It is probably no surprise to friends that I’m a big fan of PBS, American Experience, or any sort of “Burns-related” documentaries wherein voiceovers and mood music illuminate our forbears’ sepia photographs, black and white films, and whatnot.
A longtime favorite is the 1999 (suppl. 2002) documentary series “New York”, an eight-disc commitment, but you begin with Henry Hudson sailing into the Narrows and, in the final, sorrowful post-script, trace the conception, birth, life, and death of the World Trade Center. I find it fascinating. I watched, riveted, from the first (then seven-part, as it concluded in 1999) airing of this on PBS, learning just how outlandish, crude, cruel, gorgeous, and inspiring the City has been and could be. Ever since, I find myself queuing it up on Netflix every couple of years, since I can’t afford to just buy the thing. (PBS docs = tres expensive).
This time, what struck in a new way was the segment about the City and the Depression, from the spinning boom of the ’20s that preceded it, to the crash, to contemporary accounts of unemployed, hungry, homeless, and wandering former professionals. If you bracket certain aspects distinguishing our present recession from the crash era, what good that did come after, (more precisely, the New Deal) has a new resonance. Now we have a social safety net providing people like me with unemployment benefits, rather than forcing me into god knows what to earn money; social security, medicare, food stamps, and online access to state benefits allowing you to forego the likely indignity of waiting on line to submit a form or claim your check. Seeing how low, how forlorn, and weary, and even nearly hopeless some parts of the City (and, obviously the rest of the U.S.) were, it occurred to me that these images did not mean the same to me before the last year here. I know what happened after the Depression: that the Second World War, among other things, spurred astronomic economic growth and led to a period of prosperity the likes of which we have not seen since, broadly. So I look at those soup lines, those bread lines, and know what the (mostly men) in shabby coats and worn brims could not: that one way or another, for some of them, life would get better.
I am always frightened and disturbed by the truism that at least in part, wars can spur economies; such a path out of our own recession would be reprehensible to me. Yet I don’t know what will make things work better, how so many of us will return to work lives and pick up careers (or career changes), rebuild personal resources, and perhaps even know a small measure of frivolity at some point. If these things are cyclical, then, I think about the people who lived in shacks on Sheep Meadow, and think that if they made it, we will too.