The Big Apple of Ric Burns's eye
It's rare for the Big Apple to miss the chance to be tops in anything.
Just one of the many factoids that make the new PBS documentary on New York both historically interesting and relevant to modern times is the reality that, although the media dubbed Los Angeles's 1992 riots the biggest in American history, New York actually owns that dubious distinction.
Episode 2 of the 12-hour opus New York: A Documentary Film (Sunday-Thursday, Nov. 14-18, 9-11 p.m. with a sixth and final episode to air next year, check local listings) details the week-long Draft Riot in 1863, which involved thousands of infuriated men resisting forced conscription. It left at least 119 people dead - more than were killed in the later Los Angeles riots.
The six-part series was created by Ric Burns (brother of Ken Burns of "Civil War" documentary fame) to shed light on a topic that everyone already thought they knew well.
"It's not a shy city," says Mr. Burns. "New York is indeed the city Americans love to love and love to hate. It's the King Kong of American cities, rampaging, hirsute, upwardly mobile, and tragicomic in its fate."
Burns calls New York America's metropolis and dubs it the only truly national city in the US, adding that over the centuries, "It's been the clearinghouse for the culture and economy of the entire nation."
Burns employs many of the techniques of historical documentary-making that he and his brother have made so popular - tuneful music playing over old photos, maps, paintings, and drawings, as well as interviews with historians and writers.
He also brings in a fairly heady mix of contemporary cultural icons to reflect on the nation's first capital: novelist E.L. Doctorow, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and writer Pete Hamill, to name but a few of the 70 or so of the show's commentators.
In their various ways, all these figures touch on the mystique that is New York and reflect some aspect of what novelist Joan Didion once penned about the city that never sleeps: "New York was no mere city; it was instead an infinitely romantic notion. The mysterious nexus of all love and all money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself."
As the series investigates the 400 years of New York's evolution, audiences learn all sorts of large and small details that, rolled together, make us realize how easy it is to see but not understand a familiar icon.
But, Burns adds, we do know one thing about the city: "People understand that New York, whether they love it or hate it, has been for so long the center of so much power, so much wealth, and so many of the things that define what America is, in ways frequently that they don't feel comfortable about."
Foremost among those is no doubt the naked commitment to money that marks the birth of the city. Founded by the Dutch as a purely commercial enterprise, what was originally New Amsterdam got its final title from the Duke of York, upon whom the city was bestowed as a birthday present by his brother, King Charles.
The first episode sets up many of the themes that continue throughout the city's history - immigration, slavery, and cultural leadership. "When most people think of [American] history they think of Williamsburg or Philadelphia or Boston," says historian Kenneth Jackson. "And yet New York is really the most historic of American cities. It's older [and] more happened in New York than [in those other cities] and by the end of the 19th century, New York was the fastest-growing city in the world."
The first five two-hour installments run consecutively beginning Sunday; the final two hours will air in early spring. The reason Burns says, is that the 10 hours broadcast on the eve of the year 2000 are "everything you need to know about New York's past, in our humble view." He wants audiences to have a moment to reflect and then, "at least symbolically, in this first year of the new millennium, look out at what the future is."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society