Seventy years ago this week, the WPA Guide to New York City came out amid a campaign blitz of jingles and quiz games. In 1939, as America emerged from the worst of the Depression, the “working press” that remained after a decade of contraction of the publishing industry assessed the work of people holding “welfare jobs” on the WPA. A job on the WPA Writers’ Project carried “a stigma of the lowest order,” as a former WPA editor observed, “a dark and embarrassing symbol of a time of their lives when circumstances beyond their control compelled them to admit, on public record, personal defeat.” John Cheever and others felt that sting, and for decades nobody wanted to revisit it.
At the time, they hoped that the guide would speak for itself. In 1938, Richard Wright had whetted the appetites of New York radio listeners for the WPA guide, promising that the guidebook would “go behind the scenes and show that phase of Harlem which the casual visitor or tourist does not see.” When the guide came out on June 24,1939 English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner gave an interview during a visit to the WPA offices on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, where she proclaimed the Writers’ Project “the most exciting experiment that has ever been carried out.” The New York Times reviewer called the guidebook “a dictionary to the city” sprinkled with engaging history and contemporary stories; it “should find a place in every New York household.”
For decades, the guide was passed among people curious about that changing landscape. Michael Chabon used the New York guide as a walking companion for months as he prowled the streets and subway lines while researching The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Grace Paley, having grown up in the Bronx in the 1940s, understood how the WPA connected its writers to the city. The Writers’ Project, she said, was “marvelous at helping people to find their own ears” and getting people “talking about what their lives were really like.” And the legendary Times editor R.W. Apple, Jr. used the WPA guides often in his travels, having been a fan since he came across the Virginia volume during a stint in the Army in the late 1950s and it led him to ruined plantation homes that had fallen off other maps.
When I came upon the New York City guide, its short list of the editorial staff, with Wright and Cheever nestled amid less-remembered names, intrigued me. I loved the cinematic capsules of life in the neighborhood essays. But beyond the stylistic turns, it was often simple facts that made me pause: the catalog of radio call letters, subway routes, and accounts of sidewalk hawkers and preachers.
Many of the WPA writers found the experience of producing the book an opportunity for interpreting their own histories. At a panel held at the New York Public Library in 1983, Ralph Ellison defended the WPA regional and ethnic histories. “One of the things that the WPA did,” he said, “was to allow that intermixture between the formal and the folk -- the real experience of people as they feel it.” The WPA books filled gaps that “official” history had left blank, including African-American history. “Let’s face it,” he said, “you couldn’t find the truth about my background in that history.”
With the invocations of the Great Depression today, the most striking parallel may be the searching and sifting process itself, the effort to make sense of things in hard times after years when there was little will to question the status quo. That kind of sifting may appear to be a process of restating simple facts about our lives and then finding something new.
“We are a country which improvises,” Ellison said that evening at the library. “We are creating American history ... We must still improvise our culture and we do that best when we make use of all that is at hand.”