History of the Living New Deal

"Welding" Relief
 “Welding” – Bas Relief – Dundalk MD

Founding the Project

The Living New Deal has its roots in a book project by Dr. Gray Brechin on the WPA in California, but soon outgrew the original intent as the vast extent of New Deal public works projects became clear.  In 2005, the project became a team effort to inventory, map, and interpret how the New Deal radically modernized California. After two years as a small volunteer operation, the California Living New Deal Project was officially launched in 2007 at the University of California, Berkeley, under the direction of Professor Richard Walker.  This was done in partnership with the California Historical Society (CHS), which helped provide visibility around the state, and the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) at UC Berkeley, where the technical side of the project was developed.  Financial support came from grants by the Columbia Foundation and IRLE.

The first order of business was to construct an interactive website that could accommodate a range of data on New Deal public works – photographs, site information, historic documents, personal accounts, etc. – and allow users to access that data through Google maps.  A suitable website was constructed by Elizabeth Camacho and Heather Lynch at the IRLE.  An outreach director, Lisa Ericksen, was hired in 2008-09 to organize workshops to recruit volunteers from historical societies around the state.  Graduate research assistants Lindsey Dillon and Shaina Potts entered data and we passed our first landmark of 1000 New Deal sites across California by early 2010.  When the partnerships with CHS and IRLE ended, the project moved to UC Berkeley’s Department of Geography.

Going National

By the end of 2010, we decided to go national; thenceforth, the Living New Deal would cover the entire country – 50 states and several territories.  This bold step required a rapid scaling up of the project, its web presence, project team and financing.  First, the website was completely reconstructed in 2011 by Ben Hass with a more elaborate design using Wordpress.  In 2012, Ben radically overhauled the database and made the map searchable to improve user access to our data. In 2013 he redesigned the home page and data storage.

Cranford NJ Mural 1
 Mural – Cranford NJ

At the same time, the project team grew to include a communications expert, Susan Ives, a fundraising consultant, Adam Kinsey, oral historian and book review editor, Sam Redman, and president of the National New Deal Preservation Association, Harvey Smith.  Meanwhile, Research Assistants Shaina Potts and John Elrick were adding hundreds of new sites to the database and map, mostly from published  documents, ramping up the total to over 2000 by Summer 2012.  Thereafter, significant new donations and grants allowed the Living New Deal to greatly expand its organizational and research capacity.

Fall 2012 marked the arrival of our first Project Manager, Rachel Brahinsky, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley (funded by a bequest of Ann Baumann of New Mexico).  She made a concerted effort  to locate researchers around the country who could assist us in documenting New Deal sites, and this bore fruit with new regional associates in Maryland, Virginia, Wisconsin, Southern California and Mississippi.  By late 2013, the project had a dozen national associates around the country, and that number passed 30 in mid-2014 and hit 40 by early 2015.  In that year we create a second arm of the Living New Deal as a non-profit, incorporated in California, and received our official non-profit status from the IRS.

By late 2013, the number of documented sites in the database had risen to 5000 and by the end of 2015 it had doubled to 10,000.  (You can track  the expansion of our map at ‘Project Growth’).  More people were finding the Living New Deal  on the web and through Facebook and Twitter.  Our website was named one of the top 10 sites of 2015 by Salon.com.  Web traffic was already rising smartly, but that recognition bumped us up to almost 500,000 Google visits for the year.

“Communication by Mail”
 “Communication by Mail” – bas relief – Clarks Summit PA

By end of 2013, the Living New Deal team had a number of new faces. Rachel Brahinsky moved on to the faculty of the University of San Francisco, Sam Redman joined the history faculty at University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Ben Hass moved on to a full-time IT job. Alex Tarr of the Berkeley Geography Department took over as Project Manager, Susan Ives became our development advisor, and Lisa Thompson came on board as webmaster.   John Stehlin of UC Berkeley became our chief RA and was later joined by Glenna Anton of the Geography Department and the returning Shaina Potts.

A Growing Staff, A Rising Star

When Alex Tarr moved to Rice University in Fall 2014, Gabriel Milner took the job of Project Manager. In 2015, we engaged Brent McKee of West Virginia to carry out research on New Deal history,  Evan Kalish of New York to standardize our site submissions and database, and Chris Carlsson of San Francisco to create a film archive. With the able sleuthing of McKee, Kalish and many Research Associates, the database continue to bulge, reaching 12,000 by the end of 2016 and 14,000 a year later.

McKee added a major new resource to the website in 2015-16: brief introductions to over 60 New Deal programs and 40 New Dealers.  Kalish wrote up detailed formats for project submissions, McKee et al. added advice for researchers, and Milner & Potts created a page on New Deal oral histories. Carlsson & Milner produced a New Deal film and video page.

