- Historic Sites
“The Supreme Laboratory Of The American Experiment”
One of America’s greatest documentary filmmakers takes on America’s greatest city: Ric Burns discusses his new PBS series, New York
November 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 7
New York is the essence of what’s best about America, but it has always been both the best and worst of America. It has always been about creating a society in which anyone of ability can rise. That sounds warm, but it’s bracing in the honesty and challenge it presents to any individual, because you can fail as easily as you can succeed. And its democratic impulse has always taken an interest in the highest, as opposed to the lowest, common denominator. I mean, they didn’t have to build the Brooklyn Bridge. They didn’t have to build an 843-acre Central Park. The vaulting ambition and even vanity of New Yorkers has made them not merely address their problems but try to scoop the world in doing so, and this has left a treasury of large public works.
On the other hand, contrasting all this generosity and openness, the city has imposed enormous hardships—especially, as your film shows, on blacks.
That is an amazing parallel story. The story of African-Americans in New York, like the story of African-Americans at large, is frequently and heartbreakingly the exception. You know, there’s a tendency to think of New York as a Northern city, but it’s really not a Northern city or a Southern city. It’s a kind of drain that everything in America funneled down into. In the seventeenth century the slave trade was a pillar of the city’s economy. It was routine in the early eighteenth century to see African-Americans owned by white New Yorkers walking freely down to the auction at the foot of Wall Street to be auctioned off. But in the end New Yorkers may have moved toward the light a little more quickly simply because they couldn’t avoid one another. They couldn’t be segregated.
Do you see perhaps the biggest turning point at the Depression?
From about 1790 to 1929 New York enjoyed the most extraordinary run any city has ever had, a run in capitalism and democracy, in commerce and hordes of people. No city has ever grown or been wealthy or pioneered both the negative and positive aspects of a culture that way. After enterprising New Yorkers like Alexander Hamilton helped ensure that their town was going to be first among all the ports on the Atlantic, the city simply took off without any competition. Each new technological development, transportation revolution, and breakthrough in communications either happened in New York or was quickly stolen by New York to leverage an even higher level of prestige, wealth, and population. Even the federal government was just a fly on the rump of a huge beast of New York by the end of the nineteenth century. When the Crash came, it was the end of an unrivaled unfettered run. What we learned by the end of the twenties was that capitalism could not be allowed to run so freely.
The zenith of New York in a sense came when in the depths of the Depression a group of New Yorkers went South and, as the historian Mike Wallace puts it, invaded Washington and said to the federal government, “You’re now going to have to do at a national level what New York City and State have done for decades: take care of all the people, at least in some minimal concrete ways.”
You mean Roosevelt and his New Dealers?
Yes. Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet member in history, appointed Secretary of Labor by FDR in the depths of the Depression, said the New Deal had begun on March 25, 1911, when the Triangle Shirtwaist factory burned. The worst industrial disaster in New York’s history, in which 146 women in a sweatshop plunged or burned to death because they’d been locked into their factory, became a watershed. A coalition that included radicalized Eastern European sweatshop employees, journalists, progressive politicians, and even the daughter of J. P. Morgan came together to get government to act not on behalf of factory owners but on behalf of factory workers.
Didn’t the costs of looking after its citizens ultimately become too much for the city?
In the 1940s and 1950s much of the money that came from the federal government went into public works, but only one kind of public works: highways. It turned out that the Depression was the moment when cities began to be pulled apart by the automobile and the highway. This ensured that the great struggle for cities in the coming halfcentury would be the relationship of cities to cars. Every other form of transportation had in effect centralized power, wealth, population, and prestige; the automobile is the first great decentralizer. A great irony in New York’s history is that one of the master builders and chief architects of the decentralized vision of cities, Robert Moses, lived and worked in New York, yet New York miraculously escaped the fate that almost destroyed nearly every other American city. We came very close. The last really melodramatic story in New York’s history—maybe there’s one happening today, and we’ll read about it in the paper tomorrow—happened when Manhattan came within an ace of being cut in pieces by superhighways that Robert Moses hoped would run across 125th Street, 59th Street, 34th Street, and what is now SoHo. That would have destroyed life in Manhattan as we know it. The story of how it was prevented is one of the great cliffhangers. Because of it, Jane Jacobs is probably the most important New Yorker of the second half of the twentieth century.
Jane Jacobs? The woman who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities?