Jay Leno & President Obama Talk WPA

What a nice surprise to have Jay Leno bring up the WPA as a model during his show featuring President Barak Obama.  Leno asks, “Would it be possible to do a modern WPA?  Where kids get paid a decent wage, you give them food, and they fix up Detroit, they fix up other cities, they fix bridges…You travel this country and you see these great bridges, and there are plaques…”  To which Obama replies, “And it was not just incredibly important to the economy in the 1930s, we use it still…and it opened up opportunity for everybody.”   He goes on to say, “It’s possible; the question is do we have the political will….When we’ve got unemployed folks, we should be putting them to work”.

Unfortunately, both Leno and Obama need to brush up on their New Deal history: Jay thinks the WPA was building things in 1930 and ’31, four years before it got started (the CCC and CWA did build things starting in 1933), and the President thinks that the Golden Gate Bridge was a WPA project (it was the Bay Bridge, in fact), though he does get the Hoover Dam right.   Now the question is: Will the administration push hard for a new WPA? And remember, the CCC was created by Executive Order — could President Obama do something similar?  If we had a CCC thinning the overgrown forests of the Sierra Nevada, the Yosemite Rim fire and a host of others across the drying West would not be as big and ferocious as they are.

Roosevelt Library Renovation Unveiled

The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Library, the premier New Deal study center and the nation’s first presidential library, got a major overhaul during the last year, as revealed in Spring 2013.   Not only did the Hyde Park center get it first major renovation since it was dedicated in 1941, it has a new permanent exhibition.  Library director, Lynn A. Bassanese, noted that the exhibition represents the first major rethinking of President Roosevelt’s life and career in decades at the library.  For more information, see the article in the New York Times on the opening of the new exhibit or go to the library’s own website.



Surprising Relics of the New Deal in Kansas

New Deal works ranged from gigantic work projects built under the Public Works Administration to humble sewing rooms run by the Works Progress Administration, and from magnificent public monuments like the Jefferson Memorial to beautiful art works in Post Offices.  We’ve seen and documented an amazing array of New Deal creations, but there’s a collection of dolls and dioramas in Crawford County, southeast Kansas, that surprised even us.  It’s part of the collection at the Crawford County Museum, as revealed in this recent story in the Pittsburg (KS) Morning Sun.  These humble artworks were created, in part, under the Museum Project of the WPA.

Narratives of Former Slaves Interviewed by FWP

As part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Progress Administration, more than 2,000 first-person accounts of slavery were collected, as well as 500 black and white photographs of former slaves.  This collection, housed at the Library of Congress, provides an important window into the American past and the history, both dark and illuminating, of the Old South slave regime.  A recent article in Britain’s Daily Mail brought this resource to our attention.

Private Gain to a Few Trumps Public Good for the Many

Prof. Robert Reich, a member of the Living New Deal’s Advisory Board, hits the nail on the head in his latest blog post (Thursday, August 22, 2013).  Here’s an outtake from Reich’s opinion piece, which can be read in its entirety at robertreich.org:

“A society — any society —- is defined as a set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions: public schools, public libraries, public transportation, public hospitals, public parks, public museums, public recreation, public universities, and so on.

Public institutions are supported by all taxpayers, and are available to all. If the tax system is progressive, those who are better off (and who, presumably, have benefitted from many of these same public institutions) help pay for everyone else.

“Privatize” means “Pay for it yourself.” The practical consequence of this in an economy whose wealth and income are now more concentrated than at any time in the past 90 years is to make high-quality public goods available to fewer and fewer.

In fact, much of what’s called “public” is increasingly a private good paid for by users — ever-higher tolls on public highways and public bridges, higher tuitions at so-called public universities, higher admission fees at public parks and public museums.”

What the New Deal did was invest in public goods on a massive scale, providing essential community infrastructure, public buildings and even public art for towns and cities and rural areas across the entire country.  It’s that spirit of public service that so clearly marks the New Deal era and which is so sorely missing in today’s America.

WPA Murals in Danger in Orangetown, NY

WPA murals in the Children’s Building of the Rockland Sate Hospital, built in 1929, are in danger of being destroyed.  The main mural, the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by 1930’s artist Victor Pedrotti Trent, 1941, is 4’ x 100’ on four walls, with a fifth mural possibly done by another artist.

mural, Orangetown NY 1941, unkn artist

The building is closed and folks in the community desire to get the murals out prior to a developer knocking it down.   Rockland State Hospital was a large psychiatric facility owned by the State of New York, which once housed 9,000 patients and 2,000 staff.  The Children’s Building housed the care area for the children of employees.  The school building may be a WPA grade school built in 1939.

