One of the most important if not enduring images of the Great Depression is Dorothea Lange’s haunting portrait of a migrant worker cradling her two young children. Her eyes tell a personal story of quiet desperation, while the photo itself serves as a tragic commentary on a country in the throes of economic devastation so great that even its children were put in harms way.
Less familiar, but of equal importance, at least locally, are the images and stories of Inwood and points nearby, as the Crash of 1929 spread like a cancer through American society.
This is a story of tragedy and hardship, of coming together in time of need, of unemployment, public works, arts and ultimately survival.
While the scope of Great Depression seems unimaginable from a modern perspective, it is important to remember that this nation had been though a series of economic crises before the big crash. In 1907, 1910 and 1921 the nation endured other depressions, though at the time they were referred to as “panics.” To add to the chaos, the whole Kingsbridge area suffered terribly in 1922 when the Johnson Ironworks closed its doors on some 1,200 workers to make room for construction on the Spuyten Duyvil.
And while these “panics” and layoffs had a profound effect on Inwood, the Great Depression was a different animal all together. By 1926, working class New Yorkers had followed subway construction north, carving out a denser, apartment based community, where before existed mainly farmland. The landscape had changed. This time there would be casualties.
Even through the eyes of a child the drawn out day to day downward spiral was evident and terrifying. Lifelong Inwood resident Peter Dongan, who sold newspapers after school to help support his family helps set the scene:
“I developed an acute awareness of the Great Depression in Inwood. I have vivid memories of seeing people’s possessions carried out of their homes and deposited on the curb, and usually without terrible preparation. The Sheriff would appear and say ‘you’re evicted’ and there was no time to pack. So you would have a tearful scene, with people sitting on the sidewalk amidst their belongings.
It was a practice for people to go around the neighborhood and ring doorbells and say ‘we’ve been thrown out of our house,’ and collect a dollar here, a dollar there, whatever people could give, and get themselves moved back in again.” (Source: You Must Remember This, Jeff Kisselhoff, 1989.)
But many from in and out of the neighborhood had no such generosity to rely on and set up clapboard shacks, tents or lived in derelict boats along the riverfront.
To the east, along the Harlem River sat one such community. By all accounts this floating Hooverville, in the vicinity of 207th Street, functioned in a fairly civilized manner with neighbors watching each others backs. Some even grew their own vegetables.
Author Helen Worden, who walked the perimeter of Manhattan in the early 1930’s while researching her book, “Round Manhattan’s Rim,” describes Inwood’s east side:
“A curiously individual group they are, these house-boat homes. The personal taste of the people who live in them is reflected in the shape, ornamentations and furnishings of the houseboats. All had porches, many flowers, and one boasted a stained-glass dining-room window.
A houseboat costs about eight hundred dollars. Ten dollars a month is the docking charge. The majority have telephones, electricity and water from the city. Year in and year out these boats anchor off Two Hundred and Seventh Street. All have names. Sunny is printed on the life preserver of John Olsen’s boat, and Jennie’s House appears on the side of a neighbor’s dwelling. Sailors handiwork in the form of rope-knotted curtains, carved frames and silk-embroidered flags dress up the rooms.
Jess Thomas is the guardian angel of the houseboat settlement. He is a great, tall, blue-black Negro from Binnettsville, South Carolina, with a friendly smile and a pride in his neighborhood. He reminded me of the descendants of the African chieftains who live on Edisto Island off the coast of South Carolina.
It is Jess’s sweet-potato patch and peanut crop that has made a farming community of this locality in a city of six million. ‘Shucks, they told me peanuts and sweet potatoes can’t be grown up here!, he chuckled. ‘But look at ’em.’ He pointed to the healthy plants. ‘After frost hits the vines I’ll be able to dig ’em.'”
On the west side of Inwood along the Harlem River stood Camp Dyckman, another Hooverville, this one based on land. By the time Helen Worden visited the camp sometime before 1934 most of its residents, mainly World War I veterans, had relocated south to the infamous Camp Thomas Paine located on the Hudson in the West 70’s. Worden gave this description of what she witnessed looking west from Inwood Hill:
“Below a straggling settlement of shacks and lean-tos fringed the water.
A man swinging an ax hacked at a wood-pile near a house. We watched him with idle interest. A short distance away stood a soda-pop stand tended by a ragged aproned proprietor. Suddenly the wood-cutter stopped, gave a shout, picked up his ax and charged at the soda-stand owner, who dived out from his store like a frightened rabbit and scuttled down the shore-line to a small hut. He locked himself in just as the man with the ax arrived. After hanging around for a few minutes the big fellow went back to his wood-chopping.
