By now the burns brothers’ formula is so familiar that I seem to be shaving my own face in the oblong of the screen – snapshots and time-lapse photography; film clips and moody visuals of selected weathers; talking heads, celebrity voice-overs, and lugubrious music; portraits, landscapes, sketches, texts, and cartoons, in intimate focus or broad scan; buildings, furniture, maps, and even money, as seen through periscope or zoom lens, from the point of view of whirlybirds and satellites, fallen angels and graveyard worms. But familiarity with the formula doesn’t make New York: A Documentary Film (Sunday through Thursday, November 14 through 18; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) any less magnificent.
Ric Burns, Lisa Ades, and James Sanders have done the city proud and shameful, from the first Manhattan real-estate deal screwing the Lenape Indians – which coincided oddly with the arrival of the first African slaves in 1626 – all the way to Madison Avenue, the Empire State Building, Harlem, and jazz. An excitable Greek chorus of historians sees these four centuries of immigration, indentured servitude, frantic money-grubbing, urban anxiety, civil disturbance, and artsy craftiness as “the supreme laboratory of modern life.” The only vision anybody brought to this harbor was a bigger bank account, based on the pelts of dead beavers. Indeed, it’s argued here – by our retiring but voluble senior senator, Pat Moynihan – that “commercial culture” is good for “popular democracy.” Tell it to Singapore.
By the 1640s, what with Huguenots, Papists, Mennonites, Lutherans, atheists, etc., New Amsterdam already spoke eighteen languages and – with the help of slave labor – had built the famous Wall for which the famous Street is named, to keep out the Indians. In 1654, Peter Stuyvesant tried to bar a handful of Sephardic Jews seeking sanctuary from the Spanish Inquisition. So busy were we ten years later wheeling and dealing that nobody seemed to mind being handed over to the Duke of York on his birthday. The first important insurrection was in 1741, when a series of arsons (chapel, barracks, mansions) was blamed on Africans egged on by Irishmen, after which sixteen blacks and four whites were hanged from lampposts and thirteen others burned at the stake. The next major insurrection would be the Civil War draft riots. Between these, we got the Revolution, Alexander Hamilton, the New York Stock Exchange, Fulton and the steamboat, Vanderbilt and the Staten Island Ferry, DeWitt Clinton and the Erie Canal, Walt Whitman and the penny papers, Morse and the telegraph, Brady and the photograph, Olmsted and Central Park, and Barnum and his freaks, not to mention gang terror in 1854 and financial panic in 1857.
We are reminded only four hours into things that mercantile New York, having been crucial to the slave trade, invested heavily in cotton and sugar and was pro-South at the start of the Civil War. Never before in an American city had there been a civil disorder on the scale of those weeklong draft riots. Refugees from the Colored Orphan Asylum had to be hidden from the mob on a barge in the East River. Mixed-race couples were hanged and burned. After the Union Army returned from Gettysburg to restore order with Gatling guns, 119 were left dead, most of them Irish.
All this is brought to vivid, scary life by the mixed media and the passionate disputation – from the talking historians, of course, like Mike Wallace, the co-author of Gotham; Carol Berkin, who seems to channel Hamilton; architect Robert A. M. Stern; Peter Quinn, who contributed so much to the Irish in America mini-series; Thomas Bender; and Kenneth Jackson. But also from such wild cards as Caleb Carr, E. L. Doctorow, Margo Jefferson, Fran Lebowitz, Alfred Kazin, Tony Kushner, Phillip Lopate, Albert Murray, and Luc Sante. Marshall Berman and Allen Ginsberg talk about Whitman, Robert Caro about Robert Moses, Pete Hamill about newspapers, Jean Strouse about J. P. Morgan, and Ann Douglas about the Jazz Age. Besides George Plimpton, without whom there could be no Burns brothers documentary, the cast of speakers includes Philip Bosco, Spalding Gray, Robert Sean Leonard, Frank McCourt, Joe Morton, Frances Sternhagen, Callie Thorne, Eli Wallach, and Harris Yulin.