Social movements historically have used posters to spread the word, build solidarity and demand change. During the New Deal, the WPA employed artists, graphic designers and printers to promote public health, tourism, education, the arts and more. In the digital age, a new generation of activists is harnessing the power of the poster to demand a Green New Deal.
Over 1500 documentary photographs were taken by ten professional photographers in West Virginia between 1934 and 1943. These photographs continue to be exhibited, published, and referenced in discussions to this day.
Beginning in 2006, the West Virginia Humanities Council, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other sources, funded a series of mini-exhibits that toured photographs from the collection to the rural communities where they were originally taken. The Council also contributed to the publication of a book, published by the West Virginia University Press, that combined photographs from the mini-exhibits with those of other parts of the state.
The mini-exhibits and the book, as well as related interviews and presentations, have helped to bring the photographs to a wider contemporary audience. Many viewers and readers have commented that the photographs resonate with their memories or family stories about the New Deal era.
These photographs, as a whole, contrast with the images of abject poverty that have been used to characterize Appalachia in general and West Virginia in particular. While the standards of living of many families did not match up to more urban areas due to the lack of electricity and other public utilities, a common observation is that people did not realize that they were poor. The photographs have helped people to heal the disconnect between their own experiences and the way that their lives were later depicted.
At the same time, there is recognition that abject poverty existed during the Great Depression. One of the goals of the government project that sponsored the photographs was to point to basic needs so that people in cities would support the funds and programs that were needed to address them. Other goals were to show the successful government projects, document everyday life in rural areas and small towns, and, after the onset of World War II, also highlight life in cities and the support provided by the home front.
The photographs have been characterized as introducing Americans to America. They are credited with helping Americans to expand their perspectives beyond their local communities and develop the sense of national unity that was required to prevail in the war.
In West Virginia and across the country we are now divided in new ways that can be exacerbated by our advances in communications via social media and other means. Some of the fault lines are again between rural and urban. The New Deal photographs can continue to play a role in bringing people together across these divides.
We must go beyond our comfort zones to try to understand each other. These photographs, projects like this website, and new initiatives that are developed in this same spirit, can all help us to come together to meet the new challenges we face.
When Joe Biden gave his acceptance speech as president-elect, he referred to “FDR in 1932 — promising a beleaguered country a New Deal.”
Biden and his backers have frequently compared the crises Roosevelt faced in 1932 with the crises Biden faces today. Acting boldly like FDR, it seems, is what Biden intends to do.
Any U.S. president who acts boldly, however, must proceed within the three areas where the federal government has responsibility.
First, public safety. It’s the federal government’s job to protect us from threats to our safety, including our health.
Second, economic security. Americans now expect the federal government to ensure that adults have the jobs, wages, income and health care needed to provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.
Third, an effective market. Ours is a market economy. It is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure, through sound regulation, that the market works properly.
Franklin Roosevelt provided extraordinary leadership in all three areas.
In the second part of FDR’s presidency (1939-1945), he focused on safety. From 1939 to 1941, FDR strengthened the military and launched Lend-Lease. After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt galvanized the U.S. war effort that crushed Germany and Japan.
During the first part of FDR’s presidency (1933-1938), he led the “bold, persistent experimentation” aimed at meeting the federal government’s two other responsibilities: economic security and an effective market.
Roosevelt simultaneously worked with Congress to resuscitate a market that had collapsed. FDR quickly signed laws to revive the nation’s banks and restore the integrity of the stock exchanges. These measures — combined with “priming the pump” via increasing federal spending — in time helped rejuvenate the economy.
Biden, too, needs to act on all three fronts of federal responsibility: public safety, economic security and an effective market.
But there are big differences between how Roosevelt tackled the crises he faced from 1933-1945 and what Biden must do starting Inauguration Day 2021.
First, Biden must act immediately to protect the public’s safety. FDR was able to wait six years. Biden will not have that luxury. He must begin on day one to attack the COVID-19 pandemic.
