Discovering the New Deal at the NYC Municipal Archives and Library

“Swim” original art for subway, 1937. Tempura water color on tissue paper; artist unknown
A life-long swimmer, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses vastly expanded access to aquatic facilities for New Yorkers. In 1936, he opened ten new swimming pools and during his long tenure he built and improved public beaches throughout the city.
Photo Credit: Department of Parks General Files, 1937. NYC Municipal Archives

Located in one of the City’s most beautiful Beaux-Arts buildings, the landmark Surrogate’s Court at 31 Chambers Street in Manhattan’s Civic Center, are the Municipal Archives and Municipal Library. Here the City preserves and makes available to the public the historical and contemporary records of New York City’s municipal government. 

To the eternal benefit of generations of historians and researchers, the Archives hold two extensive collections essential for exploring the New Deal in New York City. 

Documenting the New Deal in the city is largely a tale of two remarkable New Yorkers, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and ‘master builder’ Robert Moses. Records in the Archives of their influence and impact on the city total more than 1,500 cubic feet.

Fiorello LaGuardia represented a Manhattan district in the U.S. Congress from 1916 – 1932. Elected New York’s mayor in 1933, he served three terms, 1934 – 1945. When Works Progress Administration funding became available in 1935, LaGuardia persuaded FDR to release billions of dollars for construction projects. It was a partnership that would forever change the city. New York would receive more federal funds than any other city in the nation and employed more than 700,000 people through the Depression years. They built or renovated schools, bridges, parks, hospitals, highways, airports, stadiums, swimming pools, beaches, hospitals, piers, sewers, libraries, courthouses, firehouses, markets, and housing projects throughout the five boroughs. 

Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, March 6, 1934
Several blocks of tenements in Manhattan’s lower East Side, from Houston to Rivington Streets, were razed for construction of the Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.
Photo Credit: Department of Parks Collection, DPR_0046. NYC Municipal Archives

LaGuardia’s correspondence and other materials from his public service are housed at the Municipal Archives. Of particular interest to New Deal historians are the subject files. These include records pertaining to the Civilian Conservation Corps, housing projects, public works, and LaGuardia’s extensive correspondence with officials in Washington D.C.—totaling 365,000 documents.

LaGuardia’s records have been available at the Municipal Archives since its founding in 1952. The Robert Moses collection is a more recent addition. 

In 1984, city archivists visited a Department of Parks and Recreation storage facility at the Manhattan Boat Basin where they discovered 800 cubic feet of material—about 400,000 items—from 1934 through the 1970s, comprising a nearly complete record of the WPA-funded projects during Moses’s long reign as a New York power broker. Moses served as Commissioner of the Department of Parks from 1934 through 1960, while he also held at least a dozen city and state positions. The records found at the Boat Basin are in remarkably good condition, consisting of carbons or originals of Moses’s correspondence, memoranda, transcripts, reports, contracts, news clippings, maps, blueprints, plans, printed materials, press releases, invitations, and photographs.

Harry Hopkins, who headed the WPA, extended the program to include white-collar professionals in art, theater, music and writing programs, insisting that “They have to eat like other people.” Records at the Archives include photographs, manuscripts and research files of the NYC Unit of the Federal Writers’ Project, which produced books and pamphlets ranging from the popular New York Panorama and New York City Guide, to How We Keep our City Clean, History of WNYC—(the city’s premier radio station), and Architecture of New York

Astoria Pool, Queens, August 20, 1936.

Astoria Pool, Queens, August 20, 1936.
Opened July 2, 1936, Astoria Pool is the largest of the eleven pools Moses built with funding from the Works Progress Administration program.
Photo Credit: Department of Parks Collection, DPR_10776-2. NYC Municipal Archives

Pelham Bay Park, October 22, 1941.

Pelham Bay Park, October 22, 1941.
No detail was too small or building too insignificant for Moses and his talented team of architects as illustrated by the handsome design of this comfort station.
Photo Credit: Department of Parks Collection, DPR_20920. NYC Municipal Archives

 

New York City’s archival program dates back more than a century to establishment of the Municipal Reference Library in 1913.  Under the leadership of long-time Library Director Rebecca Rankin (1920-1952), the Library began acquiring original historical documents from City municipal offices. During the 1930s, with the backing of Mayor LaGuardia, Rankin developed a municipal records management and archives program, modeled on the federal system. Eventually, the program acquired a building and on June 30, 1952, the day Rankin retired, the Municipal Archives and Records Center officially opened. In 1977, the Municipal Archives and Municipal Library were incorporated into the newly established Department of Records & Information Services. 

Other highlights to be found at the Archive’s wide-ranging records are photographs of every house and building in New York City dating from 1940 and 1985, two centuries of mayoral papers, more than 1,500 drawings of Central Park, and the architectural plans for construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Archives regularly curates exhibitions that are open to the public. For information about access to collections, researchers are encouraged to email inquiries to [email protected].

