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New York reflects America’s best and worst


If you don’t like New York City -- and there are a few who don’t -- well, stay tuned anyway.

The American Experience presentation, “New York: A Documentary Film,” a six-part series to be broadcast on PBS in two-hour segments (nightly November 14 -18, with one future air date yet to be scheduled) offers us one reading of New York. Everyone who has lived here long enough, however, has his or her own interpretation of the city.

For several Octobers I have led a band of Fordham students on what we call The Great Walk. We start at the tip of Manhattan Island, old Castle Clinton in Battery Park, then tramp north -- through the City Hall-Wall Street area, the Village, Chelsea, Grand Central Station, the Plaza Hotel, Central Park, Harlem, Washington Heights, and over through the Bronx to Fordham. Eighteen miles, eight hours.

Mine is a city of universities, parks and churches -- the last, the chapel where Mother Cabrini’s waxed-over corpse (or some of it) lies in state under glass.

This is not the New York of Ric Burns, who, with his brother Ken, gave us the famous 1990 documentary “The Civil War.” Burn’s interpretation in this latest PBS offering, frankly, is the one non-New Yorkers -- and anti-New Yorkers -- resent.

As Burns makes clear in an American Heritage (November) interview, New York is America -- warts and all. “New York is the essence of what’s best about America, but it has always been both the best and worst of America,” Burns said.

The best is the combination of diversity and the entrepreneurial spirit that has created spectacular wealth, symbolized by the dazzling skyline.

From the earliest days of Dutch New Amsterdam, one could hear 18 languages on the street, and each new group was welcomed not so much out of ideological tolerance but because they brought money and the opportunity of creating even more wealth. This city’s heroes are Alexander Hamilton, who arrived as a young man from the West Indies determined to make his reputation, and DeWitt Clinton, the governor with the foresight to build the Erie Canal linking the port of New York to Lake Erie and the heartland. Clinton made New York, rather than New Orleans, America’s greatest port.

The worst is the degrading squalor in which all those who “can’t make it,” whom unbridled capitalism leaves behind, must live. Here the heroes are the reformers, like Jacob Riis, whose muckraking How the Other Half Lives (1890) and his startling documentary photographs of slum hovels, back alleys and gin mills, made possible by the invention of flash attachments for cameras, brought on laws regulating tenement conditions.

During the depression it was a group of New York reformers, from Al Smith to Franklin Roosevelt and FDR’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, who convinced Washington to follow New York’s example in caring for all the people. In a sense, New York is the most “liberal” city because it has learned through its history that the whole community suffers when the “other half” is in too much pain.

A hallmark of the Burns’ documentary is the skillful use of old photographs to create atmosphere and mood. But since there are no photographs for two-thirds of New York’s history, he must rely on maps, drawings, and lively interviews with historians, writers, and politicians such as Brendan Gill of The New Yorker magazine, Peter Quinn, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Alfred Kazin, Michael Wallace, co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, and David McCullough, whose The Great Bridge, on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, is one of the best books on America ever written.

As Burns says in American Heritage, they speak of their city with passion, as if they know they are important people merely by virtue of having met the city’s challenges. “In New York you can’t just show up. You have to have gotten your act together. The cultural reality is that it’s a stage, and there are 10 other people waiting in the wings, so you’d better kick high and make the gesture both broad and dazzling.”

Visually and dramatically the most stunning segment in the early episodes are the Civil War draft riots, when thousands of rampaging Irish, who resented the draft and the free blacks who, they feared, would take their jobs, burned, pillaged, and murdered for four days. They even burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum, dragged mutilated black men through the streets and burned them alive.

The most inspiring is on the 1883 opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, the tallest structure in the city, which linked Long Island to the American West. When my friends visit from New Orleans, I walk them across at night and tell them they’ve had the greatest experience of their lives.

As I write this on deadline, Burns, in typical New York fashion, is still stitching the episodes together over in Manhattan. As in the history itself, I suspect that the best is yet to come. We will see Al Smith run for governor, watch the Empire State Building rise, witness master builder Robert Moses clash with architectural writer Jane Jacobs on his plan to run highways across Manhattan, and, I hope, see Brooklyn and the Bronx, once decimated by population turnover and crime, struggle to become livable again.

We might even see some universities and churches.

Perhaps we can say the same thing about Burns’ New York documentary that Mark Twain said about the city: “New York would be a great place -- if they could only get it finished.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, who is writing a book about Fordham, has, including his college days, lived in New York off and on for 17 years.

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 1999