Second, Biden has no choice but to simultaneously tackle our health crisis, and our economic security crisis and our market effectiveness crisis.
The third big difference will make it easier for Biden to succeed.
When FDR took office, he had virtually nothing to build on. There was no federal system of economic security. Nor was there any federal system of comprehensive market regulation.
Biden has this inheritance to build on.
But act — and act boldly — he must. Indeed, if Biden is to succeed, he must go far beyond driving down unemployment and restoring the market to the troubled position they occupied before COVID-19 fouled America’s economy.
Restoring this status quo ante is insufficient. To achieve economic security, Biden needs to create millions of transitional jobs, modeled on the New Deal’s CWA and WPA. Biden should also expand unemployment insurance to the millions of workers now excluded.
The new president also needs to raise the minimum wage well above $10 per hour, make it easier to form unions and bargain, and guarantee all workers paid leave.
Biden also needs to raise — well above the poverty line — the minimum disability benefit and the minimum Social Security retirement payment. Improving the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to provide millions of uninsured individuals with health insurance, is imperative.
In addition Biden must act to improve the effectiveness of the overall market. Achieving this outcome means protecting the environment from harm, ending wage theft and safeguarding consumers and investors from deception and harm.
Like all of us, Biden lives in the House that FDR Built. Thanks to the New Deal, he begins with a rich legacy of federal policy that he has the power to reshape. He can add policies to fill gaps. He can fix existing policies that are deficient.
Will Biden have the wisdom to see his challenges in these terms? Will he recognize that his primary task, beyond ending the pandemic, is to construct a 21st century New Deal?
If he does, he may go down in history as one of America’s great presidents.
David Riemer is a senior advisor on the Workforce for Social Security Works and author of ‘Putting Government In Its Place: The Case for a New Deal 3.0.”
Dr. June Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, professor emerita at Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus, and author of “Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer.”
In his book titled, “’New Deal’ means being prepared for conflict,” author Steffen Lehndorff examines what we can learn from the New Deal of the 1930s. The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic requires urgent social, economic, and environmental reforms. Lehndorff reflects on the New Deal, how it was set in motion by the Roosevelt Administration, and how it can serve as a model for today’s reformers.
The author: Dr. Steffen Lehndorff is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Work, Skills and Training (IAQ), University of Duisburg-Essen.
The book is written primarily for a European audience, but it is also of interest for stateside audiences with an interest in the history of the New Deal and its relevance for the Green New Deal. Find more details about the book here.
In a New York Times opinion piece, author Kevin Baker writes about the challenges facing the Biden presidency, and looks to the New Deal and other historical precedents to examine how he can govern despite a divided Congress. Read the story here.
On October 22, 2020, the 2019 Randy Martin Spirit Awardee Arlene Goldbard shared her thoughts on the to the powerful organizing opportunity we have to build a new WPA.
Twice before in times of crisis, the U.S. created public service employment programs, underwriting work for the public good. Both the WPA (Works Progress Administration of the 30s) and CETA (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of the 70s) were created in response to high unemployment, supporting workers from many sectors. Artists were especially resourceful in taking advantage of these programs. Given that unemployment today surpasses Great Depression levels, it’s time for a new WPA to repair social fabric and infrastructure, share our stories, and create sites of public memory. How can this happen?
Evan Kalish, Postlandia founder and Living New Deal researcher at large published a post about the recent USPS Officials order to cover historic murals in 12 states. Kalish writes that, “[i]nternal emails obtained via the Freedom of Information Act reveal that an “artwork workgroup” of high-level United States Postal Service (USPS) officials, including attorneys and USPS’s Federal Preservation Officer, has directed facilities and maintenance personnel to cover up 80-year-old murals housed at 16 post offices spanning 12 states. USPS is considering the murals’ outright removal, and it is unclear whether this initiative will expand to include historic artwork at additional locations.” Read the post here.
Greg Young and Tom Meyers have been telling fascinating stories about New York City in their Bowery Boys Podcast since 2007.
