What does the New Deal mean today? As federal budget cuts and the sell-off of the U.S. Postal Service threaten jobs, our economy, and common heritage, the New Deal reminds us that government can be a source of leadership and purpose for all of its constituents instead of a few.
Hailing from the New Deal resettlement town, Roosevelt, New Jersey, Rachel Brahinsky has always been fascinated by the legacy of the New Deal era. She joined The Living New Deal team in September. As our first managing director, Rachel will oversee a growing list of projects while making new connections with citizen-researchers across the country. Rachel worked as a journalist before completing her doctorate in Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, She currently teaches urban policy and writing at the University of San Francisco. She would love to hear from you!
Imagine the U.S. without the New Deal, and you’ll get something like the 19th century. Not the Hollywood version, mind you, but a nation of often impassable country roads and unpaved city streets; fetid rivers, lakes, and beaches reeking of sewage and industrial waste; epidemics of cholera, typhoid, polio, and other scourges; massive illiteracy; indigent old age; few urban, state, or national parks; vastly reduced productivity, urban riots, and frequent bank failures that periodically wipe out depositors.
Not only is that the actual America of the 1890s, it is what I have come to realize Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration pole vaulted the nation out of in just a few years in extricating the U.S. from the Great Depression.
Two recent discoveries brought this to mind. One was a three-volume scrapbook I discovered at the California State Library. Apparently compiled by a clipping service for a WPA administrator in the San Joaquin Valley, the scrapbooks revealed that in less than a decade nearly every city and town in the Valley got schools, parks, clinics, city halls, air strips, sewage systems, sidewalks, clean water, fire stations, post offices, farm-to-market roads, and irrigation canals that immensely increased farm productivity. Once the dedication ceremonies were over, however, these public works were taken for granted and their origin forgotten.
The other major discovery was brought to my attention by University of California undergraduate Research Assistant Michael Metz—bound engineering journals such as Civil Engineering and Western Construction News that document a heroic period of building during the 1930s. Federally sponsored highways, airports, tunnels, levees, storm drains, and spectacular dams and bridges in short order revolutionized the American way of life, making it synonymous with modernity.
Gratitude oozes from those magazines as federal agencies such as the WPA, PWA, CWA, and CCC kick started the construction industry back to health, creating companies like Kaiser and Bechtel. New Deal sewage systems and public hospitals almost immediately improved the health of virtually all Americans.
Many people today are unaware that they use federal infrastructure every day and insist they want less government in their lives. They are getting their wish as much of the cultural and physical infrastructure the New Deal created is degrading for lack of maintenance and encroachment.
Much of the New Deal’s legacy has been forgotten or repressed by those ideologically committed to shrinking the federal government. The failure to maintain, let alone update, the infrastructure we inherited led the American Society of Civil Engineers to give a “D” grade to U.S. infrastructure, including dams.
Berkeley’s Aquatic Park on San Francisco Bay was dedicated 75 years ago before a crowd of more than 5,000. Hundreds of trees were planted and civic leaders foretold of more recreation facilities, including a municipal swimming pool.
In a congratulatory telegram, federal WPA administrator Harry Hopkins wrote, “It is my hope that the new waterfront area will prove as useful and enjoyable to your own citizens as its beauty will be appreciated by all visitors to California.” Instead, Aquatic Park has been badly neglected, and developers are pushing to hem it in with industrial high rises.
The Living New Deal is creating the first electronic archive of New Deal sites around the country. Like a photographic image emerging in a darkroom, our emerging map reveals a picture of what government at its most enlightened accomplished for all of its citizens, not just a few. We need to be reminded of that if we are to stop a return to the 19th century from the 21st.
Gray Brechin, Ph.D. is Project Scholar for the Living New Deal. email@example.com
The New Deal’s legacy surrounds us but its overall impact both then and today goes largely unrecognized. Some states have museums dedicated to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and a few New Deal buildings serve as museums. But there is no museum dedicated to the art, architecture, and social programs of the New Deal itself.
A number of major museums own collections of New Deal art, but haven’t displayed these works in decades. A museum dedicated to the New Deal would display such works, showcasing the creativity and innovation of New Deal programs that inspired them; rekindle pride in government; and remind the public of what can be achieved when government mobilizes to help working Americans through hard times.
