Thursday, August 17, 2006

Learning: it never gets old.

Last night I got the first episode in Ric Burns's PBS documentary New York from Netflix. Of course, as NYCentric as I am, I loved it. It patched up a lot of holes in my own knowledge of the city's birth and origins, and I re-learned some pretty interesting stuff that I'd probably heard about in high school history class when I wasn't paying attention. Like how the Dutch bought the island of Manhattan from the Native Americans for 60 guilders, or about $24. All they wanted was to establish a trading port to make money, money, money. It wasn't about religious or ethnic freedom like other colonies, it was all about makin' a buck, yo. It took 17 years for them to even think about building a church, and already there was a pub and whorehouse to one out of every three men. Yeah, this place started out pretty fucked up, and really, that's why it's like this today with no apologies.

Possibly the most dramatic moment early on in the Revolutionary War was when Gen. Washington, whose battered and losing army was cornered in Brooklyn, had to save his troops from the much stronger British. So he gathered up every spare rowboat, skiff, and raft he could find, and under the cover of night, they all paddled sloowly and quietly for 7 hours across the East River to Manhattan, right under the Brits' noses. Although he was defeated for now, Washington saved all their lives with that move.

Another random fact that stuck with me: I had no idea that Alexander Hamilton was buried in the Trinity Church Cemetery, right on Wall Street, in the heart of the financial district where he belonged. I need to go back and find his gravestone as I completely missed that fact when I visited. Also, Wall Street was named after the stone wall the Dutch had built when they first colonized the island to keep out Natives and the British. When the British took over, the wall was later torn down and paved over by African slaves.

(Oh, and Staten Island had been named Richmond after King Charles's bastard son. Ha ha!)

The episode ends with the completion of the Erie Canal upstate, thus securing New York's position as the trade center of North America. Episode 2 will deal with the influx of immigrants, the shaping and reshaping of the city, and the Draft Riots.

The DVD had some extras, some precious silent mini-documentaries from the early 1900s about New York bridges, city life, and the building of the Empire State Building (from 1933). This last one was pretty amazing. It showed all the stages of construction as the building took shape, from the basement to the spire, all the while with the rest of the city bustling all around it. I can imagine this being run right between a Mickey Mouse cartoon and a Jimmy Cagney double feature.

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