Our New Map and Guide to New Deal New York
by Richard Walker

Two years in the making, the Living New Deal’s newest publication, a “Map and Guide to New Deal New York” highlights nearly one thousand public works throughout the five boroughs and describes 50 of the city’s notable New Deal buildings, parks, murals, and artworks. The 18 x 27 inch, multi-color, citywide map folds to pocket size. Three inset maps offer walking tours to the New Deal in Central Park, Midtown, and Downtown Manhattan. The “Map and Guide to New Deal New York” is the second map the Living New Deal has published showing the impact of the New Deal. “Guide to the Art and Architecture of San Francisco,” published in 2013, has proved popular with residents, tourists, and teachers alike.

We are grateful to the many people who guided us in selecting the New Deal sites featured on the New York map and who carefully reviewed many drafts. Special thanks for the excellent work of cartographer Molly Roy and designer Linda Herman. Two events will be held in Manhattan to celebrate the completion of the New York map. Each will feature leading New Deal historians, authors, and exhibits on New Deal history and activism.

Thurs, May 11, 6pm at Roosevelt House at Hunter College. Information and registration

Thurs, May 18, 6:30pm, Museum of the City of New York. Information and registration

The Map and Guide to New Deal New York can be purchased for $6.

Art Review: American Painting of the 1930s
by Richard Walker

Art of the 1930s may finally be coming back into fashion—something that New Deal aficionados can celebrate.

It has been a long time since a major exhibit of art from the 1930s has been mounted, but curators at the Art Institute of Chicago rectified that last summer with an installation, originally titled “After the Fall: American Painting in the 1930s.” I saw the exhibit this winter at Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris. It has since moved to London’s Royal Academy of Arts, where it will be on display until June 4, 2017.

The exhibit is extremely well done in terms of the selection of the 45 paintings and the explanatory text on the walls and in the catalogue. The latter provides a succinct introduction to the Great Depression and how Americans reacted to it. The exhibition includes works by such noted artists Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper, and Grant Wood, whose iconic American Gothic had never left North American shores before. But the exhibit goes well beyond, taking in lesser-known painters of remarkable talent, such as Alexander Hogue and Paul Sample.

American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930

American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930
Grant Wood used his sister and his dentist as models for a farmer and his daughter

The predominant Social Realist and American Regionalist styles of the time were largely eclipsed by postwar Abstract art in the United States and regarded as backward by European art historians fixated on the early modernism represented in Cubism, Constructivism and Surrealism.

The international audiences viewing the exhibit at the l’ Orangerie were clearly delighted by this refreshing look at a kind of American art they rarely see and the excellence of the works on display. Surprising were the number of early experiments in Abstraction as well as some fiercely political paintings, like Philip Guston’s Bombardment and Joe Jones’ American Justice.

From the perspective of the New Deal, however, there were some glaring absences. An exhibit devoted solely to framed paintings necessarily omits the mural art characteristic of the age, when artists such as Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn, and Aaron Douglas were probably better known for their public murals than their canvases. Another is that while FDR’s programs are briefly mentioned, and the hiring of artists by federal programs noted in passing, the term “The New Deal” does not appear in the exhibit, as far as I could see. Talk about historical amnesia! This is, alas, all too typical of art historians and curators, who are taught to treat art as something apart from politics and social life.

Evidently, our task at the Living New Deal is not just to uncover a buried civilization of public works, but to revive the memory of all the artwork created under the auspices of the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s.


Farewell to Curtis Roosevelt

It was with great sadness that we learned this week of the passing of Curtis Roosevelt, grandson of FDR.  Curtis was a member of our Advisory Board and a stalwart supporter of the Living New Deal. Dick Walker visited Curtis and his wife, Marina, twice in the last two years at their home in the south of France, and they were most gracious hosts and lively company.  Curtis was a great admirer of his grandfather and grandmother, proud of the Roosevelt family lineage, and a feisty New Dealer to the end.  He thought the Living New Deal was in the best tradition of his grandfather’s legacy and was enthusiastic about the idea of creating a national New Deal museum.

Curtis Roosevelt earned a masters degree from Columbia University, worked in public relations and education, and spent twenty years at the United Nations, where he served as chief liaison with non-governmental organizations. After a stint as the head of a prep school in England, he moved to Mallorca with his new wife, Marina, and later to a village in France. In recent years, he was better known in Europe than in the United States, and he was a founder of the anti-austerity group in France, Roosevelt 2012.

Having grown up in the spotlight at the White House, Curtis seemed quite happy to be out of it in later in life. But he was clearly still wrestling with the burdens of his famous childhood in his recent memoir, Too Close to the Sun. Unfortunately, that youthful moment in the sun remains what he is best remembered for, if the regrettably light-weight obituary in the New York Times is any indication. It is not his childish locks that we should remember but his political commitment to New Deal principles of public service and social welfare, which put him well to the left of the mainstream Democrats of today.

