American Experience Documentaries

New York: The City and the Country – A Documentary Film by Ric Burns

Famed documentarian Ken Burns’ brother embraces the genre with this wonderful offering about the city I grew up just outside of; a place I will always consider my first home: New York.

Narrated by David Ogden Stiers, New York: The City and the Country aired on PBS details the rich history of the greatest city in the world from its inception through modern times. Totaling seven chapters in all, an eighth and final, separate chapter was added by Ric Burns about two years after the initial release.

On September 2, 1609, Henry Hudson steered his ship off of the Atlantic into a bay where a mile-wide river emptied. Although he didn’t find the route to China he was looking for, he did discover one of the greatest natural harbors in the world. The Dutch opened a trading post here in 1624, and so it began.

Most people don’t think of New York as a historical place, but the argument is made here by various writers and historians that it is actually the most historic city in America. New York was the proving ground for many cultural, economic, and industrial ideas. While other colonies in the New World were founded on the basis of religious freedom, New York was founded as a business proposition. This is how the diversity of New York came to be. Since the basis of the colony was business, there were no exclusions to whom was allowed into the city. All faiths were welcome and the Dutch East India Company actually turned down Peter Stuyvesant’s petition to evict a boatload of Jewish people escaping the Spanish Inquisition in Brazil.

Burns covers the political rise of Alexander Hamilton as the story of so many other New Yorkers. However, he was the first. Born a bastard in the West Indies, he flees to the colony looking for a new identity and a fresh start. He comes into his own with the Revolution and charts his course as one of Washington’s top aides. Burns also devotes time to other New York personalities such as Walt Whitman, P.T. Barnum,

Much of the first chapter is told through sketches and old paintings of the early leaders of this country. Later on, there are more photographs. First, they are the early black and white, but eventually, color is added, as are the motion picture frames of that era. I loved the original motion pictures. These were short films first giving people outside of the city a glimpse into city life. Burns uses the same style of filmmaking as his brother, Ken, often lingering for long periods of time on a particular photograph or portrait and using the music to create the emotion he wishes to convey. He moves the camera or pans in and out to give the effect of movement. Together with a dramatic score, this serves to evoke emotion and give a setting for the time period. The narration is also handled very well, with quotes from letters, novels, newspapers, and other sources used to convey the feeling of a picture or a period of time in the city’s history. People such as E.L. Doctorow, Brendan Gill, Kenneth T. Jackson, Margo Jefferson, Fran Lebowitz, Rudy Giuliani, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Peter Quinn contribute their comments to the history of this magnificent city.

Immigration is a major focus of the story, as that is probably what has had the most impact on the city and culture of New York. At the same time, the crunch for living and business space is weighed against the need for open spaces and parklands. It’s interesting to see how modern-day Manhattan evolved.

The history told here is one I hadn’t heard before. The history of New York was often glossed over in history class. What little was told was always positive; there were no details about the earliest economic boon of New York being on the trading of slaves.

The history of the families who would one day be known as “New York Society” is told in this documentary as well. The Astors, Vanderbilts, Fultons, Rockefellers, and J.P. Morgan are all here. Their beginnings are less than stellar and really bring home the point that the pedigree means little. Enough of the dark events of New York are told as well, such as the draft riots, the rise of “Boss” Tweed and his era of corruption, and the poor living conditions of many residents so that the film is not an unrealistic look only at the highs in the history of the city.

The moments of outrage are some of the best parts, especially the events surrounding Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives. The photos accompanying this section are heart-rendering and something we tend to forget about in our modern age.

To celebrate my grandmother’s birth, Brooklyn decided to finally join New York City in 1898 (okay, not really, but it was the same year she was born!) This was a time of high immigration, something which always seemed to be a trademark of the City and continues to this day. The narration theorizes that this is one reason why New York is so cosmopolitan, as various races, cultures, and religions had to learn to get along with each other within a small tract of land.

One of the fascinating parts were the details about the garment workers’ general strike of 40,000 women in New York. It was amazing how the women stood up to the factory owners and were the spark that eventually forced the factory owners to the bargaining table to revolutionize the terrible conditions under which the workers were forced to spend the bulk of their time. The culmination of it all was the horrible Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire in 1911 which killed 146 women, most of whom jumped to their deaths as the exit doors were locked to keep the women from leaving during work hours as well as keeping out union organizers.

By the time we move into the era of my parents (who were born in the 1920s and grew up in the mostly German sections of Queens, Ridgewood and Glendale), New York City is in the throes of The Great Depression. This was the era of Fiorella LaGuardia and Robert Moses. Although some may curse some of the projects now, they were instrumental in having the city reinvent itself after the stock market crash into what was then one of the most modern cities on the planet. The sights of The Great Depression – “the “Hoovervilles” sprung up all along the rivers and in Central Park – are somewhat shocking. One in three workers in the garment industry were laid off; there were protests and rioting in the streets.

What pulled New York out of it were the many public works projects initiated by Moses and LaGuardia. It’s fascinating to look at the black and white films of the projects as they are built, as well as once they are complete. I loved seeing the pictures of the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary bringing the soldiers home from the war into New York harbor. Some of the saddest scenes are the destruction of classic buildings such as the old Penn Station to make way for the “modernization” of the city. It’s interesting to see how the people of the Lower East Side mobilized against a plan to put an expressway through their section of the city against Robert Moses. This is especially poignant in light of the recent “eminent domain” decision by the Supreme Court. Could these citizens have succeeded in the current climate? I do not know.

There’s an abundance of shots of New York City throughout the documentary taken from at the time this documentary was being filmed, prior to September 11, 2001. As such, I immediately noticed the abundance of shots of lower Manhattan, including the World Trade Center. One of the favorite shots is looking downtown past the Empire State Building with the Twin Towers off to its right. I think the documentary plays better without the influence that the events of that day might have exerted on it, especially in the seventh chapter which deals with the most recent time period.

I plan to purchase this boxed set as a Christmas gift for my parents. It’s an excellent piece of work, especially heart-rendering for those of us who have lived here through various cycles of the city. I don’t think a portrait of any other city in this country would be as colorful and entertaining as that of New York City.


Episode One: 1609 – 1825 The Country and the City
Episode Two: 1825 – 1865 Order and Disorder
Episode Three: 1865 – 1898 Sunshine and Shadow
Episode Four: 1898 – 1918 The Power and the People
Episode Five: 1919 – 1931 Cosmopolis
Episode Six: 1929 – 1941 City of Tomorrow
Episode Seven: 1945 to the present The City and the World


– Charlie Rose interview with Ric Burns
– New York Trailer
– Archival motion pictures
Library of Congress Paper Prints
Over the East River (1919)
Manhatta (1921)
Empires of Steel excepts (1930-1931)
– Deleted Scenes
Imitations of Mortality: Empire State Building Crash
Alternate Prologue to Episode Six
Outtakes from Episode Seven Epilogue
– Interview Outtakes with Martin Scorsese, Fran Lebowitz, Donald Trump, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Caro

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