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.





Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Update: As of March 12, 2020, many New York arts institutions have temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Please see this post for announcements of reopenings.
On August 14, 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that low-risk cultural activities, museums, aquariums, and other low risk cultural arts can reopen in New York City on August 24. 

Come back to this page for any updates about reopenings.
(Currently CLOSED) Several museums in New York City are open on Mondays, including MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney.
This list has been expanded to include free or pay-what-you-wish hours.


American Museum of Natural History Central Park West and 79th Street
See the post, Big Things to See at the American Museum of Natural History.
Cooper Hewitt
2 East 91st St.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1071 Fifth Ave

Jewish Museum 1109 Fifth Ave

Metropolitan Museum of Art 100 Fifth Avenue
See the post 25 Things To Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of …

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers.

Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.  

Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been frequently occupied, as in Occupied, with crowds protesting police violence. This week, NYPD officers in riot gear remove…

The City Turned Inside Out: A Walk from Battery Park to Fulton Street

While the cast of HAMILTON sings “The World Turned Upside Down,” New Yorkers could easily hum along to “The City Turned Inside Out” this summer. (not a real song) Where once a city’s important work took place indoors - within the soaring office buildings, famous restaurants, legendary museums, and storied performance halls, the COVID-19 epidemic has literally turned the residents outdoors. 

At least it’s summer in the city, when spending time outdoors is common and pleasant enough. Still, the city remains strange this summer of 2020. 

With the absence of tourists, and with office workers connecting virtually from home, many of the city’s main attractions aren’t attracting many visitors. A walk from the Battery to Fulton Street on a pleasant Thursday afternoon bore this out. 

It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and happy. Thanks to the city’s gardeners and landscapers, the city parks are looking particularly lush and splendid this summer. The grounds of Battery Park feel…

The Company of Nature: Walking With Butterflies in Fort Tryon Park

If wandering the empty urban canyons feels a little lonely and depressing, a better idea would be to head to the nearest park. This past Saturday, a day that was sunny but not too hot, Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan turned out to be the perfect place to not only satisfy wanderlust but to rediscover the company of nature. Butterflies were there. Hundreds of butterflies - Tiger Swallowtails, Monarch Butterflies, Black Swallowtails, Cabbage White Butterflies, and Silver Spotted Skippers, among them. Moths, too, although I have not yet learned their names.  The Heather Garden is situated just beyond the entrance to Fort Tryon Park. With seasonal plantings, the garden is always a serene spot.  Observing butterflies involves watching their interaction with blooming flowers and shrubs. The Tiger Swallowtails are easy to find and found here in significant numbers. Just look for the Butterfly Bushes. The Cabbage White Butterflies are here in abundance, too, though not as showy as the swallow…

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City.


The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington.


First, catch a Metro-North Hudson line train to Dobbs Ferry, a village in southern Westchester C…

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge: 
"The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apro…

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 advantag…

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

As the pandemic crisis improves in New York State, several NYC attractions are scheduling their re-openings. What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements.
UPDATED August 14, 2020. With the state of New York currently ahead of the class in the pandemic outbreak across the US, many favorite local destinations have started to reopen. The rollout is designed to be gradual, with geographic regions advancing according to a fixed set of metrics. 
New York City, the hardest hit area in the first months of the crisis, entered Phase 4 on Monday, July 20. The local exception: indoors of malls, restaurants, and cultural institutions.
On August 14, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that low-risk cultural activities, museums, aquariums, and other low risk cultural arts can reopen in New York City on August 24

Openings     
Phase 4 began in NYC on July 20. Stay outside! (Forward.ny.gov) NO indoor dining!
• Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department o…

Starstruck at MoMA

(Update July 31, 2020. Please note: After reopening in 2019, MoMA is currently closed as a result of the pandemic. MoMA has not announced its reopening.) 
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Midtown Manhattan is undergoing a significant renovation and expansion that will increase gallery space by thirty percent upon completion in 2019. In the midst of renovation and following a long hot summer, the museum may currently look a little rough around the edges and even disorienting for longtime patrons. For starters, you’ll need to enter the museum on W. 54th Street instead of W. 53rd Street while the work is taking place, and the museum store is now currently on the second floor next to the coffee bar which has also moved.


This state of affairs didn’t stop visitors on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend from making a pilgrimage to the museum to gaze at treasures of modern art. In an age of quickly disposable digital imagery, the original and cherished works still exude their aura. Ironically,…

Delacroix’s Cats

Following its record-breaking debut at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the blockbuster Delacroix exhibit has opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While not all of the works could travel, as some are intrinsic to the Louvre, the big cats made the trip to the city. For the Delacroix exhibit poster, the Met has selected Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother, the artist’s great and surprising painting from 1830, as the signature and defining work of the exhibition.


Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863), known as the leading Romantic painter of his era, loved cats. His many notebooks show preparatory sketches of lions, tigers, and several charming domestic cats. The big cats, for the most part, made it into big paintings. At 52 x 76.6 in. (130 x 195 cm), Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother, 1830, is astonishingly large for an animal painting of his time, a size normally devoted to a history painting. His most famous work, La Liberté guidant le peuple, dates from the same year.�…