NYC Chapter Team — Marta Gutman

Marta Gutman

Prof. Marta Gutman first encountered the New Deal during the late 1950s, when she was four years old. Her father took her to a public swimming pool located in Astoria Park in Queens—one of the five boroughs of New York City—close to the family’s apartment, and gave his daughter her first swimming lessons there.

Astoria Pool is one of 11 new pools whose construction by WPA relief workers was completed in the summer of 1936. Gutman sees the pools as wonders of design, scale, and beauty. At the same time, she says, they epitomize the New Deal’s democratic spirit. Gutman documented their history and impact in an article published in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians titled “Race, Place, and Play: Robert Moses and the WPA Swimming Pools in New York City,” in December 2008.

Gutman grew up in the bosom of a left-wing, secular Jewish family. Her grandparents, immigrants from Eastern Europe, and her parents were all fans of the New Deal—especially its credo that government can work for the benefit of people.

In addition to Astoria Pool, two other nearby New Deal sites made a strong impression on her during her childhood and adolescence: the majestic Triborough Bridge and Randall’s Island. That’s where future champion Jesse Owens ran the trial races that qualified him to enter the Olympics.

Today, Gutman is the recently appointed Interim Dean of the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, where she has taught architectural and urban history since 2004. She is also a member of the doctoral faculty in art history and earth and environmental sciences at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Architect, Historian, and Change-Maker

Recounting her own history, Gutman reflects on the long road that led from her early engagement with the antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s through college and graduate school to the fascinating twists and turns in her professional and personal life. To say she has had a rich and interesting life would be an understatement.

After graduating from Brown with a degree in art, she earned her master’s in architecture at Columbia. There, she grew captivated by the history of public housing in New York City. She soon joined forces with others determined to bring back the New Deal approach, one that stressed low-rise, high-density housing in human-centered buildings suited to the needs of New Yorkers. The high-rise model won the day, but Gutman remains committed to the vision of low-rise housing as a generator of community.

Over time, she morphed from working architect to architectural historian, a process that gathered steam with the decision to pursue her Ph.D. at Berkeley, where, coincidentally, she met Richard A Walker and Gray Brechin, the two co-founders of the Living New Deal.

Integrating architecture and history soon became her passion and her new frontier. She was asked to join a group of interdisciplinary researchers who were studying the history of West Oakland. At the time, that neighborhood, the historic center of Black life in the city, was divided in half by the Cypress Freeway. In 1989, the freeway collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake, killing 26 people. As part of the process of moving and rebuilding the freeway, a team of archeologists conducted a dig that turned up artifacts dating from the 1870s through the 1920s, including food, clothing, toys, and crockery—in other words, whatever got thrown away.

“We came to understand social institutions at a neighborhood level,” Gutman says, “and how communities sustained themselves.” She learned that everyday buildings, mostly old, forgotten workers’ houses, had been turned into kindergartens, playgrounds, daycare centers, and orphanages. This physical infrastructure revealed a parallel social infrastructure centered on women and children, she explained. Almost every structure in this charitable landscape (Gutman’s term) was subsequently demolished, erased by state urban renewal programs.

Over the years, she has authored many books and articles on these and related topics, including A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850-1950; “Intermediate School 201: Race, Space, and Modern Architecture in Harlem,” chapter 8 in Educating Harlem: A Century of Schooling and Resistance in a Black Community, edited by Ansley Erickson and Ernest Morrell; and “The Physical Spaces of Childhood,” chapter 13 in The Routledge History of Childhood in the West, edited by Paula S. Fass.

All of which leads to the present. “We’re facing a political crisis and an environmental crisis,” she says. “As we come to grips with both, we can learn from the New Deal, a period when people envisioned a different future. The New Deal ethic required cooperation and improvements that made policy visible and usable in everyday life. Beyond issuing a check to pay bills, as nice as that is, New Deal policies enabled people to see a play, swim in beautiful outdoor pools, and send children to good public schools. To live better lives,” as she noted in “A Better New York City, 1937,” published in the October 17, 2019 issue of Platform.

“There was a grandeur to the New Deal, and also modesty,” she continues. “And everything was connected to jobs. Admittedly, there were fault lines, especially with respect to race and gender—which is why, given the chance, we need to do it better this time.”

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