Picturing Depression Era Cleveland

October is Archives Month!

This year’s theme is Ohio in the Depression. This is the second in a series of blog posts highlighting photographs of people and places in Ohio during the 1930s.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit the city of Cleveland particularly hard. After years of steady growth and economic security, the citizens of Cleveland could only watch as it all slipped away. By January of 1931, upwards of 100,000 were unemployed. The various federal relief and assistance programs that were established as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-fighting domestic programs under the New Deal, such as the Civil Works Administration (CWA) in 1933 and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 were desperately needed in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In a fight for its very survival, the county applied the federal aid to a variety of public works projects, employing its people in a vast capital improvements program that saw the building of schools and streets, bridges, sewers and waterworks, and the establishment of the Cleveland Metroparks System. Included in the WPA was the Federal Arts Program (FAP) which provided jobs for artists, musicians, actors and writers. The Cleveland area put its unemployed artists to work creating murals, sculptures and paintings for public spaces, art that celebrated Cleveland’s heritage.

Scene o.n ... , Cleveland, Ohio

Scene on Scovill Avenue at East 32nd St. on a warm afternoon, Cleveland, Ohio by John Steinke.

One of the goals of the FAP was the completion of the American Guide Series, a compilation of guide books to each of the then 48 states. Created as part of the Federal Writers Project, each guide was to provide the history of the state and the major cities, as well as sections on art, architecture, music, literature, points of interest and touring information. Also included was a portfolio of photographs. Work on the Ohio Guide Project began in 1935 and completed in the fall of 1939. First published in 1940, the Ohio Guide was reprinted for several editions. The project employed 132 researchers, writers, photographers, editors and typists.

Dockworkers eating lunch ...

Dockworkers eating lunch by the Cuyahoga River by Frank Jafa.

While working under the Ohio Writer’s Project, Frank Jaffa took this photograph of Cleveland dock workers along the Cuyahoga River in 1940. The image was published in the Ohio Guide. Titled “Lunch at Riverside,” the photograph captures the workers in an idle moment, enjoying a break from their labors, having their lunch on a sunny day along the water’s edge near the Main Street Bridge. The dark days of the Great Depression may have brought Cleveland to its knees, but as “Lunch at Riverside” suggests, the 1940s would see the city rise again.

Matt Benz, Manuscripts Curator

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