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New York: An Illustrated History


New York: An Illustrated History

The Internet is, I believe, New York City for those who are unable
to physically get there. Think about the parallels. It has
everything you could possibly want in one place. You can navigate
through it, if you know what you're doing. It never shuts down,
though it occasionally does not work. Parts of it are beautiful and
parts of it are dangerous (these are not necessarily mutually
exclusive). And it keeps growing and changing. These elements of
New York City are fully brought to life in NEW YORK: An Illustrated

One would almost seem to have to be insane to undertake the
daunting task of constructing a book dealing with the history of
New York City. And if this is so, then insanity must run in the
Burns family. Ric Burns, who with James Sanders and Lisa Ades
constructed NEW YORK: An Illustrated History, is the brother of Ken
Burns, who through multiple media has taken on such weighty topics
as baseball and jazz, complex subjects about which people are
extremely passionate. The brothers collaborated on a PBS series and
book concerning the Civil War, and if you don't believe that people
are still passionate about that topic, try driving through
Mississippi late at night with Ohio plates on your automobile and
stopping at a Waffle House. Certainly there are parts of NEW YORK
that will have the reader making exclamations of buena
; indeed, I can state with the certitude of experience
that this volume makes a solid, resounding WHAP! when thrown across
the room with egregious vigor.

As with JAZZ, however, NEW YORK: An Illustrated History is intended
to be an introduction, albeit a complex and thorough one, to a
weighty topic that ultimately cannot be contained within the four
corners of a book. Indeed, as with other Burns Brothers projects,
there is a companion PBS video series to NEW YORK as well as a
music CD. Taken together, they constitute a documentary,
brilliantly conceived in theory if ultimately flawed in the
execution on occasion. What Burns, Sanders and Ades have ultimately
created is the most complete and stirring portrait to date of what
is arguably the greatest city on Earth.

This NEW YORK: An Illustrated History is an expanded version of the
tome that was originally published in 1999 and reprinted in 2001,
shortly before the terrorist attack upon the city that changed it,
and the world, forever. An Epilogue deals with the attack and its
target. Is the new edition necessary? The only answer there can be
is a resounding "Yes!" though it is all the more effective when one
reflects on the very beginnings of the city as New Amsterdam in the
seventeenth century. It is fitting that the legend of the purchase
of Manhattan Island is one of the first topics in NEW YORK, but
this is a work that can also entertain.

It is impossible to pick up NEW YORK and open it at any point
without becoming thoroughly entranced for hours in the richness of
the illustrations, from daguerreotypes and caricatures of its
founding fathers to artist depictions of riots, from the haunted
faces of immigrants being processed at its gates to the horrendous
aftermath of the attack upon the World Trade Center. As one
proceeds through NEW YORK, the richness of the history of this
place, and of this work, becomes almost immediately clear, as one
first encounters drawings that gradually but inevitably give way to
photographs, first in black and white and then in color, marking
the advancement of the city and technology along with it.

To behold New York City for the first time is to wonder first how
it was ever built and second for what purpose. NEW YORK purports to
answer both. For all of its size, New York City is a microcosm of
the United States and its people, exhibiting the successes and
failures, triumphs and tragedies, the best and the worst, day after
day. For those who don't live there but have visited, it is a
mistress whose company one can take but for a few days, and who is
missed and pined for all too quickly afterward. A great sense of
this is transmuted through the pages of NEW YORK.

When one peruses this illustrated history --- the descriptions of
the riots, the insurrections both civil and natural in etiology,
the highs and the lows --- one is better able to understand the
spirit of the city and its people, who metaphorically meet each
challenge, each tragedy, by picking themselves up, dusting
themselves off, and trudging forward as if to say, "Is that all you
got?!" And that, in effect, is how this work concludes.

There are points where the text of NEW YORK leaves something to be
desired. The essays contained herein are, for the most part, better
treated as treatises as opposed to gospels. To note but one
example, the hushed reverence with which graffiti is treated is
almost too comical to be believed. Additionally, short shrift seems
to be given to the history of the city between 1970 and 2001. The
decline of New York City, which reached the nadir of its abyss
under the shaky stewardship of Mayor David Dinkins, and its
dramatic and relatively quick turnaround under the steely eye and
hand of Rudolph Guiliani, is almost a worthy topic for a book by

Still, NEW YORK fulfills its promise to the greatest extent when it
is used as an introduction to topics that the reader can more fully
explore elsewhere.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

New York: An Illustrated History
Ric Burns and James Sanders, with Lisa Ades

  • Publication Date: September 2, 2003
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 1400041465
  • ISBN-13: 9781400041466