The mission of the Living New Deal is three-fold: research, presentation and education. It begins with the historical work of uncovering the immense riches of New Deal public works. That research is then made available to all through digital mapping and a website that serves as a clearinghouse for information on the New Deal. And, finally, the information gained from our work is disseminated as widely as possible through newsletters, social media, written media, interviews, lectures and other public events.
In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised the American people a “New Deal.” Over the decade 1933-43, a constellation of federally sponsored programs put millions of jobless Americans back to work and helped to revive a moribund economy. The result was a rich landscape of public works across the nation, often of outstanding beauty, utility and craftsmanship – all built to serve civic purposes.
The Living New Deal is documenting that massive legacy to the country. Because New Deal public works were rarely marked, the era’s contribution to American life goes largely unseen and unappreciated. It seems inconceivable that no national register exists of what the New Deal built; yet there is none. Now the Living New Deal is rectifying that oversight – for historians but especially for the American people.
New Deal projects covered the whole country. No city, town, or rural area was left untouched. Hundreds of thousands of roads, schools, theaters, libraries, hospitals, post offices, courthouses, airports, parks, forests, gardens, and artworks were created in a single decade, 1933-42, by our parents and grandparents. Not only did they improve and modernize the country back then, most are still in use today. The long-term payoff from this public investment helped propel American economic growth after the Second World War and is still working for America today.
The Living New Deal’s purpose is to make that enduring legacy visible. Our team is building a national database of information, documents, photographs, and personal stories about the public works made possible by the New Deal. And it is all just a click away on our national map of New Deal sites. The late California historian and State Librarian, Kevin Starr, likened the Living New Deal to a WPA project from the 1930s in its ambition and scope.
Far from an antiquarian exercise, the Living New Deal aims to help preserve New Deal art and architecture from destruction or privatization, to see that New Deal sites are properly marked, and to help communities and families across the nation rediscover their heritage.
The Living New Deal is even more timely because the worldwide economic crisis of 2008-2012 invited comparison with the Great Depression of the 1930s. For five years the unemployment rate hovered near 10 percent, wages stagnated, foreclosures were epidemic, and national growth anemic. Many people called for a New New Deal to relieve the severe distress of millions of Americans. Instead, there were no mass jobs programs, government investment shrank, infrastructure continued to decay, and the wealthiest 1% gained a larger share of national income while working people saw their incomes stagnate – exactly the opposite of what FDR’s administration achieved.
The legacy of the New Deal has much to teach about farsighted leadership and what can be achieved when the country rallies to serve needs of ordinary people in troubled times. What is more, it provides a shining example of how positive government can invest in public works that serve the collective good. Yes, government can work for all the people by creating useful infrastructure, job for the unemployed, and things of beauty like public murals and elegant buildings.
The research arm of the Living New Deal is hosted by the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. The public service branch of the Living New Deal is a California non-profit organization. The Living New Deal is funded by a mix of public grants and private donations.
The Living New Deal is a crowdsourced project. We involve ordinary Americans in the collective effort of rediscovering the New Deal legacy. There’s lots to be done and we can sure use your help.
Check out our new map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.