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.

 

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].

New Deal New York: A Living Legacy for Children

Learn to Swim, Poster by John Wagner

Learn to Swim, Poster by John Wagner
NYC WPA Art Project, 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

New Deal New York, a map recently produced by the Living New Deal is not just any map. This one tells a story—the triumph of liberal democracy in the 1930s.

New Deal New York depicts 1,000 sites, showing that the New Deal legacy lives on in all of the city’s five boroughs in the form of artworks, schools, parks, recreation centers, and major public buildings. This infrastructure, the editors of Fortune pointed out, was “a conspicuous example of the social dividend,” promised by the New Deal.

New Yorkers have three politicians to thank for this: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. The city won one-seventh of all expenditures made by the WPA in 1935 and 1936—so much that New York City was known as the fifty-first state. Moses spent some $113 million—nearly $2 billion in today’s dollars— on parks and recreation alone in the New Deal’s first two years.

Colonial Park Pool and Bathhouse, 1936

Colonial Park Pool and Bathhouse, 1936
Jackie Robinson Park, Manhattan
Photo Credit: Courtesy NYC Parks

The construction program faced extraordinary challenges—the need to build fast (no one knew how long Congress would subsidize the public works program); the federal mandate that inexpensive materials be used; and that the unemployed be hired as construction workers, not necessarily skilled laborers.

Writer Lewis Mumford, noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, recognized all that was achieved when he invented the capacious term, “sound vernacular modern architecture,” in praise of the New Deal’s results in New York City. He alluded to the freedom of expression that New Dealers insisted is part and parcel of a democracy. Authoritarian regimes may have mandated specific architectural styles, but not the United States, where pluralism was preferred.

Astoria Pool, 1936, State-of-the-art Olympic-size pool in Queens, NY

Astoria Pool, 1936
State-of-the-art Olympic-size pool in Queens, NY
Photo Credit: Courtesy NYC Parks

In the ensuing building frenzy New Dealers made New York City a better place, a safer place, and a healthier place to live, especially for children. Gyms, playgrounds, parks, ball fields, basketball and tennis courts, and running tracks were built throughout the city. Eleven new public swimming pools and bathhouses were immediately commissioned at a cost of about $1 million each, and several others were added subsequently.

Girls’ Line at Betsy Head Recreation Center, 1939

Girls’ Line at Betsy Head Recreation Center, 1939
Brooklyn, NY
Photo Credit: Samuel Gottscho, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection

Each week the pools opened, one by one, during the hot summer of 1936, and thousands of New Yorkers attended the spectacular opening ceremonies. By Labor Day, more than 1.6 million people had used new facilities. Most were children—working-class boys who had previously skinny-dipped in polluted water surrounding the city (during the launch of New Deal New York, the historian, Bill Leuchtenberg, revealed that he was one of them), and working-class girls who had had no other place to swim.

A wonderful photograph of two children at Red Hook Recreation Center is featured on New Deal New York map. The kids, who are posing for the photographer, Arthur Rothstein (he worked for another New Deal program, the Farm Security Administration) are standing on broad ledges, called scum gutters, designed to keep water clean and swimmers healthy. Kids hung on to the ledges as they practiced kicking, breathing, and stroking. Thanks to funding from the WPA, the Department of Parks ran a “Learn-to-Swim Program,” that benefitted all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.

Children at Red Hook Pool, 1936

Children at Red Hook Pool, 1936
Brooklyn, NY
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress

The WPA also paid for the poster that promoted the program (including the artist who designed it). It is one that some historians insist depicts the color line that segregated pools under the Moses regime. I’ve argued otherwise; while the color line ran through pools and parks that were built in the city’s segregated neighborhoods, it didn’t run through all of them. New Yorkers, prime among them children, tested entrenched racism during the New Deal and did defeat it in this city

As radio host Sarah Fisko said recently on NPR, “when you can’t see ahead, you look back.” New Deal New York helps us to remember what New Dealers accomplished in New York City in the face of the gravest challenges to our democracy, and to grasp what we can do—what we must do—as we face them once again.

City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York, by Mason B. Williams

As a lifelong Californian, the name La Guardia meant little to me other than an airport and a bronze plaque I once saw at Brooklyn College. That was until I read Mason Williams revelatory book, City of Ambition, about the extraordinarily productive and improbable partnership of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

Williams, a professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science at Williams College, masterfully braids together the lives of the two New Yorkers—both born in 1882 and dying just two years apart in their 60s; Roosevelt, the aristocratic country squire; and La Guardia, the glad-handing, Jewish-Italian from Greenwich Village with a knack for languages. Although separated by party affiliation, the Democrat Roosevelt and the Progressive Republican La Guardia both were born to politics and even more so to public service and clean government.

