“New York: A Documentary Film,” which aired on the Public Broadcasting Service in five two-hour installments this past November,1 marks the convergence of two trends. One is the growing cottage industry of the historiography of New York City. It is an industry that received impetus from the 1998 centennial of the consolidation of Greater New York, the official hoopla surrounding which prompted many an academic and commercial press to beef up its New York offerings. The second trend is the type of television documentary pioneered by the brothers Ken and Ric Burns, of which the pacesetting example was their collaborative effort of nine years ago, “The Civil War,” which appeared, as do all their works, on PBS. Since “The Civil War,” the brothers have gone their separate ways, though their styles are remarkably similar. Ken Burns gave us “Baseball” and a series on Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, while Ric gave us “Coney Island,” “The Way West,” and now “New York,” many years in the making and described in every press account as “epic.”
There is a bullying contempt in his affectedly elongated vowels.
The Burnses are credited with devising a documentary format that combines the use of archival photographs, which the camera pans and zooms in on in such a way that the photos are made almost to seem like moving images; omnipresent, plaintive music; voice- over narration, with well-known actors reading from period documents; and the employment of a small army of “talking heads,” often academic historians, whose words give interpretive shape to the proceedings. In “The Civil War,” the premier talking head was the southern historian Shelby Foote. Some credit his gray beard and dulcet drawl as the things that made “The Civil War” one of the most popular series in public television’s history. I have read that Foote so affected his viewers that he received numerous proposals of marriage.
The Shelby Foote, so to speak, of New York is Mike Wallace, professor at John Jay College and the Pulitzer Prize-winning co-author of Gotham, a weighty summa of left-wing interpretations of New York City’s history.2 In a review of “New York” in The New Yorker, Nancy Franklin remarked on Wallace’s “eager-beaver, boyish curiosity about how the city works” and how “at times he seems about to leap out of his chair.” My take is a little different from Franklin’s. Wallace’s putative enthusiasm struck me as exuberant sarcasm. There is a bullying contempt in his affectedly elongated vowels. By contrast, Professor Kenneth Jackson of Columbia, who receives far less airtime than Wallace, is, with his soft, warm Tennessee accent, a joy to listen to, even as one might disagree with him. The narrator, the actor David Ogden Stiers, speaks so beautifully that I predict I will re-watch my tapes of the series for no other reason than to hear his voice. It is the skewed sense of New York’s past that his voice enunciates that is problematic.
It is a remarkable past, make no mistake about it. The series is nothing less than grandly ambitious in attempting to tell the story of the city’s growth in a mere twelve hours. I just wish this series had provided its viewers with a better-rounded perspective on the city’s past rather than with such an ideologically selective version of it.
The principal theme of the series is the struggle to make capitalism and democracy coexist and “the heartbreaking extremes of the capitalist system and the failure of government to do anything about it.” It may shock the writers of “New York” to learn that some of us think that while capitalism and democracy don’t necessarily go together, neither do they necessarily conflict. And it may be time to give the word democracy a rest. Whenever the talking heads or narrator of “New York” really wants to say socialism, or social democracy, or even communism or anarchism, they instead say democracy. It is the antithesis of capitalism. The story of New York turns out to be about pitched battles in the streets between laborers and the agents of capitalists (i.e., the police), about general strikes, mass meetings, anarchist bombings, Red Scare deportations, and the like.
The highlight of the series is its lengthy treatment of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911. Vintage photographs of young female garment workers are superimposed over images of flickering flames. In the background are the muffled sounds of chaos, of screams and shouts. Intercut with these images are the talking heads—Robert Caro, Christine Stansell, and above all Kathy Peiss, who seems to be holding back tears. The intent of the filmmakers is clear: the Triangle fire was New York’s own mini-Holocaust, in which factory-owning brutes, themselves only the henchmen of demon capital, forced young girls to their grisly death.
The story of New York turns out to be about pitched battles in the streets between laborers and the agents of capitalists.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was one of countless small to medium-sized garment factories in Manhattan in the early twentieth century. It was located in the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building at the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, a block from Washington Square. Five hundred or so women toiled at Triangle, most of them Jewish immigrants in their late teens and early twenties. On March 23, 1911, a fire broke out in the eighth floor of the building, and spread rapidly, fueled by all the fabric on the premises. Many of the women, however, were unable to get out of the building. The bosses always kept the doors locked, partly, we are told, to keep the women at their sewing machines, partly to keep union organizers from entering the factory. In any event, 146 young women died in fewer than fifteen minutes, most of them by jumping from the building. The bodies piled on the pavement were a shocking, horrific sight that no one who saw could ever get from his mind. The fire became the cause célèbre of the labor movement, then picking up steam. (“New York” does not tell us that the Asch Building is still there. It is now the Brown Building and New York University owns it. Not one but two plaques on the outside of the building relate the story of the Triangle fire.)
