Greenpoint’s Christmas Past: The Great Depression

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As Christmas 2016 approaches, Greenpoint is prosperous. Hundreds of people are out in the neighborhood shopping and restaurants and bars are doing a brisk business, yet Christmas was not always a time of wealth. During the holidays in 1932 the neighborhood’s atmosphere was totally different. It was the third Christmas of the Great Depression, and by some estimates fifty percent of Greenpointers were out of work. But the Christmas spirit was not dead and there was one man who wanted every family to celebrate Christmas—that man was Peter McGuinness, the “first citizen” of Greenpoint.

McgGuinness born on Eagle street in 1888, and as the third of fourteen children from a working class family he knew poverty and was determined to fight against it. As a teen he had seen Big Tim Sullivan, the leader of the “Tammany Hall” political machine in the Bowery who threw a big Christmas bash for the poor in his area and thousands of the Bowery poor came and received a free meal and a basket of Chirstmas food. McGuinness was so impressed with Sullivan’s Christmas that he later revived this Christmas tradition in Greenpoint.

Peter McGuinness (far right). Photo: Brooklyn College Archive
Peter McGuinness (far right). Photo: Brooklyn College Archive

In 1931 the Depression was raging, but there was no federal help for the thousands of unemployed Greenpointers. Pete’s organization gave out one thousand three hundred fifty baskets of food. Each basket had a five pound chicken, a five pound bag of potatoes, Cranberries, pork and beans, soap, sugar, milk , bread tea, oranges and apples, but most importantly, candy for the kids for Christmas. In 1932 the Depression was so severe that the number receiving the gift baskets had grown to over two thousand. McGuinness and his club, somehow at the height of the depression, raised the money to offer all the poor people the baskets. Greenpointers were proud, but with large families to feed they had little choice but to accept the baskets, which kept Christmas alive for thousands of struggling locals. The Christmas baskets are only part of the reason McGuinness was so loved by locals and remembered so fondly.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over twenty years and is the author of a history of the area Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past.

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