New York: A Documentary Film

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The Emmy Award–winning eight-part public television series on the history of New York City, conceived and written by James Sanders and Ric Burns.

Produced by Steeplechase Films and directed by Ric Burns, New York: A Documentary Film is an eight-part, 17½-hour public television series, written by James Sanders and Ric Burns, chronicling the story of New York across over four centuries and four hundred square miles. The 1999 broadcast of the first five episodes was viewed by 19.4 million households across America, making it the third-most popular PBS documentary series of its kind in history. The series received the Alfred I. duPont award, an Emmy Award, and two Emmy nominations. Two new episodes, “The Future of Cities, Parts 1 & 2,” are currently in production for national broadcast in late 2024.

A companion volume by Sanders and Burns, New York: An Illustrated History, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1999 and in a revised and expanded editions in English and German in 2003, has sold 125,000 copies and remains a bestseller to this day.

A masterpiece...necessarily sprawling yet extraordinarily disciplined.
Daily News
Nothing short of gripping...a monumental documentary series that raises the bar for this kind of work and in the process elevates our knowledge and understanding of a metropolis that is still evolving.
#Interpreting the City
2560px Lunch atop a Skyscraper

Unlike any television series before it about an American city, New York was produced for a national audience, and thus sought to present the crucial role of the city in shaping the entire country and, however imperfectly, reflecting its ideals. The first five episodes, broadcast in 1999, offered an urban “biography” whose narrative kept audiences engaged across a three- century sweep of the city’s history, from the founding of New Amsterdam in 1624 to the completion of the Empire State Building in 1931. The Financial Times dubbed it “a sleek urban rhapsody,” while NBC”s Brian Williams declared, “the New York series raises the bar and sets the standard.”


The series’ sixth and seventh episodes carried the story of New York from the early 1930s to the 2000s, including the city’s decades-long struggle with the impact of the automobile—embodied by the epic career of the master-builder Robert Moses (above)—and the stunning social and economic decline and renaissance of New York in the second half of the 20th century. The two episodes aired on PBS just three weeks after the September 11th attacks—and each were watched by nearly six million households. “Two illuminating episodes,” the Wall Street Journal declared, “that…can stand on their own as documentary filmmaking at its best.”

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Airing in September 2003, the series’ eighth episode, “The Center of the World,” a portrait of the rise and fall of the World Trade Center, offered a powerful portrait of the events of 9/11 as well as the full history of the famed structures—from their planning and construction in the early 1960s to the start of their redevelopment four decades later. “Aiming as high as the iconic towers it celebrates, criticizes and mourns,” Matt Roush wrote in TV Guide, ‘The Center of the World’ is a majestically composed eulogy, a rhapsody in steel. The sweep may be epic, but the storytelling is personal and intimate, making for an often exhilarating —though ultimately terribly sad—viewing experience.”

Watch New York: A Documentary Film on Amazon, here.

Praise for New York: A Documentary Film

“New York” was the first series of its kind to attempt to analyze New York in a comprehensive and scholarly way, and remains to this day the single most useful film resource for teaching urban history. There is literally nothing else like it… As few other film projects, it makes history itself come alive.

Kenneth T. Jackson
Professor of History, Columbia University
Editor, Encyclopedia of New York City

From the outset, I was eager to participate in the project, as I understood that its largeness of vision, high level of scholarly seriousness and rigor —and, not least, generous length —would allow for a full and rich presentation of historical issues that have engaged me for many decades. I was deeply gratified when those efforts resulted in a series that not only explored these issues in a detailed and thoughtful way, but dramatically extended and widened the public’s awareness of the complex forces and tensions propelling the rise of New York as one of the first modern cities in the world.

Robert A. Caro
Author, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

In the years since its broadcast, the New York series has become an invaluable resource for scholars, academics, and, of course, the general public. It has been particularly heartening to hear from a wide variety of ordinary citizens just how important the series has been to them in providing a sense of historical groundedness, one that allows them to insert themselves in the long slipstream of the city’s story line. Indeed, few could have imagined that a series intended for a large general television audience could have presented complex historical issues in as sophisticated and memorable a manner as
New York: A Documentary Film so consistently succeeded in doing.

Mike Wallace
Professor of History, Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Co-author: Gotham: A History of New York City Through 1898

Emmy Award Nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Programming, 2003

CINE “Golden Eagle” Award, 2002

Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Silver Baton Award , 2001

Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Emmy Award Nomination for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series, 2000


The Transformation of New York,” Jamie Katz, Columbia College Today, Spring 2020

New York: A Documentary Film,” David Mermelstein, Variety, 11/11/1999

James Sanders: A Story from New York,” East Hampton Star, 11/11/1999: III-1

Unique New York,” Nancy Franklin, The New Yorker, 11/8/1999: 113

For A City Driven by a Dream,” Caryn James, New York Times, 10/12/1999: C1

  • Directed by:
    Ric Burns
  • Written by:
    James Sanders & Ric Burns
  • Narrated by:
    David Ogden Stiers
  • Produced by:
    Steeplechase Films
  • Presented by:
    The American Experience
    WGBH Boston
  • Photo Credits:
    Courtesy Associated Press
    Courtesy Bettman/Getty Images
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