Did the New Deal Cure the Great Depression?

FDR Flashes the Victory Sign, 1942

FDR Flashes the Victory Sign, 1942
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), the 32nd President of the United States, at his estate in Hyde Park, New York.
Photo Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

The Great Depression, the worst crisis in American history, brought the country to its knees by 1933 when Franklin Roosevelt took office. FDR and his team launched the New Deal to help get the country back on its feet. They succeeded, yet the myth persists that the New Deal had little effect on economic recovery and only World War II ended the Depression.

The proximate cause of the Great Depression was the financial meltdown that began in October 1929. Stock prices nosedived, millions defaulted on mortgage payments, and thousands of businesses and banks were shuttered.

The real economy was going into recession well before Black Friday, when all hell broke loose. Investment shrank, wages were slashed, layoffs multiplied, and consumer demand shriveled, propelling the economy into a downward spiral. By early 1933, GDP had fallen by half, industrial output by a third, and employment by one-quarter.

A key accomplishment of the New Deal was to get the U.S. financial house in order. Failing banks were culled, deposit insurance instituted, homeowners bailed out, and mortgages guaranteed. The Federal Reserve loosened up the money supply and credit began to flow again.

Meanwhile, billions were pumped into the economy through emergency relief funds and public works programs, from the CCC to the WPA. Not only were millions of desperate American put to work, their families had spending money to stimulate aggregate consumption.

Furthermore, federal spending shot ahead of tax revenue, creating a large budget deficit. FDR didn’t believe in deficits, but was willing to try anything, thus inventing ‘fiscal policy’ even before economist John Maynard Keynes gave it a name.

1933 NRA Poster

1933 NRA Poster
A National Recover Administration sign in a restaurant window, 1933

The economy took off, reaching double-digit growth rates. By 1937, the Great Recovery had pushed output, income, and manufacturing back to 1929 levels. Then recession hit in 1937-38, dropping output by a third and driving unemployment back up. Three things contributed to the setback: FDR tried to re-balance the budget; Social Security taxes kicked in; and the Federal Reserve tightened money supply.

Nevertheless, growth resumed in 1939 and regained its long-term trajectory before war broke out. The big exception was unemployment, which stayed above 10 percent, forever marring the New Deal’s reputation. Worse, a key study exaggerated joblessness by not counting the millions working in federal work programs.

World War II brought full employment through military recruitment and full-tilt production, with the federal government running more massive deficits than the New Deal ever dared.

To be sure, recovery cannot be ascribed only to the New Deal. By the 1920s, the American economy was the largest in the world and the assembly line, electricity, chemicals, and petroleum had unleashed a new Industrial Revolution. Advances in productivity continued through the 1930s. Dramatic improvement in transportation was helped by the New Deal’s extensive road building. The downside was closure of obsolete factories and railways, terminating millions of jobs, which explains much of the unemployment that remained despite the Great Recovery.

The History of the World in One Mural

It’s well known that there are some WPA murals in Bronx’s DeWitt Clinton High School, notably one called “The History of the World”.  But who knew it was a monumental work 194 feet long?  One thousand square feet in total, it is a kind of Sistine Chapel of New Deal artworks.

Every square inch of the upper half of the walls is covered with images that truly do attempt to present a History of the World from creation through prehistory; across the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Greece, ad Rome; covering the middle ages, pre-Columbian America, the Vikings, the Crusades, and several of the world’s great religions; and finally the New World, conquest and colonization, and wars, all the way up to Modern Times (the 1930s).  Above all this, the entire ceiling is done as the night sky with its constellations.

“The History of the World” mural was the product of six solid years of work by Alfred Floegel, and is his masterpiece. Floegel was an out-of-work German immigrant artist employed from 1934 to 1940 by New Deal agencies, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  While it may be a bit Western-centric by modern standards, the mural is still remarkably diverse for its time, a hallmark of many New Deal artworks.

Alfred Floegel's 'History of the World' mural at DeWitt Clinton HS, NYC

Hallway, 2015
Alfred Floegel’s ‘History of the World’ mural at DeWitt Clinton HS, NYC  Source
Photo Credit: Frank da Cruz Frank da Cruz

The magnitude of the work wasn’t my only surprise.  The Principal of DeWitt Clinton, Santiago Taveras (Santi), had recently been visited by Floegel’s son, who is about the same age as the murals. Alfred, Jr. was on a pilgrimage to see his father’s greatest work. He left some clippings, photos, and handwritten notes with Santi, who shared them with me.

I did my best to photograph the entirety of the mural and some samples of the ceiling, but a proper job would require elevated platforms and special lighting.  It’s a job that should be done before this unique work goes the way of so many other WPA murals and is damaged, painted over, or lost in a building reconstruction.

