Discovering New Deal New York

Construction Laborers, Riverside Park, May 16, 1934

Construction Laborers, Riverside Park, May 16, 1934
Laborers laying foundation stones in the shallow river bed for the Riverside Park expansion.
Photo Credit: New York City Parks Photo Archive

Born in 1944 at the height of World War II, I missed the WPA by just one year. Growing up in rural Virginia I never heard of it; nor in the years I lived Germany—first as an Army brat, and then in the Army itself. Then, in 1966, I arrived in New York City, where I lived alongside Riverside Park.

The 6.7-mile-long park along the Hudson River was my backyard for 46 years. I played there. My kids played there. As a runner, I covered every inch of it, from 72nd Street to the very top of Manhattan. I would run all the way uptown before there was even a running path, when the high grass was littered with broken glass and the hulks of abandoned cars.

All that time I had no idea that the park had been created in the 1930s by the New Deal. How would I know? There were no signs, no cornerstones, no plaques. Nobody knew. It wasn’t until I moved to the Bronx at the edge of a magical neighborhood park where people of all ages play, exercise, relax, and socialize, that I became curious. Where did this park come from?

Bronze Statue of Eleanor Roosevelt

Bronze Statue of Eleanor Roosevelt
In the tradition of public art, Penelope Jenck’s statue of Eleanor Roosevelt was installed at the Upper West Side entrance to Riverside Park in 2012.

It took some digging, but I found out it had been constructed by the WPA, completed in 1937. I soon discovered that I was surrounded by New Deal creations: parks, playgrounds, schools, college campuses, beaches, highways, bridges, post offices, swimming pools, stadiums, athletic fields, court houses, bicycle paths, and subways. And that’s just in the Bronx! And here, too, nobody knows.

Given the current economy and the upcoming 2016 elections, more people need to know about what was created during the Great Depression—and can be again. So I go around photographing New Deal sites, unearthing their stories, and sending them on to the Living New Deal.

When I went back to Manhattan recently to photograph Riverside Park, I saw it in a whole new way: This great green space, access to the river, boat basin, ball fields, playgrounds, running paths, benches, fountains, lights, bathrooms— all created by thousands of unemployed laborers, designers, architects, and engineers hired by the federal government to convert what had been a muddy, smelly, railroad bed into all of this splendor for generations to come.

Frank da Cruz is the Living New Deal's Research Associate for the Bronx. He is currently helping the Living New Deal identify sites for a New York City map of the New Deal. He has lived in New York City since the 1960s. His personal website is www.columbia.edu/~fdc/

3 comments on “Discovering New Deal New York

  1. Jim Holycross

    Just curious what part if any did Robert Moses play in these New Deal sites since he was generally at odds with the Rooseveldt administration?

    • Gabriel Milner

      Although Moses used FERA, PWA, and WPA funds and labor, he was not a fan of FDR—our founder, Gray Brechin, notes that New York is “the only major city where I have never seen a WPA marker.” Stay tuned for our forthcoming map of New Deal New York to reclaim this legacy!

  2. I’ve compiled a list of NYC Parks Department projects accomplished with New Deal funding and labor, 1934-1943. The Parks Department was headed by Robert Moses and he did his best to downplay New Deal involvement. Yet this list was compiled from press releases of his own department, some of them written by Moses himself. So while it was hard to hide New Deal involvement at the time, he made sure there were no cornerstones, plaques, markers, or signs left for posterity. Here is the list:

    http://kermitproject.org/newdeal/parksprojects.html

    I have more on the New Deal in NYC here:

    http://kermitproject.org/newdeal/

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New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.

New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.