The Transformation of New York


Ric Burns’78 (left) and James Sanders ’76, GSAPP’82 at Burns' Steeplechase Films office.


Columbia College Today recently caught up with filmmaker Ric Burns ’78 and architect/author/filmmaker James Sanders ’76, GSAPP’82, who collaborated (along with filmmaker Lisa Ades) on the acclaimed eight-part PBS series New York: A Documentary Film, and its companion book, New York: An Illustrated History. They have updated the series twice since it first appeared in 1999; a ninth episode is now in the works.

Burns first came to the fore with the landmark PBS series and book The Civil War (1990), which he produced and wrote with his brother, Ken, and Geoffrey C. Ward. Among Burns’ other works are Coney Island (1991), The Way West (1995), Ansel Adams (2002), We Shall Remain: Tecumseh’s Vision (2009) and The Chinese Exclusion Act (2018). His numerous honors include a 2000 John Jay Award for distinguished professional achievement from the College.

Sanders is a principal of the New York design and research firm James Sanders + Associates. His books include Celluloid Skyline: New York (2001) and Scenes from the City: Filmmaking in New York (2006, revised in 2014). In addition to sharing two Emmys and the Journalism School’s Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award with Burns for the New York series, Sanders won a 2007 Emmy for co-writing Andy Warhol: A Documentary, also with Burns. In 2013, he was appointed a research fellow at the Center for Urban Real Estate at the Architecture School.

Our conversation took place in mid-October at the always-humming Upper West Side office of Burns’ production company, Steeplechase Films. Here are some edited excerpts:


Ian D. Keating

Columbia College Today: You keep adding to the New York opus. The series’ first installment ended in 1931 with the symbolically powerful construction of the Empire State Building.

Ric Burns ’78: Yes, that was an incredible culmination, not just literally in terms of this glorious skyscraper. The Wall Street crash and the Depression brought a sea change for New York, which had been going it alone for nearly 400 years as a rabid commercial center and cauldron of diversity and change. The issues of modern life had reached the point where they were not going to be solved by J.P. Morgan and his pals getting together and bailing out the economy. The federal government had to act.

James Sanders ’76: We always intended to cover the entire story of the city, through the end of the century, but released the initial five episodes — ending in 1931 — before moving on. The next two episodes took us first through the Depression, the rise of [Mayor Fiorello] La Guardia and WWII, and then post-war New York, when the city was catapulted onto the world stage as the unofficial capital of the world. But by the 1970s, the city was facing the biggest crisis in its history, going up against tremendous anti-urban feeling. New York was seen as dirty, congested, dangerous. There was continuing flight to the suburbs and the widespread belief that New York was truly going down the drain, on the brink of bankruptcy. Washington’s reaction? “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”

Burns: But after that precipitous fall from grace, the city miraculously reemerged at the end of the 20th century. It did not die. And we thought at that point our story was over. And then …

Sanders: What’s the old Trotsky line? “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” September 11, 2001, arrived, and we realized we had to refract the entire narrative we had created through the rise and fall of the World Trade Center.

Burns: A structure we had not mentioned in the first seven episodes. Because it seemed in every respect a Johnny-come-lately. Who cares? I mean it’s not an attractive building …

CCT: Feelings changed in 1993, when it was first bombed. Suddenly it became our World Trade Center, and we didn’t want anybody messing with it.

Burns: Yes. And another trigger for the eighth episode of our film series was something James and I came to call the provincial cosmopolitanism of New York, which we were absolutely guilty of. As the historian Mike Wallace [CC’64] was among the first to point out, when the planes went into the buildings, an enormous amount was revealed. For us it was the deep, deep interconnection between New York and America and the world. It was not just Ellis Island. It was not everybody parachuting in to the American dream via its principal landing port, New York City. But rather, there were going to be hard questions asked about our relationship to the rest of the globe.

Now it’s as if we live in one city, interconnected with every other part of the globe — demographically, economically, politically, climatically. The idea that there is some kind of isolation, exceptional or otherwise, vanished with 9-11. And on a bitterly cold day, January 1, 2002, a new mayor and administration took over, which was completely committed to this idea of the indissoluble interconnectedness of the entire globe.

