The USC digital archives have at some time since I last explored their site brought on-line a bunch of cards from a depression era WPA household census project. Here's a sample card for a furnished apartment on Beaudry Avenue near downtown Los Angeles. I've been looking at a number of these cards. They give only a small bit of information about the buildings and their occupants, but I find myself imagining a great deal more than what is included.
Beaudry Avenue, which ran (and mostly still runs-- parts of it were removed to build the Hollywood Freeway about 1950) through the hilly area across the Figueroa Street valley from downtown, and then up into the heights below the spot where one of Dodger Stadium's parking lots was later built, was a mixture of old detached houses, good-sized apartment buildings, and what used to be called two-by-twos-- four-dwelling buildings with two side-by-side apartments, upstairs and down. Traversing mostly what were originally modest middle class areas along most of its length, by the time of this census Beaudry Avenue had doubtless grown a bit shabby, but it had not become what would have been considered a particularly bad neighborhood.
I can easily imagine myself having lived there, had I been born some decades earlier than I was. I have enough knowledge of the general area as it was in later times to have a pretty good idea of what it would have been like to be one of those anonymous denizens surveyed in 1939. I think the neighborhood probably offered a fairly pleasant life in that era, at least for those who managed to remain employed, even at modest wages, during the depression years. I can imagine evening strolls past the front porches which most of the buildings along the street had, the neighborhood having been built up mostly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I can imagine taking the streetcar a mile or so to see a movie in one or another of the big downtown theaters. There would have been weekend hikes through the fields and canyons of Elysian Park a few blocks north.
Looking at the bare data on these cards I can even imagine who my neighbors might have been, from the couple with four kids paying $16 a month for a four room apartment in one of the two-by-twos, to the childless couple in the $23 a month furnished, cold water flat in the 1910 apartment house next door, and the three adults who shared an 1890 house on the rear of a lot down the block. Given enough time, my imagination could probably people entire blocks of this vanished neighborhood, and enjoy filling in the mundane details of the residents' daily lives. It's odd how I find it so easy to get pulled in by such scanty stuff as these cards, and then wander about in fantasies for hours. In fact, I now picture myself living in a furnished room overlooking Beaudry Avenue in 1939, glancing out the window now and then but not paying much attention to the reality I see, because I am engaged in fantasizing about the city of decades before, described in an old directory I've picked up in a secondhand store.
Ah, well. Whenever I go, then I am.