Hard times on Depression-era East 61st Street

Last week, Yale University launched an interactive digitized photo archive packed with 170,000 incredible photos taken during the Depression.


The images, shot by various photographers, are also part of the Library of Congress. They cover faces and places across the nation—including ordinary residents of New York City working, playing, and rushing on their run.

But one subset of photos, shot by Walker Evans in 1938, is particularly haunting. These 40 or so images focus on one gritty tenement block on East 61st Street, and the unglamorous people who live there.


This isn’t the East 61st Street of Bloomingdale’s or Fifth Avenue. This is the East 61st Street between Third and First Avenues, a poor neighborhood known at the turn of the century as Battle Row.


In the middle of the Depression, East 61st Street looks like a regular workaday part of New York City—thanks in part to the corner cafeteria, an idling beer truck, and laundry-laden fire escape (below).


The people seem ordinary too. Kids play on the stoop, men and women gather to talk, a lone woman hangs out a window. A solitary older gentleman sits on his stoop forlornly.


Who were they? The photos reveal their quiet humanity, and their stony faces hint at hard times. They certainly don’t look like they enjoyed having Evans hang around with his camera.


Above, a resident is moving in or out of one building—via a horse-drawn wooden cart. And are those Belgian blocks paving the road?

Evans and his camera lurked around other parts of Manhattan in the 1930s as well, like on the subway, where he surreptitiously shot random subway riders staring, reading, or lost in their daydreams.

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4 Responses to “Hard times on Depression-era East 61st Street”

  1. greg chown Says:

    I enjoy your site very much and always look forward to your posts.

  2. William Krause Says:

    Judging from the dangling string of cowbells on the horse-drawn cart, I think it was a junk-dealer rather than a mover. But the people in the photos—those are so touching. Thanks again for your truly informative efforts.

  3. Alex Says:

    In the first photo you can see the elevated subway in the distance. But is it the 2nd Ave El or the 3rd ave El?

  4. petey Says:

    the older east side. i knew guys from the far east 70s growing up in tenements with the bathroom in the hallway. not how you’d think of that neighborhood now.

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