The hospital is now down to only 400 patients housed in two main buildings and the City is trying to sell the facility.  The buildings have asbestos in them so most if not all will be demolished. There is some talk of making it into a Senior Living Center complex . While the City owns the buildings, it is not clear who owns the murals or who has the authority to  “sell or transfer” them elsewhere.

Local officials want to save the murals if possible, but the estimated cost would be $100,000 to move and restore them.  A less desirable solution is to have the murals photographed and place the photographs in some other local site prior to demolition.  A video documentary about the Trent murals was filmed by local residents.

For more information, contact Robert Harmon, National New Deal Preservation Association member,  [email protected], 614-486-3029, or City Museum Director and Town Historian Mary Cardenas,  845-398-1302

Dreier and Cohen: “Americans Deserve a Big Raise”

Seventy-five years later, an essential New Deal program remains essential. From the Huffington Post today comes this analysis from Peter Dreier (author of The 100 Greatest Americans:  A Social Justice Hall of Fame, which we reviewed this winter) and Donald Cohen (chair of In the Public Interest):

“Business groups and their political allies have consistently attacked the idea of a minimum wage ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed it during the Depression to help stimulate the economy. And today — the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which FDR signed on June 25, 1938 to establish the minimum wage as well as the 8-hour day, paid overtime and child labor protections — their contemporary counterparts are still at it.

Four Freedoms engraving

Four Freedoms engraving
The FDR memorial in Washington DC elucidates “Four Freedoms,” towards which society should aspire, as articulated by FDR. Among them is “freedom from want,” a dream which FDR sought to achieve through policies like the minimum wage.

A recent report by the National Employment Law Project and the Cry Wolf Project, Consider the Source: 100 years of Broken Record Opposition to the Minimum Wage, chronicles the history of unchanging sky-is-falling rhetoric by business interests opposed to minimum wage laws.

Even today, business groups and their political allies still complain that the minimum wage violates employers’ freedom to set pay levels, forces business firms to cut jobs or even file for bankruptcy, and destroys employees’ drive to work hard. The fact that there is no evidence for these statements hasn’t stopped them from making whining about the minimum wage. But after 75 years of success, we should no longer take their complaints seriously. They are just crying wolf.

In 1937, soon after FDR first floated the idea of a federal minimum wage, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) warned that it “constitutes a step in the direction of communism, bolshevism, fascism, and Nazism.” Congressman Edward Cox, a Georgia Democrat, said that the law “will destroy small industry.” These ideas, Cox claimed, “are the product of those whose thinking is rooted in an alien philosophy and who are bent upon the destruction of our whole constitutional system and the setting up of a Red Labor communistic despotism upon the ruins of our Christian civilization.” Roosevelt and most members of Congress ignored these warnings and adopted the FLSA, which established a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour.

Since then, …” Read the rest of this article here. 

New on the site: A New Deal Filmography!

One of our trusty researchers has spent the last couple months digging up data on New Deal-related films. The result is an incredibly rich resource with details on 100 — yes 100! — films and videos that were either made through New Deal programs or that address New Deal histories and themes.

This clip is from the film "Emergency Conservation Work in Great Smoky Mountains National Park" (1936)


There are many more, no doubt that have not made it yet to our list. Let us know if you have information that we should add, and we’ll do an update in the next few months. You can see the list here, on our film/video page.

John Nichols on Lautenberg and the “New Deal Faith”

Nation and Capitol Times editor/writer John Nichols eulogized Senate stalwart Frank Lautenberg (New Jersey_ when he passed away last month, by calling him bold, unapologetic, and a carrier of the New Deal Faith. Among other things, Lautenberg was the fire behind the 21st Century WPA Act, which aims to revive New Deal programs that put people back to work. Here’s a excerpt from his article, with a link below for the full text:

SeFrank Lautenberg

Frank Lautenberg, the son of a Paterson, N.J., silk mill worker and the last World War II veteran serving in the U.S. Senate, took his cues from another political time: a time when liberals were bold and unapologetic, a time when it was understood that government could and should do great things.

One of the few members of Congress who could remember listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the radio and going to college on the initial GI Bill, Lautenberg served five terms in the Senate as a champion of great big infrastructure investments — especially for Amtrak and urban public transportation — great big environmental regulations, great big consumer protections, and great big investigations of wrongdoing by Wall Street.

