Now that data on an individual basis is available from the 1940 Census, our Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center has launched Welcome to 1940s New York. The website is based on a 1943 “NYC Market Analysis” rich in local maps, photos, data, and narrative, providing a rare glimpse into life in New York City during that time.
We’re making this available both as context for the 1940 Census information, and for researchers and others generally interested in learning about New York in the ’40s. The New York Times has also published an article about the project, highlighting some then-and-now photos and demographic statistics of selected neighborhoods across the city.
My post below provides some background about how we came to develop the website. It also highlights some of the more intriguing things you’ll find there.
Piquing a graduate student’s interest
In 1997 the New York Bound bookstore was going out of business. I was a graduate student at Columbia University’s urban planning program, immersed in learning about all things New York. Of course, the bookstore’s sale was a must-visit event.
The bookstore was full of fascinating items, but most were either too expensive or too arcane for my interests. But one item fell right in the middle: not too pricey (the $100 was worth it, given the contents) and absolutely captivating, especially for someone like me who was also immersed in learning about computer mapping at the time.
The document was a New York City Market Analysis, published in 1943. Inside the cover the bookstore staff had written “Scarce Book”. I leafed through it and was amazed at the color-coded maps of every neighborhood in the city, visualizing down to the block what each area was paying in rent at the time. Each of 116 neighborhood profiles also included statistics from the 1940 Census, a narrative highlighting key socio-economic trends at the local level, and a handful of black & white photos.
My “Aha!” moment
I knew the document would come in handy one day. But once I bought it, it pretty much just sat idle on my shelf. That is, until earlier this year when news of the 1940 Census data coming online started to pick up steam. Lightbulb! If we could republish the 1943 Market Analysis, it would provide context for the individual 1940 data, and the 1940 Census would be a great hook to focus attention on this incredible historic resource documenting city life from that era.
The 1943 document was copyrighted. But copyright law as subsequently amended required copyright owners to explicitly renew the copyright within 28 years or forego rights to the material. In this case, the 28 year period ran to 1971. With the help of CUNY’s legal team and others, we determined that the copyright was not renewed. The 1943 document is in the public domain.
Welcome to 1940s New York
Our team at the CUNY Graduate Center decided that an easy but effective way to republish the material would be with a simple interactive map: click on a neighborhood to display its 1943 profile. The project became more involved than that — and our effort is still very much a work in progress — but that basic feature is what’s available at our Welcome to 1940s New York website.
We use DocumentCloud to provide easy access to the entire 1943 document, as well as neighborhood-specific profiles such as the example below:
Highlights from the neighborhood profiles
At CUR’s website we provide a detailed overview of how the Census statistics from 1940 compares with the city of today. I’ve highlighted some items below:
Each neighborhood’s population size is compared with another U.S. city (e.g., with a population of almost 180,000 in 1940, Williamsburg, Brooklyn was “larger than Fort Worth, Tex.”) The comparisons reflect a time when the city’s population — overall, and even for specific neighborhoods — dwarfed most other urban areas across the country.
Color-coded Maps: rent too damn high even in 1940?!
The maps portray the geographic patterns of monthly rent levels across the city, ranging from under $30 to $150 per month or more. After adjusting for inflation, the high-end rent would be just under $2,500 in today’s dollars – in some contemporary neighborhoods, still a relatively modest rent.
With the maps, you can see for yourself how closely or not the patterns match life in our city today. As you do, take a moment to appreciate the cartographic craftsmanship involved in color coding each block based on Census data. No desktop computers or Google Maps back then!
Hundreds of Photos
Each profile includes black & white photos from the early 1940s, usually of typical residential or commercial blocks in the neighborhood. The photos are angled in the original, so don’t worry that the scanning process tilted the images.
Each profile includes a brief description of the neighborhood. The emphasis is on local socio-economics, but the depictions offer a window into local demographic changes afoot at the time. Here’s the narrative for Maspeth, Queens as an example:
Maspeth is not a thickly settled district, but it enjoyed a 10 percent population growth in the 1930-1940 decade. The southwestern portion is an industrial area. Much of the southeastern portion is devoted to cemeteries. The residential area consists almost entirely of one and two-family dwellings. Most of the houses adjoining the industrial area are old and in the low rental group. There are some newer homes in the northern section of the district. The balance of the homes are of the less pretentious type. Grand Avenue is the main shopping street.
Borough maps and statistics
The 1943 document also provides six fold-out, color maps – one for each borough and one citywide – along with economic statistics at a boro-wide level such as:
- manufacturers (number of establishments, wages, and value of products);
- wholesale and retail trade;
- number of families owning a radio set;
- aggregate value of savings deposits; and
- number of residential telephones.
A collaborative effort
The Welcome to 1940s New York website is the result of David Burgoon’s professionalism, creativity, and efficient, effective development. Kristen Grady georeferenced maps from the 1943 document in order to create a GIS layer of neighborhood areas which you see on the website, as well as the citywide map of rent levels. The website’s logo was designed by Jeannine Kerr.
We are indebted to DocumentCloud for hosting the individual scanned pages from the 1943 document, and for providing online access to the material, including high-resolution versions of the Market Analysis profiles.
Several people reviewed early versions of Welcome to 1940s New York and provided helpful critiques and recommendations for improvement. Hopefully we did justice to their suggestions. They include: Jordan Anderson, Neil Freeman, Kristen Grady, Amanda Hickman, Michael Keller, Nathaniel V. Kelso, Jeannine Kerr, and Dan Nguyen.
The individual pages from the 1943 Market Analysis were scanned by the FedEx Office staff at the 34th St & Madison Ave location. Big thanks to them!
We have reached out to potential partners to expand and enhance this project, hoping to leverage the 1940 Census data and other vintage statistics, maps, and photos to paint a richer picture of life in New York during the first half of the 20th century. This includes:
- working with the NYC Department of City Planning’s Population Division — home to even more decades-old maps and data at the local level (down to city blocks) and citywide; and
- discussing a potential exhibit (or exhibits) with local institutions such as the Museum of the City of New York, the New-York Historical Society, and/or the NY Public Library.
I’ve been lucky enough to pore over the original myself, and seeing it (and experiencing it in a tactile way) is inspiring. I worry that making it accessible interactively the way we’ve done it – neighborhood by neighborhood – disembodies it perhaps too much. (Online access makes it widely available, but maybe takes something away from the experience, sigh.) But nonetheless I hope everyone can check out the website, get a sense of what New York was like more than 70 years ago, and put the material to good use.