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New York: A Documentary Film poster image
Aired November 14, 1999

New York: A Documentary Film

Film Description

This seven-part, 14 and a half hour television event explores New York City's rich history as the premier laboratory of modern life. A sweeping narrative covering nearly 400 years and 400 square miles, it reveals a complex and dynamic city that has played an unparalleled role in shaping the nation and reflecting its ideals. This program was produced before the tragic events of September 11, 2001. 

Episode 1: The Country and the City (1609-1825)
The first two hours of NEW YORK: A DOCUMENTARY FILM chronicle New York's beginnings -- from its earliest days as a Dutch trading post to the 17th century construction of the Erie Canal, which made New York City a vital conduit to the mainland of a growing America.

The series begins by identifying the key themes that shaped New York's history: commerce and capitalism, diversity and democracy, transformation and creativity. The episode charts the development of the city founded by the Dutch as a purely commercial enterprise, first as New Amsterdam, a freewheeling enclave of trade and opportunity; then as the British New York, a colony fueled by slavery which was bestowed as a birthday gift upon the Duke of York by his brother, King Charles; soon after as a strategically pivotal locale in the American Revolution; and ultimately as the city of New York: the nation's first capital and the place destined to define urban life in America -- and American ideals.

Episode 2: Order and Disorder (1825-1865)
This episode of NEW YORK: A DOCUMENTARY FILM details New York's enormous growth as a booming commercial center and multi-ethnic port, and the mounting tensions that set the stage for the nation's bloodiest riot.

Already established as America's premier port, New York City swelled into the nation's greatest industrial metropolis as a massive wave of German and Irish immigration turned the city into one of the world's most complex urban environments, bringing with it a host of new social problems. Episode Two reveals how the city's artists, innovators and leaders, from poet Walt Whitman to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (the designers of Central Park) grappled with the city's growing conflicts -- which culminated in the catastrophic Civil War Draft Riots of 1863.

Episode 3: Sunshine and Shadow (1865-1898)
This episode of NEW YORK: A DOCUMENTARY FILM turns to the period when greed and wealth fueled an expanding metropolis, even as politics and poverty defined it.

Now the spotlight shines on the growth, glamour and grief of New York during America's giddy postwar "Gilded Age." Exploring the incomparable wealth of the robber barons and the unabashed corruption of political leaders, such as Tammany Hall boss William M. Tweed, the episode examines the era when the expansion of wealth and poverty -- and the schism between them -- built to a crescendo. The program ends as the city itself dramatically expands its boundaries, annexing Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island into a single massive metropolis -- Greater New York.

Episode 4: The Power and the People (1898-1914)
This episode of NEW YORK: A DOCUMENTARY FILM follows New York into a new century in the wake of an extraordinary wave of immigration and the birth of the skyscraper.

As New York spilled into the new century, the extraordinary interplay of capitalism, democracy and transformation surged to a climax. During a single generation, over 10 million immigrants arrived in New York. The city itself became an even more dramatic lure with the construction of the first subways and skyscrapers. And arising from the plight of New York's most exploited citizens came landmark legislation that would eventually transform the lives of all Americans.

Episode 5: Cosmopolis (1914-1931)
During the fifth episode of NEW YORK: A DOCUMENTARY FILM, the post-war economic boom, the rise of consumer culture, and the birth of new mass-media industries fuel the convergence of an incredible array of human and cultural energies, ending with the Crash of 1929 and the construction of the Empire State Building.

In this short but dazzling period, New York became the focal point of an extraordinary array of human and cultural energies, reaching its highest levels of urban excitement and glamour. In just over a decade, New York gave birth to its signature skyscrapers, the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, and to artistic creations like F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY, George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," and to the jazz compositions of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Along the way, Harlem emerged as the undisputed capital of the African- American experience and the new media industries of advertising, radio networks, public relations, and magazines found their homes in midtown Manhattan.

Episode 6: The City of Tomorrow (1931-1940)
During the sixth episode of NEW YORK: A DOCUMENTARY FILM, the dramatic events that followed the Crash of '29 fuel the greatest economic depression in American history and plunge the city and the nation into economic gloom.

In little more than ten years, immense new forces were unleashed in New York, from the Depression itself to the New Deal, which permanently altered the city and the country. Along the way, two of the most remarkable New Yorkers of all time came to the fore: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and master builder Robert Moses, both of whom attempted to create, in the darkest of times, a bold new city of the future. The episode examines their careers in detail, as well as the immense public works that transformed the city in the '30s. Also explored are the demise of Mayor Jimmy Walker, the coming of the New Deal, the fate of Harlem during the Depression, and the increasingly complex impact of the automobile on the city.

Episode 7: The City and the World (1945-2003)
During the seventh episode of NEW YORK: A DOCUMENTARY FILM, the turbulent and often harrowing years from 1945 to the present are explored. Emerging from the Depression and the Second World War as the most powerful metropolis on Earth, New York soon confronted urban woes of unprecedented proportions, and fought for its very existence.

In exploring the social, economic and physical forces that swept through the city in the post-war period, Episode Seven examines the great African-American migration and Puerto Rican immigration of the '40s, '50s, and '60s; the beginnings of white flight and suburbanization; and the massive physical changes wrought by highways and urban renewal -- all of which were directed, to a surprising degree, by one man: Robert Moses. The film comes to a climax with the destruction of Penn Station, the battle over the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the social and fiscal crises of the '60s and '70s, and New York's miraculous revival in the last quarter-century.


