New Deal photographs reveal the inexorable "pull of the city" even as they lament the demise of rural America
To the City
Urban Photographs of the New Deal
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Julia L. Foulkes
In the 1930s and 1940s, as the United States moved from a rural to an urban nation, the pull of the city was irrepressible. It was so strong that even a photographic mission designed to record the essence of rural America could not help but capture the energy of urbanization too. To the City showcases over 100 photographs from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) project along with extracts from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) guidebooks and oral histories, to convey the detail and dimensions of that transformation.
This artfully grouped collection of photographs includes magnificent images by notable photographers Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Gordon Parks, among many others. Foulkes organizes this history of Americana into five themes: Intersection; Traffic; High Life and Low Life; The City in the Country; and Citizens to illuminate the changes in habits, landscapes, and aspirations that the march to cities encompassed.
As the rural past holds symbolic sway and the suburb presents demographic force, the urban portion of our history—why and how cities have been a destination for hope—recedes from view. To the City is a thoughtful, engaging reminder.
"Julia Foulkes’s To the City is a welcome corrective to the common view that FSA-WPA photographers were concerned only with documenting rural life in the 1930s and 1940s. The ‘propulsion to the city,’ as she calls it, was an equally important theme in their work. Photographers were participants in an urban migration that was as much a shift in the locus of the American imagination as it was a movement of Americans themselves. Their images of roads, street corners, dance halls, and parades document places and social facts, but they also reveal the connective cultural tissue of a country energized by the allure and terror of urban living."
"Nicely-presented, thoughtfully-written, well-argued, and sufficiently-documented, this easy-to-read, engaging book, consisting mostly of photographs...will be of significant interest to general readers, students, scholars, and others."
"This book is fun, To the City is a book that readers... will likely find fascinating. Looking through these images, for example, could help students understand the context for postwar impulses toward urban renewal and suburban life—not to mention the importance of written communication to link city people together (all those pictures of newsstands, business signage, billboards, poster-plastered walls, and movie theater marquees). Give it a look."
"As a collection of photographs To the City comprises a useful complement to the many anthologies emphasizing the FSA’s rural pictures."
List of Illustrations
Julia L. Foulkes is an Associate Professor of History at The New School and the author of Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. With an interest in the broad impact of the arts, she has served as an advisor for the PBS documentary Free to Dance and various arts organizations, and edited a journal volume on "The Arts in Place."
In the series
Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy, edited by Zane L. Miller, David Stradling, and Larry Bennett.
Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy Series, edited by Zane L. Miller, David Stradling, and Larry Bennett, features books that examine past and contemporary cities, focusing on cultural and social issues. The editors seek proposals that analyze processes of urban change relevant to the future of cities and their metropolitan regions, and that examine urban and regional planning, environmental issues, and urban policy studies, thus contributing to ongoing debates.