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'American Experience' Underscores New York's History of Hope

September 29, 2001|JOSH FRIEDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the height of New York's fiscal crisis in the 1970s, when the Daily News screamed "Ford to City: Drop Dead" and the outside world saw a metropolis slipping into violent chaos and despair, urbanist Marshall Berman found solace in the subway.

In trains bathed in bright graffiti, early rappers were creating a new form of expression with the help of tiny speakers and a drum track. To Berman, it was as if the city's people were saying, "We can rise again. We come from ruins, but we are not ruined."

Such has been the saga of New York, whose struggles to build and rebuild itself will be chronicled Sunday and Monday in the long-awaited conclusion of Ric Burns' seven-part "American Experience" special on the city. The first five episodes aired in late 1999.

Sunday's episode, "City of Tomorrow," spans the 1929 stock market crash, the Depression and the promise of a chrome-plated future built around the car. The finale, "The City and the World," tracks postwar New York through the end of the 20th century.

We see that legendary scrappiness in action as Mayor Fiorello La Guardia rids the city of corrupt Tammany Hall and as, decades later, neighbors thwart a plan by master builder Robert Moses to put an expressway through the heart of lower Manhattan, just as he had done to the Bronx.

Although Burns finished the documentary before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, his vivid portrait of a city that has faced adversity so many times, in so many forms, seems almost to anticipate the unimaginable. As one of the commentators he interviewed says, "The saga of New York is nowhere near to being over."

When Burns shows the World Trade Center towers shining in the twilight, we see an era that has vanished but a spirit that has not.

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KCET wraps up the New York "American Experience" special Sunday and Monday. "Episode Six: City of Tomorrow" airs from 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday; "Episode Seven: The City and the World" from 9 to 11:30 p.m. Monday (with commentary on the Sept. 11 attacks added to the credit sequence).

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