The Quintessential City: New York on Film

By Stabile, Tom | Humanities, September/October 1999 | Go to article overview

The Quintessential City: New York on Film


Stabile, Tom, Humanities


In February of 1860 Abraham Lincoln, a former Illinois congressman, arrived in New York on a Saturday, had his portrait taken at Mathew Brady's studio on Sunday, and delivered an impassioned antislavery speech at the Cooper Union on Monday. By the time he left, he was a national sensation. Pamphlets were quickly printed with the speech and the Brady daguerreotype.

"No man ever before made such an impresson on his first appeal to a New York audience," Horace Greeley wrote in the New York Tribune. Lincoln himself would later say, "Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President."

Lincoln's story is one of many that are told in New York, an NEH-funded documentary series that airs this November on PBS. Under the direction of Ric Burns, Steeplechase Films has undertaken to explain the city's character and power in a six-part, twelve-hour film. The Lincoln story highlights New York's national impact. But the film's chief ambition is to chronicle the endurance of New York's character.

"The Dutch came to New York City and established a trading post there to make a buck, or to make a guilder," says historian Kenneth Jackson during the sequence that opens the first episode. "And even today, there's an energy in New York, there's a bustle in New York. That bustle has been there for more than three hundred and fifty years."

The film's opening touches on many factors that have been used to define New York from the start: its hard-driving capitalism, its constant flow of immigrants, its endless physical reinvention, its capacity for innovation, and its volatility. It also makes the case for the city's role as a bellwether for the nation, whether the topic is fashion or racial and ethnic friction.

It was in New York that the nation experienced the worst-ever eruption of civil disorder. The film describes the Draft Riot of July 1863. The men of the city's lower classes, many of them Irish immigrants, began "spilling out of the Lower East Side, moving west across Broadway and heading uptown towards the draft office, armed with iron bars, brickbats, and bludgeonsand growing all the time."

With the Union Army fighting battles elsewhere, a tiny local police force was helpless to stop the rampage by a mob opposed to the recent federal draft. Many of the immigrants also feared losing jobs to freed slaves coming North. They targeted the city's black residents for beating, burning, drowning, and hanging. For three days, rioters set fires, destroyed streetcars, and attacked the homes and establishments of the privileged. By the time the rampage was over, at least 119 people had died, including eighteen blacks, sixteen soldiers, and eightyfive rioters.

"I think that the draft riots really provide a kind of wake-up call for the elite and middle class of New York, because it is a demonstration, in the phrase of the day, of the volcano under the city," says Daniel Czitrom, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and consultant for the film.

Ric Burns has been at work on the project for five years. To make the film, he and his colleagues at Steeplechase, Lisa Ades and James Sanders, evaluated thousands of archival documents, photographs, audiotapes, and newsreels and interviewed some seventy authors, artists, historians, architects, politicians, ministers, and scholars. Among them were Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, film director Martin Scorsese, and poet Allen Ginsberg.

Burns says of New York: "It has been the most transforming and transformative place in the history of the world." His favorite time was the frenzied decade between 1919 and 1929. Wall Street was surging, only to collapse at the end of the decade. Construction was underway on the Empire State Building, and "Murderers Row," the Yankees' lineup of Combs, Ruth, Gehrig, and Lazzeri, was clobbering baseballs.

The New York series began with a simple question that was raised during the shooting of a documentary about Coney Island. …

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