Brooklyn Boro

Kaufman’s Brooklyn: May 26: Two ‘Scenes from the Great Depression’

May 26, 2020 Phil Kaufman
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My father, Irving Kaufman (1910 – 1982), was a professional photographer who started in Brooklyn in the mid 1930s working for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He captured thousands of images of Brooklyn through the 1950s. I have recently digitized a great many of them. My father’s profile can be found here.

This week’s theme:

As last week’s pictures showed, a lot of people were “Having Fun” back in the late ’30s. But, literally at the same time, the country was in the midst of a decidedly not fun economic disaster. I call this week’s photos “Scenes from the Great Depression.”

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These are not just sights of misery or reminders of very difficult times. As always, the intent is to offer images that are interesting, informative and often beautifully done. A few display the overtly painful sights of the period, but most show people trying to do something about it, being as constructive as they can in the face of a grim reality. You might not smile as much as you did with last week’s collection, but I hope these photos allow you to find new perspectives and inspiration.

Today’s photos:

Today’s two photos show a couple of the ways people coped. One was through a large and very successful federal effort, one of the New Deal’s famous alphabet of programs. The other happened to have local public support in this case, but efforts like it were common all over, with or without official involvement.

Subsistence garden, c. 1935

The only information my father provided was “Subsistence Gardens, early 30s.” The earliest date of his that I’ve seen was 1934, and this glass negative could be from then. But more information is supplied by the photo itself. The sign says “Bergen Beach, Subsistence Gardens,” and then in smaller print, “Sponsored by Dept. of Public Welfare, NYC.”

Gardens like this could be found most anywhere that people were hungry. They were essentially local cooperatives. Some were on tiny plots, others on large tracts; some on public land, others on private but unpatrolled land; some had official support, others were run entirely by the locals. All helped thousands, probably millions, forestall hunger through their own work.


Put up a parking lot, September 13, 1935

This scene is ever so slightly outside of Brooklyn. But it hosts thousands of Brooklynites every (normal) summer. It’s Riis Park, a large and lovely part of Rockaway Beach, just across the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge at the south end of Flatbush Ave. In 1935 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established as a federal program to support employment and infrastructure construction. Shown here is an early project, employing 300 men to level sand dunes and build a parking lot near the beach. Though I can’t be positive, this must be the massive parking lot that you can’t miss when driving east off the bridge (will someone please confirm?). I have seen it busy and used in the summer, and mostly empty in winter.

From 1935 until it officially closed in 1943, the WPA accomplished an enormous amount. In addition to directly employing millions of people, its construction, cultural and charitable activities numbered in the tens of thousands. Many of the buildings and roads are still in use – including my elementary school, and maybe yours as well.

An index of Kaufman’s Brooklyn posts may be found here.

Irving Kaufman’s profile may be found here.

I invite you to submit comments, memories, images of Brooklyn, and especially any additional background information you can supply about the photos posted here to [email protected]. I’d also be glad to supply information about buying prints of any of the images seen here. Many of my father’s images are also available for viewing and purchase at All prints purchased will be the product of professional scanning and editing.

Weekly collection 4: ‘Scenes from the Great Depression’

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  1. Brian McManus

    Grew up in Rockaway and Riis Park, as young as I was, a six year old, was our playground. The parking lot was where we learned to ride bikes, drive stick shifts on the steering wheel and just hanging out in the winter time. It’s still there and HUGE- The shot you have of the workers along the beach would be about 100 yards from where the lot was built. Great photo and brings back a flood of memories. One final thought, I always considered Rockaway as part of Brooklyn not Queens but of course that’s not the case, it is Queens.

  2. Mary Ann

    I was wondering if the Substinence Garden was being tended to by Italian immigrants and if they were technically the same as “Victory” Gardens. There was a garden in Brooklyn alongside the Fort Hamilton Parkway Station. Between Fort Hamilton Parkway and 11th Ave, on 61st Street there was an almost two-block stretch of land that overlooked the train tracks far below. It was unused land. Residents in the area y Italian immigrants – sought permission to use the land to garden. (Never waste a good piece of land) The arrangement was long lived until just a few years ago when the MTA needed to start construction on the station. One could still see remnants of the gardens that grew there.