September 2020

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

A New Deal for America’s Workers

Sit-down strike. Nearly 500,000 workers engaged in about 400 sit-downs across the nation between September 1936 and June 1937.

Labor Day became an official US holiday in 1894, but took on particular meaning during its 50th anniversary. In 1934, a quarter of American workers were unemployed. The country was rife with unrest, with thousands demanding jobs and better wages and working conditions. FDR’s first priority was to restore confidence and get people working again. The New Deal not only provided jobs, it led to federal legislation that fundamentally changed the relationship between workers and management, and by extension, American society. The National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935, guaranteed employees’ right to collective bargaining. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set a minimum wage (25 cents); provided for a 40-hour work week and overtime pay; and outlawed child labor—a cause championed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. On Labor Day, as we celebrate workers’ contributions to the strength and well-being of our nation, let’s also reflect on the New Deal’s contributions to America’s workers.

In this Issue:

Evictions Revisited

“California Industrial Scenes,” Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA

“California Industrial Scenes,” Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA
Social and political messages emerge from Langley’s mix of visual images: demonstrating workers, homeless, a strip mining operation, and Shasta Dam.  Source
Photo Credit: Courtesy Coit Tower

Detail, “California Industrial Scenes,” Fresco mural by John Langley Howard, 1934

Detail, “California Industrial Scenes”
Fresco mural by John Langley Howard, 1934
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

The blank and pitiless eyes of unemployed workers in John Langley Howard’s mural, “California Industry Scenes,” have stared out at visitors to San Francisco’s Coit Tower ever since the New Deal artist painted them in 1934. They are a burning reminder of the hunger, illness and eviction countless Americans faced during the Great Depression.

President Franklin Roosevelt addressed their suffering when he accepted his renomination in 1936, declaring, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

The icy indifference to which Roosevelt referred was that of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, while the eyes are those of the potential revolution that Hoover’s inaction aroused and the New Deal largely averted. Current events reprise that history.

Pandemic-driven shutdowns in 2020 have spiked unemployment to levels not seen since the 1930s, but the immediate effect on the U.S. economy was hidden by an early bipartisan infusion of $3 trillion. So great were the needs of suddenly jobless workers, however, that even that immense sum was quickly exhausted. With Congress in deadlock and the Senate on vacation, that buffer against destitution has disappeared. Princeton’s Eviction Lab estimates that 40 million people face expulsion from their homes.

The U.S. actually faced an eviction epidemic even before the pandemic, a crisis that dwarfed that of the Depression. With flagging help from the federal government as Pandemic Summer wore on, tactics adopted in the 30s have returned. Rent strikes and neighborly defense of those evicted from their homes are taking place across the country.

Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, 1939, New Madrid County, MO

Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, 1939
New Madrid County, MO
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein

Courtesy LOC, Homeless encampment, 2020

Courtesy LOC
Homeless encampment, 2020
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

An interactive map shows over 700 rent and unemployment actions that took place from 1930-1932. In January, 1932, the largely Communist Upper Bronx Unemployed Council initiated a rent strike that spread to other boroughs, provoking rent riots against the police that at times involved thousands of participants. It served as a model for other cities.

Rural areas were not immune to uprisings against property law. In Iowa, desperate farmers blocked highways, resisted marshals evicting families and, in one notorious event garnering national attention, not only hauled District Court Judge Charles C. Bradley from his Le Mars courtroom to prevent him from signing foreclosure papers on local farmers, but then beat, stripped and nearly lynched him.

Roosevelt confronted this state of near-insurrection upon taking office in 1933. Infusions of federal money into home and farm relief bureaus as well as New Deal work relief programs — including public housing projects — released much of the pressure one can still feel in the angry eyes staring out from the walls of Coit Tower. Those men stand for the desperation of our own time as much as their own.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

New Deal Park Structures Face Demolition in NYC

East River Park, 1938. Tennis Center Comfort Station in foreground; Track House in far background. Photo: NYC Parks Photo Archive

East River Park, a ribbon of greenspace that runs along Manhattan’s Lower East Side waterfront, was part of a visionary plan of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who together oversaw a massive wave of New Deal construction in New York. The 1.5-mile-long park was integral to plans for East River Drive (now the FDR Drive), one of Manhattan’s primary north-south arteries, which received federal funding in 1935.

Moses insisted that construction include a waterfront park, even though extensive landfill would be required on the highway’s eastern border. Such a recreational amenity would be a healthful benefit for the crowded Lower East Side immigrant community. This transformative plan also included public housing on the highway’s western border. The first such apartment complex, the Vladeck Houses, opened in 1940, a year after East River Park.

Track House. East River Park, Manhattan. Photo: LESPI

The importance of East River Park—as the Lower East Side’s largest open space—is demonstrated by the team assembled for its construction. Gilmore D. Clarke, the leading landscape architect for New York City’s New Deal projects, designed the grounds, while Aymar Embury II, lead architect, was responsible for the buildings. These include the very distinctive Track House and Tennis Center Comfort Station, now threatened with demolition. Embury is the architect responsible for many New Deal landmarks, including the Triborough Bridge, the Orchard Beach Bathhouse in the Bronx, and Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn. Yet, even for modest, utilitarian structures such as these in East River Park, Embury gave uncommon attention to materials, massing, and design motifs specific to the site.

The Track House and Tennis Center Comfort Station are the only two surviving buildings of five such structures once populating East River Park. They will be razed, along with the entire park, as part of the East Coastal Resiliency Plan, meant to fortify this vulnerable area against flooding.  The ground level will be raised up 8 – 10 feet and a new park will be built on top.

Tennis Center Comfort Station. East River Park, Manhattan. Photo: LESPI

A grassroots organization, Lower East Side Preservation Initiative (LESPI), is rallying to save the Park’s Track House and Tennis Comfort Station. Supported by eight local preservation groups, LESPI applied to the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to qualify the two structures for the National and State Registers of Historic Places. SHPO granted the buildings a Determination of Eligibility, citing them as “outstanding examples of Art Deco and WPA Moderne design,” and noting the “high degree of integrity” they retained, both inside and out.  SHPO described the unusual architectural features of the buildings, which include design references to the waterfront and maritime heritage of the Lower East Side. While such eligibility does not ensure that these buildings will be saved, it requires that serious consideration be given to possibilities for mitigation, such as raising them for adaptive re-use.

Demolition is scheduled to begin this fall. Send any letters of support for preserving these distinctive New Deal buildings to [email protected].

Deborah Wye was a long-time curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Upon retirement, she turned her attention to New York City history and architecture. She is a Board member of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.