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The Quintessential City

New York on Film

By Tom Stabile | HUMANITIES, September/October 1999 | Volume 20, Number 5

“If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.”
--Frank Sinatra, lyric from New York, New York

A little-known tale about Abraham Lincoln highlights the power New York has to make people famous. Lincoln arrived in New York on Saturday, February 25, 1860 as an unknown congressman seeking the Republican nomination for president. The next day, Lincoln sat for Matthew Brady, who made a daguerreotype image of him, and, on Monday evening, he delivered a passionate speech condemning slavery in the Great Hall of Cooper Union. Lincoln captured the crowd. Horace Greeley wrote in the New York Tribune that “No many ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.”

By the time Lincoln left the city, he was a national sensation, thanks to the zealous New York press and the printing of a pamphlets of his speech that included Brady’s photograph. Lincoln himself would later say, “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President.”

Lincoln’s New York success 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 the six-part, twelve-hour film.

The Lincoln story hightlights New York’s national impact. But the film’s chief ambition is to chronicle the endurance of New York 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 image 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 segment 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 bludgeons?and 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 recently instated federal draft. Many of the immigrants also feared they’d lose 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 one hundred and nineteen people had died, including eighteen African Americans, sixteen soldiers, and eighty-five 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. It was a demonstration of the enormous number of poor, desperate, angry people who were there and who represented a threat to the city,” says Daniel Czitrom, a professor of history at Mt. Holyoke College and consultant for the film.

Attempting to squeeze countless events of this magnitude into twelve hours of film seems almost like folly. Indeed, historians such as Czitrom couldn’t picture it happening.

“I was excited about the possibilities but it’s also a daunting subject,” says Czitrom. “They’re trying to bring order to chaos.”

Ric Burns has been at work on the project for five years. To make the film, he and his colleagues at Steeplechase evaluated thousands of archival documents, paintings, lithographs, 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 Scorcese, and poet Allan Ginsberg.

Burns says of New York: “It has been the most transforming and transformative place in the history of the world.” He cites as his favorite time the frenzied years 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 “Murderer’s Row,” the Yankees' powerful lineup of Combs, Meusel, Gehrig, and Ruth, was clobbering baseballs.

“In a way, what I’m proudest of in terms of narrative is coming in that fifth episode,” Burns says. “It’s literally hair-raising to follow it?the almost preposterous will to rise.”

The New York series began with a simple question that was raised during the shooting of a documentary about Coney Island. Burns says they wondered about the city, “How did it get to be this dense, this fabricated, this creative, this large?”

One man who could take a lot of the credit, according to the film, is DeWitt Clinton, who served as New York City’s mayor and later the state’s governor. It was Clinton who pushed for the development of both New York’s rectangular street grid and the Erie Canal, projects that transformed the city.

In the early nineteenth century, New York City was limited to the southern end of Manhattan. Two geographic factors had hampered its expansion: Manhattan’s hilly terrain and the lack of access to the nation’s interior.

Clinton established a commission in 1807 that began working on a plan for New York’s development. When the commission unveiled its plans in 1811, they proposed a grid twelve avenues wide and a hundred and fifty-five streets long that would cover eleven thousand acres. It was a plan for a metropolis of more than one million people--this, at a time when fewer than one hundred thousand people lived in the city.

“Now hills were to be leveled and thrown into ponds, land was to be filled in?this was to become one of the most man- made, artificial spaces in the history of the planet,” explains Mike Wallace, professor of history at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The grid had several virtues: It allowed northward expansion; its numbering system was democratic; it was efficient to navigate, and it simplified the sale of real estate.

In the same year the grid idea was unveiled, Clinton introduced a bill in the New York Senate to create a commission to explore canal routes from New York to Lake Erie. Called “little short of madness” by Thomas Jefferson, Clinton’s vision materialized in 1825. The 363-mile corridor from the Hudson River to Lake Erie required eighty-three locks, eighteen aqueducts, and an 800-foot-long waterbridge over the Genesee River. It also required five million dollars, which Clinton raised by developing a public-private partnership, in which he convinced private investors to lend money for construction. The canal’s completion opened the country’s vast inland resources to New York, putting the city at the forefront of trade.