Henry Hudson Parkway, ca. 1937

Henry Hudson Parkway, ca. 1937
Originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Riverside Park was expanded and augmented with federal funds allocated for the highway. The Boat Basin at 79th Street was incorporated into the highway interchange at 79th Street.
Photo Credit: Municipal Archives Collection, MAC_0031. NYC Municipal Archives

Playground, Fifth Avenue and 130th Street, Manhattan, ca. 1937

Playground, Fifth Avenue and 130th Street, Manhattan, ca. 1937
One of the thousands of new playgrounds throughout the city built or renovated with WPA funds.
Photo Credit: Fiorello LaGuardia Collection, FHL_0117. NYC Municipal Archives.

 

Raising the New Deal Flag in New York City

Raising the New Deal Flag in New York City

Raising the New Deal Flag in New York City
Fiorello La Guardia at the formal raising of the NRA flag outside the New York headquarters of the National Recovery Administration, April 1934.
Photo Credit: Encyclopedia Brittanica

Two hundred New Yorkers gathered at the Center for Architecture on May 7 to kick off a Living New Deal initiative to familiarize New Yorkers with the New Deal’s vast imprint on their city.

The reception and panel discussion, “A New Deal for New York City: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” were co-sponsored by the Museum of the City of New York, the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter, Planners Network, Historic Districts Council, National Jobs for All Network, City Lore, FDR Library, Gotham Center for New York City History, and Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.

Welcoming the audience, Phoebe Roosevelt, great-granddaughter of Franklin and Eleanor, expressed gratitude for the remarkable men and women—including her grandparents—who championed the “great experiment we call the New Deal.” She also praised the citizens who “went to the voting booth to give FDR and Congress the mandate for action.”

Keynote speaker Kevin Baker, whose April cover story in Harper’s,“We Can Do It Again,” masterfully reviewed New Deal 1.0 in light of calls for a Green New Deal, commented, “What is most surprising about the city today is not how well it’s doing but how little of its old social dysfunction it has managed to shed,” but which the Roosevelt administration sought to address eighty years ago.

A panel of four, including writer Nick Taylor; Living New Deal’s founder Gray Brechin; Marta Gutman, professor of architectural and urban history at City College of New York; and New York City Deputy Mayor Phillip Thompson, elaborated on Baker’s remarks.

Speaking for the city, Thompson fully endorsed the idea of a policy agenda modeled on the New Deal that would, once again, tackle the city’s social problems while rectifying past injustices via a “Greener” New Deal.

All agreed that the first step toward that goal is making people aware of the enormous legacy the New Deal left to them by commemorating through signage, tours, and educational events, its ubiquitous presence throughout New York City.

The audience was also treated to a short film, “A Better New York City,” produced by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1937. See it here.

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].

Discovering New Deal New York

Construction Laborers, Riverside Park, May 16, 1934

Construction Laborers, Riverside Park, May 16, 1934
Laborers laying foundation stones in the shallow river bed for the Riverside Park expansion.
Photo Credit: New York City Parks Photo Archive

Born in 1944 at the height of World War II, I missed the WPA by just one year. Growing up in rural Virginia I never heard of it; nor in the years I lived Germany—first as an Army brat, and then in the Army itself. Then, in 1966, I arrived in New York City, where I lived alongside Riverside Park.

The 6.7-mile-long park along the Hudson River was my backyard for 46 years. I played there. My kids played there. As a runner, I covered every inch of it, from 72nd Street to the very top of Manhattan. I would run all the way uptown before there was even a running path, when the high grass was littered with broken glass and the hulks of abandoned cars.

All that time I had no idea that the park had been created in the 1930s by the New Deal. How would I know? There were no signs, no cornerstones, no plaques. Nobody knew. It wasn’t until I moved to the Bronx at the edge of a magical neighborhood park where people of all ages play, exercise, relax, and socialize, that I became curious. Where did this park come from?

Bronze Statue of Eleanor Roosevelt

Bronze Statue of Eleanor Roosevelt
In the tradition of public art, Penelope Jenck’s statue of Eleanor Roosevelt was installed at the Upper West Side entrance to Riverside Park in 2012.

It took some digging, but I found out it had been constructed by the WPA, completed in 1937. I soon discovered that I was surrounded by New Deal creations: parks, playgrounds, schools, college campuses, beaches, highways, bridges, post offices, swimming pools, stadiums, athletic fields, court houses, bicycle paths, and subways. And that’s just in the Bronx! And here, too, nobody knows.

Given the current economy and the upcoming 2016 elections, more people need to know about what was created during the Great Depression—and can be again. So I go around photographing New Deal sites, unearthing their stories, and sending them on to the Living New Deal.

When I went back to Manhattan recently to photograph Riverside Park, I saw it in a whole new way: This great green space, access to the river, boat basin, ball fields, playgrounds, running paths, benches, fountains, lights, bathrooms— all created by thousands of unemployed laborers, designers, architects, and engineers hired by the federal government to convert what had been a muddy, smelly, railroad bed into all of this splendor for generations to come.