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New York: A City Documentary to End All City Documentaries

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I remember my very first trip to New York City at eight years old in vivid—though brief—detail. A flash of Columbus Circle horns blaring, buildings towering. A pack of baseball cards from a surly street vendor. A seagull on the Circle Line, shitting on my leg. "This city is scary," I thought. "I want to come back."

Eventually I did—and I've stayed. But I've never been able to comprehend that feeling of first being in New York, and how it's endured in the two decades since I first felt it. Not until I watched Ric Burns's sprawling documentary about New Amsterdam, Gotham and New York, all at once. Simply titled _New York: A Documentary Film, _this near eighteen-hour-long expedition through the history of the world's greatest city* is also a stroll through the history of the United States, from George Washington's first inauguration on Wall Street to the Twin Towers tumbling on September 11.


That feeling, I've realized, isn't just mine. It was left behind by the millions and millions of Americans who once walked through the twisting streets around Battery Park and, later, the grid uptown and the expanse of the boroughs, all of them looking for progress. From the moment the very first Dutch colonists that landed on the island of Manhattan, New Yorkers have become architects of progress and designers of futures. Burns, who is Ken Burns's little brother, introduces you to the some of the most important ones in the city's 400-year history, and helps you begin to comprehend what that New York feeling means.

That feeling is part promise. It's part curiosity, part hope and even part fear. And my God is it exhilarating. It really is different for everybody, though. If you've been to New York, this documentary will answer some questions and help you make sense of that big, beautiful hyper-urban mess. If you haven't been to New York, this documentary will make you want to book a ticket. If you live in New York, I can't believe you haven't already seen it.


New York: A Documentary Film is streaming on Amazon Prime Instant Video and, if you look hard enough, it can be found on YouTube, albeit in lower quality.

  • Go ahead and argue with me on the "world's greatest city" bit. Even better, argue with the other New Yorkers in the comments.