The New Deal in New York City 1931-1943
Frank da Cruz
Most recent update:
Mon Jun 18 13:44:40 2018
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
- Which put millions of people to work temporarily;
- The sites built by these workers provided lasting jobs for many more
- Wages from all of these jobs flowed back into the depressed economy,
especially into neighborhood small businesses, thus creating even more jobs;
- The schools, parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, hospitals, clinics, and
other sites that were created played essential roles in the education,
health, and well-being of the population.
- New Deal funding and labor played a significant role in the Allied
victory in World War II (read, for example, about
Brooklyn Navy Yard).
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
In New York City we are surrounded by New Deal creations
Living New Deal NYC map
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
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 in 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
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
and in Robert
). 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
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
which this site is just a small feeder.
Read more about the New Deal in New York City
Although the national New Deal did not begin until 1933, when FDR became
president, it had already existed in New York State for some years while he
was governor. Thus some New York City projects completed before 1933 —
such as the
Bronx County Courthouse and the
Hunter (now Lehman) College
campus — are considered New Deal projects.
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:
By May 2017, we had compiled enough information on New York City to publish
the New York
City New Deal Map and Guide
. And the digging continues, with many new
discoveries since then.
New Deal Lives On in the City, The Brooklyn Rail, May 2017.
Also available at
Center for New York City History.
New Deal in New York, Revisited (comments on the above),
July 14, 2017.
Richard Walker Replies, July 14, 2017.
- 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).
- The Life, Times, and Vision of Franklin D. Roosevelt,
- Rosenzweig, Roy, and Elizabeth Blackmar,
Park and the People: A History of Central Park, Cornell University Press
(1992), pp.439-463: Robert Moses and the New Deal.