Disasters have never kept New York down

More parts of Ric Burns' documentary show how the city rose from distress in the 1930s and 1970s.


September 30, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

The documentary has been finished for months. The words being quoted had been uttered decades earlier, in 1939, on the eve of the great New York World's Fair.

But given the events of Sept. 11, they reflect an eerie, unsettling prescience.

"The world is in chaos, struggling to master its own inventions," Michael Hare, secretary of the fair, said in surveying a world where war already had broken out and was threatening to spread even further. "We are in danger of being annihilated by forces which we ourselves set up."

Like so much of Chapters 6 and 7 of Ric Burns' New York: A Documentary Film, premiering tonight and tomorrow on PBS, Hare's words sound like they could have been uttered last week, not six decades ago. Which is why New York provides such an unexpected lift in these uncertain days. Above all else, these two installments -- which were to conclude the series (now Burns plans a two-hour coda dealing with the tragedy at the World Trade Center) -- prove that Gotham has a habit of rebounding from disasters that apparently had all but destroyed it.

"City of Tomorrow," airing tonight, begins with the Great Depression. In a 10-minute introduction that precedes the opening credits, narrator David Odgen Stiers intones that the coming decades would lead New Yorkers, both the public and the politicians, to ask themselves, "What is a city? What makes a city work? Why should there be cities at all?"

In the years immediately after the stock market crash of 1929, those answers weren't easy to come by. New York, in a very real sense, had ceased to function. Crooked Tammany Hall politicians, led by the callously charismatic Mayor Jimmy Walker, egregiously mismanaged the city's funds -- leaving New York's infrastructure to crumble. The city's industrial base saw work orders plummet; many businesses closed, leaving scores of the unemployed sifting through garbage for sustenance. Nearly a quarter of the city's inhabitants, 1.6 million out of a population of 6.9 million, ended up on the relief rolls.

Forces against nature

Into this crisis stepped two saviors. Fiorello La Guardia, a fiery little Italian-American who took over as mayor in 1933, probably could have lifted New York out of its funk via the force of his will alone. But he was also fiercely honest and tirelessly committed to modernizing the city and restoring -- even enhancing -- its prominence among the world's great metropolises. And Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who controlled all the public works money flowing into New York thanks to FDR's New Deal program, was committed to making the city car-friendly. To that end, he spent millions of dollars -- and created tens of thousands of jobs -- surrounding New York with a web of limited-access highways and building such massive projects as the Triborough Bridge.

Within a decade, Depression had given way to optimism, and the bleak picture of 1929 had given way to the soaring optimism of the 1939 World's Fair. New York had resurrected itself. (Although at a price: Moses' obsession with highway building and public housing complexes, the series notes, would soon prove as dangerous to New York as any financial collapse, scarring the city, blighting its landscape with tons of faceless concrete edifices and ripping the hearts out of scores of neighborhoods.)

Much the same thing happened in 1975, as detailed in Chapter 7, "The City and the World." On the brink of financial collapse, thanks to mounting debt and an unwillingness to cut back on city services, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. President Ford famously, albeit temporarily, refused to bail out the city. Jobs were fleeing, the city' s famed port was losing business to more modern competitors, and the death knell once again seemed imminent.

But again, the city rescued itself, thanks to some fiscal conservancy, leaders willing and able to think outside the box, and the continuing determination of New Yorkers not to stay down for long.

Just as in the five chapters that preceded them, all of which aired on PBS in 1999, New York is portrayed in near-mythic terms; words like "zenith" and "greatest" and "massive" are uttered repeatedly. New York, the series constantly reminds us, has rarely done anything on a small scale. That tradition continued on Sept. 11. New York: A Documentary Film assures us the city will rise to experience both great successes and great tragedies once again.

On television

What: New York: A Documentary Film

When: 9 p.m. today and tomorrow on PBS

In brief: History augurs hope for New York City

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