Posts Tagged ‘Depression-era New York City’

Silence and stillness of the 1930s East River

January 27, 2017

Jara Henry Valenta was a Czech-born American artist who made his way to New York City in 1934. Here he painted this scene of a lonely East River power generating station, with New York Hospital and the Queensboro Bridge in the background.


His waterfront—we’re on the Manhattan Brooklyn side—feels stark and remote. Off to the right are two small figures holding shovels beside a pile of coal, a coal company truck parked beside one.

This is a waterfront without the usual hustle and bustle, perhaps a comment on the Depression-era city’s change in fortune from a vibrant metropolis of trade and shipping to one of economic stillness.

[Note: this post was updated to reflect the background information and history provided by the commenters below. Thanks everyone for their insight. Now, if only I could find out more about the painter.]

[From the Smithsonian American Art Museum/Renwick Gallery]

Bold shapes and colors of a 1930s El station

January 23, 2014

Francis Criss’ “Third Avenue El” depicts an austere elevated station in 1933 devoid of people and trains. The coolness of the design contrasts with the warmth of colors.


Criss, usually described as a precisionist painter, created Depression-era urban cityscapes marked by bold colors and geometric shapes.

The subjects of these two downtown New York paintings still look the same almost a century later.

A “dreamlike” vision of the Third Avenue El

July 8, 2013

In his 1934 painting “Third Avenue,” precisionist Charles L. Goeller depicts a crisp, geometrical street corner, with the gray elevated train tracks and then the sleek Chrysler Building looming in the distance.


“The artist lived just a few doors east of this corner, yet his rendition of the familiar scene is strangely dreamlike,” states the website of the Smithsonian Institute, which has “Third Avenue” in its collection.

“Like his fellow painters in the precisionist movement, Goeller stressed the clean geometry of the modern city. All elements of his painting direct attention to the rising spire of the Chrysler Building, a vision of an ideal future shaped by American engineering.”

“Such foreground details as trash lying by the curb and scarred red paint where a sign has been removed from a wall seem deliberately introduced to contrast with the flawless edifice in the distance.”

A controversial mural depicts an unequal city

March 18, 2013

In 1931, the two-year-old Museum of Modern Art planned a show that would feature the work of Mexican painter Diego Rivera. Known for his socially critical murals in Mexico City, Rivera hunkered down inside a museum studio and created five new murals for the exhibition.

One of those murals, “Frozen Assets,” caused a stir at the time. It was the depths of the Great Depression, and Rivera had something to say about how the city treats its assets.


“The panel’s upper register features a dramatic sequence of largely recognizable skyscrapers, most completed within a few years of Rivera’s arrival in New York,” states this caption on MOMA’s website.

Diegorivera“In the middle section, a steel-and-glass shed serves as a shelter for rows of sleeping men, pointing to the dispossessed labor that made such extraordinary growth possible during a period of economic turmoil. Below, a bank’s waiting room accommodates a guard, a clerk, and a trio of figures eager to inspect their mounting assets in the vault beyond.”

That shelter Rivera depicted was the Municipal Lodging House, built in 1909 on a pier on East 25th Street for indigent men, women, and children.

“Rivera’s jarring vision of the city—in which the masses trudge to work, the homeless are warehoused, and the wealthy squirrel away their money—struck a chord in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression,” states MOMA.

MOMA exhibited Frozen Assets and other works by Rivera in 2011, also a year of rising concern about economic equality.

Warming up by the stove in a 1930s el station

December 10, 2012

Daniel R. Celentano depicts tired, weary commuters staying warm by waiting indoors for their train in “L Waiting Station.”

I couldn’t find the date, but I’d say it’s the late 1930s or early 1940s. I wonder what station we’re looking at? I love the wood floors and the man holding what must be a bucket of coal.


Pot belly stoves like that really existed in el stations, as this 1936 Berenice Abbott photo reveals. Looks warm and toasty, unlike most subway platforms in the wintertime.

Descending the subway stairs in 1938

June 13, 2011

It’s a lonely experience in “Entrance to Subway,” by New York City painter Mark Rothko, part of his “subway series” completed in the late 1930s. These paintings depicted the disconnection of modern urban life.

“In the mid-1930s Mark Rothko began a series of works with subjects derived from the urban experience that became known as the Subway series,” writes the Brooklyn Museum. “These paintings reflect the artist’s sense of isolation, shared by many at the time, that resulted from the harsh social conditions caused by the Great Depression.”

No word on which station Rothko, who had a studio on 53rd Street, painted here. But I love the wooden turnstiles.

“The Glow of the City,” 1929

July 21, 2010

Australian-born artist Martin Lewis casts a magical glow on an otherwise gritty city scene of laundry, fire escapes, and tenements. 

That’s the Chanin Building, an Art Deco skyscraper on 42nd Street, the woman is gazing at dreamily.

It’s just one of Lewis’ many drypoint etchings that capture New York street life in the 1920s and 1930s.

“Why Not Use the El?”

March 5, 2010

Painter Reginald Marsh depicts a grungy East Side elevated train and its isolated, Depression-era passengers in carnivalesque color in 1930.

The sign above the sleeping man’s head reads something like: “The subway is fast . . . but the elevated gets you there quickly. Why not use the ‘L'”? I never thought of the El and the subway as competitors.

Marsh had a thing for the seedy side of New York, like this Times Square theater scene he painted in 1936.

The squatters who lived in “Hardlucksville”

November 4, 2009

The 1930s were a pretty rough time. Unemployment hovered around 20 percent nationally, while the city’s poorest neighborhoods, like Harlem, had a 50 percent out-of-work rate.

Squattersoneast12thstreetWhere did Depression-era New Yorkers go when they had no money to pay rent? Some moved into the city’s many squatter camps.

These makeshift villages, many with disturbingly accurate nicknames, sprang up citywide, according to a March 26, 1933 New York Times article.

One called “Hardlucksville” formed off 10th Street next to the East River (at left). Five men resided there, selling firewood culled from the river:

“The three of them saw up the wood into stove lengths. the two others peddle the product in the East Side streets, trundling it from door to door in baby carts reclaimed from the junk pile. Among the five they earn a half-dollar a day, and that supports them,” the Times reported.


Another squat, “Camp Thomas Paine,” was home to dozens of World War I veterans; they lived in shacks in the West 70s near the Hudson River. And “Packing Box City” (above) popped up on Houston Street.

Central Park had its own Hooverville as well. Read more about it here.