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Civics Education and
Home Schooling

The Great Depression and the Cities

References to the Great Depression abound on contemporary talk shows, feature stories in newspapers, and barbershops—with good cause. If you have reached the Biblical three-score-and-ten years of age, you may remember hearing your elders talk about that era. You may have also noticed that even if each elder remembered something different about it, they agreed on one point: The Great Depression affected the lives of all Americans, one way or another.

As a repeat performance of those times possibly approaches, perhaps you will see television documentaries about the topic, enter into conversations about it, and read editorials placing blame for its imminent resurgence on one or the other political party or both. I add my voice to the throng by reprinting most of a term paper I wrote about the Great Depression for a graduate seminar in public finance at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1957, the year Sputniks 1 and 2 inflicted another form of injury on the American psyche.

The professor for the course, the late Dwight Waldo, designated “the Great Depression” as the subject for one of the seminar papers, but permitted class members to write about any aspect of public finance of that period. The theme and title of my paper was “The Great Depression and American Cities.”

At the time of Professor Waldo’s seminar, 17 years had passed since I left New York State after living in New York City and Brooklyn during that troubled era. As I tackled the term-paper assignment, I realized that my civic memories from the first decade of my life were meager. Therefore, I settled in for long hours to conduct research for my paper in the stacks of the old Bureau of Public Administration Library on the campus. I soon discovered that so much had been written about the seminar topic that it was important to narrow my research focus. I decided to confine my data gathering primarily to a periodical widely read in those days by city managers: Public Management. I hoped this strategy would reveal what professional public administrators of that time defined as important issues for municipal belt tightening. Of course, it did not occur to me then that the subject would be of interest fifty years later.

Altogether, I read dozens of issues of Public Management in my quest to discover how city managers between 1929 and 1940 defined the problem they were facing and what solutions they proposed to adapt to the massive economic downturn as it worked its way through our nation’s cities. In a few cases, I found useful articles in other periodicals and added them to the notes I accumulated from my perusal of Public Management.

In the introduction to my paper, I summarized its general content thus: “The subject matter evolved in a certain cycle over the ten years. To begin with, in the early 1930s, depression-oriented articles were concerned with unemployment; tax delinquency followed this subject, and then articles about welfare problems began to appear. As attention to these subjects waned, one finds more and more articles about generating revenue, and slowly—almost hesitantly—the subject of the feasibility of appealing to the federal government for aid became vogue.” Looking back on my project in terms of what one currently hears or reads about the possibility of another depression, my snapshot summary of municipal experts’ concerns of that time seems almost trivial. Compared to the vast modern array of social, political, economic, and technological trends, the decade of the Great Depression seems as quaint as watching a rerun of the movie, Our Town. I am confident that, if my parents had been forced to choose between the Great Depression in the years of our country’s only four-term president and what may arise at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, they would have selected the first option.

I remember little of what my family members talked about during the decade before Pearl Harbor. I doubt that they discussed any of the topics that bothered city managers and their employers of that era. My family, and most of what talk-show hosts, politicians, and editorial writers now refer to as “ordinary citizens,” probably had little, if any, knowledge of municipal finance. Instead of discussing whether their next salary increase would keep pace with inflation, most of my working relatives probably fretted about the possibility of not having a job next month. It is unlikely that the technical niceties of assessments, tax delinquency, and revenue bonds were part of their dinner-table conversations.

None of the worries of the adults in my immigrant family trickled down to their young children and adolescents. During the Depression years in Brooklyn and Manhattan, my cousins and I focused our attention on other matters, such as the next subway ride to Coney Island, Far Rockaway Beach, Central Park, or the Bronx Zoo. We were also concerned about running the daily gauntlet as we walked, or more often ran, to school through several different ethnic neighborhoods. After all, if we arrived at school with mussed hair and clothing, a missing button or two, and only a few shreds where a tie had been, we spent the day standing with our faces to a classroom wall. And when the heat and humidity of hot summers became oppressive, we knew that the fire department was on its way to our street to open the fire-hydrant valves in front of our stoops so we could cool down in the spray.

For the children of our family, the salient issues of the day were occasional summer vacations in the Catskills, listening to Uncle Don read the Sunday comics over a New York radio station, or hearing the seemingly unending day-by-day accounts of the search for the kidnapped Lindberg baby, a massive undertaking directed by the head of the New Jersey State Police, the father of General Norman Schwarzkopf. We also listened to a young Orson Welles terrorize the entire country with his cleverly crafted radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’s tale of the Martian invasion of New Jersey.

My closest brush with civic matters in those days was an afternoon “date” with one of the granddaughters of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Our chaperone, a Secret Service agent, supplied the “civic” for the occasion. All I remember of that adventure were the beautiful Rockettes at the Radio City Music Hall and the Jimmy Durante movie that followed their performance.

I count with mixed feelings the memory of waiting in line four hours with my mother to receive a free turkey from the hands of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. These experiences, and those of millions of other “regular people,” blended into the cultural backdrop of the Great Depression as city managers and city council members struggled in their respective city halls to adjust to the economic realities of the day.

Today, of course, America is not what it was seventy years ago. Highly advanced weapons of war, fears of forthcoming world-wide food shortages, theories of climate change, far more complicated public-finance practices, and a nation less cohesive than it was in the days of Shirley Temple movies are merely some intimations of what our children and grandchildren might soon experience. Perhaps my brief sketch of the Great Depression and the cities offers some insight into those times. In any case, we can be certain that the root cause of such disasters is always the same: civic apathy and ignorance.

Read The Great Depression and the Cities (a PDF reader is required to view this document).

High school students and their parents might find these questions helpful for discussing the effects of the Great Depression on life in the cities during that era: Discussion Questions for The Great Depression and the Cities.

March 5, 2009

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