- 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
Yes. She had the ability first to think through an alternative to the city of the car and then to lead a political movement that stopped the most powerful master builder who ever built in America. He had done whatever he wanted with the stroke of a pen for four and a half decades—until her book came out in 1961 and became the bible of a movement to preserve the traditional city, with its essential vibrant street life. The building stopped to such a degree that one could say that the problem of New York now is that it doesn’t have a Robert Moses. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his valedictory years as a senator has been saying, you can’t coast on your legacy of buildings and public works or you’ll be living off your capital. New York’s pride has always been that it’s on the cutting edge. When you’re in New York, you know you’re standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon, only it’s the future that you’re looking out into.
Why do Americans love to hate New York?
Immigrants, money, and the media. America is inconceivable without immigrants, and its identity is therefore constantly in a swirl. The country is in a perpetual adolescent crisis, and there’s nobody sterner than an adolescent when it comes to criticizing the childish behavior of people who may be two or three months younger. And New York has the most unvarnished, least hypocritical attitude toward money and class of any American place. People wish they could live in an America where Thomas Jefferson is President and Frank Capra is Vice President, but of course nobody ever lived in a Jeffersonian America. At the deepest psychic level we are and always have been an urban nation; we’ve just had this habit of thinking we wanted to be farmers. And, finally, the media are so powerful. They have been here since the Erie Canal made New York the transportation center. This is where the idea and the image of America are created. There’s tremendous ambivalence across the country about that. If you lived in a medieval town and were wandering in the countryside and bumped into a stranger who asked you where you were from, you could point to a steeple poking out of the tree line and say, “That’s where I’m from,” and that would be sufficient. The skyline of New York has been the steeple poking out of the tree line of American culture for a century now.
In telling the story of New York using images, you must confront both great challenges and great rewards: challenges because there weren’t even photographs for two-thirds of its history, rewards because it’s such a uniquely rich visual environment.
Yes. This has been the most professionally challenging and creatively rewarding project I’ve ever worked on. To find a narrative that works not only in summary but with its boots on, step by step, has been extremely difficult. There’s no Fort Sumter, no Gettysburg, no Appomattox. You have to go out and find those things, and, with a large team of historians, we’ve really been going into kind of uncharted terrain. But because twelve hours is nothing for the history of New York, the challenge has been to find moments and images that don’t just do double or triple or quadruple duty but do dodecahedral duty. They have to deal with all sorts of things at the same time, so that you can create the impression of encompassing a large amount of history while in fact you’re leaving out most of it.
The poetic challenge and obligation of the film became obvious as we made the first episode, which runs from Henry Hudson’s arrival in 1609 to the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825—two centuries and not a single photograph from the whole time. This made us grasp right away the fact that even when we had millions of photographic images and miles of newsreel footage, the images would have to work like haiku: powerful, condensed, and suggestive. What I hope people understand is that no matter what, we’ve had to make choices of the most draconian kind. We’ve wanted to get into the center of the stream, find the direction it’s moving in, and, as much as we possibly can, thrill people with the sense of motion and the beauty of what the moment is about. We’ve been forced to choose moments and images that will enter the eye and the ear and the heart and unfold, and explain a lot and say very little, and move on.
When you finally get one of these moments right and it does resonate, it resonates with a city so large and continuously interesting and full of every human feeling and emotion and ambition that you begin to feel something immense vibrating in response to that moment.
You’ve also got an amazing assortment of New Yorkers speaking very eloquently and movingly about their city.
What we found in talking to the severity or so people that we interviewed—people like Mayor Giuliani and Senator Moynihan and David Dinkins, Ed Koch, Martin Scorsese, Fran Lebowitz, Brendan Gill, Allen Ginsberg, Alfred Kazin, Margo Jefferson, and the list goes on—was that virtually every one of them spoke about New York with an unfeigned passion, as if they were talking about the most important thing in their life. They talked with the kind of fluency and candor we reserve for the deepest and most powerful things we know intimately. It seemed as if the performance standards of the city itself had rubbed off on everyone.