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The WPA Today

On April 8 1935, the creation of the Works Progress Administration was approved by Congress as a part of FDR’s New Deal.  The New Deal was born at the height of the Great Depression as a series of economic programs that focused on the three R’s- Relief (for the unemployed and poor), Recovery (of the economy), and Reform (of the financial system as to not repeat the depression).  The WPA was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency, employing more than 8.5 million workers on 1.4 million public projects before its dismantling in 1943.

According to the History Channel, “The program chose work that would not interfere with private enterprise, especially vast public building projects like the construction of highways, bridges, and dams. However, the WPA also provided federal funding for students, who were given work under the National Youth Administration. The careers of several important American artists, including Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, were also launched thanks to WPA endowments.”

For preservationists, however, there is one project of the WPA that still proves particularly useful today.

posters advertising the Works Progress Administration

To appraise properties for taxation purposes, the WPA undertook a project to photograph every building in New York City between 1939 and 1941.  According to the Municipal Archives, where the photos are held today, “New York City was the largest municipality to adopt this technology. The result was 720,000 35mm black-and-white pictures of every building in the five boroughs.”  These historical documents are today known as tax photographs.  They are labeled by block and lot and provide researchers with glimpses into the past lives of buildings.  Has a story been added on since 1940?  Is the structure the same, but the building has been stuccoed over?  Have the window layouts changed?  What type of store was occupying the ground floor?  Was there once a stoop?

L: tax phtos show us what businesses used to exist at a given address, in this case 52 3rd Avenue; R: often times, the microfilm has deteriorated over time and the photos are barely visible

Today, anyone is welcome to visit the Municipal Archives and browse through the photos on microfilm.  They can be printed, by quality is often not the best.  Higher quality prints can be ordered and purchased through the Archives.

L: 250 East 3rd Street in a circa 1940 tax photo; R: today. Comparing these two photos we can spot a number of alterations- the rose window has been bricked over, the parapet ornamentation and the window lintels are gone. But we can also see similarities- the windows and door reside in the same place, the stoop remains.

By the early 1980s it was decided by the City’s Department of Finance, the agency responsible for appraising real estate for tax purposes, that the photographs needed to be updated.  Again using 35 mm cameras, but this time with color film, the staff photographed every building and lot in all 5 boroughs, resulting in 800,000 photographs.  These have been digitized and can be viewed online.  If you would like further information on how to research a building’s history, visit our Guide to Researching the Village.

3 responses to “The WPA Today

  1. A wonderful backstory for we history buffs. I live in Colorado and run a website for our 350+ Colorado Museums. I’ve learned we had 83 WPA projects in Colorado. More notable are Rocky Mountain National Park and Mesa Verde National Park.

  2. I am writing a history of WPA because of the possibllity of Biden’s 2.+_infrastructure proposed bill. I firmly believe a replication of FDR’s WPA’s bill would definitely save our Country. I would like to submit a copy of the article I am about to submit locally and state wide for your suggestions and legality. I look forward to your response.

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