Skip to main content

Walker Evans, a Block on E. 61st Street in 1938, and a Visit in April of 2009

Walker Evans (1903-1975), a documentary photographer best known for his depictions of southern sharecroppers during the Great Depression, store signs and street signs in cities and towns, and the whole of American vernacular, spent a morning in the summer of 1938 taking photographs, for reasons not entirely clear, of a street block on E. 61st Street in New York.

By the time he took this stroll and shot these pictures, now housed in the FSA-OWI photo collection of the Library of Congress, Evans had already left the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration, under whose employ he had famously photographed the plight of southern farm workers.

Evans was back living in New York, preparing for an exhibit of his photographs and working, along with James Agee, on the upcoming Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Apparently, he was also in need of income that summer of '38, and letters indicate that Evans worked out something with his former government boss, Roy Stryker, for a short assignment for the Farm Security Administration.

According to the text accompanying Evans' photographs on the Library of Congress website, "These photographs taken in New York City probably represent the outcome of the matter, although nothing in the agency's files explains the selection of the subject, if Evans was paid, or whether he and Stryker were satisfied with the pictures."

Hmmm. At least we have the pictures. These black and white photographs of tenement buildings, children sitting on stoops, the street life and store signs along E. 61st Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue constitute just one visual fragment of the era, the Great Depression, as well as the specifics of place - New York rental apartments of three of four bedrooms, shared bath facilities and the vibrant street life of a growing neighborhood.

As LOC indicates, the block of this southern Yorkville neighborhood in the 1930s was largely composed of people of Italian heritage, with Irish and Poles living nearby.

We're not sure exactly what lured Evans to this block on E. 61st that Tuesday morning of August 23, 1938. We know he shot four rolls of film, and as the library presents them in sequence, there's evidence he must have gone up and down the block a few times. The summer light is strong and clear. He could have been hurrying to finish the Stryker assignment, thinking this block would tell the story, but I don't personally buy into the assertion that he found the block convenient because of its proximity to his E. 92nd Street apartment.

It's not that close. The block to the west was, and still is, more conventionally beautiful, part of what is now the Treadwell Farm Historic District, but that block would be too pretty for a Stryker assignment. As Evans gazed down the street that morning, the block between 1st and 2nd Avenues must have come alive for him in some way.



I didn't find any answers to these questions when I revisited the block, although I immersed myself as fully as possible in understanding the street of my own day, as Evans did, through the eye of my camera. During my stroll up and down the street, I found several of the buildings Evans photographed still intact, providing points of reference for my images.

Yet, much had changed over seventy years - no extended families conversing on the stoop or laundry hanging to dry outside of windows and fire escapes. A dry cleaners now occupies 326 E. 61st, and outdoor street sports have given way to a sports club. Air conditioning units sit in windows once routinely opened. Today, flowering trees soften the hard facades of the older 19th century buildings and the more modern ones that have filled in as replacements. The street, like others across the American landscape, now mostly functions as the egress for human struggles carried on in private spaces indoors, replacing the warm theater and open windows of the public street drama.

Images: Walker Evans photographs in the collection of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, top to bottom:
New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. Children playing in the street. LC-USF3301-006714-M1 DLC (b&w film dup. neg.)
New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. A sign offering apartments for rent. LC-USF3301-006718-M3 DLC (b&w film dup. neg.)
New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3rd Avenues. House fronts. LC-USF3301-006715-M5 DLC (b&w film dup. neg.)

Images in slideshow by Walking Off the Big Apple from the morning of April 18, 2009. A follow-up post of the longer stroll is posted here.

For more on Walker Evans, see the exhibit of his enormous postcard collection, Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 25, 2009. In 1994 the Estate of Walker Evans gave its holdings to the Met. Walker Evans images under the auspices of the RA and the FSA are in the public domain.

While we're on the subject, please visit the website of my graduate school mentor, Bill Stott, the author of the landmark Documentary Expression and Thirties America, who taught me how to think and write like this.

Comments

Unknown said…
I really enjoyed looking at the photographs. Lovely post.
Lovely post, Teri. Did you know you can buy prints of Walker Evans' FSA photographs from the Library of Congress? Many of them are even made from the original negatives. Last time I checked, they're fairly reasonably priced. Since the L of C owns the negatives, we in effect own them, so they really only charge the cost of making the prints.
Anton Deque said…
Superb post! Wordless with admiration.

