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].

Paint and Politics—the Life and Work of Victor Arnautoff
By Robert Cherny

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, 1934

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, 1934
The artist included this self portrait in his “City Life” mural.
Photo Credit: Robert Cherny

Victor Arnautoff was a prolific artist of public murals during the New Deal, many of which are still in place.

Born in Russia in 1896, Arnautoff was a cavalry officer in WWI and later in the White Siberian army during the Russian Civil War. Escaping into northeastern China, he married and his father-in-law paid for him to attend the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. His first public mural, in 1929, can be seen in the city’s Old Cathedral of the Holy Virgin.

Arnautoff and his family moved to Mexico where he worked as an assistant to the famed muralist Diego Rivera. Returning to San Francisco in 1931, Arnautoff gained attention by painting a large fresco mural on his studio wall. He then did several fresco panels at the Palo Alto Clinic that remain on view.

Painting the mural “City Life.”

Painting the mural “City Life.”
San Francisco’s Coit Tower, 1934
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

With the New Deal in 1933, federal funds became available for public art. In San Francisco, the Public Works of Art Project hired 25 artists to create murals at Coit Tower. Arnautoff, highly experienced in fresco technique, was designated technical coordinator of the project. His mural, City Life, completed in 1934, presents a vivid kaleidoscope of downtown San Francisco at a time of economic and social upheaval.

Arnautoff’s next New Deal commission, a large mural in the Protestant chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco, funded by the State Emergency Relief Administration, depicts historical vignettes and contemporary activities at the military base, including the Army’s supervision of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936

Arnautoff at work
George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Arnautoff’s political views moved to the left in the mid-1930s, and he sometimes incorporated social criticism into his art. His largest single New Deal commission was thirteen fresco panels on the life of George Washington, painted in 1936 at the newly built George Washington High School in San Francisco. Funded by the WPA’s Federal Art Project, the murals present a counter narrative to the high school history texts of the time: the panel on Mount Vernon emphasizes Washington’s dependence on slave labor, and that on the westward “march of the white race” (Arnautoff’s description) shows it taking place over the body of dead Indian.

He exhibited at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, the 1935 California Pacific Exposition, and the 1940 New York World’s Fair.

 
Mural, “Life of Washington,” George Washington High School, San Francisco The fresco, consists of 12 panels and measures 1600-square-feet

Mural, “Life of Washington,” George Washington High School, San Francisco
The fresco, consists of 12 panels and measures 1600-square-feet
Photo Credit: Richard Evans

Between 1938 and 1942 Arnautoff completed five Treasury Section post office murals. Those in College Station and Linden, Texas, prominently featured African Americans, rarely depicted in public artworks. His post office murals can still be seen at Linden and at Pacific Grove and South San Francisco, California. Arnautoff’s mural for the Richmond, California, Post Office was recently discovered in a packing crate in the post office’s basement. It is being restored for exhibition in the Richmond Museum of History.

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, c:1950

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, c:1950
Arnautoff painted this self-portrait opposing HR 9490, the McCarran Internal Security Act. The Act required Communist organizations to register with the U.S. Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board.
Photo Credit: With kind permission of INVA publishing house, Russia

In the 1950s, Arnautoff, while teaching at Stanford, was shunned for his leftist views and was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1963, after the death of his wife, he emigrated to the Soviet Union where he continued to paint and make prints and created three large public murals using mosaic tiles. He died in 1979.

Our New Map and Guide to New Deal New York
by Richard Walker

Two years in the making, the Living New Deal’s newest publication, a “Map and Guide to New Deal New York” highlights nearly one thousand public works throughout the five boroughs and describes 50 of the city’s notable New Deal buildings, parks, murals, and artworks. The 18 x 27 inch, multi-color, citywide map folds to pocket size. Three inset maps offer walking tours to the New Deal in Central Park, Midtown, and Downtown Manhattan. The “Map and Guide to New Deal New York” is the second map the Living New Deal has published showing the impact of the New Deal. “Guide to the Art and Architecture of San Francisco,” published in 2013, has proved popular with residents, tourists, and teachers alike.

We are grateful to the many people who guided us in selecting the New Deal sites featured on the New York map and who carefully reviewed many drafts. Special thanks for the excellent work of cartographer Molly Roy and designer Linda Herman. Two events will be held in Manhattan to celebrate the completion of the New York map. Each will feature leading New Deal historians, authors, and exhibits on New Deal history and activism.

Thurs, May 11, 6pm at Roosevelt House at Hunter College. Information and registration

Thurs, May 18, 6:30pm, Museum of the City of New York. Information and registration

The Map and Guide to New Deal New York can be purchased for $6.