The subject of how much government can and should invest in infrastructure and public works is a hot topic of debate, especially now. Such conversations often point back to the era of the New Deal when the federal government channeled our tax monies to local investments and funded and built much of New York City’s essential public works.
The Living New Deal is a great online resource that works to raise public awareness of that model ten-year period via tours, panel discussions, social and traditional media, and their signage project, which aims to design and mount signs at New Deal legacy sites across the five boroughs of the city.
By marking and celebrating what was achieved in the past, some participants in the Living New Deal project hope to show what can be accomplished when government invests in the collective good.
The Living New Deal has made a valiant attempt to list all the tangible New Deal contributions to New York City: bridges, highways, tunnels, airports, schools, public buildings, housing, parks, playgrounds, pools, beaches, marinas, piers, art, and other creations that can be seen and touched (if they still exist). Bear in mind, these are only the New Deal projects that have been found in the very spotty historical record so far; the actual New Deal contribution is much greater. To illustrate: the FY 1938-39 WPA Summary Report notes that in New York City in those twelve months alone, the WPA did an almost inconceivable amount of work; see the summary at the end of the report, which does not reflect work done or paid for by other New Deal agencies such as PWA, NYA, or USHA. See the project here. As weapons production for World War II began ramping up and unemployment dropped, the federal government decided a national relief program was no longer needed. One of the main New Deal agencies, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) shut down in June of 1943, when unemployment was less than two percent.
According to a 1939 announcement by the Work Projects Administrator for New York City, a tabulated summary of the physical accomplishments of the WPA Division of Operations in the five boroughs during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1939, revealed an impressive array of investments and successfully accomplished projects.
“Various types of public buildings head the list, with 308 new structures erected and 635 buildings repaired and modernized during the year, including 30 additions. Work in progress on June 30, not included in these totals, comprised 76 new buildings, and repairs and improvements to 230 buildings, including 13 additions. New buildings in progress included two public schools, four firehouses…“
Some of the local examples of WPA projects include:
New York’s historic First Avenue Retail Market Market at 155 First Avenue (9th/10th Streets) was one of eight similar markets constructed with the assistance of the federal Work Projects Administration (WPA). These structures were built in order to replace the informal pushcart markets common on New York City streets at the time. The building now houses the renowned Theater for the New City.
The historic Cooper Station post office at Fourth Avenue and 11th Street (originally known as Station ‘D’) was constructed with federal Treasury Department funds between 1936 and 1937. The building is still in use today.
On July 26, 1775 the United States Postal System was established by the Second Continental Congress, with Benjamin Franklin as the first Postmaster General. Franklin, in his turn, put in place the foundation of many aspects of today’s mail system. Today, the U.S. Postal Service is one the nation’s largest civil employers, with over 40,000 offices throughout the continental United States and its territories. Setting aside the mundane nuts and bolts of the USPS’ work or the expansive scope of their mandate, they also helped create one particularly striking and historic building in our neighborhood: the Cooper Station Post Office.
The Cooper Station Post Office was listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1982 (read the designation report here). There are many great examples of the W.P.A.’s efforts throughout the Village and East Village; what makes Cooper Station even more special is it is on the same stretch of East 11th Street as another landmark building, Webster Hall. However, Cooper Station, like most East Village buildings, is not landmarked, and the loss of Nos. 112-120 East 11th Street (across the street from the post office) to make way for the Moxy Hotel illustrates how vulnerable the neighborhood’s historic resources are to insensitive alteration and demolition.
Tony Dapolito Recreation Center is located at the northwest corner of 7th Ave. South and Clarkson Street in Manhattan. The large outdoor pool was built by the WPA and designed by Aymar Embury II. The Department of Parks announced the official opening of the new pool and renovated bathhouse on June 10, 1939. The ceremony was attended by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, Alexander MacGregor of the Works Progress Administration and others. The press release described the WPA’s work on the site:
“The new outdoor pool is 50′ x 100′ with a diving pool 50′ x 26′ and will provide much needed bathing facilities for this congested section of Manhattan. The adjacent bath building, transferred from the Borough President of Manhattan under the new City Charter, has been completely renovated to provide increased recreational facilities. Besides containing men and women’s locker and shower rooms and comfort stations, it also houses on the second floor a largo gymnasium and large play room. On the mezzanine floor there is a running track, while on the roof of the building there is a large fenced-in play area. …The work in connection with these improvements was planned by the Department of Parks and performed by the Works Progress Administration.”
Learn more about the Living New Deal and check out and search their map of New Deal locations here.