Squatters Colony, Red Hook Recreation Area, September 12, 1934, Courtesy of NYC Parks
Today, New York City’s rising cost of living has made affordable housing one of the most pressing issues of our time. But long before our current housing crisis–and even before the advent of “affordable housing” itself–Depression-era New Yorkers created not only their own homes, but also their own functioning communities, on the city’s parkland. From Central Park to City Island, Redhook to Riverside Park, these tent cities, hard-luck towns, Hoovervilles, and boxcar colonies proliferated throughout New York. Ahead, see some amazing archival photos of these communities and learn the human side of their existence.
Lots more history and photos
Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. (1887 – 1964). Parks – Riverside Park – West 122nd Street; Via NYPL Digital Collections
Riverside Park is the place to be whether you want to bask in the sun at the 79th Street Boat Basin, pay respects at Grant’s Tomb, or do your best T. Rex at Dinosaur Playground. Did you know that the park’s history is as varied as its charms? From yachts to goats to cowboys, check out 10 things you might not know about Riverside Park!
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On June 24, 1936, thousands of Lower East Siders turned out for a spectacle the likes of which New York had never seen. They jammed Hamilton Fish Park, filled Pitt Street, and perched on surrounding fire-escapes and rooftops to get a glimpse. With great fanfare (and the swim stylings of the Jones Beach Water Troupe) Mayor La Guardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses officially opened Hamilton Fish Pool. The dedication kicked off New York’s “Summer of Pools.” One by one, for each week of the summer, 11 gleaming outdoor pools, financed and built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), opened in underserved neighborhoods across the city, providing recreation and relief to millions of heat-addled, Depression-strapped New Yorkers.
Learn more about the summer of 1936
Eleven blocks of Rockaway Beach will be closed this summer due to erosion, but that’s just one setback in a long history of resilience on the peninsula. Four-and-a-half miles of the beach are open right now, with every block steeped in history. The Rockaways ushered Henry Hudson into the New World; Walt Whitman into paradise; Hog Island into oblivion; and the Transatlantic Flight into existence.
As “the brightest jewel within the diadem of imperial Manhattan,” the pristine beaches of the “Queens Riviera” became the preferred summer locale for New York’s most illustrious citizens. Later, the “people’s beach” at Riis Park helped make the Rockaways accessible to more New Yorkers. From, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to Patti Smith to Robert Mosses, everybody wanted to be at Rockaway Beach.
Get the full history here
Washington Square Park via Wiki Commons; Jane Jacobs via Wiki Commons
Jane Jacobs’ birthday on May 4 is marked throughout the world as an occasion to celebrate one’s own city — its history, diversity, and continued vitality. “Jane’s Walks” are conducted across the country to encourage average citizens to appreciate and engage the complex and dazzling ecosystems which make up our cityscapes (Here in NYC, MAS is hosting 200+ free walks throughout the city from today through Sunday). But there’s no place better to appreciate all things Jane Jacobs than Greenwich Village, the neighborhood in which she lived and which so informed and inspired her writings and activism, in turn helping to save it from destruction.
Tour Jane Jacobs’ NYC
With baseball season back in full swing, talk at some point turns to the heartbreak of losing the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. Modern Mechanix informs us that team owner Walter O’Malley had championed a Brooklyn dome stadium designed by Buckminster Fuller–and how the result is yet another reason to blame Robert Moses. O’Malley took the team to Cali, if you’ll remember, because he got a better deal on land for a stadium–better than he was able to get in the five boroughs. He had wanted to keep the team in Brooklyn, but Ebbets Field was looking down-at-the-heels by then and bad for morale. In 1955 O’Malley wrote dome-obsessed architect Buckminster Fuller requesting a domed stadium design.
So what happened?
“Master builder” Robert Moses–he of the 13 expressways that crisscross New York City–spent the 1970s living with his wife, Mary Grady Moses, in a three-bedroom co-op at 1 Gracie Terrace in Yorkville on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (h/t NYPost). We can see how the home’s sweeping river views would inspire the subject of Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” when pondering the conflicting issues of a complicated and changing city. The apartment is now for sale asking $1.95 million.
Robert Moses, the “master builder,” was arguably the most influential individual in the development of New York City’s politics and physical structure. He’s widely known for his hand in creating New York State’s massive parkway network (he built 13 expressways through NYC) and erecting large public housing complexes in low-scale neighborhoods (many of which were segregated), and has therefore been named as the source of many of the city’s gentrification and urban decline issues still present today. Regardless of this criticism, his breath of knowledge and experience was unparalleled (we can also thank him for Lincoln Center, Jones Beach, and countless public swimming pools) and is the subject of this 15-minute television program called Longines Chronoscope that aired in 1953, at the height of his heyday.
Watch the video here
One of the most iconic battles to decide the fate of New York City was waged, in the 1950s and ’60s, by Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. He, a Parks Commissioner turned power broker, was known for his aggressive urban renewal projects, tearing tenements down to build higher, denser housing. She, often dismissed as a housewife, emerged as his most vocal critic—not to mention a skilled organizer with the ability to stop some of Moses’ most ambitious plans.
A new documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, takes a close look at the groundbreaking work of Jane Jacobs and its importance in our urbanizing world today. Matt Tyrnauer, the director behind Valentino: The Last Emperor, compiled footage of both Jacobs and Moses alongside 1950s and ’60s New York, which is paired with voiceovers of Marissa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio as the battling duo. Experts in urban planning—everyone from Paul Goldberger to Robert A.M. Stern—also discuss Jacobs’ massive influence on housing policy and urban planning, as the film makes a convincing argument that Jacobs’ planning philosophies are needed now more than ever.
Read our review of the film
A row of Quonset huts in Canarsie, via Brooklyn Public Library
When veterans returned to NYC from WWII, they were met with a Depression-era housing shortage that resulted from a nearly 15-year lack of new development. To immediately address the issue, “master builder” Robert Moses (who by this time was reigning over the city’s public housing projects) proposed erecting Quonset huts on vacant land in Brooklyn and Queens. These curved, corrugated steel “shacks” were used in the Pacific as barracks and offices, as they were lightweight and quick and easy to assemble. As the Brownstone Detectives tell us, after much debate, the city agreed to use more than 500 Federal surplus huts as temporary public housing on land along the Belt Parkway in the South Brooklyn neighborhoods of Canarsie and Jamaica Bay, as well as in Jackson Heights, Middle Village, and Corona in Queens.
Get the whole history