It can fairly be said that the New Jersey senator, who died Monday at age 89, kept the New Deal flame lit in the Senate. Indeed, he was behind one of the last major pieces of legislation proposed to renew one of FDR’s greatest legacies: the Works Progress Administration, which provided public works employment for millions of Americans during the Great Depression of Lautenberg’s youth.

When he introduced his “21st Century WPA Act” two years ago, Lautenberg declared: “Our economy will not recover and our nation will not move forward until we put jobs first. Establishing a 21st Century Works Progress Administration would immediately put Americans to work rebuilding our nation and strengthening our communities. Across the country, we continue to benefit from projects completed under President Roosevelt’s WPA, which employed more than 3 million Americans during a time of great need. A 21st Century WPA would tackle our nation’s job crisis head-on and accelerate our economic recovery.”

A self-made millionaire who paid his own way into politics at age 58, Lautenberg never forgot that government programs lifted him out of poverty. And he refused to bend to the austerity fantasies of official Washington. Indeed, he attacked them with gusto, especially after returning to the Senate in 1983 following a bizarre turn of political events in the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency. …
Read more here. 

Brechin: “History is Repeating Itself”

Gray Brechin’s latest on the Post Office and the role of the press in keeping the public under-informed about the crisis of the selloff of our common heritage:


May 28, 2013 /  In 1906, surveyor Stephen Puter wrote a tell-all book from prison, Looters of the Public Domain, which details how Puter transferred thousands of acres of prime timberlands in Oregon and Washington from public to private owners. This sort of hustle was common in the 19th century, when much of the public domain was enclosed and converted into private fortunes with congressional help.



History is repeating itself today with the nation’s postal service, and much of the press is asleep at the wheel.

The public in 1906 became aware of frauds like Puter’s because the U.S. then had a diverse and competitive media environment willing to

support gumshoe journalists as well as a president willing to investigate and prosecute criminal activity at the highest level — even U.S. senators of his own party. How times have changed as we now watch the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) looted like prime timberland. A venerable institution that helped build the country is being gutted. This is not, as the mainstream media slothfully claims, because the Internet has rendered it obsolete, but because it represents lumber ripe for the taking while what’s left of the press takes an extended holiday from curiosity.

Last July, the USPS succeeded in uniting a famously fractious town when it announced plans to sell Berkeley’s century-old downtown post office. Berkeley has, ever since, proved a public relations migraine for USPS management. USPS occasionally meets its legal obligation to take public comment on pending sales, and it did so in Berkeley on February 26 at a meeting where USPS representatives endured hours of abuse and outrage from an overflow crowd at the old City Hall. The city council and mayor unanimously condemned the proposed sale. Activists demonstrated at the historic post office, gathered petition signatures, and — in lieu of local press — leafletted town residents about what they were about to lose.

Perhaps because of that unprecedented resistance, Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe paid Mayor Bates the courtesy of a letter he said would “clarify the facts about the Postal Service’s financial crisis.”

That crisis, Donohoe claimed, has forced him to radically shrink his agency while selling properties paid for by U.S. taxpayers for over a century. Among those properties are architecturally distinguished, landmarked and centrally located post offices like Berkeley’s, many of them containing a gallery of unique New Deal murals and sculpture intended for and belonging to the American people. The handsome buildings marked by flagpoles are often the only federal presence in small towns where they double as community centers — and those public venues are vanishing under Donohoe’s watch.

The Postmaster General insisted that his agency’s nearly $16 billion deficit is notthe result of a “manufactured crisis.” He neglected to mention the Republican Party’s stated intention to “modernize” the 238-year-old agency by privatizing it. Nor did he cite the pro-privatization white papers churned out by right-wing and libertarian think tanks like Cato and American Enterprise, or the political contributions lavished on congressional representatives by private carriers lusting for the USPS profit centers, or that some of those representatives and their spouses would like to “reform” the USPS right out of existence.

Absent, too, was any mention of the ruinous Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act passed by Congress in 2006 that requires the USPS, within 10 years, to fully fund its retiree health benefit fund 75 years into the future while simultaneously barring it from offering services that would compete with the private sector. Donohoe instead fell back on the “Internet-made-us-do-it” meme so often parroted by the U.S. press when it bestirs itself to report on the postal crisis at all. He explained that in order to put the USPS back onto a sound financial footing, he had slashed the size of its workforce by 193,000 employees through attrition, pared some 21,000 delivery routes, and reduced operating expenses by $15 billion. Despite all this and his recent effort to eliminate Saturday delivery, he clamed that the leaner and meaner USPS had “provided increased access to postal products and services.” Tell that to postal customers and workers these days.


Read the rest of this essay here, on Alternet.