WPA Pools, Still in Widespread Use in the City, Display New Badges of Honor
Living New Deal partners with NYC Parks to affix New Deal medallions at WPA pools for one-year honorary display, showing New Yorkers how much we owe to our 1930s forebears.
NEW YORK, NY, August 17, 2020— At a fraught moment when many Americans are looking to the federal government to protect them from a pandemic that has upended their lives, the towering achievements of the New Deal stand as useful and living monuments to what government can do when serving the public is its first priority.
The New York City branch of the Living New Deal (LND)—a nonprofit dedicated to mapping the physical legacy of FDR’s New Deal—has commemorated that legacy with a striking new medallion that echoes the period’s style and spirit.
NYC Parks has mounted LND’s new red, white, and blue medallions as a one-year honorary display at 10 of the 11 WPA pools that were completed in the summer of 1936: the Astoria, Hamilton Fish, Betsy Head, Highbridge, Thomas Jefferson, Lyons, McCarren, Red Hook, Jackie Robinson, and Sunset pools. The final medallion will be installed at Crotona Pool when construction at the site is complete.
To coincide with the medallion display, NYC Parks has written new and updated historical sign narratives for each WPA pool. The narratives will soon be installed at each site and will soon be on view at nyc.gov/parks.
More than 1,000 New York City landmarks, public works, and works of art were built or created by workers employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and other New Deal “alphabet soup” programs, but LND has noted a near-total absence of signage marking these sites as such. “We’re determined to remedy that,” says former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, who serves as an advisor to LND’s NYC branch. “Our goal is to create a piece of living history for the city.
“The New Deal gave us the city we know and love,” Messinger continues, “but most of us either don’t know or have forgotten the achievements of that extraordinary decade in our nation’s history. Everywhere you look, you can see the New Deal’s imprint.” The short list includes the Triborough Bridge, LaGuardia Airport, Henry Hudson Parkway, and much of Central Park—the Harlem Meer Boathouse, the Zoo, and the Great Lawn, for example—along with schools, post offices, hospitals, playgrounds, and recreation centers across the five boroughs. And 11 Olympic-size public swimming pools, which are still in widespread use today.
“Intent on democratizing access to recreation, the federal government spent $750
million on community recreation facilities in the 1930s (more than $14 billion in today’s dollars),” wrote New York’s Prof. Marta Gutman, CUNY architectural historian and a member of LND’s NYC working group, in her 2008 article titled “Race, Place, and Play.” Prominent among these are the 11 enormous NYC pool complexes being commemorated by the very same parks department that oversaw their construction in 1936.
The Living New Deal kicked off its NYC commemoration campaign with the display of medallions at pools precisely because they represent some of the period’s finest high-design achievements on behalf of the people of this city. Says Grace Roosevelt, another NYC working group member, “We hope to mark other New Deal sites in the near future, focusing on particular neighborhoods such as Red Hook, Astoria, the Lower East Side, and Harlem, and on specific types of sites such as courthouses, schools, health facilities, and apartment buildings.”
More about the Living New Deal
Much of the research on the New Deal’s achievements in New York City has already been completed by the Living New Deal, the national California-based nonprofit that produced the Map and Guide to New Deal Art, Architecture, and Public Works in New
York City, co-sponsored by the Museum of the City of New York. Copies of the map are available on the Living New Deal’s website at livingnewdeal.org.
“Still Working for America”—the Living New Deal’s motto—serves as a reminder that many essential public works Americans depend upon today were built by the New Deal. By marking and celebrating what was achieved in the past, the Living New Deal’s NYC branch hopes to spark the public imagination by showing what can be accomplished when government invests in the collective good.