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.

Kenneth Cobb is Assistant Commissioner in the Department of Records & Information Services. He joined the Municipal Archives in 1978 and served as Director from 1990 through 2004.

New York City Never Stops Eating

1st Avenue Market, Manhattan, ca. 1937

1st Avenue Market
Manhattan, ca. 1937
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

When the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), the literary arm of the WPA, closed down in 1943 — after a prolific few years that saw hundreds of publications issued — massive amounts of research materials and unfinished manuscripts were put away, unused. Now, more than seventy years later, many of those documents are seeing the light of day in the form of books, documentaries, and exhibitions.

In September, the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) launched an exhibit, Feeding the City: The Unpublished WPA Federal Writers’ Project Manuscript, 1935-1942, drawn from the unpublished manuscript written and edited by members of the New York City unit of the Federal Writers’ Project.

Writers at work, Federal Writers Project

Writers at work
Federal Writers Project
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

“What did New Yorkers eat? Where did the food come from? How was it marketed?

The New York City Municipal Archives exhibit provides the answers to these questions, just as just as the Municipal library (located in the same facility and closely associated with the Archives)  provided answers to WPA researchers and writers who did research there during the Projects’ heyday.

The display, which runs through March, 2019, offers vintage recipes, oversized, bold photographs of New Yorkers shopping for groceries, and excerpts from the unpublished manuscript, which complemented other FWP projects that were planned to chronicle America’s food culture.

Waiting on customers in an Italian grocery store , Manhattan, 1937

Waiting on customers in an Italian grocery store
Manhattan, 1937
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

Had it been published, it’s not hard to imagine the book and its promotional catchphrase, “New York City Never Stops Eating,” adorning bookstore displays.

Two books published recently, America Eats: On the Road with the WPA (Bloomsbury, 2008) and Food of a Younger Land (Riverhead Books, 2009), used the material the WPA collected to show America’s eating habits nearly a century ago.

Federal Writers’ Project units were formed in each of the 48 states, as well as in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and major cities. The Project’s writers, editors, and researchers told the story of America through travel guidebooks and other publications. The NYC Unit was one of the most prolific units.

Description of foodstuffs at a Sicilian grocery.

Description of foodstuffs at a Sicilian grocery.
FWP writers went to the city’s ports, warehouses, restaurants, and wholesale markets to interview New Yorkers who had some role in feeding the city.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

It’s fitting that the exhibit is shown at the Municipal Archives building, itself part of a larger story of the WPA writers’ relationship to the city and particularly to Rebecca Rankin, the City’s reference librarian from 1920 through 1952 who led the way for the formation of the Archives. According to Assistant Commissioner of DORIS Kenneth R. Cobb, when the FWP project closed down, 6o cartons of the FWP’s materials (including 13 boxes from Feeding the City) were sent to the Archives to “to have and hold forever,” at least partially due to the help Rankin provided to the writers, along with her commitment to progressive principles. (For more on Rankin, see this NYC DORIS article.)

The Municipal Archives houses a trove of other FWP and WPA materials. Among them are documents collected for the FWP’s Ethnic Heritage books. The Italians of New York and an English and Yiddish version of The Jewish Landsmanschaften of New York came out in 1938 and 1939. A book about Spanish-speaking New Yorkers was planned but never published. Those research materials reside in the archive.

Also in the care of the Archives are photographs taken by the WPA in 1939 and 1941 documenting every city building, surveys and architectural descriptions of houses of worship within the five boroughs, reports on child nutrition and education, and more.

To see the exhibit, visit the NYC Municipal Archives 1st Floor Gallery, 31 Chambers Street, Manhattan. The gallery is open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Thursday: 9 a.m. to 7p.m.; Saturday: 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

The Municipal Archives preserves and makes available New York City government’s historical records.

Potatoes: A layout for the never-published book.

A layout for the never-published book.
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

Feeding the City

Feeding the City
FWP writers went to the city’s ports, warehouses, restaurants, and wholesale markets to interview New Yorkers who had a role in feeding the city.
Photo Credit: Susan DeMasi

Susan DeMasi is the author of the 2016 biography, Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project. She is a visiting scholar in this summer’s National Endowment for the Humanities program, “The New Deal Era’s Federal Writers’ Project,” as well as a contributor to an upcoming book on the literary legacy of the FWP, edited by Sara Rutkowski, for the University of Massachusetts Press. [email protected]