More new features went up on our website, such as New Deal Smiles (2016),  Working Together (2017) and New Deal Ancestry (2017).  All these required the design and coding talents of Lisa Thompson, our webmaster.

A new outreach project launched in 2014: a series of hard-copy, printed maps showing the impact of the New Deal on major cities around the country. It began with the publication of a pocket map and guide to New Deal San Francisco late that year, an effort led by Susan Ives, designer Linda Herman and cartographer Garrett Bradford.

In late 2015, we launched a more ambitious project for a pocket map and guide to New Deal New York City, which appeared in Spring 2017. That map covers hundreds of sites across the five boroughs and features 50 key buildings, parks and murals. It was launched with two major events at the Roosevelt House at Hunter College and the Museum of the City of New York in May and it received rave reviews from people and organizations around the city.

In 2017 Erin Reding became our Project Manager when Gabe Milner left for a teaching job in Los Angeles. Elena Ion came on board as Research Manager that year, too, as John Stehlin and Shaina Potts took academic positions elsewhere. When Erin became too busy to continue in 2018, Elena took on the Project Coordinator job, as well.

Expanding Outreach

Keynoter Robert Reich and audience
at Women and the New Deal conference

The highlight of 2018 was our “Women & the Spirit of the New Deal” conference held at UC Berkeley. The weekend-long gathering of almost 200 people was a roaring success.  Videos of the speakers can be found on our “New Deal Speaks” page.  An important development in 2018 the formation of a New York Living New Deal branch led by Peggy Crane, who assembled a large working group of New York historians and writers.

Important new content was added to our website in 2018.  A New Deal Inclusion section was created to counter shallow criticisms of the New Deal by showing the many good results of New Deal programs for Americans of color, despite well-known shortcomings in some others.   Another advance was to develop our own Living New Deal YouTube video channel to include our many videos/films/recordings about the New Deal, including those from our events, lectures and interviews.

In 2019, we responded to a changing political landscape by adding a Green New Deal section to the website to follow legislative developments and debates, as well as to add our input about the lessons of the New Deal for today and to emphasize how ‘green’ the original New Deal was. That led to an op-ed in the Washington Post. Visits to our website shot up as young people sought information about the Green New Deal.

We added two important members to our core team in 2019. Elliott Medrich, a volunteer, took on the job of coordinating the network of National Associates. Kurt Feichtmeir was hired as Development Director, thanks to a generous grant from one of our board members. Other team members continued to give talks and tours on the New Deal, past and present. To further improve outreach, we added a “New Deal Speaks” page to feature audios and videos of LND team members, speeches from the 1930s, and more.

Also in 2019, we became involved in New Deal preservation for the first time with the rescue and exhibition of a ‘lost’ WPA model of San Francisco by Gray Brechin and the SF MOMA and the fight against efforts to destroy the magnificent murals at George Washington HS in the city.

2020 was a trying year for everyone, but despite the challenges of the pandemic, we managed to accomplish a remarkable amount. We had expected to launch our pocket map and guide to New Deal Washington DC, the third of our city maps, but our big events at the Department of the Interior and Greenbelt MD had to be postponed in the face of the Covid-19 epidemic. This proved to allow valuable time to upgrade the map to over 500 sites in the District of Columbia to improve the final version in many small ways for 2021.

The pandemic had a beneficial effect of forcing us to focus on organization and finances. Kurt led a rethinking of donor relations and record keeping, which led to adoption of the online system NEON and more personal dealings with funders. Kurt also led a drive to expand our funding base through donors and foundations, which required better strategic planning to target specific projects and creation of a handful of concise funding proposals.

We further upgraded the organization by launching a new monthly newsletter, The Fireside, with an elegant new design (and redesigning our periodic activity report, The Lowdown).  We deepened personal relationships with our Advisory Boards and National Associates, who have given us some excellent feedback on our projects. The Living New Deal-New York City branch continued to be very active, winning approval from the Parks and Recreation Department for marking WPA sites with special medallions and initiating a new webinar series with a program on the Green New Deal.

Meanwhile, our online national map of New Deal public works and art sites continued to expand to over 16,500, our website content continued to grow, and our number of online visitors rose to around 1 million per year. All this was achieved in spite of a serious hack that took out thousands of photographs from our archive and required major repair work, a change of server hosts and a new security system – all of which was aided by a major gift from a donor in the tech world.

In the long run, we have ambitious plans for a Living New Deal Center to serve as a national research institute, museum and educational center on the New Deal.

For a more detailed information, view our annual reports:

Living New Deal Progress Report, October 2011

Living New Deal Annual Report, 2012-13

Living New Deal Annual Report, 2015

Living New Deal Annual Report, 2016

Living New Deal Annual Report, 2017

Living New Deal Annual Report, 2018

Living New Deal Progress Report 2019

Living New Deal Annual Report 2020

New Deal Maps

Check out our latest 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.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.