New York, New York

27 Aug


Photo by PBS


I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.

I’ve been watching Ric Burns’ eight part documentary on New York, and I’m falling harder for the city with each new episode that Netflix delivers.  Seven episodes of New York: A Documentary Film were finished in the summer of 2001, and each segment details a portion of the history of New York City, and the first five episodes attracted more than 20 million viewers.  Upon release of the eight segment, which detailed the rise and fall of the World Trade Center [made after 9/11], Burns said, “Little could we have imagined, when we completed what we thought was the final episode of New York: A Documentary Film in the summer of 2001, how powerfully these underlying themes would resonate with the events that overtook New York just a few weeks later — or the unforgettable response of the city in the months after that.”

Historians and film critics applauded Burns’ efforts, but some criticized him for the length of the segments and called into question some of the historical events recounted on film.  What is clear, however, is that Burns’ undertaking provides a basis for understanding the reasons why New York City has continued to thrive in spite of all of the challenges of being the gateway to the U.S.  The series is definitely worth the time as it provides not only the history of the city in beautifully shot footage, but also commentary by a wide range of people who obviously love New York.

So far, I’ve watched the first two episodes, and I’m looking forward to the next six!

[Episode summaries are taken from the official New York: A Documentary website]

Episode One: The Country and the City (1609–1825)

The series begins by identifying the key themes that shaped New York’s history: commerce and capitalism, diversity and democracy, transformation and creativity. The episode charts the development of the city founded by the Dutch as a purely commercial enterprise, first as New Amsterdam, a freewheeling enclave of trade and opportunity; then as the British New York, a colony fueled by slavery which was bestowed as a birthday gift upon the Duke of York by his brother, King Charles; soon after as a strategically pivotal locale in the American Revolution; and ultimately as the city of New York: the nation’s first capital and the place destined to define urban life in America — and American ideals.

  • Episode Two: Order and Disorder (1825–1865)

Already established as America’s premier port, New York City swelled into the nation’s greatest industrial metropolis as a massive wave of German and Irish immigration turned the city into one of the world’s most complex urban environments, bringing with it a host of new social problems. Episode Two reveals how the city’s artists, innovators and leaders, from poet Walt Whitman to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (the designers of Central Park) grappled with the city’s growing conflicts — which culminated in the catastrophic Civil War Draft Riots of 1863.

  • Episode Three: Sunshine and Shadow (1865–1898)

Now the spotlight shines on the growth, glamour and grief of New York during America’s giddy postwar “Gilded Age.” Exploring the incomparable wealth of the robber barons and the unabashed corruption of political leaders, such as Tammany Hall boss William M. Tweed, the episode examines the era when the expansion of wealth and poverty — and the schism between them — built to a crescendo. The program ends as the city itself dramatically expands its boundaries, annexing Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island into a single massive metropolis — Greater New York.

  • Episode Four: The Power and the People (1898–1918)

As New York spilled into the new century, the extraordinary interplay of capitalism, democracy and transformation surged to a climax. During a single generation, over 10 million immigrants arrived in New York. The city itself became an even more dramatic lure with the construction of the first subways and skyscrapers. And arising from the plight of New York’s most exploited citizens came landmark legislation that would eventually transform the lives of all Americans.

  • Episode Five: Cosmopolis (1919–1931)

In this short but dazzling period, New York became the focal point of an extraordinary array of human and cultural energies, reaching its highest levels of urban excitement and glamour. In just over a decade, New York gave birth to its signature skyscrapers, the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, and to artistic creations like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and to the jazz compositions of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Along the way, Harlem emerged as the undisputed capital of the African- American experience and the new media industries of advertising, radio networks, public relations, and magazines found their homes in midtown Manhattan.

  • Episode Six: City of Tomorrow (1929–1941)

In little more than ten years, immense new forces were unleashed in New York, from the Depression itself to the New Deal, which permanently altered the city and the country. Along the way, two of the most remarkable New Yorkers of all time came to the fore: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and master builder Robert Moses, both of whom attempted to create, in the darkest of times, a bold new city of the future. The episode examines their careers in detail, as well as the immense public works that transformed the city in the ’30s. Also explored are the demise of Mayor Jimmy Walker, the coming of the New Deal, the fate of Harlem during the Depression, and the increasingly complex impact of the automobile on the city.

  • Episode Seven: The City and the World (1945–2000)

In exploring the social, economic and physical forces that swept through the city in the post-war period, Episode Seven examines the great African-American migration and Puerto Rican immigration of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s; the beginnings of white flight and suburbanization; and the massive physical changes wrought by highways and urban renewal — all of which were directed, to a surprising degree, by one man: Robert Moses. The film comes to a climax with the destruction of Penn Station, the battle over the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the social and fiscal crises of the ’60s and ’70s, and New York’s miraculous revival in the last quarter-century.

  • Episode Eight: The Center of the World (1946–2003)

Episode eight was produced after 9/11 and details the history of New York through the rise and fall of the World Trade Center.


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