Walt Whitman’s poetry frames scenes from 1920s New York in this film classic.
Billed as ‘a study of the modern Babylon-on-the-Hudson’, the short film Manhatta (1921) captures the rapidly developing cityscape of New York in the early 1920s. Made in collaboration between the US photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976) and the US painter Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), the piece is widely regarded as the first American avant-garde film, as well as the first of the non-narrative urban documentaries known as ‘city symphones’.
I WAS asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon, lo! upsprang the aboriginal name!
Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient;—Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass, 1900
I see that the word of my city is that word up there,
Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb, with tall and wonderful spires, 5
Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships—an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets—high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies;
Tide swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,
The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands, the heights, the villas,
The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model’d; 10
The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business—the houses of business of the ship-merchants, and money-brokers—the river-streets;
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week;
The carts hauling goods—the manly race of drivers of horses—the brown-faced sailors;
The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft;
The winter snows, the sleigh-bells—the broken ice in the river, passing along, up or down, with the flood tide or ebb-tide; 15
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes;
Trottoirs throng’d—vehicles—Broadway—the women—the shops and shows,
The parades, processions, bugles playing, flags flying, drums beating;
A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men;
The free city! no slaves! no owners of slaves! 20
The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and masts!
The city nested in bays! my city!
The city of such women, I am mad to be with them! I will return after death to be with them!
The city of such young men, I swear I cannot live happy, without I often go talk, walk, eat, drink, sleep, with them!