The New Deal Lives On in the City
By Richard Walker
The New Deal of the 1930s utterly transformed New York City, but most people hardly notice today. The landscape of public works created under the aegis of the Roosevelt Administration has become part of the backdrop of everyday life. But try to imagine the city without the Triborough Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, and Henry Hudson Parkway and you get an idea of how much the city still owes to the New Deal. And there is so much more than those structures.
Thousands of New Yorkers enjoy the delights of Red Hook Park, Randall’s Island Park, and Williamsbridge Oval Park
every weekend; or, on warm days, go swimming at Orchard Beach, Astoria Park Pool, or Jacob Riis Park. Thousands
more conduct their business at the Bronx County Courthouse, the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse (the
Tombs), and Federal Office Building every day; or post letters at the Canal Street, Forest Hills Station, and James
Farley post offices. Millions of people fly through LaGuardia Airport, go to the Liberty Island visitor center, or drive
under the East River by the Queens-Midtown tunnel every year.
If you grew up in Brooklyn, you’ve probably visited the zoo at Prospect Park, swum in the pool in McCarren Park, and spent time in one of the dozens of New Deal playgrounds, like Sheridan and Decatur. You might well have attended P.S. 253, Franklin Lane High, or Brooklyn College. Then, too, you surely have ridden the subway along Fulton Street, passed through the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel, or driven along the Belt-Shore Parkway. All were New Deal projects.
The New Deal built new things, but it also did an enormous amount of renovation, expansion, and improvement of existing sites. The Statue of Liberty got a thorough cleaning and repair job, as did Grant’s Tomb and Grand Army Plaza. Riverside Park was completely reconstructed over the old railway that previously cut it in two. The Queensborough Bridge was renovated and repaved. Central Park got more than two dozen additions, including the zoo, the Great Lawn, the Conservatory Garden, and the Model Boathouse.
The New Deal undertook every kind of public work imaginable—with emphasis on “the public”: libraries, city halls, schools, parks, streets, museums, and much more. It also remade much of the invisible city of water and sewer lines, power and treatment plants. Perhaps the most astonishing facet of the Roosevelt approach to good works was the effort to employ artists to decorate public buildings.
New York City is blessed with scores of murals, sculptures, and mosaics in places like the New York Public Library, Harlem Hospital Center, and Madison Square Station Post Office. In Brooklyn there are murals at the U.S. District Courthouse, Abraham Lincoln High School, and Brooklyn College Library, among others. Some of this New Deal artwork is exceptional, like the Ben Shahn murals in the Old Bronx Central Post Office and the one-thousand-square-foot History of the World mural in the Bronx’s DeWitt Clinton High School.
The New Deal was a gargantuan federal effort to revive the American economy and put millions of jobless people back to work. President Franklin Roosevelt and his team came into office in 1933, determined to act in the face of the disaster known as the Great Depression, when national output had fallen by a third, and a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. Their rapid response is what gave us the idea of the First One Hundred Days being the measure of a new administration. Not surprisingly, their competence and sense of responsibility had been honed in New York, where Roosevelt had been governor for four year,s and people like Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, and Robert Wagner cut their teeth on the problems of the world’s most dynamic city.
The New Deal spawned dozens of new programs and agencies. Some are still around today: Social Security, Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Some of the best known at the time were the public works agencies, like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which directly employed millions on local improvements, from street repaving to civic buildings, and the Public Works Administration (PWA), which paid for large projects like highways and subways undertaken by private contractors. There were dozens of other public works programs, most of them long forgotten. Almost all were meant to be temporary and were terminated with the mobilization for World War II.
A guiding principle of the New Deal was that federal agencies were to work hand in hand with local and state governments, with the latter taking the lead in identifying projects they wanted. In New York’s case, the role of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his administration was critical, because La Guardia was a Progressive Republican (not an oxymoron in those days) very much in sync with the outlook of President Roosevelt and his team. Robert Moses played a central role in remaking New York as director of the Parks Department and the Triborough Bridge Authority, which made abundant use of PWA funds and WPA workers to build everything from bridges and beaches to playgrounds and pools. The imperious Moses ended up hogging the credit for hundreds of public works that were, in fact, the joint products of visionary politicians and scores of brilliant and civic-minded architects, planners, artists, and officials.
Scanning the horizon of New York and beyond, New Deal sites number in the hundreds of thousands, most of them still in use today and almost none of them marked. There is the equivalent of a Lost Civilization out there waiting to be discovered. No one had ever documented everything the New Deal built or improved, until the Living New Deal was founded a decade ago to uncover the hundreds of thousands of public works across the country and map them, so that all Americans could see for themselves what was accomplished by their grandparents.
Now, the Living New Deal has created a map and guide to the New Deal in New York City. It shows in graphic detail the enormous impact that the New Deal had on America’s greatest metropolis, which was the foremost recipient of federal aid during the decade 1933–42. The large format (18-by-27-inch) map locates nearly one thousand projects around the five boroughs and features fifty exceptional sites, including twenty sites where you can see dozens of magnificent murals and artworks by New Deal artists. There are also inset maps to guide walking tours of Central Park, Midtown, and Downtown, as well as introductions to the FDR years and the Living New Deal. The map folds up to be carried in pocket or purse.
The map and guide to New Deal New York is a way of awakening people to an oft-forgotten but vital period of American history, when government expanded to fill the vacuum left by a moribund private economy and gave aid to working people, small towns, and big cities all across the nation. Compare this shining legacy with what we face under the Trump Administration, which proposes eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, cutting back on health insurance, and slashing pollution regulation.
From 100 days of hope to 100 days of callousness. We have gone from an epoch worthy of the name “Lost Civilization” to a nation whose leadership is barely civil.
Richard Walker is Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written on a diverse range of topics in economic, urban, and environmental geography and has won a number of awards, including Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships, the Carey McWilliams Award from the California Studies Association, and the Hal Rothman prize from the Western History Association.
This article first appeared in the May 2017 edition of The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics, and Culture, and is reprinted with permission.
The Map and Guide to New Deal New York was unveiled this month. Copies of the map can be purchased here.