Woody Guthrie outside of 439 West 28th Street, 1943. Photos by Eric Schaal for a Life Magazine story upon the release of Woody's 1943 book, Bound for Glory.
I ran across the following five pictures of Woody Guthrie playing guitar and singing to a streetful of people while working on an earlier PopSpot on Woody Guthrie in which I located the hotel where he wrote "This Land is Your Land." (see PopSpot #19)
The series of photos were credited to Eric Schaal, a photographer for LIFE magazine. They were supposedly taken to publicize Woody's new book, Bound for Glory."
There were no sure-fire clues as to where the photos were taken, but I knew Woody was living in New York CIty during that year from the book My Name is New York: Ramblin' Around Woody Guthrie's Town by Nora Guthrie and the Woody Guthrie Archives, so that was my starting point.
The main clue in these first photos was that there there was a large playground across from the steps on which he was sitting. That playground would likely still be there, because community pressure keeps playgrounds in New York City.
This next photo provided the most clues. In the photo below it, I've circled what those clues were.
The main clue was the church steeple. Most churches don't get taken down in New York, so it was probably still up. Next to that, I guessed that the building in the yellow outline was a school.
Why? 1) Because it was next to the playground, and 2) Because it was balanced architecturally, and looked like it probably had a door for boys on the left and girls on the right under those little peaked roofs.
In the far distance - in the red circle - was a tall building. I did not recognize it, but it was most likely in the 5th-8th Avenue areas, because the outer ring of New York - near the waterfronts - hadn't been built up vertically yet except way downtown.
The sign "To Let" on the left would come in handy later to pinpoint the doorway. The final clue was that the traffic on the street was all running in one directon, which would limit it to certain streets.
Because I knew where some large playgrounds were, the first place I thought of was this block of Chelsea. But there was no school next to the park, and no church next to the school, so I discounted it for now. Also, on the north side of the street, there were no apartment buildings, just a big mail facility, so no clues there.
So next, using Bing Bird's Eye View, I "flew" all over Manhattan below 125th Street, looking down to see if I could find a a combination of playground, school, and church that fit.
I focused on the Upper West Side, because the tenements looked like the area where West Side Story was filmed around 68th Street. I also focused on the Lower East Side, since Woody had also been filmed by the same photographer at McSorley's Pub on East 7th Street near Third Avenue. (The McSorley shots will be another PopSpot.)>
But those searches yielded no results.
So I put the search on hold for a few weeks. Then I tried a different approach. I printed out the photo, showing the steeple, the school and the playgound, onto an 8+1/2-by-11 piece of paper and, instead of reading a book on the subway to and from work, I just stared at the photo. Thinking.
I call it "Zen-ning" the situation, after something I read in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In that book, when the character wants to figure out how to fix something, he just stares at that one thing, - zoning out the whole world - until the possible solution on how to fix it comes to him. (Or, at least that's how I remember it.)
In this case, I kept staring at the church tower and the buildings in the picture and tried to remember all the neighborhoods I had been to in my 40+ years in New York, trying to tune out the Marachi Bands and the Do-Wop singers in the subway.
And finally it came to me, that that type of "heavy" looking Romanesque church and those type of neatly rowed tenements were probably located in Chelsea, where I had originally begin my search at the big playground. It was pure intuition based on years of walking through Manhattan ( maybe mixed with the sound of Mariachi players.)
So I went to Google and did a focused search looking for: "chelsea new york" "church" "steeple" -- and when the results came up, mixed in with the first 30 pictures was this picture of a church. It turned out to be from Flickr.
The steeples matched. Bingo!
The church turned out to be called The Holy Apostles Epicopal Church -- and, strangely enough, it was the one that had been on the map I looked at a week ago! But it was across the street from where I thought it would have been.
So, at lunch the next day, I walked the ten blocks down from my office to check things out at the church. And there it was.
