Posts Tagged ‘New York City in the 1930s’

Crossing paths on 59th Street on a blustery day

November 18, 2019

Helen Farr Sloan was the former student—and then second wife—of Ashcan artist John Sloan. When her husband died in 1951, she remained devoted to promoting his art and achievements.

But Farr Sloan was an exceptional artist in her own right. Born in New York, she became a printmaker and painter who had something to say about the 20th century city.

“59th Street, New York City,” from 1930, takes us to a bustling Manhattan block on a blustery day. Hats are blown off, snow is shoveled, a woman approaches a taxi, people in drab coats shielding themselves with umbrellas go on their way.

The scene could be a moment of human interaction in any Depression-era town. Yet the colorful lights and tall buildings in the distance evoke a modern and detached metropolis where it’s unlikely any of these mostly faceless figures will ever cross paths again.

[The painting belongs to the Delaware Art Museum, which has a deep collection of works by John Sloan and Helen Farr Sloan]

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.

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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]

Sick of Prohibition, New York holds a beer parade

July 4, 2016

Beerparademarchersio(By 1932, alcohol-loving New Yorkers had had enough.

For 12 years, Prohibition had been the law of the land, a law enforced in the city by a team of sometimes crooked prohibition cops and ignored by people who openly drank at the city’s legendary speakeasies.

So New York’s mayor, party guy and frequent speakeasy visitor James J. Walker, proposed an idea.

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He wanted to stage an enormous protest parade, with participation on the part of labor activists, government officials, and regular citizens, up Fifth Avenue.

It wouldn’t be the first “wet parade” in the city. Anti-Prohibition marches were held in the 1920s as well, attracting many drys, as they were known, as well.

Beerparade1932souvenirBut what was dubbed the “We Want Beer” parade of 1932 had more support than ever.

The argument was strong: legalizing beer and other beverages would add millions in tax money to government coffers and also open up an industry that would employ thousands in Depression-era America.

On May 14, at least 100,000 marchers strode down Fifth Avenue from 80th Street, with picket signs, in costume, and cars festooned with slogans.

The marchers went west on 59th Street and back north on Central Park West, parading into the night.

BeerparadebrooklyneagleheadlineMayor Walker, dapper in his derby and suit (and about to be brought up on corruption charges before resigning as mayor), led the procession.

Other cities and towns held beer parades as well, and Coney Island had its own on Surf Avenue a month later.

(Interestingly, at noon, the marchers paused for a minute of silence in honor of Charles Lindbergh Jr., whose body was found dead in woods in New Jersey two days earlier.)

How effective was the beer parade? Hard to say. It  generated big media coverage (check out this old newsreel) and may have helped put the final nail in the coffin for Prohibition, dead and gone 19 months later.

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[Top image: via Free Republic; second image: via i09; third image: MCNY; fourth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle headline; fifth image: New York Daily News]

A winter view of the Brooklyn Waterfront in 1934

September 2, 2014

I’m not exactly sure where this scene of a much more industrial Brooklyn waterfront is. WPA artist Harry Shokler painted it in 1934, in the middle of the Depression.

Titled simply “Waterfront—Brooklyn,” it shows us factories, smokestacks, trolleys, and diners . . . and it hasn’t resembled the Brooklyn waterfront for decades.

Henryshoklerwaterfront

“Many artists during the 1930s focused on laborers and industrial scenes to emphasize the value of hard work in pulling the country out of the Depression,” states the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where the painting hangs.

“The smoking chimneys, groups of workers, and tracks in the snow evoke a sense of activity and perseverance in the face of hardship. To Americans in the 1930s, the skyscrapers of New York symbolized the city’s achievements and sustained the hope that the country’s economy would recover.”

“Petty city thug” Francis “Two Gun” Crowley

April 28, 2010

Francis Crowley, nicknamed “Two Gun” because of the number of weapons he carried, had been in trouble with the law as a poor foster kid in Queens.

But he really amped up his bad-boy rep in February 1931, when he was 19, by shooting a couple of guys at a dance in the Bronx, then shooting a detective who tried to arrest him days later.

Over the next few months, Two Gun robbed a bank, burglarized the West 90th Street home of a wealthy real estate broker, and killed a dance-hall hostess.

His final crime: murdering a Long Island police officer. Days later, while hiding out with an accomplice in an Upper West Side apartment, hundreds of cops descended on the block, hell-bent on capturing Crowley.

After a two-hour gun and tear-gas battle at West End Avenue and 90th Street (above) witnessed by 15,000 New Yorkers, the police got their man. Crowley was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

His anti-police antics made him a popular national figure. But newspapers reported that he was a stupid street punk, “undersized, underchinned, underwitted” as a 1932 New York Times article states.

Only 20 when he was strapped into the chair at Sing Sing, his last words were reportedly, “You sons of bitches. Give my love to mother.”

The cost of a New York hotel room in the 1930s

December 12, 2009

Today, a room at the 27-story Radisson Lexington Hotel, at 48th Street, would probably run you three or four hundred bucks a night at least. 

But back in the 1930s, soon after this colossal structure was built, room rates were more like three or four bucks a night. That’s when it was known simply as the Hotel Lexington.

And look at the possible accommodations: two people, two twin beds, no higher than $8 a night!

See the hotel as it looks today here.

Central Park’s Halloween carnival, 1936

October 14, 2009

As advertised on this nifty poster, designed and printed by the Works Progress Administration. 

I couldn’t find anything on the skating carnival slated for October 31st. But a New York Times blurb that ran in the October 30th edition of the paper advertised a Halloween costume contest on the Mall, to be held that night.

Halloweenrollerskateposter

“Prizes will be awarded for the funniest boy’s costume, prettiest girl’s costume, most unusual costumes and the most appropriate costumes,” the item reads.

Strange that they don’t mention scariest costume. Sounds like the city was trying to provide some wholesome fun for kids who would otherwise be tempted to pull the usual pranks and mischief that make Halloween such a thrilling holiday when you’re young.

A march on Washington Square

September 14, 2009

On May 10, 1933, 100,000 New Yorkers marched from Madison Square Park to Battery Park to protest Nazi policies and denounce anti-Semitism. This photo shows the marchers making their way down Fifth Avenue and through Washington Square Park.

A New York Times article reported that the participants were Jews “with many Christian sympathizers.”

Washingtonsquarenazimarch

“While the demonstration was in progress, the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of New York, at its one hundred and fiftieth convention at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, adopted a resolution expressing sympathy for the sufferers in Germany and calling upon Christians everywhere to voice disapproval of anti-Semitism,” the Times reported.