To view all the photos, click here.

Frank da Cruz, Bronx, New York City

A Forgotten Arts Competition – For Ships!

Did you hear the one about the New Deal competition to decorate round-the-world passenger-cargo ships? No? You’re not alone. Few people know of this 1940 Section of Fine Arts competition, which generated over 70 pieces of art for six ships.

Living New Deal Associate Wayne Yanda has been researching this competition for several years and had the opportunity to visit with the last surviving winner, Bernard Perlin, whose post office mural in South Orange, NJ can still be seen. Other notable winners were Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Hildreth Meière, and Edmund Lewandowski.  Over 450 artists submitted more than 1400 designs, the second largest held by the Fine Arts Section after 1939’s 48-State competition.

Yanda has started a RocketHub crowdfunding campaign for a research trip to the National Archives and the Archives of American Art. If enough people donate, he’ll spend almost two weeks gathering the images and documents needed for his book, tentatively titled, Arts Afloat: The New Deal’s Lost Competitions. An exhibit is also in the works.

Visit http://www.rockethub.com/projects/51615-arts-afloat-the-new-deal-s-lost-competitions to learn more about this project. The last day to take part is Tuesday, May 19, 2015.

Living New Deal Fund Drive

Lovers' Leap

Lovers' Leap
We’re celebrating our double-your-money challenge grant!  Source
Photo Credit: Seth Gaines United States Postal Service

The Living New Deal Project needs your help to keep going.  Our goal is to raise $100,000 to cover our yearly expenses (data entry, website, events, newsletters, maps, etc.) and to keep expanding our activities.  The project is snowballing in terms of site submissions, volunteers around the country, and public recognition; and we have some important new initiatives, such as hand-held New Deal maps of New York, Washington, DC and San Francisco, a New Deal film archive and festival, and a National New Deal Preservation Conference.  We depend on hundreds of supporters to provide the wherewithal.

Thanks to the generosity of one of our board members, we have a grant that will double-match all contributions up to a total of $25,000 (=$75,000).  That means a contribution of $100 becomes $300!  Last year, our donors gave over $22,000, which yielded $66,000 for the Living New Deal budget (and we raised another $20,ooo from a university grant). For information on how to give, see our Donation Page.

When Louis Kahn and Roosevelt Created a New Jersey Utopia

Author Perdita Buchan has written a lovely encomium to Louis Kahn’s modernist houses set in the New Town of Jersey Homesteads (now Roosevelt) created by the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration.  Along the way she extolls Kahn’s design for the Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, New York City, built after the architect’s death.  She also salutes the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt embodied in both the utopian ideals of the greenbelt towns and the Four Freedoms enumerated in his inaugural address of 1941.  Here is the full story in Curbed.Com.

Louis Kahn house at Roosevelt, NJ

Louis Kahn house at Roosevelt, NJ
Louis Kahn house at Roosevelt, NJ  Source
Photo Credit: unknown

The Roosevelts Visit the Kaiser Shipyards During WWII

Eleanor Roosevelt visits Kaiser-Permanente northern hospital

Eleanor-Roosevelt-visits-Vancouver-Hospital-April-5-1943, 1943
Eleanor Roosevelt visits Kaiser-Permanente northern hospital  Source

Thanks to Lincoln Cushing at the Kaiser-Permanente archives, we discovered that FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt both visited the Kaiser shipyards on the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington during the Second World War.  Kaiser’s shipyards cranked out merchant ships to support the war effort at an unprecedented rate, using mass production techniques, and his wartime industries employed upwards of 250,000 people as a whole.  Henry Kaiser was one of the largest and most innovative industrialists of his era, and one of the few who supported FDR and the New Deal.  For the stories of Franklin ‘stealth’ visit and Eleanor’s very public one, which included the northern hospital or the revolutionary Kaiser-Permanente health system, then in its infancy, see the KP history website here and here.

Mapping New Deal New York and Washington, DC

The Living New Deal is currently engaged in a major effort to expand our coverage of New Deal sites in and around Washington and New York City.  Because these are two central places in the national consciousness, they are key to educating the American people about the legacy of the New Deal and its public works.  LND Research Associates, Brent McKee and Evan Kalish, are hard at work in the National Archives, digging up data on WPA, PWA, FAP and other projects in their respective cities (Brent is our Mid-Atlantic Research Director and Evan is New York Research Director).  They have uncovered some veins of pure gold in terms of detailed tables, photographs and other archival goodies.  Here are our stalwarts  at work, when Gray Brechin visited and joined in the fun recently.

Brent & Evan at the National Archives

Brent & Evan at the National Archives, 2014
Brent & Evan at the National Archives
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin Creative Commons

Brent at the National Archives

Brent McKee, 2014
Brent at the National Archives
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin Commons