Among the streets of New York City lies a rich history full of both greedy politicians and a hardworking poor class, two opposites that blended together to create a rocky foundation for one of America’s greatest cities. Episode 3 of PBS’s New York: A Documentary, entitled “Sunshine and Shadow,” explores both sides of this wealth spectrum found within a massive population which surged shortly after the Civil War in the late nineteenth century with the emergence of big industries such as steel, oil, and railroads. This episode offers the viewer a step-by-step progression of the major changes that occurred in New York City at this time.
The episode begins with a focus on Central Park, a “majestic breathing space” (Episode 3, 5:11) away from the “tumult and noise” of the city. According to the authors, Central Park was finished after the Civil War and included the statue of an angel on a fountain with a “home-spun quality” (Episode 3, 3:48) which helped to represent the average American. Though the park was beautiful, the war also produced a huge disparity between the wealthy and the poor. On one hand lay the greed and corruption of powerful money-hungry bosses like William Tweed and big industry leaders like J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller, making New York become the “greatest concentration of wealth in human history” (Episode 3, 8:15).
During this time, the Brooklyn Bridge was completed by both John Augustus Roebling and his son, Washington Roebling (Episode 3, 57:46), Thomas Edison completed the first permanent electrical power plant in the world (Episode 3, 54:40) and the Statue of Liberty was erected (Episode 3, 1:14:53). Unfortunately, on the other hand lay thousands of poor homeless citizens and immigrants who were stuffed into crowded tenements and forced to work long hours under poor conditions just to survive. The Wall Street crash of 1873 led to the Great Depression, making life even more difficult for these poor sufferers, conditions that were finally brought to attention through Jacob Riis’s book How the Other Half Lives which contained dozens of photos of the environment that the poor had to live in (Episode 3, 1:22:01).