In their most recent segment, “Robert Moses and the Art of the New Deal,” they look at the role of New Deal funding in building the city’s infrastructure. They also mention the Living New Deal:“special shout out to a really extraordinary website, the Living New Deal, that is exhaustively researched, and a really fun afternoon can be had just digging through it and looking up New Deal projects across the country.“
WPA Pools, Still in Widespread Use in the City, Display New Badges of Honor
Living New Deal partners with NYC Parks to affix New Deal medallions at WPA pools for one-year honorary display, showing New Yorkers how much we owe to our 1930s forebears.
NEW YORK, NY, August 17, 2020— At a fraught moment when many Americans are looking to the federal government to protect them from a pandemic that has upended their lives, the towering achievements of the New Deal stand as useful and living monuments to what government can do when serving the public is its first priority.
The New York City branch of the Living New Deal (LND)—a nonprofit dedicated to mapping the physical legacy of FDR’s New Deal—has commemorated that legacy with a striking new medallion that echoes the period’s style and spirit.
NYC Parks has mounted LND’s new red, white, and blue medallions as a one-year honorary display at 10 of the 11 WPA pools that were completed in the summer of 1936: the Astoria, Hamilton Fish, Betsy Head, Highbridge, Thomas Jefferson, Lyons, McCarren, Red Hook, Jackie Robinson, and Sunset pools. The final medallion will be installed at Crotona Pool when construction at the site is complete.
More than 1,000 New York City landmarks, public works, and works of art were built or created by workers employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and other New Deal “alphabet soup” programs, but LND has noted a near-total absence of signage marking these sites as such. “We’re determined to remedy that,” says former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, who serves as an advisor to LND’s NYC branch. “Our goal is to create a piece of living history for the city.
“The New Deal gave us the city we know and love,” Messinger continues, “but most of us either don’t know or have forgotten the achievements of that extraordinary decade in our nation’s history. Everywhere you look, you can see the New Deal’s imprint.” The short list includes the Triborough Bridge, LaGuardia Airport, Henry Hudson Parkway, and much of Central Park—the Harlem Meer Boathouse, the Zoo, and the Great Lawn, for example—along with schools, post offices, hospitals, playgrounds, and recreation centers across the five boroughs. And 11 Olympic-size public swimming pools, which are still in widespread use today.
“Intent on democratizing access to recreation, the federal government spent $750
million on community recreation facilities in the 1930s (more than $14 billion in today’s dollars),” wrote New York’s Prof. Marta Gutman, CUNY architectural historian and a member of LND’s NYC working group, in her 2008 article titled “Race, Place, and Play.” Prominent among these are the 11 enormous NYC pool complexes being commemorated by the very same parks department that oversaw their construction in 1936.
The Living New Deal kicked off its NYC commemoration campaign with the display of medallions at pools precisely because they represent some of the period’s finest high-design achievements on behalf of the people of this city. Says Grace Roosevelt, another NYC working group member, “We hope to mark other New Deal sites in the near future, focusing on particular neighborhoods such as Red Hook, Astoria, the Lower East Side, and Harlem, and on specific types of sites such as courthouses, schools, health facilities, and apartment buildings.”
More about the Living New Deal
Much of the research on the New Deal’s achievements in New York City has already been completed by the Living New Deal, the national California-based nonprofit that produced the Map and Guide to New Deal Art, Architecture, and Public Works in New
York City, co-sponsored by the Museum of the City of New York. Copies of the map are available on the Living New Deal’s website at livingnewdeal.org.
“Still Working for America”—the Living New Deal’s motto—serves as a reminder that many essential public works Americans depend upon today were built by the New Deal. By marking and celebrating what was achieved in the past, the Living New Deal’s NYC branch hopes to spark the public imagination by showing what can be accomplished when government invests in the collective good.
The Mercury News reports that the park headquarters, a timber building on the National Register of Historic Places built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, as well as the “nature center, campgrounds and other structures at Big Basin Redwoods State Park have been reported destroyed in the raging wildfires currently burning through the Santa Cruz Mountains.” Red the story here.
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.