Directed by
Ric Burns

Produced by
Lisa Ades, Ric Burns and Steve Rivo

Written by
Ric Burns & James Sanders

Episode Five written by
Ric Burns & James Sanders and Ron Blumer

Edited by
Li-Shin Yu, Edward Barteski, David Hanser, Nina Schulman and Juliana Parroni

Cinematography by
Buddy Squires and Allen Moore

Music by
Brian Keane

Senior Producer
Kate Roth Knull

Associate Producers
Ray Segal, and Robin Espinola

Co-Director, Episodes One through Five
Lisa Ades

Narrated by
David Ogden Stiers

Associate Producers, Episodes One through Four; Co-Producers, Episode Five
Steve Rivo and Ray Segal

Additional Editing
Richard Hankin

Associate Editors
Michael Balabuch, Janet Cristenfeld, Syndi Pilar

Sound Editors
Ira Spiegel and Marlene Grzaslewicz

Coordinating Producer
Kerry Herman

Production Coordinator
Justine Bertucelli and Daryl Gammons

Series Archivist
Robin Espinola

Footage Archivists
Daniel Vatsky, Hilary Klotz, Corrinne Collette and Lewanne Jones

Assistant Producers
Lily Thorne and Danna Liebert

Meghan Horvath, Anya Sirota and Sujin Seo

Research Assistants
Marijke Smit, Zachary Kaiman, Jenks Whittenburg

Assistant Editors
Roxanne Yamashiro, Anna Josenhans, June Shiiki, Josh Sternfeld, Samara Smith, Sarah Kaylor, Mick Gormaley

Apprentice Editors
Judd Erlich, Kramer O'Neill

Editorial Assistants
Flavia de Sousa, Jacob Steingroot

Additional Cinematography
Roger Sherman, David Ford, Stephen McCarthy, Don Lenzer

Assistant Camera
David Ford, Anthony Savini, John Tanzer, Andrew Yarme

Sound Recording
John Zecca, Mark Mandler, Roger Phoenix, Mark Roy, Dean Sarjeant

Fiscal Sponsor
City Lore Inc.

Communications Consultants
Phyllis Schwartz and Michael Shepley

Senior Creative Consultant
Geoffrey C. Ward

Senior Historical Consultants
Kenneth T. Jackson and Mike Wallace

Senior Research Consultants
Jeanne Houck and Robert W. Snyder

Historical Consultants
Thomas Bender, Marshall Berman, Hope Cooke, Daniel Czitrom, Graham Hodges, Margo Jefferson, David Levering Lewis, Phillip Lopate, John Hull Mollenkopf, Kathy Peiss, Virginia Sanchez-Korrol, Richard Snow, Robert A. M. Stern, Sam Bass Warner, Carol Willis, Steve Zeitlin

Voice-Over Recording
Lou Verrico, A&J Recording Studios, Inc.
Michael Klinger at Waves Sound Recorders
Project One Audio
Don Ross Productions

On-Screen Commentators
Ruth Abram, Thomas Bender, Carol Berkin, Marshall Berman, Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, Robert A.Caro, Caleb Carr, Daniel Czitrom, Ann Douglas, E. L. Doctorow, Joshua Freeman, Brendan Gill, Allen Ginsberg, John Steele Gordon, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Nancy Groce, Pete Hamill, Kenneth T. Jackson, Margo Jefferson, Alfred Kazin, Tony Kushner, Fran Lebowitz, David Levering Lewis, Phillip Lopate, David McCullough, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Albert Murray, Kathy Peiss, Peter Quinn, Luc Sante, Gretchen Sorin, Robert A. M. Stern, Martin Scorsese, Joel Silverman, Christine Stansell, Jean Strouse, John Kuo Wei Tchen, George W. S. Trow, Donald Trump, Mike Wallace, Craig Steven Wilder, Carol Willis

Joan Allen, Philip Bosco, Andre Codrescu, Keith David, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Giamatti, Spalding Gray, Gene Jones, James Hazeldine, Frederic Kimball, Robert Sean Leonard, David Margulies, Frank McCourt, Patrick McGrath, Joe Morton, George Plimpton, Isaiah Sheiffer, Ron Silver, Frances Sternhagen, Callie Thorne, Eli Wallach, Harris Yulin

Executive Producer for American Experience
Margaret Drain

Executive Producer for WGBH
Judy Crichton

Executive Producer
Ric Burns

Major support for the series is provided by The Chase Manhattan Corporation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Ford Foundation, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Public Television Viewers and PBS, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the J. M. Kaplan Fund, and the Susan and Elihu Rose Foundation Inc., Rosalind P. Walter, Central Parking Corporation, Glenwood Management Corporation, Judith and Burton Resnick, The Sheldon H. Solow Foundation, and Alan Wiener/American Property Financing Inc.

International Partners
Foreign broadcast partners include Channel 4, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and MTV3-Finland.

Companion Volume
NEW YORK: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY by Ric Burns and James Sanders with Lisa Ades, published by Alfred A. Knopf, November 1999.

Soundtrack CD
Musical selections from the series will be available from RCA Victor

Home Video
Five two-hour cassettes offered by PBS Home Video

Closed Captioning
American Experience is closed captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers by The Caption Center at WGBH.

This film would not have been possible without the extraordinary collections and assistance of the New-York Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York, the Library of Congress, and The New York Public Library.

Additional funding for New York: A Documentary Film provided by

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