No one will deny that the Triangle fire was a horrible event, one of the deadliest fires in New York’s history. Were it not for the labor movement implications, however, it surely would not have warranted screen time in “New York,” let along the lengthy treatment it received. The Triangle fire inspired many social-democratic reforms in New York and America. The state passed numerous workplace-safety and fire-inspection laws in the wake of the fire, following official investigations spearheaded by Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner. The young women who died in the Triangle fire were martyrs to the cause of a more just society —of more democracy, less capitalism.
The only problem, as John Tierney succinctly and brilliantly pointed out in his column in the Metro section of The New York Times on November 18—the day after the airing of episode four dominated by the Triangle fire—is that it ain’t necessarily so. (The New York Times, by the way, treated the series, in many articles, as a major event of the fall season.) Tierney quoted what I found to be one of the most remarkable lines uttered in “New York.” It is from Mike Wallace: “The problem with the garment industry is that it is thousands of small businessmen, many of them recently garment workers themselves.” For today’s leftists, business is bad, but small business is worst of all. To think that former garment workers owned those factories! Such entrepreneurs are guilty of what Marxists call “false consciousness.” Where, I can hear Mike Wallace thinking, is their solidarity?
But wait: isn’t it a bit at odds with the picture scholars such as Wallace paint of labor conditions in immigrant New York that there was economic mobility enough that a poor garment worker might one day own his own factory? Indeed it is, and that’s not all. The workers who chose to work in garment factories were paid above-average wages. Immigrant garment workers’ incomes were on a par with those of native-born workers and were almost unimaginably higher than they would have been back in Russia or Italy. With ever higher wages and ever increasing job mobility, before you knew it these poor laborers were no longer members of the so-called working class. In other words, the system worked exactly as the system should have worked—the only way it could have worked if so much poverty were to be erased in so short a time. And it had little if anything to do with social-welfare legislation. As the historian Moses Rischin, no standard-bearer of the right wing, put it in his classic The Promised City, “For many a rising immigrant family in this period of swift change, it was judged to be a ten-year trek from Hester Street to Lexington Avenue” in the relatively salubrious Yorkville district. The garment factory jobs that Mike Wallace would prefer hadn’t existed were part of what fueled this “swift change” and upward mobility.
It does not bother me that the “New York” talking heads would dismiss my interpretation of these phenomena. But my view, though I think it to be true, is at the very least a plausible alternative to the “New York” view. In a series purporting to tell the history of New York, it is only right that Burns and Sanders should have attempted a more balanced account, lest the viewing public be bullied and bamboozled by Wallace and others into accepting a particular anti-capitalist interpretation. Tierney cited any number of respected academics who might have provided alternative testimony. Harvard Law School’s W. Kip Viscusi, for example, points out that the OSHA-type regulations passed in the wake of the Triangle fire had very little impact on workplace safety, whereas the workers’ compensation insurance system cut workplace fatalities by a third. The interesting point is that the workers’ comp system was in effect--ahem—before the Triangle fire. One might reasonably conclude that the legislative consequences of the Triangle fire did little to improve workplace safety; that the new regulations may, by increasing employers’ overhead, have slowed somewhat the pace of economic progress in America; and that the Triangle fire was, while one of the most dramatic events in New York’s history, not necessarily one of the most significant.
Isn’t it a part of being great that you have the forbearance and self-restraint not to say how great you are?
Of course, nineteenth-century New York’s considerable social strife could not be ameliorated by capitalism alone. Organized religion, not government, came to the rescue, especially the Roman Catholic Church, and in particular its remarkable leader in New York from the 1840s to the 1860s, Archbishop John Hughes. Hughes’s flock comprised the worst-off New Yorkers, the immigrant Irish whose living conditions were atrocious, to say the least. “New York” makes much of how silly and patronizing it was that nativist Protestants regarded the Irish as in large measure responsible for their own wretchedness. Today’s historians take the more enlightened view that the Irish were victims of a capitalist system and its handmaiden, a hypocritical bourgeois moralism. Yet Archbishop Hughes understood that until the members of his flock cleaned up their own act, and organized their lives to take advantage of the opportunities of the modern city, they would continue to live wretchedly. Crime and loose morals flourished among these Irish. Violence, degradation, and degeneracy marked mid-century Irish culture in New York.