And, to put it in perspective for you, here's a shot of it with the Empire State Building behind it, about 1/2 miles away east at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.
Now, before I went to see check out where the Woody pictures would have been taken, I decided to walk east, around some new apartment buildings (Penn South) blocking the view, to see if I could find the big apartment building that circled in red in thephotograph. And when I got to Seventh Ave and 28th Street. There it was.
So I backtracked to find Woody. The first thing I came to was the huge postal facility that took up the block between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, from 28th to 29th Streets.
Evidently, to build this block-long building they had taken down the entire block of tenements that used to run along the north side of 28th Street, pictured here. This would include the building on which steps Woody was playing guitar.
So I continued down the street. This was the sign for the big park on the south side of the street. But where was the school?
To find it, I had to go to the map room of the New York Public Library. First I looked at a map of that block from 1963. No school.
So then I went back to 1945 map. There was the school!
And off to the right on the same map - there was the church. Because the telephoto camera lens compressed the space, they had looked like they were next to each other, but they weren't.
Now, if the school was midblock, with the church behind it, that meant that the photo of Woody and all the kids on the street had to be taken in front of one of the small apartment buildings on the north side of 29th Street. But which one?
So I looked at the digital files of the New York Public Library to search for clues.
The first picture I found was this nice old picture of the church.
Parenthetically (but it fits into the narrative here) I also found this great picture of the church, taken when the huge multi-apartment complex called Penn South being built around it.
Next, I found an old picture of the school, taken from another perspective. I was correct that it was a school. I was wrong in that it doesn't look like they have separate boy's and girl's entrances...
...like, for example, this (religious-based) school, a little further south in Chelsea.
This is a shot looking west from in front of the school. Woody and the kids would have been about 1/2 way down the street on the right.
Just to show you how some things last, while others don't, here's the building on the southwest corner of 10th avenue, from a 1936 picture and also from 2012.
Well, I didn't get a great shot of the building where Woody was playing guitar from the library; so my next stop was the New York Municipal Archives, on Chambers Street down by City Hall.
Looking through a long roll of microfilm, with pictures of apartment buildings by block-and-lot, I searched all the houses on the north side of 29th Street, untill I came to the one below. THought grainy, it seemed to match the building in the Woody Guthrie pictures.
Here is where it was on the block-and-lot map. If this was it, it was number 439 West 28th Street.
That would have put the tenement Woody was playing in front of here on a map of Manhattan.
So, since the photo I took off the computer (2 photos above) was blurry, I ordered a clear copy of the building for $35 from the Municipal Archives. I then waited 3 weeks, and one day the photo came in the mail to my office....bingo!
That was it. It had the same fire escape; the same decorative white concrete around the door. And it even had the "To Let" sign we saw earlier. Bingo bango. History was coming alive.
So, with Photoshop, I put one of the Woody pictures in place and I could swear I could hear Woody and the crowd a-singin' "This land is your land..."
Then I zoomed in even further...
...and here, so you can see the details around the doors clearer, I made a side-by-side comparison.
I'm gong to show you the horizontal version one more time here...a .
...just so you can see how this other famous image of Woody -- that I didn't know came from this session, fit in perfectly with the fire escapes.
And to add some proof to this photo location, if you compare the colored square and circles on the left with those on the right, you will see how the architectural details match up.
Here's that shot from a different perspective.
I later ran across these two pictures, also from the same session. This one of the kids....
...and one of Woody alone.
So to figure out where approximately the apartment house was. I held up the photo I brought with me.
That perspective, and a hydrant across the street, led me to conclude that the steps Woody was playing on were right here.
It would have looked just like this.
So, with my back against the postal facility wall, I took the shot from Woody's perspective, looking out over the playground. That little tree on the left grew into that huge tree in the background.
And I'll close on this shot of Woody, the travelin' folksinger making a group of New York City school kids happy in an impromtu al fresco hootenanny back on West 28th Street in 1943.