55 Harrowing Photos Of The Great Depression In New York City

Published December 4, 2016
Updated August 5, 2019

The Great Depression hit few cities harder than New York — but the city's darkest hour was also the crucible in which today's New York was forged.

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55 Harrowing Photos Of The Great Depression In New York City
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Today, we simply can't truly appreciate the magnitude of the Great Depression.

Just nine years ago, the United States fell to its knees as the housing market went bust, Detroit collapsed, and Wall Street crumbled, marking the start of the Great Recession. Within just two years, the U.S. unemployment rate more than doubled, reaching a whopping ten percent in 2009.

The crisis went worldwide and ultimately became the worst global recession since World War II. But none of it held a candle to the Great Depression.

During the Great Recession, the worldwide GDP fell by less than one percent. During the Great Depression, that fall was 15 times worse. And in the U.S. in particular, unemployment during the Great Depression increased not by a mere factor of two, but by a factor of six, ultimately hitting historic highs of about 25 percent in 1933.

The trouble began in earnest four years earlier with the Wall Street crashes of September and October 1929. Fueled by excessive stock speculation and shaky banking standards unequipped to handle those investments, the crash plunged the U.S. and the rest of the Western industrialized world into the worst economic cataclysm in modern history.

And perhaps no place in America felt the effects of the Great Depression worse than the place where it at least nominally started: New York City.

For decades before the crash, both European immigrants and domestic rural migrants had been flooding into New York, causing the city's population to double between 1900 and 1930. With so many new people — many of them impoverished to begin with — pouring in, New York's housing and job prospects were shaky to say the least even before the crash.

And when the crash came, the results were devastating. In the words of the New York Tenement Museum:

"By 1932, half of New York's manufacturing plants were closed, one in every three New Yorkers was unemployed, and roughly 1.6 million were on some form of relief. The city was unprepared to deal with this crisis."

Yet the city, under the leadership of Mayor Fiorello Laguardia, ultimately proved well prepared to respond to the crisis. To say nothing of his administration's work relief programs, LaGuardia's housing initiatives shut down 10,000 decrepit tenements (more than half of which lacked central heating and toilets) and forced landlords to upgrade another 30,000.

In the end, the Great Depression served to expose the relatively hidden wounds that had been festering in New York for years — or at least force the powers that be to do something about them. And with those wounds cleaned out, the city was able to rebuild into something stronger and become, in many ways, the New York we know today.

Next, see how the Great Depression crippled the entire nation and African-Americans in particular. Then, have a look at the other hard times that New York City has faced in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
Cite This Article
Kuroski, John. "55 Harrowing Photos Of The Great Depression In New York City." AllThatsInteresting.com, December 4, 2016, https://allthatsinteresting.com/great-depression-new-york-city. Accessed April 21, 2024.