The Roosevelt dynastic fortune was, after all, founded in New York City, which, by the time of the Great Depression, constituted one of the most important and polyglot voting blocs in the country. In the scrappy, irascible, and equally popular mayor, FDR found a partner with whom he could work while delivering support from the city’s voters for his own New Deal initiatives at the federal level. In the city’s Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, both men found a brilliant administrator who used a torrent of New Deal money and labor to radically transform the city, while taking the credit himself.

La Guardia and FDR At the annual Roosevelt Picnic at Hyde Park, NY, 1938

La Guardia and FDR
At the annual Roosevelt Picnic at Hyde Park, NY, 1938
Photo Credit: Courtesy of La Guardia and Wagner Archives, CUNY

The plaque on La Guardia Hall, the handsome brick library building that terminates the grassy axis of Brooklyn College, quotes the Mayor: “Advanced Education Is A Responsibility of Government And Every Boy Or Girl Who Can Absorb It Is Entitled To It.” At a time when students at even public universities obsess more about their debt than sex, I was as impressed by that sentiment as by a campus that has given generations of immigrants and working class youth the opportunity for personal advancement in the ambience of an Ivy League school. 

That, Mason Williams’ book makes clear, is the vision of government’s rightful role that La Guardia and Roosevelt shared. The plethora of parks, schools, colleges, sewers, roads, tunnels, bridges, and libraries they built and the art they left—all of which the Living New Deal has documented in its new map of New Deal sites in New York City—contributed mightily to the city’s rise as one of the world’s foremost cultural hubs and magnets.

A New Deal Jewel in New York Awaits Revival

Orchard Beach was New York’s most ambitious park project of the New Deal.

Orchard Beach and Pavilion, Bronx, New York
Orchard Beach was New York’s most ambitious park project of the New Deal.  Source

A record 1.7 million people flocked to Orchard Beach in the Bronx this past summer. That would have pleased former New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the visionary force behind its construction. With its man-made crescent shoreline, Orchard Beach is an engineering feat and was New York’s most ambitious park project of the New Deal. The City’s Landmark Preservation Commission goes even further, citing it as “among the most remarkable public recreational facilities ever constructed in the United States.”

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses preside at the beach’s grand opening, July 25, 1936

Opening Day, Orchard Beach
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses preside at the beach’s grand opening, July 25, 1936
Photo Credit: NYC Parks Photo Archive

Upon completion in 1929 of the widely celebrated six-mile-long Jones Beach on the south shore of Long Island, Moses sought a comparable triumph within city limits. With Long Island Sound bordering Pelham Bay Park, he devised a plan to fill a bay between the two land masses to create a new beach over a mile long. His plan went into action in 1935. A section of the beach opened in 1936, with Moses and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia presiding; it was completed in 1937.

The city’s Landmark Preservation Commission describes Orchard Beach as “among the most remarkable public recreation facilities ever constructed in the United States.”

Orchard Beach Pavilion in 1937
The city’s Landmark Preservation Commission describes Orchard Beach as “among the most remarkable public recreation facilities ever constructed in the United States.”
Photo Credit: NYC Parks Photo Archive

Grand achievements and remarkable efficiency were hallmarks of the Moses regime, but neither would have been possible without the shared Progressive vision of Mayor LaGuardia, and the Mayor’s able maneuvering in Washington to secure New Deal funding.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a New Yorker himself, was no fan of Robert Moses and even urged his firing. But FDR was charmed by LaGuardia, and noted that he found it hard to resist the feisty Mayor’s requests. New Deal accomplishments in New York in 1936 alone included not only Orchard Beach, but also Pelham Bay-Split Rock Golf Course, eleven massive municipal swimming pools, and the Triborough Bridge—all with Moses at the helm.

While Orchard Beach is enormously popular today, its dramatic centerpiece, a massive bathhouse pavilion, is fenced off and deteriorating. The design of this monumental structure, a New York City landmark, is credited to architect Aymar Embury II. Its striking style—classicism cloaked in austere modernism—echoes that found in civic buildings across the country from the period. Yet the building’s blue terra-cotta details, some with Art Deco elements, give it a distinct individuality. Even in its current disrepair, the pavilion conveys a noble grandeur, evoking a sense of stability that must have been reassuring during the Great Depression.

The Pavilion is closed pending its restoration as a recreation center.

Orchard Beach Pavilion today.
The Pavilion is closed pending its restoration as a recreation center.
Photo Credit: Deborah Wye

The New York City Parks Department is in the midst of a multi-year study to determine the structural soundness of the building and its possible future uses. Although there is no official report yet, analysis of the concrete has shown it to be stable enough for restoration. As a city property, the pavilion will probably languish through years of building regulations and shifting funding appropriations. But, hopefully, the former bathhouse, once providing changing rooms, restaurants, and shops, will one day be a fully-equipped recreation center with programs as popular year-round as Orchard Beach is every summer.