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk. One such essay, " Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer , Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the

A New York Spring Calendar: Blooming Times and Seasonal Events

See the UPDATED 2018 CALENDAR HERE . Updated for 2017 . At this time of year, thoughts turn to spring. Let's spring forward to blooming times, the best locations for witnessing spring's beginnings, and springtime events in the big city. While the occasional snow could blow through the city, we're just weeks now from callery pears in bloom and opening day at the ballpark. In The Ramble, Central Park. mid-April Blooming Times •  Central Park Conservancy's website  lists blooming times within the park. During the month of March we begin to see crocus, daffodils, forsythia, snowdrops, witch-hazel, and hellebores. Species tulips will emerge in several places, but the Shakespeare Garden and Conservatory Garden are particularly good places to catch the beginning of Spring blooms. Central Park near E. 72nd St., saucer magnolia, typically end of March. •  Citywide Blooming Calendar from New York City Department of Parks & Recreation April is u

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

A list of 25 things to Do in Greenwich Village with history of protest, old cafes, and signs of change. Hipstamatic iPhone images of contemporary Greenwich Village by Walking Off the Big Apple (Revised and updated.) Flipping through  Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide by Edmund T. Delaney and Charles Lockwood with photographs by George Roos, a second, revised edition published in 1976, it’s easy to compare the black and white images with the look of today’s neighborhood and see how much the Village has changed. A long shot photograph of Washington Square taken up high from an apartment north of the park, and with the looming two towers of the World Trade Center off to the distant south in the background, reveals a different landscape than what we would encounter today.    On the north side of the park, an empty lot and two small buildings have since given way to NYU’s Kimmel Center and a new NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Center Life. The Judson Memorial Church

A Walk in the Forest Primeval

Contemplating the fall of civilizations in Inwood Hill Park At times, it feels like we’re living at the end of civilization. With the arrival of the global pandemic, many governing structures are teetering at a breaking point, one measured in graphs, curves, and waves. Whole systems like mass transit and global trade are fractured as well. Steps leading to a high ridge trail in Inwood Hill Park Most threatened are our social arrangements, the ones in which most of us were socialized. The norms of human interaction are shockingly in tatters these days. Just three months ago, it was normal to hang out with others in person without worrying if being in one another’s presence would cause illness or possibly death. Political and economic structures are teetering, with a critical collapse of what was once known as the public space. A Baltimore Oriole visits a tree near the main entrance of Inwood Hill Park on Seaman Avenue. It’s easy to imagine a swift evacuation of once pr

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

Traversing Manhattan: An Afternoon Trip to the Battery and Back Again

  Wherein the vaccinated sightseer from Northern Manhattan travels to the southern end of the island by means of the express bus, the MTA subway, and the NYC ferry, with a little sauntering on foot In Battery Park, during the first blushes of spring in New York. View of One World Trade Center Residents of the far north and far south of Manhattan are the ones most keenly aware that they live on an island. The north end of the borough tapers to a relatively small area of land, bounded by the confluence of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers and the waters of Spuyten Duyvil. The land is hilly and green, with an old growth forest. The Battery sits on the southern end, a land where the geography is defined by the meeting of the East River, the Hudson River, and the vast New York Harbor. Manhattan stretches a little over 13 miles on the long side and just 2.3, more or less, at its width. On 42nd Street, approaching Grand Central Terminal. A resident of the hilly northern terrain may sometimes long

At the New Moynihan Train Hall, and the Zen of Going Nowhere

After slowly wandering around the Moynihan Train Hall , opened earlier this year in the James A. Farley Post Office Building across from Penn Station, an Amtrak worker approached me and asked if he could help with directions. “No,” I replied, “I’m just here to look at the station.”  Moynihan Train Hall, between Eighth Avenue, Ninth Avenue, 31st Street, and 33rd Street in Midtown Manhattan I wasn’t taking a train anywhere, not an Amtrak train to Philadelphia or to Boston. I was here to look at this impressive, even enlightening building. The architectural design is somewhat restrained and serious. Bright signage at the Moynihan Train Hall At a time when the idea of actual travel is just picking up, for some New Yorkers like myself, just the novelty of seeing a new transportation project in the city seems to suffice. It’s like mental preparation for taking an actual trip.  Looking up I remember catching Amtrak trains at the old Penn Station, not the beautiful and monumental edifice that