Inside a New York Depression-era “relief station”

Saul Kovner was a Russia-born artist best known for his poetic glimpses of 1930s New York, from East Side tenement backyards to kids playing in a snow-blanketed Tompkins Square Park.

But one painter Kovner completed in 1939 tells a story about what it was like to be poor in Depression-era New York.

“Relief Station” depicts a group of mostly strangers sitting on wood benches in a drab facility, facing forward as if they’re waiting for their names to be called.

Where is this group? In a place New York new longer has, a relief station—where jobless people with no money to buy food or pay rent sought what was known as “home relief.”

Relief stations weren’t new. But with nearly one third of the city out of work at the height of the Depression and a government more willing to distribute relief to people in need, dozens of home relief bureau stations popped up across the city.

Kovner’s painting was part of a series on relief stations; another two are below. The second image comes from painter Louis Ribak, who captured an emotional scene a woman pleading her case to an official behind a desk, and a crowd waiting their turn.

Newspapers also published glimpses of what it was like in a relief station, with readers reporting distressing scenes of people pleading their cases or being treated rudely by an administrator.

Relief stations also became targets for activists—who petitioned (or rioted, depending on the report) for more help for New Yorkers to pay their bills. On at least one occasion, a South Williamsburg relief station was stormed by a hundred people who demanded that relief be given out a lot more quickly.

While we still have home relief—just under a different name—these portraits remind us of what the term used to mean, and how relief stations were part of the fabric of the 1930s city.

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5 Responses to “Inside a New York Depression-era “relief station””

  1. Tom B Says:

    No matter how you slice and dice it up, we still have the same situation. People without money to buy the basic necessities.

  2. Anthony M Brucia Says:

    Why do you say government was once more willing to distribute to people in need? Keep in mind we had no social security in those days. Also no welfare. I think its better today!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I meant that the government was more willing to distribute relief than previous governments during economic recessions and depressions in the 1870s, 1890s, and early 1900s. Relief was welfare, basically.

  3. Paul Payton Says:

    Yet another reminder that “the good old days” weren’t always that good. Thank you for shining a light on this.

  4. Lady G. Says:

    This is still what it’s like when you’re waiting at the DMV or other Social Service building or Jury Duty.

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