New York: An Illustrated History

Ric Burns and James Sanders, with Lisa Ades

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 History.

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 sierra; 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 itself.

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