Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

New York: A Documentary Film


Ric Burns is the younger brother of Ken Burns, who is far better known for his many documentary series shown on PBS. Ric was the producer for many of them. This time he was on his own, and he shows himself the clear equal of Ken. He uses pretty much the same techniques his brother does, with the slow pace, the pan and scan over old photos and tintypes, the evocative music, the talking heads. I learned a lot from these films … 17 hours of them!

Episode One: The Country and the City (1609-1825) The founding of New Amsterdam as a filthy little trading post on the tip of Manhattan. We are taken from Peter Stuyvesant to DeWitt Clinton and the building of the Erie Canal, deemed impossible and/or a stupid idea, but probably the single most critical factor in making NYC the most important city in the Americas, as all the produce of the vast American interior could now flow through the Great Lakes and down the Hudson, instead of down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Episode Two: Order and Disorder (1825-1865) The most important thing covered here is the Draft Riots of 1863. Dirt poor Irishmen and other new immigrants were incensed about many things, but the idea they would be drafted sort of tipped them over the edge, especially considering that for $300—a year’s wages for a laborer—a man could buy his way out of the draft. They burned much of the city down, and as so often happens, the badly oppressed lashed out at the even more badly oppressed: the blacks. The savagery was incredible. They burned down an orphanage and the black kids barely managed to escape out the back door. The mob lynched a dozen, burned some alive at the stake. Others were disemboweled, beheaded, drawn and quartered. Medieval Europe was on the loose, only 150 years ago, on these very shores.

Episode Three: Sunshine and Shadow (1865-1898) The finishing touches on Central Park, which finally gave New Yorkers a place to breath … the rich ones, at least, who already lived up there. For the ultra-poor, dying of horrible diseases in nightmare tenements, it was business as usual. A ray of hope: Jacob Riis took a camera with the new flash powder (the haunts of these poor people were far too dark for regular photography) and documented in pictures and words the inhuman plight of a million poor people, New York’s very own Calcutta. He published a book, How the Other Half Lives, that was a real shocker. Reform movements began, at the same time robber barons Gould and Fisk were looting Wall Street, and Boss Tweed got elected and reelected by the common man, no matter that he was stealing the city penniless.

Episode Four: The Power and the People (1898-1918) Between 1880 and 1935, NYC experienced the largest influx of immigrants the world had ever seen, nor has it been topped since. Most of them were from southern and eastern Europe this time: Jews, Italians, Poles, Armenians, Turks. NYC was growing upward with the introduction of the elevator—which could only use steel cables, not rope—and steel construction methods. Before long the tallest building in the world, the 60-story Woolworth Building, towered over Manhattan. The subway system was built, and soon was the largest in the world. Reform movements began but made little progress until the horrific Triangle shirtwaist fire, which killed 150 young women, mostly because the fire exits were locked to keep out union organizers. The unspeakable scumbag owners were found not guilty and within six weeks were back in business in a new huge sweatshop, also with no fire escapes. This was too raw even for Tammany Hall, and a few years later Al Smith, an uneducated Irishman from the Fulton Street fish market on the Lower East Side, was elected governor. He would do more than anyone until FDR to build the basis of the social safety net the Republicans have been trying to destroy ever since, right up to the year 2010 and, no doubt, beyond.

Episode Five: Cosmopolis (1918-1931) The doughboys return from the war in France. The Prohibition era, and the beginning of a decade of amazing economic growth. New York continues to grow into the sky, with builders trying to outdo each other. The designer of the Chrysler Building goes so far as to conceal a spire inside the beautiful tapering steel top, so that when 40 Wall Street tops out, Chrysler is able to hoist the spire into the air and become the tallest building in the world … for a few months. (I heard rumors that two mega-skyscrapers being planned now in Kuwait and Qatar are doing something like that, both hoping to outstrip the giant white elephant, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the tallest structure ever built: 160 stories, 2,717 feet—over half a mile—and mostly empty.) Then came the crash. Incredibly, John J. Raskob started construction of the Empire State Building anyway, and it was completed in just 13 months! Like the Burj, it was under-occupied for a long time, not becoming profitable until 1950.

Episode Six: City of Tomorrow (1929-1941) The Depression, and the long administration of Fiorello La Guardia, but most importantly, the rise of Robert Moses. At first Moses did a lot of good for the city, building parkways and tunnels and anything he could to make the city more accessible to cars, which he saw, correctly, as the wave of the future. But he never asked himself if wider roads and freeways were the right solution for NYC’s problems. However, WWII started, and he was not able to do much during those years. The 1939 World’s Fair “World of Tomorrow” is also covered in this episode.

