Last week a teacher asked me to find evidence of the New Deal in Brooklyn. She is asking her students to complete a project on the Great Depression and compare it to the economic situation in Brooklyn today.
As my research progressed, I stumbled upon the story of the NRA, or National Recovery Administration, a New Deal initiative with direct ties to Brooklyn's past. Started in 1933, the NRA (not to be confused with the Rifle Association), was one of President Roosevelt's first major efforts. It was designed to enforce strategies that were set forth in the National Industrial Recovery Act. NRA leaders helped industries create voluntary agreements over work hours, wages, and prices. Businesses that abided by these regulations posted a blue eagle symbol in their window. Consumers were encourage to patronize only these businesses. It was hoped that this regulation would stabilize the economy and protect vulnerable consumers and employees.
Brooklyn, like many communities across the country, embraced the NRA with open arms. In November of 1933, 15,000 men, women and children marched in the NRA Parade in Park Slope. In Coney Island, staff members and volunteers held a pledge drive for NRA consumers. Even theatergoers were reminded of the NRA's presence. Brooklynites may have seen this promotional short starring Brooklyn born Jimmy Durante:
But not everyone was convinced by Mr. Durante's ardent patriotism. Big businesses were handling much of the negotiations. The Eagle even mentioned the "grave injustice" that the NRA was placing on certain small businesses. The debates over the effectiveness of the NRA came to a head in July of 1934 when four brothers from Brooklyn were chosen to test the legal limitations of the NRA. Joseph, Martin, Alex, and Aaron Schecter ran a live poultry market that catered to kosher butchers at 858 East 52nd Street. Their company, the Schechter Poultry Corporation, was charged with violating a series of NRA agreements.
The Eagle covered the legal proceedings in detail; it was the first NRA criminal prosecution in New York and only the third in the country. In November, a local court found the brothers guilty and sentenced them to time in jail and a fine. The brothers quickly began an appeal process that resulted in their appearance before the United States Supreme Court.
It was to be the NRA's first and last judicial test. The brothers argued that the national government had no right to regulate their business because they only operated within New York State. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed and declared that the NRA was unconstitutional. With one decision, FDR's great patriotic initiative was gone. President Roosevelt was severely disappointed in the ruling, and spent the following years criticizing the Court and trying to alter its political leanings. He also worked to establish new administrations that repilicated the successful aspects of the NRA.
The Schechter brothers, however, were unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They had accrued over $60,000 in legal fees and within a year had only paid off a third of that. The business they had fought so hard to save was bankrupt. By 1936, three of the brothers had found alternative employment, but Joseph was still out of work. His wife Lillian told the Eagle that she wanted "to forget it all. I wish everybody would stop talking about it." Unfortunately, people continue to talk about it to this day. For in the words of the Eagle: