PBS shows us 30 viewpoints on what it means to be ‘American’

Editor of readthespirit.com

Had your fill of those British-made video tours of grand estates inspired by Downton Abbey? As spring unfolds and Americans think of our summer travel plans, why not feast your eyes on 30 intriguing corners of the United States that made our nation what it is today?

Check your local PBS listings, because on Tuesday (April 5, 2016) the public TV network nationwide will air the first of three parts in a series called 10 That Changed America. Don’t confuse this with the 2013 series 10 Buildings That Changed America, although WTTW-Chicago was behind both projects.

This is TV you definitely want to watch, record for viewing later—or, if you can’t find it on your local PBS schedule, seek it out online later. Planning to travel a bit this summer? You’ll find 30 destinations you might want to add to your list.

More importantly, this large-scale documentary series is part of the effort to tell “our” national story as Americans without neglecting the frequently ignored millions in communities ranging from Native Americans to the urban poor to waves of immigrants from many lands.

As a veteran journalist who is invited to speak to groups about the future of media, I often tell community leaders that America needs a new generation of men and women like Jacob Riis and Nellie Bly. Her life still is famous enough, including her daring work that exposed abuse of the mentally ill, that Nellie’s work was described in a recent episode of the Madam Secretary TV series. But Riis? He’s not as well known. Reporting in the 1880s from the worst tenements in New York City, Riis was among the first American photographers to use a European style of “flash photography” to document the life-threatening conditions in those teeming New York neighborhoods. He took his readers right into dingy apartments, packed with people and often no light or indoor plumbing. Both Bly and Riis sparked major changes in public health.

So, I was thrilled to discover the first of the three parts in this new series—the episode called 10 Homes that Changed America—introduces Riis and the importance of his work in forcing tenement owners to bring at least a few very basic amenities to these families.

When hearing about this new series, does the subject of tenements surprise you? You’ll discover that this series is not a typical made-for-TV tour of the playgrounds of the rich and famous.

The series opens with the significance of the 600-year-old Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. Two Native American spokesmen show us around the pueblo and talk about the powerful cultural legacy of living in a safe and healthy community that was designed while Europeans were still emerging from the dark ages.

Yes, this series also includes some opulence to make viewers smile and pencil favorite locations into summer-time travel plans. Across the three programs (April 5, 12 and 19), our 30 stops include Thomas Jefferson’s amazing “essay in architecture” Monticello, the Hudson River castle Lyndhurst, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, San Antonio’s colorful River Walk, and even Salt Lake City and its soaring temple as an example of how faith shapes urban design.

As we tour these locations, we get intriguing commentary both from residents and experts in the history of design and American culture.

Planning ahead for your travels this summer? For now, make 10 That Changed America your destination for TV viewing in April.


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