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New York: A Documentary Film

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Title: New York: A Documentary Film  
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New York: A Documentary Film

New York: A Documentary Film is an eight-part, 17½ hour, American documentary film on the history of New York City. It was directed by Ric Burns and originally aired in the U.S. on PBS. The film was a co-production of Thirteen New York and WGBH Boston.

The series was written by Burns and James Sanders and produced by Burns's company, Steeplechase Films. Several noted New York City historians, including Mike Wallace, Kenneth T. Jackson, David Levering Lewis and Robert Caro participated in the making of the series as consultants, and appeared on camera. It was narrated by David Ogden Stiers.

Other notable figures who appeared in the series include Rudolph Giuliani (then the mayor of New York City), former mayor Ed Koch, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, poet Allen Ginsberg, novelists Alfred Kazin and Brendan Gill, director Martin Scorsese, journalist Pete Hamill, former Congresswoman Bella Abzug, historian Niall Ferguson, philosopher Marshall Berman, writer Fran Lebowitz, engineer Leslie E. Robertson, architect Robert A.M. Stern, high wire artist Philippe Petit, billionaire Donald Trump, and author David McCullough.


  • Episodes 1
    • Episode One: The Country and the City (1609–1825) (November 14, 1999) 1.1
    • Episode Two: Order and Disorder (1825–1865) (November 15, 1999) 1.2
    • Episode Three: Sunshine and Shadow (1865–1898) (November 16, 1999) 1.3
    • Episode Four: The Power and the People (1898–1918) (November 17, 1999) 1.4
    • Episode Five: Cosmopolis (1919–1931) (November 18, 1999) 1.5
    • Episode Six: City of Tomorrow (1929–1941) (September 30, 2001) 1.6
    • Episode Seven: The City and the World (1945–2000) (October 1, 2001) 1.7
    • Episode Eight: The Center of the World (1946–2003) (September 8, 2003) 1.8
  • VHS and DVD releases 2
  • Production and release 3
  • Reception 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


The first five episodes aired in November 1999. Episodes Six and Seven aired in September 2001. A final episode, which chronicled the rise and fall of the World Trade Center, was produced after the September 11 attacks in 2001, airing in September 2003.

Episode One: The Country and the City (1609–1825) (November 14, 1999)

The first episode of the series begins with the founding of New Amsterdam, a Dutch trading post. The city starts to take shape as New Amsterdam becomes British New York. By the Revolutionary War, the city becomes the site for several key battles. This episode also covers the building of the Erie Canal.

Episode Two: Order and Disorder (1825–1865) (November 15, 1999)

Episode Two finds the city as the largest port in the country. Waves of Irish and German immigrants flood into the city between 1825 and 1865 only to find that New York is not so welcoming to immigrants. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux shape the city with their design for Central Park but social unrest still ran high for the working classes, coming to a climax with the draft riots of 1863.

Episode Three: Sunshine and Shadow (1865–1898) (November 16, 1999)

The Gilded Age following the Civil War saw the rise of the robber barons and the schism between wealth and poverty widen dramatically. The political life of the city, exemplified by William M. Tweed and Tammany Hall descended into total corruption. As the turn of the century dawned, New York City annexes Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.

Episode Four: The Power and the People (1898–1918) (November 17, 1999)

As the city starts building the skyscrapers that would make its skyline iconic, 10 million immigrants arrive in New York. The immigrants lived in frequently squalid conditions and worked in the city's most undesirable jobs. In 1911, when 146 female Jewish and Italian immigrants died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the city was largely unified in the successful demand for legislation on new factory safety reforms and labor laws.

Episode Five: Cosmopolis (1919–1931) (November 18, 1999)

Following Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and the Harlem Renaissance was the banner under which an explosion of African American culture and creativity lived. As the Great Depression dawned, the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building were completed.

Episode Six: City of Tomorrow (1929–1941) (September 30, 2001)

As the Great Depression took hold of the City, Mayor Jimmy Walker was forced to resign in disgrace, giving way to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, one of the most influential mayors in New York City history. Mayor La Guardia, along with Robert Moses revitalized the city with the help of federal funds from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

Episode Seven: The City and the World (1945–2000) (October 1, 2001)

In the aftermath of World War II, southern African-Americans moved north and Puerto Rican immigrants pour into the city, a trend which would continue for the next thirty years. Robert Moses waged a campaign of urban renewal, including adding highways to the city, but white flight to the suburbs continued. The destruction of the old Penn Station in 1963 and the protests against Moses's plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway lead to the landmarks preservation act, ensuring the survival of New York's most architecturally important buildings. Social and financial crisis in the 1960s and 1970s took a toll on the city, but the city's revival since the 1970s has been enduring.

