Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Power and The People

On Thanksgiving, I sat down to watch the film documentary, New York: A Documentary by Ric Burns. Originally broadcast on PBS it's a phenomenal series that I recommend to all. I watched Episode 4: The Power and The People, which explores 1898 to 1914. It stops just short of when the food riots took place but it puts into context the lives of the thousands of immigrants who streamed into the Lower East Side via Ellis Island. It also amazed me how much film footage there is of immigrants and NYC life that exists from the time period. Seeing moving images from the early 1900's is so thrilling - more-so than seeing video from the latter part of the century.

Here are several images and observations that stuck with me:

- The scores of families on board the ships with infant children (I can hardly imagine making the long trip in steerage alone, let alone trying to care for an infant as well)
- The sacks of belongings that the immigrants carried - all of their belongings tied up in a tablecloth and slung across their back
- The filth in the streets - refuse from pushcarts and people left behind - while children blithely played around it
- The condition of clothing, particularly of women and mothers. Several images showed women wearing dresses smeared with black. In times where families lived day to day, mothers forewent new dresses for years in order to provide food, clothing and shelter for their children. Access to water was also limited. Add to this long, difficult working days and it's no wonder that clean clothing was not a luxury. I had, of course, learned this from past research but it was jarring to see it on the screen before me.

This is a documentary to be watched again and again, in order to fully digest the images and facts. Tonight, I hope to watch the fifth episode, Cosmopolis (1914-1931), in the hopes that there be some mention of the food riots.