New York: Sunshine and Shadow The “Sunshine and Shadow” section of the New York Documentary series by Ric Burns was certainly named for a purpose. Right at the start of the documentary section, it is made clear why the contrasting themes of sunshine and shadow are appropriate for New York in 1865. In the “Gilded Age” of America, there were two components of life in New York City. There was the image that was made visible to the general public and outsiders, which was the extreme wealth and expansion going on in the city at the time.
This portion of the city is representative of the “sunshine”, symbolizing success, visibility, and fortune. Secondly, there was the latter part of life in New York City, the seemingly masked and forgotten aspect of New York City at the time, which was the poverty. This era in New York City marked a grossly contrasting socioeconomic age, with those living far beyond their needs, and the vast amount of poor living far below the poverty line. The rich businessmen in the city reaped millions from corruption, expansion, and laundering money, while the poor struggled to survive in packed tenements with large families.
The poor worked constantly and brutally hard in low-paying factories, only to barely keep up with rent and food for their families. Corrupt businessmen such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and William Tweed illegally procured millions, redefining wealth, as the other half of New York City lived in disease and despair. There were mansions being built on 5th street, while several blocks away the other half of the New York City population struggled. Finally, in 1896, Jacob Riise published “How the Other Half Lives”, exposing the hidden aspects of life for the poor and sick in New York City.
The publication contained real photos, taken of the tenements, bars, and homeless in the poor sections of New York. It brought to attention the unacceptability of the difference in lives of those in the “sunshine” and those in the “shade”. The content in this documentary was represented extremely well, and it certainly displayed the feelings and happenings of New York City in 1865. The film did a good job of starting off explaining the contrast in wealth in the city during the time period, explaining the massive expansion and development of infrastructure that was occurring in the city at the time.
It then moved on to the true happenings of the city at the time, which was the appalling poverty that plagued roughly half the city. The film was set up for a certain shock value, and it certainly demonstrated to the viewer the severity of the situation in the city. The documentary then went into further detail, thoroughly explaining the causes of the difference in wealth in the city. It did a very good job detailing the major events that explained the incredible wealth in the city at the time, such as the corruption and expansion.
The documentary explained how places such as the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park became stages for outsiders to see the scale on which wealth differed in the city. I believe that the best part of the documentary was the portion explaining and going into depth about the tenements and poverty in some parts of the city. It showed images that helped viewers translate the situation that they’re being told about into real images and events. I believe that Ric Burns did a great job representing the Gilded Age of New York City, and the “Sunshine and Shade” aspect of it.
My reaction to the events of the time period consists of anger and disappointment. I believe that America was supposed to stand for equal opportunity and a chance to succeed, but for immigrants new to the city, this was a falsity. Without pre-existing connections and job offers, the new world of New York City was nearly impossible for an immigrant to thrive in. As a result of the disproportion of wealth in the city, immigrants were simply thrown into a growing pile of poverty.
At the time period, the city needed presidential and governmental guidance and discipline, something that was clearly lacking. Thanks to overwhelming corruption and greed, the other half of the city was forgotten about and misused. The greed in the city at the time led to money being spent on the wrong things, leaving half of the population grossly uncared for. I certainly can say that I would not have wanted to live in this time period in New York City, despite it being the mecca of the United States at the time, and the center of expansion and growth.
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