Episode Seven: The City and the World (1945-present) This one is almost entirely about Robert Moses. These are the years when he really got going, and in the process destroyed much of what made NYC special. The Triborough Bridge was probably a good thing, in some ways. But he never grasped the proven principle that the more roads you build, the more cars fill those roads. Time after time new freeways were opened, and were clogged the next day. Solution? More roads. Moses was, of course, by no means the only man building urban highways in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Los Angeles also thrust these ribbons of concrete through neighborhoods, destroying them forever. All over the country waterfronts and riverfronts were being walled off by freeways, even in San Francisco, the only major city in America with no freeways transiting it. But no one had the power of Moses. He controlled everything, it seemed. His word was law. If he wanted something built, it goddam well got built. And his road building was nothing compared to the vast areas of blight he created by bulldozing areas he arbitrarily designated as “slums,” to put up the ugliest, most dehumanizing tower blocks outside Stalinist Russia. This was the result of his listening to an architectural idiot, Le Corbusier, who advocated these vertical slums (but never lived in one). Moses also was a big force in the ghettoization of NYC, aided by Federal policies that would “redline” a city block if one Negro lived in it. Soon, the poorest people, the minorities, mostly black and Puerto Rican, were concentrated in places where the politicians could, for the most part, ignore them. Until they rioted. Moses finally got his ass handed to him when he determined that to keep the traffic moving, it was necessary to ram a freeway from Brooklyn right through the heart of Greenwich Village and on to New Jersey. (Did anyone ever want to get to New Jersey that badly?) Anger that had been building since the callous destruction of Penn Station now boiled over in demonstrations and a political fight led by Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Moses lost, and the angels sang hallelujah.

Episode Eight: The Center of the World (1946-2003) Throughout this series, which was broadcast in 1999, there are shots of the World Trade Center, close up or in the distance. Every time I saw the Twin Towers, my heart broke. I think they affect most people that way; some movie-makers even went so far as to digitally remove them from New York films, which I think was wrong. After 9/11, Ric Burns and his team decided to devote this whole episode, made 4 years later, to the WTC and the atrocity of its demise. It is longer than all the others, at three hours.

(Personal note: The very first time I set foot in NYC, it was at the underground Port Authority Trans-Hudson terminal, stepping off a PATH train that had taken me through a tunnel under the river from Newark. I was on my way to the World’s Fair. That terminal was smack in the middle of the place where the WTC would rise in a few years. There were signs showing what it would look like. Soon there would be a gigantic hole where that terminal was … and, of course, 36 years later, it would be a gigantic hole again. Twice in the following years I ate dinner at Windows on the World, the fabulous restaurant on the 107th floor. I remember looking out … and down … on the Statue of Liberty, and I felt literally on the top of the world.)

The idea for a World Trade Center was first floated in 1946, believe it or not. It didn’t get anywhere until David and Nelson Rockefeller decided they wanted it to “revitalize” a declining Downtown, where they had their bank building. Everybody was moving Uptown. They came up with a wild scheme involving the Port Authority, which was supposed to be concerned with transportation—bridges, tunnels, the massive bus terminal in Mid-town. There was no reasonable way in the world the PA should be involved in building the largest office buildings in the world … but the Rocks wanted it, and they convinced the PA head, one Austin J. Tobin, that it was a good idea. Almost everyone else thought the idea sucked. (And they were right; for years, the towers were virtually empty.) Tobin was as powerful as Moses, and headed an agency that could pretty much do whatever it wanted to do.

The design and building of the towers is a fascinating story. The scheme, with the supporting steel on the outside, was revolutionary and ingenious. They actually took into account the possibility of a 707 crashing into them, and concluded they would stand. And they would have … but they forgot about the fuel. In the event, the kerosene from the jets burned away in only a few minutes, or went right through the buildings and produced those awful fireballs none of us will ever forget. But the fire ignited the fuel load inside the building—carpets, upholstery, plastic, and most critical of all … paper. God knows how many tons of paper were inside those buildings, but all the footage of that day shows great clouds of it swirling about. The temperatures reached 2000 degrees, and the steel began to buckle … and the scum of the Earth rejoiced. Fuck you all, every Muslim who thinks this was a good thing.

This episode is hard to watch. The last hour shows things that we all saw a hundred times, but haven’t been shown much in recent years. Most heartbreaking of all, the people who jumped. We can see them falling, and know that we would have done the same rather than burn. And, of course, the 343 firefighters. My hatred has not ebbed one iota since that day. Nor has my sense of frustration. How do you get even with 19 dead men? Killing Osama would be a good place to start. We should have dug that evil fuckhead out of his rathole years ago. Instead we went to war with the wrong country. George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney will pay for that in Hell.