‘What is that settlement over there?’ we asked at Captain R. T. Windle’s boat shop when we reached Dyckman Street.
‘Used to be a B. E. F. village,’ some one volunteered.
‘It ain’t much of anything now. Why don’t you walk, up and take a look at it?’
We followed the shore, climbing over the cans, rocks and refuse to the wind-swept group of shacks. A man and a dog guarded the first one, the same man who had wielded the ax. He stared at us through surly eyes, but called to his dog to be quiet when it barked. Just beyond his house was a small tar-papered hut marked head-quarters. From the top of it waved a tattered American flag and posted up on the front in bold letters was this verse:
‘Hoover was the Engineer
Mellon rang the bell
Wall Street gave the signal
Then the country went to Hell.‘”
In Marble Hill, just across the Spuyten Duyvil a remarkable woman named Sarah J. Atwood and her daughter Mavis, ran a boxcar village. Atwood, a widowed mother at the age of 22 was no stranger to the plight of the unemployed. A former employment agent, Atwood operated a food kitchen on Ellis Island during an economic downturn in 1914. She spent most of her adulthood espousing the same mantra– handouts only make matters worse–“Provide employment. That’s all. Make work. Make jobs.”
Testifying before Congress in 1916, more than a decade before the Great Depression , Atwood stated: “If there is employment made, and these men are taken and given good, wholesome, outdoor work, portable buildings can be put up, rock crushers can be started. Those men can be well fed, and in 90 days would learn the habit of industry, and some of them, perhaps, might begin a very different life.”
And while Atwood’s boxcar jungle was no walk in the park, it was, by all accounts well run and maintained. The fifty or so men living in the encampment were expected to contribute several dollars a week for room and board. The men slept four to a boxcar. Dinner likely featured Atwood’s signature “Mulligan stew,” a hearty pot of cabbage and other vegetables cooked over an open fire. While ammenities were obviously limited, each boxcar was equipped with a wood stove and nails to hang clothing. Idle hours were simply spent tossing horseshoes.
While running a Westchester railroad labor camp in 1941 Atwood was killed in an automobile accident. By then the 72 year old firebrand had put some one million men to work.
In the November of 1931, Inwood Hill Park benefited from the financial calamity that had befallen the nation. That fall, among the trees and old Indian paths, a gang of laborers set out to restore the site to its former splendor. According to an account published in the New York Evening Post: “One thousand men, unemployed heads of families, were assigned to jobs today in Inwood Hill Park.
The work, made possible by Deputy Commissioner of Parks John M. Hart, was arranged by the work bureau of the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee, and the men will be paid $15 a week, for three day’s work a week, pending arrangements with the City Emergency Work Commission.
The men assigned to the project all have registered during the past month at the district offices of the work bureau. All are men with families or dependents, who, the work bureau said, were considered the most needy of the applicants for emergency work.
Commissioner Hart explained that the work would consist of clearing undeveloped land, cutting dead trees, grading, laying new trails for the use of the public and repairing old ones. The work is being supervised by foremen assigned from the Park Department. Whenever possible, dead trees will be salvaged for firewood to be distributed to needy families of men on the work bureau payroll.”
By the mid-1930’s Parks Commissioner Robert Moses began using W.P.A. funds and labor to build bridges, swimming pools, parks and playgrounds around the city. In Inwood Hill Park labor gangs set quickly to work demolishing old structures; derelict, but once beautiful mansions from a previous gilded age, and began carving out the familiar trails hikers enjoy today. Joining them in the Depression labor pool were workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal public relief program whose workers often included teenagers eager to learn a trade.
In June of 1935 workers began construction on the Henry Hudson Bridge. The bridge, first promised in 1909, was a source of bitter debate and protest. Many felt the bridge would mar the natural beauty of the area, but Moses ignored the local outcry. By December of the following year his bridge was complete. The project came in five million dollars under budget.
Much like the Parks Department, the arts also benefitted from the pool of unemployed talent created by the Great Depression.
Artists including H.A. Weiss and Harold Faye were brought on board by Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) to document the fruits of Inwood’s labor on canvas. They quickly turned their eyes to the Spuyten Duyvil, which was and remains a source of inspiration for countless artists.
While the ill effects of the Depression would be felt until World War II, the residents of Inwood learned to adapt and overcome. In some pockets a barter system was created for the exchange of goods and services.
Scarred, a little battered, but otherwise intact, Inwood had survived the Great Depression.
Author’s request: If you or someone you know have depression era stories you would like to share I encourage you to leave a comment below.