Reviving the New Deal’s Lost History in New York City

"Indian Bowman,” by Wheeler Williams. Canal Street Post Office, Manhattan

“Indian Bowman,” Sculpture by Wheeler Williams
Canal Street Post Office, Manhattan
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

 

The eerie absence of historic signage marking the New Deal’s achievements in New York City is striking, especially given the city’s favored status as a recipient of New Deal funding. Between 1936 and 1937, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) funneled one-seventh of its total monies to New York City, earning it the nickname of the “47th state” among Washington insiders.

Today, commuters can thank New Deal programs for making their daily round trip possible via the Lincoln Tunnel, the Triborough Bridge, and the Henry Hudson Parkway. Traffic still pours into Manhattan from the outer boroughs through the Queens-Midtown and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnels. LaGuardia is still a hub for air travel.

Tavern on the Green, Central Park

Tavern on the Green
Central Park, Manhattan
Photo Credit: Deborah Gardner

And these well-known structures are the least of it, says Living New Deal Research Associate Frank Da Cruz, who has been documenting New Deal sites in the city. Da Cruz provided much of the data for the Living New Deal’s map “Guide to New Deal Public Works and Art of New York City,” published in 2016. He has identified about 600 sites around the city so far, many of them in the city’s parks.

Red Hook Recreation Center, Brooklyn

Red Hook Recreation Center
Brooklyn
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress

The WPA, PWA, and other New Deal public works programs created jobs for tens of thousands of workers who shaped the city as we know it today. The New Deal tackled New York’s massive infrastructure needs by constructing power plants, sewers, power lines, water mains, and much of the city’s subway system, along with schools, post offices, hospitals, playgrounds, pools, and recreation centers across the five boroughs.

The reasons for the New Deal’s disappearance from the city’s collective memory aren’t entirely clear. Many believe that its virtual deletion is rooted in the antagonism between FDR and Robert Moses—the controversial powerbroker who, as “czar” of urban development, transformed the city during the mid-20th century. In the post-war years, Americans turned toward private sector solutions in matters of infrastructure, urban renewal, and job creation, relegating “big government” to the past.

Triborough Bridge. The massive project connected Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx

Triborough Bridge, 1936
The massive project connected Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx

Now, a committed group of New Yorkers has set out to recover New York’s New Deal history. “Our aim is to mark hundreds of New Deal sites around the city with commemorative plaques, cornerstones, and other interpretative signage,” says Grace (“Jinx”) Roosevelt, co-chair of the Living New Deal’s New York working group. “We want to ensure that future generations have a visible record of a time and place when government invested in the people of this country.”

For more information and to get involved, write to: [email protected].

Margaret W. Crane is a freelance health and medical writer in New York City. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Scientist, and on numerous health and education websites. She recently joined the Living New Deal’s team as a Program Associate.

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