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The period of the 1920s was widely regarded as an era of prosperity. Unemployment amongst urban workers remained, on average, under 7 percent. Per capita income grew by a third during a decade of economic expansion that remained relatively unmarred by inflation and recession. The standard of living improved across the board for the employed sector of the economy. Such improvements were measured not only in increases in earnings between 1922 and 1929, but in living conditions. A 1929 Bureau of Labor Statistics study of Ford Motor Company employees found, for example that industrial workers lived in far more salubrious conditions than they did at the turn of the century. Employed workers lived in houses that provided, on average, one room per person. They enjoyed electricity, central heating, and inside running water, and toilets. The notion of abundance and consumerism became a means of establishing American unity. In some sense, though, little changed for the industrial worker. Unemployment in this period was, indeed, lower than it had been in previous decades, but continued high unemployment and job turnover characterized the industrial working experience. A continued labor surplus fueled not by immigration but Black migration and migration from the farm to the city along with the displacement of both skilled and unskilled workers with machines insured continued levels of high unemployment and job insecurity along with limited improvements in wages and working conditions.
The 1920s was also an era of contradictions for New York as a modern industrial city that, with engineering feats of wonder, had conquered the sky and constructed a hidden network of water lines, sewer lines, and power lines below the ground. In the 1920s the gap between the City's infrastructural capacity and its population once again widened. The City's roadways did not keep pace with the rapidly increasing popularity of the automobile. Between 1918 and the end of the 1920s, there were more than a half a million new motor vehicles on the streets yet there had been no new highway construction within the City, choking the City with traffic. The Depression brought an end to construction of a West Side Highway, begun in 1927, and the Triborough Bridge, begun in 1929. Yet the end of the 1920s and early 1930s did open the City to more traffic. The Holland Tunnel opened in 1927 and the George Washington Bridge in 1931. Like the roadways, development of parks lagged far behind the booming population. Land reserved for parks in Brooklyn was rented to commercial enterprises. Central Park-the gem of the City-fell into disrepair.
The 1920s represent the current end of this project, but it was the dawn of a new era of vast changes to the relationship between health and the built environment as Robert Moses transformed New York City's highway and parks systems.
Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York: Hill and
Wang, 1967) | David Brody, Workers in Industrial America: Essays on
the Twentieth Century Struggle (New York and Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1980) | Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the
Fall of New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1975)