Favorite New Deal Site: To Preserve and Enhance, Riverside Park, New York, NY

 


Photo by Kevin Baker

As a longtime resident of New York City, it was difficult for me to pick a favorite New Deal site, as there so many possibilities.  I was tempted to choose Orchard Beach, in the Bronx, where my father learned to swim in the 1930s, or the former U.S. Customs House (now the National Museum of the American Indian), with its magnificent, Reginal Marsh murals, one of which adorns the Living New Deal’s wonderful map-and-guide to public works and art in New York. But I had to settle on Riverside Park. The park was originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. and Calvert Vaux in the 1860s, but by the Great Depression it remained “a vast low-lying mass of dirt and mud,” in the author Robert Caro’s description, with an open railroad line and homeless encampments considered so dangerous that the police would not approach them.

Many schemes had been floated to transform the park, but not even the powerful parks commissioner Robert Moses could get it done before PWA and CWA funds were made available. The result was a 6.7-mile-long strip of leafy grandeur along Manhattan’s Upper West Side that covered the railroad, and added a highway, a boat basin, an amphitheater, numerous playgrounds, biking and running trails, benches, tennis courts, ballfields benches, and countless trees.

While praising Riverside as “unprecedented in urban America,” Caro also criticized it for favoring cars over people and—infinitely worse—neglecting its Harlem stretches due to Moses’ inveterate racism.  This was true—but like so much of the New Deal, “the West Side Improvement” built a foundation that could be improved on.  In the years since, numerous playgrounds and other public spaces have been added to Riverside’s Harlem blocks, and the park has also been extended southward, from 72nd down to 59th St. It is a terrific place to exercise, picnic, stroll or simply stare at the Hudson River flowing by.  I am taken anew by its beauty every time I go there.

— Kevin Baker

Tell us about your Favorite New Deal site. Send us a first-person story of 100 (or so) words describing the site and why you chose it. Submissions will appear in future issues of The Fireside! Be sure to include a photo (with photo credit). Send to: [email protected]. Thanks!
 
Kevin Baker is a historian, novelist, journalist, screenwriter, and playwright. He is Director of the New York City Chapter of the Living New Deal. He is currently at work on a political and cultural history of the United States between the world wars, for which he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Baker is the author or co-author of five works of history and six novels, including the New York Times bestseller, Paradise Alley. Other work has included writing the story for the Ken Burns documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust. A contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, he has written for many major publications in the United States and Europe, and has appeared in numerous television productions and documentaries. His latest book, The New York Game: Baseball and the Rise of a New City, will be published by Knopf in March, 2024.

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.

Frank da Cruz is the Living New Deal's Research Associate for the Bronx. He is currently helping the Living New Deal identify sites for a New York City map of the New Deal. He has lived in New York City since the 1960s. His personal website is www.columbia.edu/~fdc/