The New Deal in New York City 1932-1943

Frank da Cruz
Bronx NY
August 2015
Most recent update: Sat Sep 30 09:26:48 2017
Imagine a time when millions of people were out of work and the federal government, recognizing that Wall Street and the big banks and corporations were the problem and not the solution, took the initiative and did what the private sector would not do and created jobs for the unemployed:

The New Deal was this nation's finest hour. It wasn't perfect; there were some flaws mainly around racial issues (thanks to the Southern Democrat congressional bloc) and health care (the FDR administration was not able to enact national health care as part of the Social Security Act of 1935 nor on its own in 1939 due to intense conservative opposition). Nevertheless, the New Deal's accomplishments were monumental and an informed citizenry should know.

In New York City we are surrounded by New Deal creations that you just can't miss: LaGuardia Airport, the Triborough and Bronx-Whitestone bridges, the Lincoln and Brooklyn-Battery and Queens-Midtown tunnels, most of the Henry Hudson Parkway and Bridge, the FDR Drive, the Belt Parkway, much of the subway system... New Deal work crews (not just laborers, but also architects, engineers, and designers) built roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, subways, levees, dams, aqueducts, power houses, reservoirs, water filtration plants, airports, courthouses, police stations, fire houses, libraries, post offices, public housing, schools, colleges, universities, dormitories, athletic fields, stadiums, auditoriums, coliseums, memorials, museums, clinics, hospitals, laboratories, sanitariums, community centers, markets, zoos, parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, swimming pools, bathhouses, beaches, ports, piers, wharves, lighthouses, warehouses... Plus an untold amount of infrastructure: paving, water mains, sewers, waste disposal plants, breakwaters, powerhouses, electric and telephone transmission lines, traffic signals, fire alarms, ... Meanwhile other New Deal crews planted billions of trees and developed natural resources and national parks all over the country, while others painted murals, wrote guidebooks, created sculptures, performed plays, and made music. All this on a scale never seen before or since; a legacy that we all enjoy and depend upon to this day...

    AND NOBODY KNOWS!

The New Deal wasn't just employment either. Social Security was a New Deal program that has kept countless millions of elderly people out of poverty and can continue to do so indefinitely if our politicians stop attacking it. Another New Deal Program, the FDIC, protects our bank deposits. The Fair Labor Standards Act set maximum hours and mininum wages. The Wagner Act defended workers' rights to organize and to collective bargaining which resulted in the first-ever prosperous working class in this country. Numerous laws and agencies were created to regulate Wall Street and the banks that resulted widespread stability and well-being until the new era of deregulation.

The great lesson of the last 90 years is that free markets don't work. Left to operate unchecked, they always destroy themselves (quick proof: they were deregulated after the Theodore Roosevelt administration and in the 1920s they collapsed; they were re-regulated in the 1930s and there was no collapse for many decades; then they were increasingly deregulated in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s and then they collapsed again).  Government's job in a capitalist society is to make sure that capitalism works for everybody and not just the super-rich, or to put it another way, to protect capitalism from itself. But since Nixon, and especially since Reagan, government has abrogated that role and a once-prosperous, productive, and stable nation has degenerated into... What can I say. There is no more production to speak of, no more prosperity except at the very top, no more economic security, no more good jobs, no more leisure, no more secure retirement, no more peace of mind. People who lived through the postwar era understand that this is not an improvement; it's the kind of disaster that results from government abandoning its responsibility to the population and allowing corporations to export jobs, make off with pensions, write every law, and control every single politician (with 2 or 3 notable exceptions).

The New Deal that worked so well in the 1930s and 40s and the postwar decades has been deliberately wiped from the public consciousness, beginning with the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, to the extent that today, most people have never even heard of it. Or if it was mentioned in school, it was just a phrase with no reality attached to it. What you see on this site is my attempt to fix that. It is the living legacy of a government that put economic justice and the public good before corporate profits. The entire country was mobilized to rebuild itself. And it worked just fine. Ask anybody who lived through the postwar decades. Look around, look at what those millions of workers made in a time when, miraculously, ordinary people were the highest priority of the United States government.

Special Considerations for New York City

WPA plaque In most parts of the country it is much easier to identify New Deal creations than it is in New York City because most New Deal projects in NY were overseen by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses who went to great lengths to conceal the degree to which he accepted federal funds and relief labor to realize his plans (read more about this here and in Robert Caro's The Power Broker). Everywhere else in the country a building or other structure created by a New Deal agency such as the WPA would have an identifying plaque (like the one shown) or cornerstone or inscription, but in New York City there are none; Moses forbade it. Thus it is possible to be intimately familiar with some New Deal creation like (say) Riverside Park in Manhattan and never know it that it was a massive 4-year 68-million-dollar New Deal project. There are no signs or historical markers, they don't teach it in school, they don't mention it in the media. Unless it occurs to you to wonder, “How did this park get here?” and go digging in Google or some dusty old archive, you'd never know. And the same is true for the Henry Hudson Parkway, the FDR Drive, the Belt Parkway, the Triborough Bridge, ... It's a long, long list that has never been made but the work has started. To see the progress so far, visit the Living New Deal site, for which this site is just a small feeder.

The Living New Deal

During the Depression the New Deal was so busy getting things done that it never got around to leaving behind a definitive and comprehensive list of everything that all of the “alphabet soup” New Deal agencies (WPA, PWA, CWA, NRA, REA, RFC, AAA, CCC, NYA, TVA, FERA...) accomplished. Something that would demonstrate what could be accomplished today if the government had a sense of history. Or decency.

In 2005 a project was launched at the University of California at Berkeley to assemble just such a compendium: The Living New Deal. It's not an easy task because modern corporate America has made considerable efforts to erase all memory of the New Deal. In many cases the plaques identifying New Deal projects have been removed or replaced (or in the case of New York City, never existed at all), and many texts fail to mention New Deal funding, design, or labor when discussing the landmarks that were, in fact, created by the New Deal.

For my part, I'm working to discover, identify, research, photograph, and document the New Deal projects in the Bronx, and pass the results along to the Living New Deal project. Here is what Living New Deal has so far for New York City:

Meanwhile, in this page, I have compiled a list of more than 500 New York City Parks Department projects that were carried out with New Deal funding and/or labor in the five boroughs. It's a beginning.
References:
  1. Walker, Richard, The New Deal Lives On in the City, The Brooklyn Rail, May 2017.
    Gamso, Nicholas, The New Deal in New York, Revisited (comments on the above), July 14, 2017.
    Richard Walker Replies, July 14, 2017.
  2. Gutman, Marta, New Deal New York: A Living Legacy for Children, Fall 2017 Newsletter, Living New Deal, University of California at Berkeley (30 September 2017).
  3. The Life, Times, and Vision of Franklin D. Roosevelt, fdr4freedoms.org.