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Great Depression offers lessons during coronavirus pandemic, Long Islanders say

"We were comfortable with what we had," Eugene Burnett, 91, of Wheatley Heights, observes of growing up in the 1930s and '40s with his mother, Gwendolyn, who became a single mother in 1935 when her husband died. Credit: Johnny Milano

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Julia Previto, 86, of Roslyn, spent part of her childhood during the Great Depression living in a three-room apartment with no heat or hot water on Ellery Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Of course, there was no air conditioning, either.

“Sometimes when it was hot, my father would put a mattress on the fire escape and I would sleep on the fire escape,” said Previto, who was born in 1934, not long after the Depression began. “There were times when there wasn’t money to pay the fuel bill. Sometimes we would have to open up the kitchen oven and the gas stove to stay warm.”

Jeanne Cunningham, a 108-year-old Sayville resident who was 17 when the stock market crashed in 1929, recalls using wood from an old piano to provide fuel for heat in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

“We originally had a coal burner. We had to make sure it didn’t go out,” she said while self-isolating with her daughter Claire Miller, 83, in Sayville. “If it went out, it meant getting wood and trying to start it like a regular furnace.”

The Great Depression began in 1929 and continued until 1941. Those who lived through that era have long brought perspective to such crises as 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, superstorm Sandy and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were really just hanging in there,” Cunningham said of her childhood. “We ate baked beans very often. We all loved them. The big treat would be a hamburger.”

Previto observed recently that widespread economic disruption impacts those on the edge the most, something that hasn’t changed. “Particularly during this pandemic, the poorest suffer the most," she said. "Any time there’s a crisis, people who are impoverished suffer the most.”

During the Great Depression unemployment had reached 25% by 1933, with drought impacting farmers, more than 5,000 banks failing and people lining up for free food as the economy imploded.

“The Great Depression was a financial crisis. This is a public health crisis,” said John Rizzo, the Long Island Association’s chief economist. “That’s a very big difference. When we went into this public health crisis, the economy was strong.” Still, he said even today, “80 percent of the population in this country is living paycheck to paycheck.” 

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States in the winter, New York State began a series of stay-at-home orders in mid-March intended to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus that closed many businesses. As of last month, the unemployment rate hovered just below 15%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Federal stimulus payments, increased unemployment insurance and forgivable loans to business have been rolled out to in an effort to stabilize an ailing economy. Yet, gross domestic product for the first quarter of 2020 fell 4.8%, and that was only the start of the decline, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

“Just yesterday I saw a picture of people [in cars collecting food],” said Elizabeth Rowe, a 74-year-old Oceanside resident whose mother, Mary Macpherson, lived through the Depression. “Immediately, I thought of the pictures of the [Depression-era] bread lines.”

The Great Depression, like other economic upheavals, exposed and exacerbated existing economic woes that had often been simply ignored.

Previto said poverty was the norm when there was little if any middle class and many people had few possessions. “I didn’t realize I was poor. Everyone on my street was just as poor as we were,” she said. “We played jump rope. We played games in the street. The saving grace was we went to school.”

When families lost jobs, that impacted their lives as well as their worldviews. "My parents realized how hard they had to work and how little they had,” Previto added.

Rowe’s father, Duncan Macpherson, who was born in 1893 and died in 1976, went from an office job to odd jobs amid economic and emotional adjustments. “He worked payroll. As people were losing their jobs, he didn’t have to process those paychecks,” she said. “He was one of the last to go.”

After Rowe’s father lost his job at General Electric in the 1930s in upstate Schenectady, he got a job selling hearing aids. “I knew we couldn’t just waste money,” Rowe said of the speed with which things could change. “The idea I got was that money was precious and you couldn’t just squander it.”

“We were comfortable with what we had,” Eugene Burnett, 91, of Wheatley Heights, said of growing up in the 1930s and '40s. “We didn’t know any better.”

A former Suffolk County police sergeant and Carvel franchisee, Burnett described how his mother, Gwendolyn, worked as a housekeeper for a wealthy family during the Depression. “Those people had money,” he said, noting his mother, who died in 1979, became a single mother in 1935 when her husband died.

“Nobody had a refrigerator. Nobody had a television. You became middle class when you had a phone,” Burnett said. “The people today, like my children, have been exposed to so much. Buying cars and this and that. In those days, I never knew a person who owned a car.”

Prizing connection

A renewed appreciation of family may be one lasting effect of the stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a parallel to earlier times when multiple generations often lived together. Life expectancy in the United States in 1929 was only about 56 for men and 59 for women compared with 76 and 81 as of 2019. But back then, grandparents often lived with or close to younger family members.

“Old people stayed in the home with the family and played a major role in the raising of the family,” Burnett said. “A lot of us remember the wisdom of our grandparents.”

Many children of the Great Depression remember close bonds and time under one roof. “Our social life was visiting with relatives,” Julia Previto said. “Family was very important. We spent our leisure time with cousins, aunts and uncles.”

Cunningham said time with one another was the most common means of entertainment when they could afford little else. “There were four of us, so there was always something going on,” she said.

Burnett, who lived across the street from a school, said his “life was in the schoolyard." He said he played dodge ball and stick ball and transformed fruit and vegetable boxes into scooters, finding ways to entertain himself. “We took the wheels off our roller skates when our skates got old and put them on the boxes to make scooters,” he said. “We had battles with kites from the rooftop.”

Previto describes how families pooled their resources, often moving in with relatives and, if parents worked, family members pitching in to take care of children.

“There was no child care,” she said. “My mother had to work in a factory. I was left with a cousin who took care of me every day. People relied on their family to help them wherever they could.”

Elizabeth Rowe recalls her mother, who was born in 1908, saying that during difficult times, they did occasionally see a movie. “They needed to be entertained,” she said. “They needed something to enjoy.”

