Writing New Deal New York
In a sequester- and deficit-obsessed news cycle, it’s almost hard to remember a time when America felt completely differently about how we should spend our money and create jobs (Robert Kuttner rails against these current attitudes in Debtors’ Prison, his argument about why austerity is all wrong). Recently I came across an old book whose creation seems hard to imagine today: The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writer’s Project Guide to 1930s New York.
During the Depression, 6,600 writers, researchers and editors were supported by the Federal Writer’s Project, under the authority of FDR’s Works Progress Administration, according to an article in the New York Times. Writers like Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston were sent out to all 48 existing states plus Alaska, collecting the histories and geographies of ordinary Americans and ordinary America. W.H. Auden called it “one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state.” People like John Cheever (who was an editorial assistant for the project—see photo) were less excited about the prospect of “government handouts.” He came from a family, however, that castigated the WPA as an acronym for “We Poke Along.”
The New York City guide itself, first republished by Pantheon in 1982, and later by The New Press, is a mix of the high and the low, the inner city and the outer. Some things haven’t changed much since the 1930s—“Tall, modern apartments pre-empt Washington Square West, a threat to the old open atmosphere that attracted them.” Some things are just as strange and lost to history then as they are now. The guide has an entry for Barren Island, a small community at the edge of East Brooklyn off Flatbush Avenue, an island in name only, “a cluster of patchwork houses, whose occupants earn their livelihood as housewreckers.” The village-like spot is noted to be where “the notorious pirate Gibbs, who met death at the gallows in the early nineteenth century, was said to have buried a portion of his booty on Barren Island, and legend has it that the treasure is still hidden there.”
“One of my favorite books on our Pantheon backlist,” says Pantheon Managing Editor Altie J. Karper. “And not only because, on the 1939 Lower East Side map on page 110, you can see the block where I grew up (and still live!) and the blocks where my parents were born, but also because you can read about our beloved neighborhood landmarks: some still in existence (The Educational Alliance, Amalgamated Dwellings, The Henry Street Settlement), some that have been repurposed (The Forward Building, Christadora House), and some that exist only in fond memory (Bed Linens Market, Jewish Theater District). A fabulous work of primary-source New York City history!”
Story conceived, researched, and written by Mark Chiusano of the Knopf Editorial staff.