Historian Carol Berkin describes what Alexander Hamilton might have thought about the Erie Canal. “Hamilton would have been delighted beyond relief and, of course, would have taken full credit for it.”

In the film, Hamilton is depicted as an exemplar of the New York immigrant story and the ideal that anybody with intelligence and ability has the right to rise. As a newcomer to the country at age sixteen, Hamilton was very much a New Yorker, says Berkin. “He’s, after all, a bastard from the West Indies, he is the quintessential upstart. . . . He’s not born in America, he’s got no long history.”

Later on, as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton nourishes New York’s commercial hunger, working to shape what the narrator describes as a “blueprint for a new kind of nation not on plantations and slave labor, but on commerce, and immigrant toil.”

Hamilton’s economic plans eventually became entwined in the 1790 debate over the location of the capital of the young United States. After the Revolution, some states still had debt incurred during the war. Hamilton proposed that the federal government take on that debt, a suggestion vehemently opposed by Southern states. The volatile issue was settled, says Moynihan in the film, when then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson agreed that the federal government would take on the debt in exchange for moving the capital to the banks of the Potomac River.

Shortly afterwards, Hamilton issued $80 million in federal bonds to pay off the debt. The trade in government bonds brought huge sums into New York, money that could be invested to make still more money. In 1792, two dozen brokers gathered under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street to figure out how to handle the enormous amount of business Hamilton had generated. It was the beginning of the New York Stock Exchange.

In the film, a sequence showing currency from the period blends into the meeting under the tree, and then, within a few frames New York’s modern-day skyline appears. Montages linking the city’s past and present appear throughout the film, with landscapes, paintings, photographs, and film footage blending into time-lapse photography, skyline images from helicopters, and a myriad of street scenes. For some historical events, directors of photography Buddy Squires and Allen Moore created footage. One stretch includes a replica of Henry Hudson’s eighty-ton ship sailing into New York harbor. The shot lays the groundwork for telling how the Dutch West India Company settled New Amsterdam in 1624?shaping much of today’s city.

“They quickly settled on the slender island at the head of the bay, which they called ‘mannahatta’?after an old Indian word, thought by some to mean `island of ills,' and by others, `place of general inebriation,' ” the narrator explains. “At the southernmost tip, they cleared land and built simple bark cabins, a crude counting house, and a stone and earth fort?then, they widened the old Indian trail that ran north from the makeshift village and named it Heer Straat, or Breede Wegh. It would become Broadway.

“Other settlements soon sprang up around the harbor, including the village of Breuckelen, named for a town back in Holland, and up along the East River, a sprawling plantation, owned by a Danish farmer, Jonas Bronck. It was soon known simply as ‘the Broncks.’”

The era put the stamp on the city. “Every American, every person in the world, really knows about . . . its unusual vertical shape, and the crowded streets,” says Jackson, who is a professor of history at Columbia University. “But again, this goes back to the seventeenth century, really, when the little Dutch village was crowded down in lower Manhattan, and all the houses were flush up against each other. Or the heterogeneity of the population?already in the 1640s there were eighteen different languages being spoken on the streets.”

In its sweeping journey, the film touches on countless events and personalities, forming what Burns calls a “master narrative.” They include Franklin Roosevelt, who tapped the city’s keenest minds to craft the New Deal, and Walt Whitman, who gave voice to the vibrancy of its ordinary people in Leaves of Grass. It also explains how the eight hundred and forty-three acres of Central Park grew from a municipal design contest in 1857, and how shrewd Tammany Hall politicians harnessed the immigrant masses into a popular democracy.

Throughout, the film tries to capture the importance of the perceptions of the city. Historian Daniel Czitrom maintains that the city of the imagination often overshadows the gritty reality.

He recalls a time when he worked as a cab driver. “I remember an Australian guy who said, ‘Take me to 42nd St.,’

“I asked, ‘Well, where?’

" ‘Anywhere on 42nd.’

"It seemed to me that they weren’t looking for a place but rather an image in their minds.”

About the Author

Tom Stabile is a writer in New York City.

Funding Information

Steeplechase Films, Inc. has received $800,000 in support from NEH to produce New York. The series will air on public television Sunday, November 14, through Thursday, November 18. A sixth episode is scheduled for spring.