Welcome to 1940s New York

An interactive time capsule to all 116 New York City neighborhoods, from 1943.

Image
Courtesy of Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center

It was 1997, and the New York Bound bookstore was going out of business. Steven Romalewski, then a graduate student in urban planning, was browsing the remains when a faded cover caught his eye. He'd hit upon a copy of the New York City Market Analysis from 1943. The Bound staff had written "scarce" on the inside. A hundred bucks later, Romalewski was the proud owner.

The New York City Market Analysis was indeed a rare item. A joint project by four New York newspapers, including the Times and the Hearst company, the book stands as a time capsule to each of the city's 116 neighborhoods. It's filled with brief narrative profiles, demographic statistics from the 1940 Census, black-and-white photos set at a jaunty angle, and full-page color-coded block-by-block maps of building rents.

Romalewski had hoped to do something with the book, but for more than a decade it did little beside collect dust on his bookshelf. Then, earlier this year, he learned that the Census would be releasing its 1940 data online. He went to a New York Public Library event on the 1940 Census, only to find it was sold out. It seemed high time to bring the era back to life.

"With such keen interest in the 1940 data I knew we had to find a way to make the 1943 document widely available," says Romalewski, now mapping director at CUNY's Center for Urban Research and author of the Spatiality blog. "First we researched the copyright issue, and concluded it was in the public domain. Then we scrambled a bit to scan it and develop a website around it."

The result is "Welcome to 1940s New York," an interactive online map designed to showcase the New York City Market Analysis in its entirety. Visitors can choose a New York neighborhood and call up high-resolution scans of the book's original two-page profile. The Center for Urban Research has also compiled analogous statistics from the modern era, so visitors can see how things like population, racial diversity, and rental prices have changed from then to now.

As you'd expect, some things are a whole lot different. On a citywide level, non-whites accounted for less than 7 percent of the 1943 New York population, while they now make up about two-thirds. Other things haven't changed nearly as much. Despite all the overhauls to Times Square in the past seven decades, for example, the neighborhood's population has remained just about the same (it's down about 6 percent from 1943, or 2,450 people, to 42,070).

To Romalewski, one of the most striking contrasts between past and present is the cost of living in the city. In 1943 a high-end rent was $150 a month, or about $2,500 in modern currency. That's far below the average Manhattan rent of about $3,400 today, the center notes in a lengthy analysis of the Market Analysis.

"I'd say the most important characteristic about 1940s New York was that it was more affordable, so it provided a living and working environment for a broader cross-section of the population," says Romalewski. "We risk becoming too focused on the city as residence for the very rich and play area for tourists. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I think the city of 1940 was generally a more sustainable and livable place."

A few neighborhood name changes are worth mentioning. The Soundview area of the Bronx, for instance, used to be called Park Versailles (described in the book as "a rapidly growing residential district of middle-class buying power"). East Williamsburg was formerly English Kills (where most residents "work in plants in the district"). The area around J.F.K. Airport was South Laurelton (the "new Jamaica Bay Airport" was still in the works.).

We plucked out five neighborhoods to examine with a bit more statistical detail. (Please note a few explanatory notes at the bottom of the post.) The other 111 are all yours. Happy time traveling.

LOWER EAST SIDE

Delancey Street from Essex to Ludlow, circa 1943.

Market Analysis excerpt: "Visitors to New York find the Lower East Side an amazing show. There is nothing comparable in America. ... Its more than 100,000 foreign-born population gives the Lower East Side a tinge that is essentially alien. ... The pushcart markets, Chinatown, the Bowery, barber colleges, tattoo shops, flop houses, second-hand clothes exchanges provide color and atmosphere seldom encountered in the American scene."