The writers of “New York” duly note that this was so. But after a little hand-wringing over how capitalism brought this about, the Irish are dropped like a hot potato. Archbishop Hughes, the man who led his flock from degradation and paved the way for the eventual—often within a single generation—economic success of Irish New Yorkers, rates nary a mention in the series. In the book published by Alfred A. Knopf as a companion to the series, Hughes rates two mentions. There is a brief mention of Protestant outrage over Hughes’s efforts to get public funding for Catholic schools. And there is also a brief mention of how city leaders prevailed upon Hughes to use his influence to quell the horrific draft riots in 1863. (The draft riots, which get a lot of airtime in “New York,” were bloody riots —the worst in the city’s history—in which the Irish lashed out against the fact that one could buy one’s way out of the draft, an option the Irish did not have, since they were so poor. For several days, drunken mobs attacked any symbol they could find of the Union cause, targeting in particular African-Americans and African-American institutions.) As the book states, “In desperation, civic leaders implored the archbishop … to do something--anything—to help restore calm. But there was little Hughes, or anyone, could do.”
What the book’s authors fail to note is that by 1863 the archbishop’s work was largely done, that the draft riots, awful though they were, were, as William J. Stern beautifully put it, “the death rattle of a destructive culture that was giving way to something constructive and edifying.” For what Hughes had done was nothing less than to effect a wholesale transformation in the moral climate of Irish life in New York. He did this by establishing a Catholic school system that proved (and continues to prove) the most effective means of mass education for poor children. He did it by appealing to the women of the Irish community, by making the Blessed Virgin Mary the symbol of the New York church and instilling in women a powerful sense of their responsibility over the moral realm in the life of their communities. He did it by promoting abstinence from destructive drink. (The “New York” crowd would adduce as unforgivable hypocrisy that Hughes did this while he himself was no teetotaler.) Hughes built New York’s Catholic cathedral, think of its architectural merit what you will (I happen to think it profoundly underrated), as a tangible measure of the Irish self-respect he did so much to promote.
Just so, the religion of Eastern European Jewish immigrants admirably served them in their social and economic adaptations at the turn of the century. Though physically they were not of particularly hardy stock and they lived in very harsh, overcrowded conditions such as the infamous Tenth Ward, these Jewish immigrants experienced very low death and disease rates, largely because of Orthodox practices including kosher dietary laws that promoted a level of cleanliness exceeding that to be found even in the upper-class sections of the city. It is furthermore a measure of the city’s social mobility that the Catholic daughters of earlier Irish immigrants taught—very effectively even in overcrowded classrooms—the children of these Jewish immigrants.
The point about Hughes is that he knew what needed doing to bring order and discipline into Irish lives and thus, among many other things, enable the poor Irish to take advantage of the opportunities that were omnipresent in the vibrant capitalist culture of New York. “New York” states more than once that its candidate for greatest New Yorker of the nineteenth century is DeWitt Clinton, philosophical heir to Alexander Hamilton and builder of the Erie Canal. There is no question of how great a leader Clinton was. Yet cannot the case be made that Hughes was, in his way, as remarkable and as important a nineteenth-century New Yorker as DeWitt Clinton? Or that the archbishop was at least in the top five? At least worth a mention in the series? Perhaps I should be content with the fact that neither the series nor the book mentions that icon of nineteenth-century feminism, Madame Restell, the Fifth Avenue abortionist. And perhaps I should be grateful that Mike Wallace was not asked to comment on Hughes. In his and Edwin G. Burrows’s Gotham, Hughes is treated as little more than a power player in New York politics, a Boss Tweed in vestments; Hughes is referred to as the “self-proclaimed bishop and chief of the Irish community.” There are, of course, no self-proclaimed bishops in the Catholic Church.
Of overt factual errors there are only a few in “New York.” It is said that the draft riot mobs targeted Brooks Brothers on Fifth Avenue. Actually, Brooks Brothers at that time was on Broadway, at Grand Street. (We are not told the reason Brooks Brothers was targeted: the distinguished clothier supplied the Union Army’s blue uniforms and was also known to be the favorite tailor of President Lincoln, who was wearing a Brooks Brothers suit the night he was shot at Ford’s Theater.)
The novelist Peter Quinn, author of Banished Children of Eve, a historical novel about the draft riots, and one of the series’s talking heads, remarks of Boss Tweed that his largely stolen personal fortune of $50 million would be multiplied by ten in today’s dollars. Actually, the rate of inflation between 1875 and 1999 is not 1000 percent, but somewhere between 1400 and 1500 percent. Even so, it is an insufficient indication of the immensity of Tweed’s fortune. In 1875, $50 million, if I am calculating correctly, would have been roughly one half of one percent of the estimated gross national product. One half of one percent of the gross national product today would probably be $50 or $60 billion dollars, not the half billion that Quinn calculates. (I am indebted to Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther for this method of interpreting personal fortunes from the past.) In other words, a true reading of Boss Tweed’s alleged net worth at its height (he lost it all) tells us something of the almost unimaginable scale of his graft. Probably only Commodore Vanderbilt and the department store magnate A. T. Stewart (unmentioned in the series) were richer than Tweed in the 1870s.