CCT: You’re talking about Mike Bloomberg.

Burns: I’m talking about Bloomberg and a new awareness of the need for a kind of hyper-technocracy, in the sense that issues of immigration and climate change, the economy, tourism, infrastructure, all those things were connected globally. Not just the problems, but also the challenges, the opportunities and the solutions, were now shared by all cities. That’s why we’re calling the next film “The Future of Cities.” And we’ve turned to a new generation of voices to discuss this.

Sanders: One striking thing about this new generation is they’re not really obsessed with the past of New York. They’re anti-nostalgic. As late as the 1990s the frame of reference was still the departure of the Dodgers, the demolition of Penn Station, and all the stuff from the 1950s and ’60s. This generation is building a new city. And they are the new city — there’s an incredible diversity of background.

CCT: Who are some of the voices you turned to?

Sanders: People like Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect and planner who has worked for the city government and for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and now has his own practice. He takes a very straightforward view about the future of the city and about how growth is going to be sustained. One of the premises, by the way, is that New York needs to be a growing city. For the last half of the 20th century, although there was enormous demographic turnover, the overall population of the city did not increase. Which meant that, for example, the subway system and the whole infrastructure that had been built by Robert Moses were able to sustain the plus-or-minus 7.8 million people who lived in the city. Well, that’s not true anymore. New York is growing again and growing fast, as anybody who goes to Long Island City can see. It’s just like Shanghai over there, just incredible.

With that growth, accommodation has to be made. Land has to be found. Transportation has to improve. And to not accept that is to turn your back on reality. One of the things Bloomberg and his deputies understood was that the city that had been built up mostly in the first half of the 20th century — its economy, its infrastructure, its land use — needed to be wrenched into the 21st century. We had miles of land zoned for factories that didn’t exist anymore, yet couldn’t be used for anything else. And they said, we need that land. That was not an easy decision, or one that went down easily in every quarter. When you’re feeling the rawness of the city, with all the new construction, what you’re feeling is more than just a lot of buildings being built. You’re feeling this incredible, paradigmatic shift of the city. It is really changing from one thing to another.

Burns: Vishaan Chakrabarti, incidentally, is one of several people in the film who teach at Columbia. Of course, there’s also Ken Jackson, our great urban historian. There’s Ester Fuchs, a professor at SIPA, a remarkable person who worked in the Bloomberg administration. She’s an amazing thinker about cities, really brilliant. She shows how questions of governance became increasingly depoliticized as the 20th century came to an end. There were earlier glimmers of this — the post-political idea that cities have to be governed with a sense of rationality, of fact-based data, and of consensus; Mayor La Guardia gave us a great example in his day. Amazingly, cities have become the greatest unit of governability over the last two or three decades. It’s not happening at the state level, it’s not happening at the federal level, and may never again.

Sanders: The notion that the ingenuity and creativity of smart, motivated people could be mobilized to solve urban problems was not apparent 30 years ago. I mean, there were books literally called things like The Ungovernable City. That was the understanding about New York. No one would write that book anymore.

CCT: If you were Rip Van Winkle awakening in New York today from a 20-year snooze, what are some of the ambitious, large-scale changes that you would find most surprising?

Sanders: If New York had simply rebuilt the World Trade Center, that would have been startling enough. Probably only six cities in the United States have more square footage in their downtown. So it has rebuilt that whole downtown and then built another one along the way: Hudson Yards. It’s the largest real estate development in North America, and one of the largest ever created. I see it from my window. It’s just unbelievable. And it’s only half-done. But the half that’s built is astonishing.

Burns: Then there’s the total transformation of the waterways.

Sanders: The entire ferry service that has just been introduced. Brooklyn Bridge Park, Governor’s Island. Any one of these projects would have astounded people in the 1980s, and suddenly there are 10 of them. Plus the fact that every square inch of Manhattan suddenly seems to be of insane value.

