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Archived Weekly Features
This View by Nancy LeMay
Nancy LeMay is a five-time Emmy winning broadcast designer who has worked both in New York and LA, in network and local. She is a teacher and a painter as well. You can reach her through her website, and by email at

Looking at New York

Ric Burns’ three-hour documentary, “New York-The Center of the World” aired on PBS stations last Monday night. It is the eighth and final episode of his epic documentary on the history of New York. The entire series is available on tape and DVD.

The program naturally divided itself into three segments of an hour or so each: the back story of who, what, when, where and why the buildings were built, their construction, and finally their destruction/deconstruction. Burns’ work adds some needed balance and insight into the popular record of the Trade Center, where issues of urban renewal, political influence, financial ambition and architectural style blended in an often contentious mixture.

This look at the life and death of the WTC examines why they were more than just really big skyscrapers in New York, and why they were also more than simply a center of commerce. They were a keystone, in both symbolic and practical ways, of the process of globalization, a process set in motion by the US at the end of World War Two. Scorned, as they were, for a lack of architectural grace (the WTC was, in many ways, really uninviting), Burns nevertheless conveys the fact that the place was strangely inspiring in spite of itself. He picks up a popular thread with his detailed account of Phillippe Petit’s high-wire crossing of the Towers in 1974, crediting Petit with helping to humanize the buildings. (I think this point is often overstated, but Petit’s perspective is undeniably unique and, like someone with intimate knowledge of a famous person, we are glad to know Petit and the WTC a bit better through the interview and footage.)

Much of the last hour was gut-wrenching to watch. We've not seen quite as many pictures of the towers falling since the one year anniversary in 2002, and perhaps this has made the pictures more difficult to view, and not less. To his credit, Burns wrestled with the issue of showing the people who jumped and, after editing the sequence several times, showed six people falling, as well as the reactions of eyewitnesses nearby. Burns made a bold choice in cutting this part of the film the way he did, since this is more than we have previously seen of those who jumped. Though this is horrifying almost beyond expressing, it is nonetheless part of the historical record, and so, to me, is sound journalism.

Interviews with writers, architects and architectural historians run throughout the three hours. We hear from Guy Tozzoli, who was in charge of getting the buildings built, and Leslie Robertson, the engineering architect of WTC One and Two. Tozzoli’s comments convey a sense of wistful wonder about the place, focusing on the fact that the buildings were an extraordinary achievement of which he is personally quite proud. Robertson, whose offices look down into the WTC site, was more aware of a sense of loss, especially the loss of life, which we can see he feels deeply.

New Yorkers are still struggling mightily to come to terms with the Trade Center attack. At a couple of points in the program, “New York-The Center of the World” describes New York and New Yorkers as “Insular...inward looking,” which is correct; no one knows this better than we do. But this is not the reason we could not foresee the heinous crimes of September 11th. We just could not imagine that anyone would think that attacking New York on a grand scale could possibly be a good idea. Even now, (and perhaps especially now), we are still right about this, even though that rightness is of so little help.