Eleanor: The Radical Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt speaks at a podium at an AFL-CIO event. Photo by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives.

Eleanor Roosevelt via Yes! Magazine
Eleanor Roosevelt speaks at a podium at an AFL-CIO event. Photo by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives.

Let the record show that the Eleanor you see in the film Hyde Park on Hudson is an incomplete charicature, so says historian Peter Dreier in a Jan. 24 2013 essay in Yes! Magazine:

“…. In reality, Eleanor’s life—before she met FDR, during the 13 years she served as first lady, and after FDR died in 1945—was filled with important public controversies, including her activism around such issues as workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and human rights. She became FDR’s most important, and most progressive, advisor. FDR was the most powerful president in American history, and Eleanor (who died in 1962) wielded her own power, sometimes behind the scenes but often in public, breaking the mold for first ladies. No first lady before or since—not even Hillary Clinton—has had as much influence while her husband was president.

Eleanor consistently pushed FDR to the left on key issues and appointments. The left-leaning members of FDR’s inner circle (including Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Agriculture Secretary and later Vice President Henry Wallace, and Harry Hopkins, who formulated and ran many New Deal relief programs) often conspired with Eleanor to make sure he heard the views of progressive activists.

Throughout her life, Eleanor fought on behalf of America’s—and the world’s—most vulnerable people. Over time, she became friends with a widening circle of union activists, feminists, civil rights crusaders, and radicals whose ideas she embraced and advocated for, both as FDR’s wife and adviser and as a political figure in her own right…”

Read the full article here.

New book: Public Art & Architecture in New Mexico 1933-43

kathy flynn book coverFrom the ABQ Journal comes this nice commentary on a new book out by Kathy Flynn, who runs the National New Deal Preservation Association.

“… New Deal-sponsored architecture surrounded Kathryn Flynn when she was growing up in Portales. There was the courthouse, a post office and school buildings, as well as such New Deal projects such as a swimming pool where Flynn worked and a park and lake where she camped.

She wasn’t aware of their vintage nor importance at the time. Nor did she take notice of the New Deal architecture in Salt Lake City where she attended undergraduate school. ….

Today, Flynn’s name usually comes up when people talk about the New Deal in New Mexico. …”

Read more here.

Renewing the CCC Ethos

In following the ongoing conversation about the need to revive FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which put people to work across the country and revived public landscapes, we ran into this post, on the website of the Los Angeles-based public television station KCET. Writer Char Miller, in a Feb. 6 opinion piece titled Will ObamaCorps Become the New Civilian Conservation Corps?” explores the history of the CCC and related programs.

employement-conservation-corps1930s“… As the CCC boys enhanced the Angeles’ and other forests’ recreational resources – earning them the nickname, the Tree Army — they were beefed up in turn, sparking a reinvigorated cult of masculinity. Many like Condon remember the skills they learned, the maturity they gained, and the self-assurance that came from swinging an axe, handling earth-moving equipment, and contributing to a cause greater than themselves. Condon affirmed this transformation in the title to a reminiscence he published 50 years later in “Growing Up in the CCC” for Modern Maturity magazine, now known as AARP The Magazine.

His insight is indicative of a significant shift in American environmental culture, argues historian Neil M. Maher in “Nature’s New Deal.” The CCC “expanded the meaning of conservation beyond the efficient use of natural resources to include as well concern for human health through outdoor recreation,” a twinning that “became central to postwar environmentalists. …” Miller traces the theme of community work through to the efforts of Job Corps (pictured here) and the Peace Corps in the 1960s and beyond.anf-ccc-corps1960s

Miller is optimistic about the possibility that President Obama’s new youth corps could become a real revival of the CCC ethos. Read the whole essay here.


Bronx Murals At Risk

Murals by Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson Shahn are at risk in the proposed sale of a New Deal Post Office in the Bronx. From the New York Times: 

“…..  Described by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as the largest of 29 Depression-era post offices in New York City, the Bronx General Post Office occupies the entire block from East 149th to East 150th Street. Its most distinguishing feature is 13 lobby murals painted in the late ’30s by Mr. Shahn (1898-1969) and Bernarda Bryson (1903-2004), his companion and later wife.

Like much of the artwork of that era, the murals celebrate labor and its byproducts. There are colossal figures of farmers and mill workers, steel factories and hydroelectric dams — still powerful, though darkened, dulled, nicked and cracked. ‘My idea,’ Mr. Shahn once said, ‘was to show the people of the Bronx something about America outside New York.’ ”

Picking cotton.
David W. Dunlap/The New York Times
Picking cotton


More from the Times: “There was no mention of the murals in the letter to the borough president, dated Dec. 31, 2012, from Joseph J. Mulvey, a real estate specialist for the Postal Service in Milford, Mass. Instead, he wrote, ‘In the face of unsustainable deficits, the Postal Service must seek ways to cut costs and reduce the size of its infrastructure.’…

… As is chiseled into an elegant commemorative plaque in the lobby, the General Post Office was built in 1935, “during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” It was part of a Treasury Department program to employ out-of-work architects, engineers, artisans and artists. Thomas Harlan Ellett was the architect. In the austere facade, tall arched windows penetrated a solid wall of gray brick that is otherwise unembellished except for two sculptures, by Charles Rudy and Henry Kreis.