CCT: Downtown Flushing, Jersey City …

Burns: Manhattan’s no longer the center of action. Certainly not culturally, in terms of youth culture. The action is truly within the perimeters of the entire city now, which is really a remarkable and wonderful thing. And I think that’s why the nostalgia is not there. This is not F. Scott Fitzgerald’s My Lost City, where he wrote so movingly of the destruction of the illusion of New York, like a shattered dream, all the more poignant for being so.

CCT: But certainly, plenty of things are being lost and damaged. Familiar blocks disappear; longtime residents can no longer afford their apartments; small businesses are replaced by humdrum chain stores or sit empty for long stretches.

Burns: It’s the inevitability of transformation, the oldest story in New York. You build it up, you tear it down, you build it up. It’s the creative destruction of capitalism. We do, fortunately, have pretty stiff building codes and landmark preservation, a concept that was born in New York. That hasn’t gone away. But yes, there is that constant sense that the ground is moving beneath your feet. It’s not an easy place to live in that respect. It’s about finding ways to adapt to it. And making sure that as many people as possible have access to the opportunities of that kind of dynamism. That’s the real problem, not whether you can live in the neighborhood you grew up in.

Sanders: The very success of the city has brought huge issues of affordability and gentrification, a term that I don’t much care for, but which we’re going to crack open in Episode 9. There’s another brilliant Columbia guy, Lance Freeman, at GSAPP, who went to Harlem and Clinton Hill and explored what gentrification really means. He found all sorts of contradictory and surprising results. But the fact remains that as we speak, one-fifth of New York lives in extreme poverty of a concentrated kind, meaning not just poor, but poor and closely together, and unable to find the ways out.

Burns: That kind of localized density and concentration of poverty — not just income inequality, but educational inequality — those are the two burning issues in New York, in America, and indeed around the world, that aren’t related to climate change.

CCT: Which brings us finally, to that looming threat. Hurricane Sandy was clearly another defining event in the city’s history and a very loud warning bell.

Sanders: It will be one of the climactic scenes in our new episode. We spoke to a brilliant climatologist, another good Columbia man, Adam Sobel, who has written this phenomenal book called Storm Surge about Sandy and what it means for global climate change, and for New York, which has always had a special relationship to the water. Without the harbor, the immediacy of access to the ocean, there is no New York. It just doesn’t exist.

Burns: That fact and driver of the city — water — is now the enemy, not the friend. Shiva the destroyer, not Shiva the bringer of life. Or maybe somehow both at the same time. When you pick up the paper and see we have 10 or 12 years to figure out how to reverse climate change, it’s disturbing and harrowing and sort of traumatizing all at once. That’s not Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. You’re talking about a level of plausibly apocalyptic urgency that is everybody’s patrimony.

Sanders: OK, it’s coming, we have to prepare for it and we have to adapt for it. But how can we actually mitigate it? We have other people like the author David Owen telling us there’s only one way out: The world, or certainly America, has to be more like New York, which to the astonishment of most people is the most environmentally responsible place in America.

Burns: Lowest per capita carbon footprint.

Sanders: When you live in high-rise buildings and you move eight million people by public transportation and you share your heat and power, it is the most efficient way to live. And there are serious efforts underway, grand schemes like building park barriers and berms along the shoreline, and all sorts of other ideas being looked at. But there’s no overestimating the enormity of the challenge.

Burns: And yet there is a kind of optimism within the culture of New York, which is not just undimmed; I would say arguably it’s greater than ever before for all the reasons James is describing. Unlike many quarters of society, we seem to be pulling together, not apart, developing solutions, not fleeing from reality. To have gone through the last three generations in New York and to have demonstrably solved — not permanently, and not without major problems — so many of the issues of contemporary collective life, in ways that are scalable, that can be exported, that is a truly remarkable thing.

Former CCT editor Jamie Katz ’72, BUS’80 has held senior editorial positions at People and Vibe and contributes to Smithsonian Magazine and other publications. His feature about the 50th anniversary of Spring’68, “A Tinderbox, Poised to Ignite,” appeared in the Spring 2018 issue.