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“The Supreme Laboratory Of The American Experiment”

June 2024
11min read

One of America’s greatest documentary filmmakers takes on America’s greatest city: Ric Burns discusses his new PBS series, New York

Ric Burns’s projects have grown ever more ambitious since he became a director. He first made a name for himself as co-producer and co-writer, with his brother, Ken, of the landmark PBS series The Civil War, which aired in 1990. Since then he has directed acclaimed and award-winning historical documentaries on the nation’s greatest playground (Coney Island, 1991), one of its most haunting human tragedies (The Donner Party, 1992), and the entire ‘Westward expansion (The Way West, 1995). His latest work outstrips them all. He has been putting together New York for more than seven years, and the result is a twelve-hour biography of what he calls “the world’s first modern city” and “the place where the idea of America is created, ” a story that stretches from Henry Hudson’s first sighting of the lonely, remote harbor in 1609 to the sprawling, congested world capital of finance, media, and culture of 1999. The first five 2-hour episodes of New York will air on the evenings of November 14 through 18; the sixth segment is scheduled to be shown in the spring of 2000.

I talked to Ric Burns in the offices of his production company, Steeplechase Films, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

First of all, why New York City?

Americans are fond of thinking of New York as the most foreign of American cities, but to a degree that I think is startling, the story of New York is the story of America. I mean, the principal themes of American culture and society, in a fascinating and very moving way, came bubbling out of the ground long before they called it New York, back when it was New Amsterdam. The extent to which America is a commercial, diverse society that thinks of itself as at once unrelentingly capitalistic and unrelentingly democratic, and hopes to not compromise either of those enterprises, all comes from New York. It remains today the supreme laboratory of the American experiment in capitalism and democracy, and the laboratory for modern culture. That’s what drew us to the project.

An experiment in democracy, when it was founded purely for business, not for moral or religious, reasons?

Yes. It’s funny for a liberal kid who grew up in Ann Arbor in the sixties to discover the degree to which the logic of capitalism and the logic of an alternative to capitalism developed in the same place and for the very same reasons. The Dutch found very early on that they had created the most diverse society in the world. There were eighteen languages spoken on the streets of New Amsterdam by 1643, nineteen years after the colony was founded. That seems like nothing today, but it was a very complex and heterogeneous society for the time. And they didn’t want it to be that way. Peter Stuyvesant was a bigoted Calvinist who sought to keep Jews out but was overruled by the board of directors of the Dutch West India Company precisely because it would be bad for business to exclude anyone who might wish to come here and work. So the relationship between a non-ideological business-oriented culture and an inclusive multiethnic culture was set from the very beginning, not necessarily out of benevolence but out of a kind of instinctive or even conscious sense that it was going to help the society, help the business culture. I found that surprising.

It’s a very long way from 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed in, to the metropolis of seven and a half million people today. How do you tell such a huge story?

Despite how relatively new film is, it’s essentially an ancient storytelling medium. I mean, film rips through the camera and then through the projector at twenty-four frames a second in one direction and one direction only. We’re carried into a river of light and sound, and move from beginning to middle to end. What that means is that every time out you have to find what the story is. What is the one story to tell about a city that sprawls nearly four hundred years in its history, covers some 326 square miles, clearly embraces every conceivable human enterprise and kind of human being? I think we settled on a very simple proposition, which was to see how it happened that everybody in the world came to be living in the same place and could live together there. One can really see the experiment in the creation of a worldwide culture beginning in the early seventeenth century. That was the first step in a process we now call globalization. It’s not glib, I think, to say that the experiment that in a sense began in New Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century is the experiment of the turn of the millennium.


You make it sound as if New York is the essence of what’s best about America.

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?

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.


When you’re in New York … you’re standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon, only it’s the future that you’re looking into.

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.

In New York you can’t just show up. You have to have gotten your act together. The cultural reality is that it’s a stage, and there are ten other people waiting in the wings, so you’d better kick high and make the gesture both broad and dazzling. All these people intuitively understood that. I’m still astonished by them all and what they’ve given the film.

Where does it all ultimately lead?

The reason we made the movie has to do, oddly, with that most symbolic of New York landmarks, the Empire State Building. It’s as if since the Ice Age—in a completely unhistorical way of looking at things—New York had been moving in the direction of putting up that twelve-hundred-and-fifty-foot-tall building with a dirigible mast on top. They dug the ground, and in a few weeks the Crash came. It never should have been built; it was a last twitch in the great era of speculation. It’s almost a gift to the screenwriter. A number of techniques had to be pioneered, and it was put up by an army of workers with a speed and efficiency that were almost reckless, all while the Depression deepened. Then it was such a financial failure that it remained unsurrounded by other buildings—which is why you can see it from everywhere. It immediately became the icon of the city, the greatest expression of the manic upward aspiring thrust that had been the city’s ensign for centuries.

The most moving thing ever written about New York from within a very precise historical context, I think, was by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was the human emblem of the twenties, and he was on his way down, too, when he came back to New York in what he called “the dark autumn of 1931.” Zelda was in an institution, and he was woefully alcoholic, and in a famous essay, “My Lost City,” he took inventory of the New York that had flown too high and had its wings melted. It was in smithereens with the exception of this incredible building, which had just opened that year.

He described how, looking out from the top of the Empire State Building, he understood the mistake New York had made. Staring off into the infinite distance, he saw that the city was a finite entity, and “only the expanse of blue and green is limitless.” New Yorkers hadn’t realized the city was not a universe but just a city after all. It didn’t go on forever, it wasn’t the whole world, “and the entire edifice we had reared in our imaginations,” he wrote, “came crashing down.”

Rarely does a city have a narrative that’s that spectacular, and that tragicomic, in its essence.



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