In 1939, the Federal Writers Project published New York City Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to the Five Boroughs of the Metropolis: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond. It was part of a national government-funded bailout for writers that lasted from 1935 until early 1943.
The NYC edition includes amazing imagery from the Great Depression, like that gloomy picture of Union Square. I’ll share my favorite passages in coming months, but here’s a section from the introduction. According to David A. Taylor, the great novelist John Cheever wrote this passage.
Download a free copy of the FWP New York City Guide at this link.
By John Cheever
The liner steams through the Narrows (the Normandie, Queen Mary, Bremen; the dozen greatest ships of the world, sailing from Liverpool, Southampton, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Havre, Genoa, head for that narrow strip of water and steam dexterously through it, turn precisely toward the slender island toward the north). Out of an early morning fog come brooding, ghostly calls. A dark blotch appears, takes form an anchored tramp: coffee from Brazil, rubber from Sumatra, bananas from Costa
Rica and slowly disappears; another liner is suddenly moving alongside, also steaming northward, and then dissolves into the white nothing. Invisible ferries scuttle, tooting, across the harbor.
The Limited, bearing a sight-seeing family (there are 115,000 of them daily from Waco, Mobile, Los Angeles, Kansas City), the literary genius of Aurora High School, the prettiest actress in the Burlington dramatic club, a farm boy hoping to start for Wall Street, and a mechanic with an idea, pounds across the state of New Jersey. They cross the meadows, see far off the great wall of the city and dive into the darkness beneath Jersey City and the Hudson River. Or perhaps the train comes from Winnipeg, Gary, Erie, and follows the Hudson toward its mouth or crosses the Hell Gate from New England.
In the city, night workers, their footsteps sharp, irregular on the quiet streets, return home. A water wagon rolls by. Bands are still playing in half a dozen night clubs. In the Upper East Side, in the Upper West Side, in the Gashouse and Hell’s Kitchen, in Chelsea and Greenwich Village, the faint and broken ringing of alarm clocks comes to the empty
street. Another day, another dollar. Don’t forget to tell the laundryman not to starch my shirts! Slowly the air between the buildings fills with light.
The crowd increases with the light, a black moving mass, workbound; a million pale faces; a clicking of heels that swells to one sustained roll of thunder. The roar of the city shoots up to encompass it. A rivet overhead pierces the sultry sky; another shakes the earth. He took me to the Paradise. He’s been to college. We came home in a taxi. The voice is lost in the rumble of an elevated train jammed with work-going clerks
gazing at a woman leaning out of the window at 124th Street, 123rd, 122nd, I2Ist, I20th
The morning sun picks out an apartment house, a cigar store, streams through the dusty windows of a loft. The racket swells with the light. These shoes are killing me, she said, taking the cover off the typewriter. Main Central is up to forty-six. Did you read about the earthquake?
Looms, shears, jackhammers, trolley cars, voices, add to the din. And in the quieter streets the hawker with the pushcart moves slowly by. Badabadabada O Gee! Hawkers of vegetables, plants, fruit. Badabadabada
In half a million rooming-house rooms the call penetrates ill-fitting windows. The boy who came to be a writer is waked in his mid-town room and dresses for his shift on the elevator. In Chelsea the girl who came to be an actress launders her stockings. The boy who was going to Wall Street sprawls on his bed, wincing as each cry cuts into his dream of the smell of fresh hay and warm milk. A deep blast rises, drowning the sound of hawkers, children, automobiles. The Conte di Savoia steams up the river; wine from Capri, olive oil from Spain, figs and dates from North Africa.
Shouting screaming kids fill the streets, playing baseball, football, hopscotch, jump-rope, dodging swift-moving trucks and taxis. Down Fifth Avenue marches a May Day parade sixty thousand strong. Solidarity forever, solidarity forever, the portentous tramp, tramp of regimented feet; slogans called, banners flying. Up lower Broadway an open car moves slowly through the yelling throng and on its pulled-back hood,
laughing, waving into the snowstorm that flutters thickly downward from high-up windows, sits a returned aviator, explorer, movie actor, champion chess player, the first man to walk the length of Manhattan backwards.
The late afternoon sunshine glitters on windshields, chauffeurs’ caps, on Parisian gowns, Chinese ivories, ebony from Africa, Mexican pottery, and furs from Siberia. Driving back from Southampton in the fall we used to sit up in front with the chauffeur. Aunt Helen had a staircase in her house that cost fifteen thousand dollars. He died right in the middle of the depression. Smells of cooking fill the corridors. The lights go on
in a loft on a side street, in an office on the thirty-fourth floor of the Empire State Building, along the streets and the bridges. The tugs are riding with port and starboard lights.
The sun leaves the highest of the city’s buildings. There are no steamship blasts but loud now are the hoarse pipings of tugs, the yap of ferries with homeward-bound crowds. I’ve worked overtime three nights in a row. Two martinis. Did you see the way he looked at me when I put on my hat and walked out? The light burns out at the foot of 23nd Street, 22nd Street, 21st, 20th, 19th …
The light leaves the flat roofs of the ghetto along the river. Here is the greatest city of the Jews. Here, all unconscious of exoticism, thousands of persons celebrate bar mitzvah, sit shiva for their dead. Streets littered with papers, bags of garbage shooting out of windows, lines of pushcarts selling food, neckties, pictures, bric-a-brac.
East Side, West Side, all around the town, boys and girls together hanging around shop doors; whispering, giggling in tenement hallways, in courtyards smelling of backhouses. The world’s most populous Italian city outside of Italy spends the sultry night on doorsteps, standing, sprawling on sidewalks of broken cement. So with the world’s third Irish city.
The world’s Negro metropolis is the most crowded of all. Home has scarcely room to hang one’s hat, which instead is hung in churches, club rooms, rent parties. And in the Upper West Side fifty thousand families will be reading the newspaper by the sitting room table; fifty thousand Upper East Side families will be finishing a quiet game of bridge or sitting at the library table; and among the thousand already asleep on the
Lower East Side will be a large number of old timers who have never seen Broadway.
With final blast, quivering over the harbor, a liner moves out of its docks; southern cotton for Liverpool, northwestern wheat for Bordeaux, Kansas City hides for Brazil, Virginia tobacco, Massachusetts shoes, Chicago canned meats, lumber from the Pacific Coast.
The ship moves along the path of a thousand living steamers, past the ghosts of ten thousand sailing vessels and steamships; vessels that brought the Dutch, the English and their goods, Negro slaves, West Indian rum, British textiles, Australian wool, German machinery.
Night draws to a close. Bands are still playing behind the closed doors of half a dozen night clubs. The river wind lifts yesterday’s paper the length of a block. A water wagon rolls by. A solitary taxi tracks the wet paving. Goodnight darling, goodnight, goodnight.