Episode Eight: The Center of the World (1946–2003) (September 8, 2003)

Tells the story of the rise and fall of the World Trade Center, and was produced following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

VHS and DVD releases

This VHS is released November 23, 1999, 2 VHS and DVD on September 25, 2001, and On Episode 8 on VHS and DVD in September 30, 2003.

Production and release

In 1993, Ric Burns, having completed The Way West two years earlier, won a grant from the NEH and began writing the script for New York. Lisa Ades, James Sanders, and Steve Rivo assisted with the initial research. Thirteen joined the project soon after to complete fundraising. The cost of the series through Episode Five was $9.8 million, with more than 20 people involved with the series at its peak. The crew worked out of two offices near 72nd Street and Broadway, in New York City.[2]

New sequences and imagery for New York were shot on 16mm film. The first half of the series was edited traditionally, but Burns reluctantly agreed to edit the second half digitally, on Avid workstations. In retrospect, Burns viewed the computer as an essential tool for managing the huge amount of archival material included in the film.[2]

Originally, Burns planned for a 10-hour series. However, this plan was abandoned, and the first 10 hours (five two-hour episodes) told the story of New York City only up to 1931. The film up to this point was released in 1999, with plans to produce a sixth episode covering the remaining years.[2] However, this plan, too, was abandoned in favor of two additional episodes, Episode Six (running 120 minutes) and Episode Seven (running 140 minutes). Both were released in September 2001, just weeks after the September 11th attacks.[3]

Following the events of September 11, Burns and his crew were inspired to produce a final, eighth episode of the film, focusing on the World Trade Center and its role in New York City's history.[1]


The film was generally well received by critics. In a 1999 review of the first five parts, Caryn James of The New York Times commended the film for its rich visuals, consistent theme, and compelling descriptions of class and racial tensions, especially in the second half of the series. James also criticized the film, however, writing, "Stunning though New York often is, its indulgent length and pace tests the patience of even its most serious-minded viewers."[4]

James also reviewed the two new episodes released in late September 2001. She found them stronger than the previous five, with more focus and brevity. She also commented on the timeliness of their release following the September 11th attacks, finding the stories of the city's recovery from past disasters reassuring and full of accidental, yet profound meanings.[5] A September 2003 review of the final episode in the series, by Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times, found it full of "intelligent insights and incomparable images," but ultimately, "too much, too late," like the World Trade Center itself.[6]

The original seven-part series was nominated for two Emmy Awards in 2000, for "Outstanding Achievement in Non-Fiction Programming - Cinematography" and "Outstanding Non-Fiction Series." In addition, Episode Five: Cosmopolis (1919–1931) won an Emmy for "Outstanding Achievement in Non-Fiction Programming - Picture Editing." Also in 2001, the five-part series won an Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award (Silver Baton) for excellence in broadcast journalism.[7] In 2004, the newly completed Episode Eight: The Center of the World (1946–2003) was nominated for a News & Documentary Emmy in the "Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Music and Sound" category.

The reaction to the film by academic historians was mixed. David C. Hammack of Case Western University praised the film's compelling imagery, discussion of race relations, commentary by noted writers and historians, and overall coherence. However, he lamented as "remarkably unhistorical" the film's portrayal of the city's values and challenges as largely unchanging throughout its history. Hammack also criticized the film for "distorting the historical record" on several specific topics.[8]

Popular audiences also displayed high interest for the film, with the first five parts alone attracting more than 20 million viewers.[3]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Film Description". The Center of the World.  
  2. ^ a b c Behrens, Steve (1999-11-15). "Even with streamlined story, New York history won’t fit in a week".  
  3. ^ a b "New York: a Documentary Film" (Press release).  
  4. ^ James, Caryn (1999-11-12). "For a City Driven By a Dream".  
  5. ^ James, Caryn (2001-09-28). "Viewing New York's Past But Seeing the Present".  
  6. ^ Stanley, Alessandra (2003-09-05). "Sept. 11, Before And After".  
  7. ^ "Winners in 2001". Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Awards in Broadcast News. Retrieved 2010-05-06. 
  8. ^ Hammack, David C. (January 2000). "New York: A Documentary Film —Literary and Political Meditations on the Small Screen". Perspectives ( 

Further reading

  • Burns, Ric, and James Sanders. New York: An Illustrated History (2003), book version of 17 hour Burns PBS documentary, "NEW YORK: A Documentary Film"

External links

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