Related topics

PBS Tells Epic History of New York

November 11, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ The City That Never Sleeps spends every waking moment in a race to keep up with its desires and braggadocio.

So who can afford to look around?

``Being here is so overwhelming an experience,″ says Ric Burns, ``that our imaginations are spent mainly pushing back reality and creating a buffer between ourselves and the city. We hardly have time to think of New York as a thing that has reasons behind it.″

But consider the grid that defines Manhattan’s streets. It was plotted out in 1811, audaciously preparing for a 10-fold population boom.

Or trace the subway’s spectacular sprawl, which in the early 1900s tied Manhattan to its newly added boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

And what about the city’s vertical dimension? Burns marvels: ``I defy anybody to look at the skyline and say, ’It just had to happen that way.‴

No, lots of reasons help explain New York _ four centuries’ worth, in fact, fully justifying its cherished image as big and bad.

Those reasons and a heckuva saga propel Burns’ ``New York: A Documentary Film,″ a special presentation of ``The American Experience″ and Thirteen/WNET whose first five two-hour chapters air on PBS Sunday through next Thursday at 9 p.m. EST.

We begin with a fortuitous discovery in 1609 by English explorer Henry Hudson who, working for the Dutch, sails up the river that now bears his name hoping it might be a passage to China. Well, second thought: Here’s a darn good harbor, friendly locals (the Lenape), and a swell site for a trading post.

The race has begun.

By Thursday, it will carry us to the 1930s and the Empire State Building’s miraculous rise. Then we’re back next summer for a final two-hour sprint into the new millennium. (Whadja think, 10 hours would be enough for New York City?)

Accompanying the documentary are a handsome, richly illustrated book by Burns and James Sanders (published by Knopf), a soundtrack album on RCA Victor, and an ambitious Web site (accessible at either of two addresses: www.wnet.org/newyork or www.pbs.org/newyork).

``New York″ was directed by Burns, known for the PBS series ``The Civil War″ (which he produced with his brother Ken) and other documentaries ``The Way West,″ ``The Donner Party″ and ``Coney Island.″

What he and co-producer Lisa Ades have crafted in ``New York″ is a wondrous film, heroic and haunting.

``New York″ is magnificent to watch, but however impressive the scenery, this is a journey of words: the graceful narration (by David Ogden Stiers), plus testimony from a wide range of distinguished Gothamites as well as off-camera readings of observations from past New Yorkers, famous and obscure.

For those of us who call New York City home, ``New York″ should be required viewing. How grandly it reminds us why we put up with this too-crowded, too-costly, too-everything domain. And why so many of us can’t be pried away. And, finally, why that’s been the case for nearly 400 years.

But what about the rest of the nation _ all those who insist that life exists beyond New York’s shores and city limits? What can this film tell those of us who wouldn’t want to live here?

``My hope is that even people who are predisposed not to like New York will come to understand at least two things,″ Burns says during a recent interview at his production office on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

``New York has played such a powerful role in the life of the country, as no other city has,″ he declares. ``The things that we wave the American flag for most instinctively _ capitalism and democracy _ have taken place here more intensely than in any other place.″

Besides, New York has been the nation’s media capital for 150 years. Whatever it discovers or creates will eventually be fed to the rest of the country. ``Whether we like it or not,″ says Burns, ``the idea of what America is as a whole is largely packaged and produced here.″

A boyish-looking man of 44, he nudges his glasses against his nose and offers his second proposition.

``America needs a place like New York,″ he says. ``A place to go and be different. Where no matter who you are and what your ambitions, you can find other people like yourselves, and be able to realize your dream.″

Burns knows what he’s talking about. A Baltimore native, he moved from Ann Arbor, Mich., to New York City a quarter-century ago. Which, in a sense, ranks him with the truest New Yorkers _ those born elsewhere who come here to be born again.

It has always been that way, he notes. However uneasily, New York has received more people and more kinds of people than any other city.

But it didn’t all just happen. The story, says Burns with undisguised awe, ``is a bloodcurdling sleigh ride.″ His film takes us along.


Elsewhere in television ...

`NOW AND AGAIN’: After Heather is struck by lightning, she thinks she’s seen an angel, but her heavenly encounter is really her dad in an experimental suit, on ``Now and Again,″ airing Friday at 9 p.m. EST on CBS. As Michael hovers outside her hospital window in a gravity-defying suit, the critically injured Heather awakens to see what she thinks is an angel. But as she begins discussing this ``visit″ with family and friends, she discovers that not everyone is receptive to the possibility. Eric Close stars as Michael. Heather Matarazzo plays Heather.


Frazier Moore can be reached at fmoore ``at″ ap.org

Update hourly