1943 Statistics
Total population - 234,934 (larger than Omaha, Nebraska, at the time) 
Native white - 124,234
Foreign-born white - 100,566
Black* - 1,800
Other races - 8,334
High-end rent (families)** - 53
Low-end rent - 50,505

2010 Statistics***
Total population 171,607 (down 27 percent) 
Native white - 58,714
Foreign-born white - 12,288
Black - 13,144
Other races - 90,957
High-end rent (units) - 8,904
Low-end rent - 1,193

BATTERY PARK

Nassau Street looking north from John Street, circa 1943.

Market Analysis excerpt: "Battery Park district follows no formula. ... It is the money center of the world and most of its residents live in tenements. On summer days, it's millionaires sit easy in air-cooled offices. On summer nights its sleeping babies are restless on crowded fire escapes."

1943 Statistics
Total population - 9,479 (larger than Port Angeles, Washington, at the time) 
Native white - 5,396
Foreign-born white - 3,845
Black - 214
Other races - 24
High-end rent (families) - 5
Low-end rent - 1,118

2010 Statistics
Total population - 58,672 (up a borough-high 519 percent) 
Native white - 30,174
Foreign-born white - 6,804
Black - 1,800
Other races - 13,076
High-end rent (units) - 12,394
Low-end rent - 28

LONG ISLAND CITY

36th Avenue looking west toward 30th Street, circa 1943.

Market Analysis excerpt: "Motorists from mid-town Manhattan enter Queens through Long Island City. This district is joined to Manhattan by the Queensboro Bridge and the Midtown Tunnel. Long Island City is almost surrounded by water and railroad yards. It is a big industrial center."

1943 Statistics
Total population - 58,158 (larger than York, Pennsylvania, at the time) 
Native white - 41,798
Foreign-born white - 15,835
Black - 485
Other races - 67
High-end rent (families) - 53
Low-end rent - 6,968

2010 Statistics
Total population - 56,911 (a change of only 1,274 people in 70 years) 
Native white - 17,841
Foreign-born white - 10,722
Black - 7,405
Other races - 15,082
High-end rent (units) - 1,530
Low-end rent - 257

PARK SLOPE

7th Avenue at Union Street, circa 1943.

Market Analysis excerpt: "Incomes here are high but, receding from the Park, purchasing power drops markedly. This district is one of the best in the city for chain grocery stores, although most of them are the smaller service units."

1943 Statistics

Total population - 141,670 (larger than Scranton, Pennsylvania, at the time) 
Native white - 103,663
Foreign-born white - 35,232
Black - 2,662
Other races - 113
High-end rent (families) - 571
Low-end rent - 11,890

2010 Statistics
Total population - 97,705 (a 31-percent drop, fifth most in the borough) 
Native white - 60,395
Foreign-born white - 6,763
Black - 21,063
Other races - 19,712
High-end rent (units) - 5,947
Low-end rent - 521

BAYCHESTER (today Co-op City)

Wickham Avenue, circa 1943.

Market Analysis excerpt: "Baychester proper is very sparsely populated. Throughout the central and eastern areas a fill-in and grading program still continues."

1943 Statistics

Total population - 6,048 (larger than Prescott, Arizona, at the time) 
Native white - 4,740
Foreign-born white - 1,281
Black - 24
Other races - 3 [ed: !]
High-end rent (families) - 33
Low-end rent - 357

2010 Statistics
Total population - 50,755 (a borough-high 740 percent increase, and second citywide to Travis, Staten Island) 
Native white - 11,652
Foreign-born white - 1,564
Black - 27,733
Other races - 9,096
High-end rent (units) - 15
Low-end rent - 59

* The original Market Analysis uses the term "Negro," but, yeah.
** Some clarification on the rent comparison. In 1943 a high-end rent was $150 or more a month and a low-end was under $30, and the statistics are given in number of families. Today's high-end rents are $2,000 or more a month and low-end are under $150; these stats, provided by the Center for Urban Research, are given in rental units.
*** Racial demographics may not add up to the total population figure because the Center for Urban Research calculated these statistics in different tables.

All images are in the public domain but a special thanks goes to the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center.

About the Author