Parks provided a breath of fresh air then much as they do today for people seeking respite from staying at home. “We’d go on a picnic to Forest Park [in Queens] once or twice a year,” Previto said. “We went to Coney Island once a year.”

People struggled to put food on the table and pay for heat, sometimes using credit (before credit cards) at small stores with little selection compared to today’s supermarkets. “If you went to a local grocery store and couldn’t afford to pay for the whole bill, maybe he would let you take your stuff and pay when you got paid or a couple of weeks later,” Julia Previto said.

There was little if any dining in restaurants; indeed, snacks were something special. “When we came home from school, we didn’t have cookies or delicacies,” Cunningham said. “My mother always had potatoes. We’d put leaves in the street and build a fire and we cooked them [whole].”

And the economic downturn meant that once something was lost, it might be impossible to replace. “My father tells a story where his father bought him galoshes as a kid and somehow he lost one of the galoshes,” said Robert Previto, 57, of Huntington, one of Julia Previto’s sons. “When he came home, his father cried, because he couldn’t afford to get him another pair.”

Lessons for the future

People who lived through the Great Depression acknowledged that poverty remains a persistent problem. “There are people today who don’t have internet, who don’t have computers,” Previto said. “There are poor people who don’t have the same opportunities in life that other people have.”

Burnett agrees the coronavirus pandemic is exposing deeper financial troubles. “Today everybody keeps talking about the middle class and how the middle class is suffering,” he said. “If you can’t pull yourself out of the process for a month and use your resources to keep yourself together, you weren’t middle class in the first place.”

He said he believes the economic downturn may put a spotlight on economic and food insecurity as well as health care issues. “I think this coronavirus is bringing to the forefront many of the ills of this society,” Burnett said. “The question is whether we want to address them.”

Elizabeth Rowe’s husband, John, 72, said big economic disruptions might change people’s worldview as the Great Depression did his mother's. “She was always very fearful of things, very cautious about getting involved in anything,” Rowe said. “Taking any risks. She never tried to take a risk.”

In addition to struggle and sacrifice of the Great Depression, though, many cited strength and connection as another legacy. “I have a lot of respect for that generation, how they handled themselves and what they did,” Burnett said of his parents and their generation. “I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything I’ve seen since then.”

Some who lived through the Depression said education, then as now, can provide security. “At that time, it was a way out of poverty,” Previto said of school. “It was a way to move from one life to another, and is even today.”

At around age 12 or 13, she said, she told her mother she got a summer job at a factory, only to find her mother wasn’t pleased.

“She said, ‘I have to work in a factory. You don’t have to. I don’t ever want you to go back to that factory again,’” Previto said. “She felt very strongly that I had to go to school.”

While Previto’s parents had little education, she became a teacher, retiring in 1995 as principal of PS 146 in Howard Beach, Brooklyn, and serving as an adjunct professor in the education department at St. John’s University.

“Fortunately, I was able to go to school," she said, adding, "Then we had free college.”

While it took more than a decade for the United States to emerge from the Depression, the pandemic downturn could unfold differently. “There was too much exuberance in the stock market. Then there was a crash,” Rizzo said of the Great Depression. “This stock market crash was different. When the economy gets up and running again, you can expect a faster recovery than what occurred during the Great Depression.”

Song for the Great Depression

Back in 1932, when songs tended to provide escapism from the depths of the Great Depression, lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg found a melody that he liked. But the love song written by composer Jay Gorney that was based on a Russian-Jewish lullaby needed new lyrics to convey the spirit of the time, according to Harbug. So together the two created “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” which became a kind of anthem for the Great Depression.

“How do you do a song that isn’t maudlin? Not to say, ‘My wife is sick. I’ve got six children, the Crash put me out of business, hand me a dime,’ ” Harburg told Studs Terkel years later in “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression” (The New Press, 2005). “I hate songs of that kind.”

Harburg initially wrote humorous lyrics satirizing the wealthy, like Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, before settling on heartfelt words that gave voice to workers who had lost their jobs. His song not only captured the Great Depression in its time, but since then.

“Once I built a railroad, made it run, made it race against time. Once I built a railroad. Now it’s done, Brother, can you spare a dime?” he wrote. “Once I built a tower to the sun, brick and rivet and lime. Once I built a tower. Now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?”

Broadway producer Lee Shubert loved the song, but his brother Jake did not. Nevertheless, it made it into “Americana,” a musical that opened on Oct. 5, 1932, a month before Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover.

“That was the nadir of the Great Depression in 1932,” Ernie Harburg, Yip Harburg’s son and a Manhattan resident, said recently. “Every night in the show, which closed in a month, when the song was sung, the audience rose up applauding and yelling.”

Yip Harburg captured the tragedy of workers who built the nation only to be caught in economic turmoil after the stock market’s 1929 crash.

“The man is really saying, ‘I made an investment in this country. Where the hell are the dividends?’ he told Terkel. “It doesn’t reduce him to a beggar. It makes him a dignified human being, asking questions and a bit outraged, too, as he should be.”

New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson called the song “plaintive and thundering” with lyrics that “expressed the spirit of the times with more heartbreaking anguish than any of the prose bards."

Bing Crosby and Al Jolson recorded versions of what became an example of music, not as escapism, but as a mirror of heartfelt emotion by the lyricist who went on to write lyrics for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

“Dime’ is still used all over the world. It’s particularly used since the Great Recession, which started in 2008,” continued Ernie Harburg, who with Harold Meyerson co-wrote “Who Put the Rainbow in the 'Wizard of Oz?' Yip Harburg, Lyricist” (University of Michigan Press, 1995). “It’s used all over the place. Every few months I get another request from an academic person to write a book about the song. It’s become a masterpiece.”

— Claude Solnik

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