Finally, the series keeps reminding us that New York is the greatest city in the world. It is a very silly thing to say, whether true or not. One wonders, though, if by definition a city can be great, let alone the greatest, if its citizens and boosters constantly say how great it is. Isn’t it a part of being great that you have the forbearance and self-restraint not to say how great you are? Alas, modesty has never been New York’s strong suit. A New York journalist once dubbed Chicago the “Windy City,” not because of its climate (it is not in fact among the windiest cities in America), but because of Chicagoans’ boastfulness about their city—i.e., they are full of wind. New York, actually, is the windiest of the world’s great cities.
Still, it begs the question: Is New York the world’s greatest city? I would say that it is certainly the great city of the twentieth century, though so much of what has made it so comes out of two of the century’s ten decades: the 1920s and the 1930s. The series, in episode five, makes great hay of the Twenties. It is without question the most appealing of the series’s episodes. Mike Wallace is given a rest and instead Ann Douglas, Margo Jefferson, and Carol Willis take to the screen to declaim, with enormous enthusiasm and not a whit of sarcasm, of New York in the Roaring Twenties. Indeed, the architectural historian Carol Willis moved me when she said that the Empire State Building (about which she is the leading expert) is her favorite building in the whole world. As a television moment, it put to shame Mike Wallace’s “eager-beaver, boyish curiosity.”
About the next decade, the Thirties, however, we will have to wait until May for the series’s treatment. In the companion book, Robert Moses dominates the section on the Thirties, though there is also the standard material on bread lines, soup kitchens, Hoovervilles, and the New Deal. The Thirties were culturally protean, a fact often lost in politicized accounts of the Depression. It also bears pointing out that many of what we are accustomed to think are the most characteristic products of Twenties culture actually date from the Thirties. The Empire State Building was completed in 1931, Rockefeller Center went up between 1931 and 1939, Cole Porter’s Gay Divorce (containing “Night and Day”) opened at the Barrymore Theater in 1932 and Anything Goes at the Alvin Theater in 1934, George and Ira Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing opened at the Music Box Theater in 1931, and so on. The greatest decade of the American popular song, and probably the era of New York’s greatest prestige throughout the rest of America, was the 1930s, not the 1920s. In the 1930s a New Yorker, the patrician Franklin Roosevelt, exerted a broad national appeal. In the 1920s a New Yorker, Al Smith, a son of the Lower East Side, found the heartland daunting. In the 1930s the vision of Manhattan urbanity claimed a large part of the national psyche, as we see in song and movie. That these songs and movies resonate with us still is a sign for hope in the age of MTV.
If New York is so great, then why am I often embarrassed to show it to my friends from other places?
In industrial prowess and financial clout, and certainly as the great repository of the world’s art and artifacts, New York in the twentieth century probably has no peer. Architecturally and urbanistically, the situation is different. Jane Jacobs once famously said that a city couldn’t be a work of art. Lewis Mumford responded that the citizens of Siena, Florence, Venice, and Turin should please take note. It was Jacobs, however, who acutely diagnosed the aesthetic failings of Manhattan streets: those long, droopy crosstown blocks, their endless rows of boxy cages “like the windrows of Theodore Roosevelt’s teeth,” as the historian John Lukacs once put it. These blocks, whatever the decorative niceties of their façades, looked old and run-down soon after they were built, and impart to New York today a preternaturally wearied countenance that great European cities, older than New York by centuries and even millennia, do not possess. (No writer has ever truly captured this weary face of New York.) It is in part the legacy of the “Great Mistake,” the commissioners’ gridiron street plan of 1807–11, which talking head Phillip Lopate praises for its democratic quality. Yet Wall Street and Greenwich Village, the most attractive parts of Manhattan, are so in large part because they are off the grid. (The oppressively regular fenestration of so many Manhattan streets is the vertical projection of the horizontal grid.) Even for those who like grids (I don’t), the commissioners botched the job. The crosstown blocks are deadly. The lack of rear alleys means that garbage will always be piled high on our curbs. If New York is so great, then why am I often embarrassed to show it to my friends from other places?
At least the New York I show my friends is a real place, unlike the fantasy world conjured by historians such as the talking heads of “New York.” Conservative and moderate historians have stayed away from urban history because its amorphous nature renders its data too easily manipulable for political ends. Yet if New York is to serve the twenty-first century, as it served the twentieth, as a symbol of American aspirations, someone will have to come along soon to tell its story soberly and truthfully, without the ideological prostrations of the writers and talking heads of “New York: A Documentary Film.”
- The first five episodes of “New York: A Documentary Film,” directed by Ric Burns, co-written with James Sanders, were shown November 14–18, 1999. The final episode will air this coming May. A companion volume to the series has been published by Alfred A. Knopf
- See my review “PC New York” in The New Criterion (December 1998)
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 6, on page 51
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