Sunday, December 7, 2008

Review: New York

Over the past year and a half, I have been watching on DVD one of the best documentary series ever: New York: A Documentary Film. Directed by Ric Burns, this documentary premiered on PBS in 1999, encompassing 14 hours of the history of this city, from its early days as a Dutch colony up to contemporary history. Filled with art work, archival photographs, and early film footage, the visuals of this documentary are supplemented by interviews with so many New York "experts," from former mayors and reporters at The New York Times, to historians and urban planners. The only reason why it has taken me so long to watch the series is because there is a lot to process in each episode as far as factual, social, economic, and political histories, that it really does make you want to think about how New York has evolved into one of the greatest cities in the world. Some of the highlights of the documentary for me included: the initial growth of the city above Wall Street (it was, quite literally, a wall at one time to keep the Indians away from the Dutch settlers); the city's early history as the nation's first capital; the construction of the Erie Canal and how it made the city the economic center of the United States; the story of Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge; the building of the first skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building; Robert Moses and the effect of urban planning with automobiles in mind (the result of which I can hear right now outside my window, as my apartment overlooks a section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway!); the Great Depression; immigration and racial tensions; the Harlem Renaissance.... As you can see, I could go on and on. But if I had to sum up the one lesson I've learned about this amazing documentary, it is that New York has always been a commercial city first, and in that mindset, it is a city that has always made a habit of tearing down and rebuilding. It is, in that sense, one of the most forward-thinking cities in the world. As a result, it has lost historic neighborhoods and beautiful buildings, but somehow it still manages to move forward and redefine itself over and over. The main documentary premiered in 1999 with seven episodes. One of the interesting things about it is that there is a sense of naivete in many of the interviews and in the perception of New York's centrality in the world. I don't think this innocence was obvious at the time, but seeing the documentary after 9/11, it is striking how New York (and the United States) lived such a very carefree existence. The events of 9/11 changed this city probably more so than any other. As a result, Ric Burns and his team got together and did a followup sequel of another two hours that discusses the World Trade Center from its inception in the 1960s all the way through the events of 9/11. This sequel acts as Part 8 of the documentary. I didn't think I would be as interested in the building's history, but as it turned out, it was an amazing coda to an already incredible story.

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