American Experience Documentaries

DVD Review: New York Episode 8 – The Center of the World 1946-2003

When Ric Burns set out to make a documentary about the city of New York, he had no idea of what world events were about to transpire. Just as the sixth episode was about to air on PBS at the end of September 2001, the city was attacked and the landscape was forever changed. Burns quickly deleted scenes from that episode that dealt with the plane which crashed into the Empire State Building.

Burns also realized that there was another entire chapter now to the city’s history. Not only had he glossed over the building of the World Trade Center in his initial documentary, but he had not really looked at New York’s place in the globalization which happened throughout the late 80s and 90s.

This eighth installment was added to the series after the events of September 11, 2001, as a “coda” to New York: The City and the County by Ric Burns. This two-hour-long documentary features many of the same shots of New York seen earlier in the series, only now with a new poignancy as those two towers now represent something entirely different.

Burns approaches this chapter of New York’s history as an attempt to show how New York’s place in the world – at the heart of globalization – almost made it an inevitable target eventually for someone who wanted to strike at the county. He points out the innocence with which many Americans (both in and out of government) believed we could get involved in global conflicts and never receive retribution. (I’m not saying it’s right, only naïve to believe it wouldn’t happen eventually with all of the conflicts it ends up in the middle of.)

While this may be off-putting to some, it’s nice to see a frank discussion – without casting blame anywhere – that does help to understand just why it happened. It could have happened just as easily as a result of our involvement in Kosovo as it did with our involvement in the Middle East.

The documentary is also free from the political wrangling which seems to surround everything associated with September 11th since almost immediately after it happened. Where else could you see diametrically opposed politicians such as Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and Mario Cuomo all commenting on the events before, during, and after that day?

The history of the towers actually dates back to the 1940s immediately following World War II. It would take another decade before the idea really took hold, and even longer until it would actually begin construction. Much of the motivation became “saving” lower Manhattan which is surprising considering just how much character this portion of the city seems to have in my time.

The politics which took place surrounding the building of the World Trade Center are quite fascinating. It’s shown through still photographs and films from the time period, which have been restored enough to be clear and easy to view, but at the same time haven’t been enhanced so they lose the flavor of the time period. There are a lot of pictures of the construction of the towers.

Again narrated by David Ogden Stiers, this chapter has all that the rest of it had – the great music, the commentary by prominent historians, reporters, and politicians. Commentary is also here from many of the people who were involved in the design and construction of the towers that are still alive. This commentary provides incredible insight into the thought and testing process.

It was also nice to hear the emphasis on the diversity of the people who worked in the World Trade Center as well as in Manhattan itself as globalization became the reality following the end of the Cold War. Something lost in the “attack on America” was the detail of just how many immigrants from how many different countries also died on September 11th. This fact is brought home in a way that is not preachy or accusatory but just a fact we all should remember.

The images of the attack are here. Those images have surely left an indelible image on the minds of so many of us. The way he recreates the attack gives a perspective not thought of before. It stirred me as much as the documentary by the Naudet brothers, some of whose images have been reused by Burns. I was finally able to view footage I had heard about – of my husband’s cousin’s fire battalion walking into the building which would eventually fall on them as they tried to save people trapped in the elevators.

I liked this chapter in Ric Burns’ series quite a bit and I’m glad he saw fit to add it to the series. Although it’s become the first thing many people think about in regard to New York City, when viewed in the context of the entire documentary it’s just another part of a rich and sometimes turbulent history of the Greatest City in the World.


– Interview With Ric Burns
– Outtakes: Intimations of Mortality: Empire State Building Crash (this was also included on the boxed set of the first seven episodes of the documentary)
– Selected Interviews