Inside is a different story: an unfolding panorama of American labor and landscapes on all four walls.

No stranger to controversy, Mr. Shahn worked with Diego Rivera on murals that were removed at Rockefeller Center because they included a depiction of Lenin. He worked with Lou Block on a mural for the Rikers Island penitentiary that was rejected by the municipal Art Commission because its depiction of prison conditions was deemed unsuitable. …”

David W. Dunlap/The New York Times
“The plaque, between two farming scenes, proclaims, ‘This building was erected during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.’ “



Mapping the New Deal: Stone Arches in Texas

Our map, where we are aiming to document New Deal structures from coast to coast,has been growing by leaps and bounds this year. Now at over 2,000 sites, we add new data each week. We’re looking for new research associates across the country to help with this effort.

Here’s one of the newest contributions to the map, the Possum Kingdom Stone Arch Bridge – in Graford, TX.

Possum Kingdom Stone Bridge

Possum Kingdom Stone Bridge
See the project page (link below) for more photographs of this site

The 18-span stone arch bridge, just below the Morris Shepherd dam on Lake Possum Kingdom, is the longest and most substantial masonry arch bridge in Texas. The design was chosen to withstand flood waters released from the dam a mile above the bridge. It is built from over 7,200 cubic yards of locally quarried limestone. The bridge was built by 74 skilled workers and 250 unskilled workers. Many of the stonemasons were former coal miners. Cushman said, “designers juxtaposed an ancient engineering design with a modern concrete dam to create one of the state’s greatest achievements in landscape construction.” The total length of the bridge is 433 feet and 4 inches. The piers are founded on bedrock and are 3 feet wide, with the exception of piers 7 and 13, which are “bracing piers” and extend up to 5 feet.

Check out the project page for the bridge, which is linked to our map, to see a beautiful series of photographs by Living New Deal contributor Susan Allen.

Krugman on Obama’s “Big Deal”

From a recent op-ed by Paul Krugman in the New York Times:

” … F.D.R. had his New Deal; well, Mr. Obama has his Big Deal. He hasn’t delivered everything his supporters wanted, and at times the survival of his achievements seemed very much in doubt. But if progressives look at where we are as the second term begins, they’ll find grounds for a lot of (qualified) satisfaction.

… What about inequality? On that front, sad to say, the Big Deal falls very far short of the New Deal. Like F.D.R., Mr. Obama took office in a nation marked by huge disparities in income and wealth. But where the New Deal had a revolutionary impact, empowering workers and creating a middle-class society that lasted for 40 years, the Big Deal has been limited to equalizing policies at the margin.

That said, health reform will provide substantial aid to the bottom half of the income distribution, paid for largely through new taxes targeted on the top 1 percent, and the “fiscal cliff” deal further raises taxes on the affluent. Over all, 1-percenters will see their after-tax income fall around 6 percent; for the top tenth of a percent, the hit rises to around 9 percent. This will reverse only a fraction of the huge upward redistribution that has taken place since 1980, but it’s not trivial. ….”

Read the full article on the New York Times site.

Whither the Post Office?

North Philadelphia Branch Post Office

This photograph of the North Philadelphia Branch Post Office comes from Living New Deal research associate Evan Kalish. Kalish has dedicated a tremendous amount of time to documenting postal landscapes across the country.

From the New York Times comes this report on austerity at the US Postal Service:

“Even the federal government turns to private shippers rather than the Postal Service when it wants to send packages. A report from the agency’s inspector general said that since 2001, private companies like FedEx and United Parcel Service had consistently captured 98 percent of the revenue from long-term shipping contracts with the government because the financially troubled Postal Service did not have a sales staff or a strategy to focus on the federal sector until 2009.” Read the full article here….

May we modestly propose that a renewed investment in public services, rather than a continued practice of turning to the private sector to meet our needs, might prove a better path? It’s time for a new New Deal…


Hot stuff: the WPA on… Mercury?

The New Deal put many different kinds of people back to work. Living New Deal researcher Brent McKee — in the midst of some deep archival work he’s doing on Washington DC — recently found signs of an unusual work site. As he writes in his latest blog post, New Deal laborers were not all “laborers”:

A Federal non-construction project to revise table of the orbit of the planet Mercury. Work includes revisiting reductions of the observations, including those made at the Naval Observatory and elsewhere from 1890 to 1936; comparing observations with Newcomb’s Tables of Mercury; forming and solving by least squares equations of conditions for corrections to the tables; and combining results with those of a similar discussion of all observations of Mercury before 1890 and used as the basis for the present tables. (National Archives-College Park, Record Group 69, Microfilmed Records of the WPA)