Al Smith as the liberal tribune of the city's cosmopolitan Democratic voters of the 1910s and 1920s.

These reservations should not obscure this film's strengths. Its use of contemporary as well as 19th-century writers may well engage many viewers. A few of its visual images are stunning, and many of them are stimulating. The film integrates excellent material about race conflict into the core story of the city. Its treatments of Walt And while the film reflects many controversial decisions, it also reflects a strong point of view that will invite discussion and that lends this large project a very useful coherence.

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