On September 1st, 1939 German troops invaded Poland, starting Word War II, the costliest war in terms life and destruction in human history. Although the United States would not officially enter the war until more than two years later, national mobilization which began in 1940 required engagement in the war effort from all segments of the population. World War II and the rise of Nazism had a special and very particular impact on our neighborhoods, from the welcoming of refugees to anti-fascist organizing to responses to the internment of Japanese Americans.
128 East 13th Street
Over 16 million Americans served in WWII, and over one million were killed or wounded. To fill the labor gap, millions of women entered the workforce for the first time. Many worked in critical roles in factories and shipyards. 128 East 13th Street was a women’s assembly-line training center during World War II and there, according to the New York Times, women were taught “assembly and inspection work, the reading of blueprints, and various mechanical aspects needed in defense industries.”
The building has a long and storied history. Built in 1903 as a horse and carriage auction mart (now believed to be the last surviving one in New York City) it served families such as the Belmonts and the Vanderbilts. More recently, from 1976-2006, it was the studio of Frank Stella, one of the 20th century’s most notable and influential artists.
In 2006 we discovered plans to demolish the building and replace it with condos. We led a successful campaign to prevent demolition of the building and on May 15, 2012, 128 East 13th Street was designated a NYC Landmark.
On November 8, 2021, we unveiled a plaque on the building honoring its history and preservation. Click here to read more and see the video.
“September 1, 1939”
Published on October 18, 1939 in The New Republic, “September 1, 1939” is a poem written by W.H. Auden during the early days of WWII. Auden is arguably the greatest English/American poet of the 20th century.
Born February 21, 1907, Auden arrived in America in 1936. He lived in a shabby and “notoriously disheveled” apartment at 77 St. Mark’s Place from 1953 until 1972. After Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Auden volunteered to return to the UK but only qualified personnel were needed among men of his age (32). He was drafted in the United States Army in August 1942 but was rejected on medical grounds.
Auden later rejected this poem, one of his most famous, and rarely allowed others to republish it. He said he rejected poems he found “boring” or “dishonest” in the sense that they expressed views he had never held but only used because he felt they would be rhetorically effective. Click here to read more about Auden and his time on St. Mark’s Place.
Sir Winston Churchill Square
This peaceful garden area bordering Downing Street is named after Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. His speeches as Prime Minister from his official residence at London’s 10 Downing Street inspired the world during some of the twentieth century’s darkest hours of World War II.
On June 17, 2013, Village Preservation awarded Sir Winston Churchill Square with one of its coveted Village Awards. Click here to read more about the square and some other less prominent parks and gardens in our area.
80 Fourth Avenue
With the fall of France in 1940, many Italian anti-Fascists who had fled Mussolini and took refuge there then came to the United States, particularly New York. This led to a flowering of Italian language anti-Fascist publications. Il Mondo was the first of these, as its publishers’ escape to New York pre-dated Hitler’s victory in France. It was published from 80 Fourth Avenue.
In 1939, Time Magazine said, “The best Italian refugee and Italian-American brains in the U.S. last week launched in New York City a new anti-Fascist paper, Il Mondo (“An Italian Daily with American Ideals”). Even as it appeared, democracy won a dramatic victory over Fascism in the U.S. Italian-language press.” In 1940 Fortune Magazine called Il Mondo “the finest anti-fascist paper in the United States.”
425 Lafayette Street
This building has been the home of The Public Theater since the 1960s. It was originally the Astor Public Library, which opened on January 9, 1854. When merged into the NYPL system, this building continued to serve as a library until 1911.
In the decades between its original use as a library and its adaptive reuse as a theater, the building was home to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). HIAS helped approximately 250,000 people flee Nazi-occupied Europe. HIAS provided refugees with support and lodging here on Lafayette Street. Following the end of the war and Holocaust, HIAS resettled more than 150,000 displaced persons in the United States, Canada, Australia, and South America.
Miné Okubo was a Japanese-American artist born in Riverside, California, on June 27 1912. She is best known for her 1946 book Citizen 13660, in which she recounts her experience in a Japanese-American internment camp. When the War Relocation Authority began allowing people to leave the camps and relocate to areas away from the Pacific Coast, Mine moved here to 17 East 9th Street. It was here that she completed her work on Citizen 13660, named for the number assigned to her family unit, which contains more than two hundred pen and ink sketches.
Citizen 13660 was one of the first widely-circulated personal accounts of the repression and indignities faced by over 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II, and is considered to this day one of the most affecting pieces about that chapter in American history.
“University in Exile”
One of The New School’s most critical chapters occurred in 1933. When Hitler came to power, he began to purge Jews and political opposition from German universities. With the financial support of philanthropist Hiram Halle and the Rockefeller Foundation, The New School obtained funding to provide a haven in the United States for scholars whose lives and careers were threatened by the Nazis.
Called “the University in Exile,” the school sponsored more than 180 individuals and their families, providing them with visas and jobs. Some remained at The New School for many years while others moved on to other institutions in the United States.
The University in Exile influx helped transform and vastly expand American academia and intelligentsia into the intellectual and academic powerhouse it became in the post-War years.