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The Boston Phoenix A Helluva Film

"New York" is intoxicating

By Robert David Sullivan

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  Loath as natives are to admit it, Boston is a great city -- as opposed to a pretty but irrelevant museum -- only to the extent that it emulates New York. Indeed, the United States is a great country only when it embraces the brashness and energy of its largest metropolis. Puritans, xenophobes, and right-wingers gleefully pointed to New York as a cesspool of crime and poverty during the 1970s, when things were awful everywhere in the country. Have they noticed that America truly bounced back only after New York did? Filmmaker Ric Burns is too polite to say it, but New York: A Documentary Film makes his sentiments clear enough: Thomas Jefferson and his ideas for an agrarian America can go straight to hell.

Perhaps New York is public TV's passive-aggressive response to the Southern and rural congressmen who have been trying to slash its funding. The documentary will be shown over five nights, at the height of TV's "sweeps" month (not that PBS has to worry about setting advertising rates). It premieres opposite NBC's Mary, Mother of Jesus, which is not likely to have any Bernstein or Gershwin on its soundtrack, and CBS's Aftershock: Earthquake in New York, a survivalist's wet dream that includes overturned subway cars and a fallen Statue of Liberty.

Actually, the PBS and CBS approaches to New York aren't completely at odds. One recurring theme in New York: A Documentary Film is the city's ability to rebuild itself, both physically (unlike Boston or Philadelphia, New York was largely destroyed during the Revolutionary War) and psychologically (after losing its bid to become the nation's political capital, New York made sure that it remained the undisputed financial capital). But the central thesis of New York is that a true democracy must also be a meritocracy, with no limit on upward mobility and no barriers based on religion or ethnic origin, and that New York has come the closest to meeting that ideal. One of the best segments is about the 19th-century New York poet Walt Whitman; his 20th-century spiritual cousin, poet Allen Ginsberg, describes "the inadvertent meeting of eyes" that can make the sidewalks of New York crackle with economic -- or erotic -- possibilities.

"A universe of totally disparate intentions" is how novelist E.L. Doctorow describes the city in the opening segment, which gives us a taste of the intoxicating chaos of present-day New York before whipping us back to its origins as a Dutch fur-trading post. Narrator David Ogden Stiers describes New York as "the supreme laboratory of modern life" and an "experiment to see whether all the peoples of the world could live together in the same place." Yes, the corn is as high as an elephant's eye in New York, which never seems to go more than 10 minutes without someone offering a different candidate for the "one thing" that makes the city unique. Over the course of the first eight hours (the rest was not available for preview), Stiers reels off an endless list of buildings, books, tragedies, and riots that would "change the city forever."

But the high-flying language is apt for the city where P.T. Barnum got his start as a sideshow promoter. And how else could one describe such stunning achievements as Central Park, the New York subway system, and the grid pattern of thousands of tiny blocks running up and down Manhattan? US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan exults in the "self-fulfilling optimism" of that street plan, drawn up when almost no sane person could imagine the city growing enough to reach 42nd Street. This grid system, which looks so stern and unaccommodating on a map, actually allows for an infinite variety of architectural styles and building uses from block to block.

Not that Burns leaves out the rough stuff, such as the slaves burned at the stake in 1741. (The hysteria over a supposed slave rebellion was far more violent than the witch trials in Massachusetts.) A segment on the appallingly violent demonstrations against the draft during the Civil War leads one historian to note sardonically that New York needed this "world-class riot" to win notice as a world-class city. But every tragedy seems to lead to a greater triumph, such as the reform movement that improved public-health conditions in the Lower East Side, once home to some of the worst slums in the world.

Like brother Ken's epic The Civil War, Ric Burns's New York is a smooth mix of photographs, talking heads, and dramatic readings. Part one is the least interesting visually; there are lots of slow pans across paintings of New York Harbor, and a description of the duel that killed Alexander Hamilton is accompanied by a lingering close-up of a gun lying on a table. Stick around and you'll be rewarded with turn-of-the-century films of Manhattanites bustling around the streets as an infant skyline rises above them. Who can fear the new millennium when New York is once again setting the tone for America?

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