WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: West Street/Hudson Riverfront Manhattan

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

Buildings seen from the High Line

Perhaps the most striking change that I have seen in two years of travels with the State Guides is the nearly total recreation of the waterfront on the west side of Manhattan below 34th Street. The neighborhood was once a warren of shipping docks, bars, tenements, warehouses, elevated train tracks, and wholesale meat markets. Grimy gray was its most predominant color, vehicle exhaust its prominent odor, industrial bustle its overwhelming noise.  Access to the Hudson River, both physically and visibly, was nearly totally blocked but this provoked no particular complaint from the New York City Guide since the sights were not pretty. 

In a masterful and lively piece of writing, the Guide described the West Street environs:

“It is the domain of the river-boat and the soot-faced tug. The broad highway, West Street, which skirts the river, is a surging mass of back-firing, horn-blowing, gear-grinding trucks. All other waterfront sounds are submerged in the cacophony of the daily avalanche of freight in transit. 

Ships and and shipping are not visible along much of West Street. South of Twenty-third Street, the river is walled off by an almost unbroken line of bulkhead sheds and docks. Opposite the piers … nearly every block houses cheap lunchrooms, tawdry saloons catering to the thousands of polyglot seamen who haunt the ‘front.'” 

“Activities begin at 4 A.M. [at] Gansevoort Market. Farmers in overalls and mud-caked shoes stand in trucks shouting their wares. Commission merchants, pushcart vendors, and restaurant buyers trudge warily from one stand to another, digging arms into baskets of fruits or vegetables to ascertain quality. Trucks move continually in and out among the piled crates of tomatoes, beans, cabbages, lettuce and other greens in the street. Hungry derelicts wander about in the hope of picking up a stray vegetable while patient nuns wait to receive leftover, unsalable goods for distribution to the destitute.”

(NYC Guide p. 69.)

Labor unrest was an integral part of the 1930s West Street scene. Strikes and violence were common and the guide described them with sympathy for the workers:

“Because of the heavy concentration of shipping at the Chelsea Piers, this area has been a strategic sector in the industrial conflicts between maritime labor and shipowners. During the 1936-1937 strike, when rank and file seamen tied up the ships in their struggle for a better agreement, Eleventh Avenue was the scene of frequent clashes between pickets and scabs, “goon squads” (thugs) and defense squads, strikers, and police. 

The port’s “dock-wallopers” (longshoremen), thousands of whom live in slum areas adjoining West Street, have been quiet in recent years, although they steadily oppose the hiring system, called the “shape-up,” whereby the boss stevedore selects his working force several times daily from crowds of longshoremen massed before the dock gates.”

(NYC Guide p. 71-72 .)

Fast forward to the present. West Street is now one of the most desirable places to live and to visit in all of Manhattan. The old shipping piers have been renovated, planted with greeenery and furnished with benches. All along West Street, the river is lined with parkland, bike paths. Across the street, upscale apartment buildings provide glorious views of the river. Standing at the corner of West and 11th Streets, for example, you can see the spire of the new World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty, a wide swatch of the river and the glittering new skyscrapers of Fort Lee, New Jersey.

In the 1990s, the neighborhood became a magnet for art galleries which relished the space that the old warehouses provided. As a thriving art district grew, the Whitney Museum moved to Gansevoort and West St. in 2015 to occupy a building designed by Renzo Piano. With immense glass walls overlooking the River, the new Whitney is a joy to visit. 

One interesting reminder of the area’s maritime past is the old Lifesaver Factory at the corner of 18th and West Streets. Now a residential loft building, the factory was built in 1913, just one year after the Titanic sank. The ship was due to dock at the pier across the street afrom the factory after its maiden voyage from England. After it sank in the North Atlantic in April, 1912, the new company designed its candies in the shape of a life saver and named them as such to commemorate the disaster.

In 2009, one block east of the river, from 16th to 30th Streets, the elevated train tracks were replaced by the High Line, a park that provides garden paths, benches, food stalls, and outdoor performance spaces and views of the river and of innovative new architecture. Below the High Line, the old meat-packing warehouses were likewise totally transformed. A (very) few of the old food businesses remain; now, most of them are houses are occupied instead by designer shops, French cafés and hip new restaurants. 

In the 1930s, The New York Guide did not recommend that tourists visit this neighborhood. But now, with the area completely transformed, a visit should not be missed.                   

World Trade Center seem from West ST&11th St

February, 2021