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Favourite books: a 1930s guide to New York City

Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley is fascinated by this New Deal era government-funded guide, which provides a flavour of the time while still being effective as a guide today – the latest in our mini-series on favourite books for the new year

It’s mind-boggling that such a thing as the WPA Guide could have happened and been funded by the state. The New York edition, originally published in 1939, comes in at just under 750 pages of quite small print, and that’s just one book on one city in the American Guide Series. It makes the Pevsner guides seem like quite a small undertaking.

The project employed all sorts of contributors, including fiction writers, typographers, and engravers – a gigantic range of people on the government dollar – to do this very generous thing, which is aimed at both people who live in the city and also those from out of town. That balance is very charming.

It’s made to be dipped into but I ended up reading it from cover to cover, having returned from visiting New York in the summer. I’d drawn up an itinerary of huge public housing projects to visit – all the stuff Jane Jacobs hated. I didn’t have the book at that point and was only dimly aware of the Federal Writers’ Project – a government initiative to provide jobs for out-of-work writers – but every time I looked up a building, the references led back to this guide, so I really thought I should take a proper look.

A lot of it still works as a guide today although it was written in the 1930s, when the three estates I was particularly looking at (Queensbridge Houses in Queens, Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn and the Harlem River Houses) were either new or being built.

It’s so much more than just an architecture guide; the architecture is just part of a portrait of the city. And it’s quite fun. It’s New York City in the 30s during the great age of Broadway so it’s going to be quite lively. There’s definitely a wise-guy tone to lots of it but also an enthusiasm, which is very high modernist. The writers get much more upset if they find a building that’s half-timbered than they do if it has been built by Communists.

It’s a good guide to all the familiar, obvious stuff, such as the Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building and Grand Central rail terminal. But while it does say ‘look at all our amazing skyscrapers’, it also stresses the labour buildings, the multicultural buildings and the socialist history of the city. And the guide constantly talks specifically about what the city is doing for the place – there’s a real pride in the work of City Hall.

Many people coming to the city when it was published would have been there to visit the New York World’s Fair in Queens (1939-40) and the book includes a guide to that, though most of what it describes is now gone. The fair was a counterpoint to the New Deal –  showing what everything could be like when General Motors and others build America. The book doesn’t see a contradiction that you can have both the Rockefeller Center and the Cooperative Village – a community of housing cooperatives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The city could have fantastic capitalist spaces, but also cream off profits that were put into large-scale social housing projects.

The guide reveals the gap between rich and poor, and makes a big deal of how the city will do the big things, such as building public works to help solve it

It’s extremely of its time – for example, it accepts that some estates are segregated as black or Jewish areas – but it includes a detailed guide to Harlem and advice on where to go for the best jazz clubs, for example. And because it was written 10 years before McCarthyism, it could get away with things like telling you where the best place to go to a socialist meeting was.

The pictures are fantastic with incredible photos, woodcuts and engravings, showing the highs and lows of New York society. There are a lot of depictions of poverty mixed in within everything else – the guide doesn’t stress it, but it does reveal the gap between rich and poor, and makes a big deal of how the city will do the big things, such as building public works like new bridges and new parks and schools to help solve it. New York was a huge, industrial city with huge housing cooperatives built by trade unions, and the images also capture how the industrial and urban met the suburban, even rural.

It was very interesting to visit the 1930s estates so many years later. I was expecting them to be much worse than they are, but I think I was in the wrong city for bad social housing. Queensbridge Houses looked very nice in the summer of 2022, full of green space which had grown up over time with dense trees and benches, where people can hang out in the shade. It has very spacious blocks, quite low-rise, surrounded by streets, and is a real oasis in the city. For years, this sort of approach to city planning was considered a bad thing by people like Jacobs. But it’s clear that in the right circumstances, it works very well. As well as being an oasis of open space, it’s also an oasis of affordability in Queens, where enormous blocks of flats aimed at luxury clientele are being developed along the river.

Williamsburg Houses looked great, but it was less of a surprise that it was still nice. Its German-style modernist architecture with flat roofs and beautiful metal windows often make it the architects’ choice – by the time Queensbridge Houses were built a bit later, the budgets had gone down a bit. The Harlem River Houses development was the only one of the three that had been privatised – apparently with a covenant to keep the rents down – and was in the process of being done up when I visited.

I am generally not much of a one for the Yanks. America always feels like a very foreign culture, although maybe we don’t have the luxury of thinking that anymore. But this New York guide opens up a very different way of seeing a place at a very particular time.

The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s New York by Work Projects Administration, 1939, reissued by The New Press, 1995

Owen Hatherley is a writer on architecture and cultural politics. His latest book is Modern Buildings in Britain – A Gazetteer, with photographs by Chris Matthews, Particular Books, 2022. He was speaking to Pamela Buxton

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