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New York: A Documentary Film

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New York: A Documentary Film
Written byRic Burns
James Sanders
Ron Blumer (episode 5 only)
Directed byRic Burns
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes8
Original release
ReleaseNovember 14, 1999 (1999-11-14) –
September 8, 2003 (2003-09-08)

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 production of Steeplechase Films in association with WGBH Boston, Thirteen/WNET, and The New-York Historical Society.

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 during episodes 1-7), 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, real estate developer (and future President) Donald Trump, and author David McCullough.

Production and release


Little could we have imagined, when we completed what we thought was the final episode of New York: A Documentary Film in the summer of 2001, how powerfully these underlying themes would resonate with the events that overtook New York just a few weeks later -- or the unforgettable response of the city in the months after that.

— Ric Burns[1]

In 1987, Ric Burns and James Sanders conceived the idea of a multi-part television series on the history of New York City. In 1993, Burns, having completed The Way West two years earlier, collaborated with Sanders and Lisa Ades to win a grant from the NEH, and he and Sanders began writing the script for New York. Lisa Ades 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 and October 2001, just weeks after the September 11th attacks.[3]

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

Burns, Sanders, and Steeplechase Films are producing for broadcast episodes nine and ten of the series about contemporary New York City. The film will explore in dramatic detail how New York City has grappled on the local level with critical issues of immigration, diversity, growth, economic change, climate change, social justice and governance – issues that have become critical challenges around the globe. The film will demonstrate how the entire world is rapidly acquiring the characteristics of the modern city New York has pioneered for four hundred years – and that New York remains, as it nears the beginning of its fifth century as a metropolis, the pre-eminent and in most respects most successful urban laboratory on the planet: a place where the challenges and opportunities of modernity are confronted with an intensity and vision unparalleled in the world – and where the most critical human experiment on earth continues to unfold: the crucial, sometimes harrowing experiment, to see if all the peoples of the world can live together in a single place. [citation needed]



The first five episodes aired in November 1999. Episodes Six and Seven aired in September and October 2001, respectively. A new 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.

No.TitleDirected byWritten byOriginal air date
1"The Country and the City (1609–1825)"Ric BurnsRic Burns & James SandersNovember 14, 1999 (1999-11-14)
This dramatic and lyrical first episode chronicles the rise of New York from its settlement by the Dutch in the early 17th century through the explosion of commercial growth sparked by the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. Beginning with a consideration of themes to be explored throughout the entire series, the episode goes on to treat five crucial chapters in New York's fascinating early history: the defining role the Dutch played in establishing the city's character, the impact of the British empire, New York's strange sea fateful role in the American Revolution, its brief tenure as the nation's capital, and the extraordinary burst of entrepreneurial energy that in the early 19th century launched it on its course to becoming the greatest city on earth.
2"Order and Disorder (1825–1865)"Ric BurnsRic Burns & James SandersNovember 15, 1999 (1999-11-15)
The second episode chronicles the rise of New York from merchant city to industrial metropolis as the commercial revolution triggered by the Erie Canal transforms every aspect of life in the city. As the immigrant population exploded and social problems of every kind emerge on the streets of Manhattan, the outlines of a modern mass metropolis begin to appear—including imaginative visions of the city's future, from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" to Frederick Law Olmstead's Central Park. By 1860, every tension in America can be felt on the streets of New York, now the most powerful—and divided—city in the nation. The episode comes to a stunning climax during the Civi War, as the worst civil disturbance in the nation's history breaks out in New York: the catastrophic Draft Riots of 1863.
3"Sunshine and Shadow (1865–1898)"Ric BurnsRic Burns & James SandersNovember 16, 1999 (1999-11-16)
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.
4"The Power and the People (1898–1918)"Ric BurnsRic Burns & James SandersNovember 17, 1999 (1999-11-17)
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.
5"Cosmopolis (1918–1931)"Ric BurnsRon Blumer, Ric Burns & James SandersNovember 18, 1999 (1999-11-18)
Following World War I, Manhattan becomes the cultural capital of the world, serving as the home to the brand new industries of radio broadcasting, magazines, advertising and public relations. Major cultural contributions were made by F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Gershwin, 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.
6"City of Tomorrow (1929-1945)"Ric BurnsRic Burns & James SandersSeptember 30, 2001 (2001-09-30)
The sixth episode chronicles the dramatic and increasingly fateful events following the crash of 1929—as the greatest depression in American history plunged the city and nation into economic gloom. In little more than ten years, immense new forces were unleashed in New York, as two of the most remarkable New Yorkers of all time came to the fore—Fiorello La Guardia and Robert Moses—attempting to create in the markets of times a bold new city of the future. Charting the demise of Mayor Jimmy Walker and the ascendancy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the complex impact of the automobile on the city; and the immense public works projects that permanently altered the landscape.
7"The City and the World (1945–2000)"Ric BurnsRic Burns & James SandersOctober 1, 2001 (2001-10-01)
In the aftermath of World War II, southern African-Americans moved north and Puerto Rican immigrants poured 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, hastening white flight to the suburbs. The destruction of the old Penn Station in 1963 and the protests against Moses's plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway led to the creation of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, ensuring the survival of New York's most architecturally important buildings and neighborhoods. Social and financial crises in the 1960s and 1970s took a toll on the city, but New York's revival since the 1970s has been enduring.
8"The Center of the World (1946–2001)"Ric BurnsRic Burns & James SandersSeptember 8, 2003 (2003-09-08)
Tells the story of the rise and fall of the World Trade Center, and was produced following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
9–10"The Future of Cities (2000–2025)"Ric BurnsRic Burns & James SandersTBD (TBD)
A dramatic and compelling consideration of the forces that have transformed New York at the start of the 21st century: the most stunning era of growth and change, challenge and opportunity since the events of September 11th, and since the New York series' last look at the city as a whole.



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.[4] 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 film was 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."[5]

Caryn 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.[6] A September 2003 review of the eighth 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.[7]

Frank Rich of The New York Times referred to Episode 8 as, ""... a beautifully realized documentary in which we watch in painstaking detail the building of the World Trade Center from its inception so that we might then experience afresh the violence of its sudden destruction."[8]

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

VHS and DVD releases


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

See also



  1. ^ a b "Film Description". The Center of the World. PBS. Retrieved 2010-05-06.
  2. ^ a b c Behrens, Steve (1999-11-15). "Even with streamlined story, New York history won't fit in a week". Current. Archived from the original on 2010-06-19. Retrieved 2010-05-06.
  3. ^ a b "New York: a Documentary Film" (Press release). Thirteen. Retrieved 2010-05-06.
  4. ^ "Winners in 2001". Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Awards in Broadcast News. Retrieved 2010-05-06.
  5. ^ James, Caryn (1999-11-12). "For a City Driven By a Dream". The New York Times. pp. E1.
  6. ^ James, Caryn (2001-09-28). "Viewing New York's Past But Seeing the Present". The New York Times. pp. E1.
  7. ^ Stanley, Alessandra (2003-09-05). "Sept. 11, Before And After". The New York Times. pp. E1.
  8. ^ Rich, Frank (2003-10-05). "Where's Larry Kramer When We Need Him?". The New York Times.

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"