At the Living New Deal and the National New Deal Preservation Association we often hear from individuals and organizations wanting to donate New Deal art and objects but that can find no appropriate institution to give them to.
A group recently met in North Beach—the long time hub of the San Francisco arts scene—to discuss how to launch a New Deal museum. Various San Francisco sites were considered: the soon-to-be-vacated Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts, the Presidio, and the Mint Museum. We welcome your suggestions and support.
Thousands of post offices stand to be converted to condos, restaurants, and real estate offices, or demolished to cover the Postal Service’s largely manufactured deficit. Those that rely on the post office are protesting the disappearance of this still-vital public service, but few have registered what this fire sale represents to the nation’s architectural and artistic legacy.
As the Great Depression deepened, a desperate Herbert Hoover began to build post offices in an effort to buoy the economy and save his presidency. His efforts were too little, too late. The Roosevelt Administration launched a far more ambitious campaign as part of its massive public works program, building more than 1,100 post offices nationwide.
As physical representatives of the federal government, these buildings often featured dignified architecture, superb materials, and public art. Artists hired by New Deal agencies embellished public buildings with murals and sculpture. For the first time, ordinary Americans saw themselves reflected and ennobled on the walls of the public spaces where they came together to transact business.
Post office art often depicts local legends, landscapes, and historical events, but also farmers, miners, loggers, cowboys, fishermen, and foundry men — and postal workers — thus imbuing their labor with the everyday dignity that Aaron Copland expressed in his Fanfare for the Common Man, and artists such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange captured in the documentary photographs commissioned by the Farm Securities Administration.
Around the country post offices are on the block. In California, alone, post offices in LaJolla, Santa Monica, San Rafael, Palo Alto, Redlands, and Fullerton will soon be sold. Murals by artists such as Ben Shahn might fetch as much as the buildings they grace.
The Postal Service is obligated to safeguard such public artwork but there is no guarantee that it will.
The University of California, Berkeley, mistakenly sold a masterwork by WPA sculptor Sargent Johnson for $150. The 22-foot-long redwood carving, reportedly valued at around a million dollars, had been misplaced and sold as surplus. In March, the Berkeley City Council sent a letter to university President Mark Yudof demanding an inventory of UC’s public artwork and protocols to prevent such mistakes. “The Berkeley City Council sees the sale of the Sargent Johnson carving as a regrettable loss to the public, especially to the African-American community, and to Berkeley’s artistic legacy,” the Council’s resolution reads. The university has not responded. Read more
“A Voice: What Can a Voice Change? Everything,” was the theme of the 32nd Annual Steinbeck Festival, held May 3-6 at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. A celebration of the work of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie, the festival presented a mix of literature, history, tours, exhibits, and music inspired by social activism.
One poignant example was Guthrie’s song “Deportee.” The song is a chilling reminder that many of the injustices farm workers faced in the 1930s are still with us today. Guthrie’s granddaughter Sarah Lee Guthrie and Steinbeck’s grandnephew Johnny Irion, who are married to one another, were among the performers.
Woody Guthrie was employed by the New Deal, writing 26 songs after spending a month touring the Bonneville Power Administration’s dam-building projects on the Columbia River. Guthrie’s songs, drawings, and writing reflect the struggle of working people in the great agricultural valleys of California.
Several of John Steinbeck books were set in California’s fields during the Great Depression, including in Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. His articles about the plight of migrant farm workers appeared the San Francisco News in the fall of 1936.
In Travels with Charley, which recounts a 1960 road trip, Steinbeck wrote that had there been room in his pickup truck he “would have packed the WPA Guides to the States, all forty-eight volumes of them… the most comprehensive account of the United States every got together, and nothing since has even approached it.” (He notes that these books were “detested by Mr. Roosevelt’s opposition”).
The festival was produced by the National Steinbeck Center in collaboration with the Woody Guthrie Centennial, a worldwide project of the GRAMMY Museum, in partnership with the Woody Guthrie Archives.
San Francisco’s Coit Tower is known around the world. Inside are 27 WPA murals by 25 artists that depict life in California during the 1930s. Decades of neglect threaten the murals. Although the landmark generates more than enough revenue for the city to preserve it, that money is spent elsewhere. A broad coalition is working to pass Proposition B, which would dedicate Coit Tower’s revenues to its restoration and protection. Read more at protectcoittower.org/