Thanks to Local Efforts, A New Deal Mural Is Saved

The newly-restored “Modern Education/School Activities”
© 2017 Pasadena Now. LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Since its completion in 1942, “Modern Education/School Activities” experienced the wear and tear and water damage that come with the decades. But who knew that this 16’ x 40’ oil-on-canvas mural, Painted by Frank Talles Chamberlain through the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), and hung in Pasadena’s McKinley School library, was so colorful and vibrant? Now, thanks to the McKinley School Mural Restoration Committee, and the painstaking work of conservators, we all do.

Its size and its place of prominence in view of young eyes speak to the importance of “Modern Education/School Activities” as a unique and vital artifact from the New Deal Era. Its conception and subject matter make it even more compelling for historians—and a still-relevant model for community. As Brandon Villalovos notes in Pasadena News Now, “After spending time in classrooms, it was Chamberlin’s idea that students would suggest ideas for the mural’s subject matter….. With a typical Southern California landscape as a backdrop, forty-nine students of different backgrounds participate in a number of activities such as chemistry, sculpture, radio transmission, horseback riding and blacksmithing. The mural conveys the artist’s passion and faith in the power of education.” Connecting the American pursuit of the arts and sciences to Classical ideals, it adds the New Deal twist of imagining this as a communitarian, multicultural endeavor, an under-appreciated pursuit of the era that we are currently chronicling in our “Working Together” page.

You can read about efforts to restore the mural—from fundraising to the work of conservators—and local reactions to its unveiling, in Villalovos’s article, “‘New Deal’ Era Mural at McKinley School, Carefully Restored After Civic Effort Raises $100,000, is Unveiled.”

Celebrate Our New Map with Us!

Vintage Postcard of the Triborough Bridge. © 2017,

Two years in the making, The Living New Deal’s newest publication, a “Map and Guide to New Deal New York,” highlights nearly 1,000 public works throughout the five boroughs and describes 50 of the city’s notable New Deal buildings, parks, murals, and other sites and artworks. The 18 x 27 inch, multi-color map folds to pocket size, while three inset maps offer walking tours of the New Deal in Central Park, Midtown, and Downtown Manhattan.

In May, The Living New Deal will host events to celebrate our new map—and New Deal New York at large.

On Thursday, May 11, at the Roosevelt House at Hunter College, William Leuchtenburg, Marta Gutman, and Ira Katznelson will participate in the panel, “New Deal New York: A Living Legacy,” moderated by Owen Gutfreund. Following this, Living New Deal Director Richard A Walker will introduce our map. The panel begins at 6 pm, with a reception and map sales and signings to follow. RSVP here.

On Thursday, May 18, at the Museum of the City of New York, Mason Williams and Living New Deal founder Gray Brechin will participate in the panel, “Revisiting New York’s New Deal,” to be moderated by Sarah Seidman. The Museum will also open its gallery to visitors to see its exhibit, “Activist New York.” The panel begins at 6:30 pm, with a reception and map sales and signings to follow. RSVP here. Tickets are $10 with discount code “LND.”

Meanwhile, you can purchase the map ($6) and a poster version ($10) through our site.

Using WPA Art to Address Climate Change

Saguaro National Park, then and soon. © All Rights Reserved, 2017, Ranger Doug ( and Hannah Rothstein (

There are many ways to hold up the example of the New Deal in a time of greed, privatization, and creeping social and climatic threats. Celebrating public art and institutions, the USPS released 20 stamps reproducing works by the WPA’s Poster Division. In July, The Living New Deal will exhibit “Building Bridges, Not Walls,” commemorating the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate bridges as the works of a diverse immigrant nation. (The Bay Bridge was a PWA project, while the Golden Gate Bridge received additions through the WPA.) But how can we both honor our New Deal heritage and adapt its problem-solving spirit for a new century? In National Parks 2050Hannah Rothstein, a Berkeley-based visual artist, repurposes the New Deal’s visual grammar and rhetorical moves: appreciate our public spaces and rise to the challenge of saving them.

As someone who has been, she told us, long “inspired by the historical arts,” Rothstein, researching the effects of climate change on the parks and working from meticulous reproductions by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises, adapted posters created by the WPA/FAP between 1938 and 1941. Her versions serve a distinct purpose. The original posters advertised the glories of our national parks and monuments to inspire pride and tourism. But speaking to the unique challenges faced in each park amidst an administration unsympathetic to climate change and willing to cede public land to “energy development” (as compared with the parks’ massive expansion and conservation under the CCC), Rothstein replaces stirring and vibrant landscapes with denuded forests, dry lakes, and animal skulls. As she explains in her mission statement, National Parks 2050 draws on “the classic National Parks posters” to suggest “how climate change will affect seven of America’s most beloved landscapes. In doing so, it makes climate change feel close to home and hard to ignore.”

Consider her version of the poster for Saguaro National Monument (now Saguaro National Park, a beneficiary of CCC work). Where the original featured giant saguaros jutting towards a glowing sky of bright oranges, yellows, and blue, two men on horseback navigating a trail dotted with prickly pear and barrel cacti, Rothstein’s version muddies the sky to a pea soup green with dull red clouds, turns the saguaros into desiccated ruins, and swaps out the smaller vegetation for dry scrub. Where the original advertises “Guided Nature Trails & Winter Walks” of different trails and camps in the park, Rothstein’s version advertises “Dead saguaro, buffalograss invasion, species loss, drought,” suggesting what’s in store if we continue on our current path of disregarding ecologically devastating industrialization and consumption. Each of her posters addresses the specific threats facing different parks around the nation.

Rothstein explained that she couldn’t recall her own first encounters with specific New Deal artwork; but she remembers WPA structures from her childhood in Elmira, New York, part of a diffuse cultural landscape that should be familiar to us all. Indeed, she noted that the posters, and WPA art more generally, were “somewhere embedded in my cultural lexicon.” And therein lies her work’s power: Familiar-enough, cherished images that, upon further examination, force us to confront the prospect of a world where our “cultural lexicon” takes on bizarre shadings, producing a tragic new normal. National Parks 2050 is a vision of a fading collective purpose and landscape that we still might salvage if, as she hopes, we are willing to “start dialogue [on this] non-partisan issue.” You can support Rothstein—and the environment—by purchasing prints or originals, with 25% of the proceeds (40% on Earth Day) allocated to climate-related causes. See the project’s page for more information.

Gray Brechin contributed to this post.

A Window into New Deal Administration

“Transient Camp” success stories. Courtesy of the Maine State Library.

Recently, Living New Deal Research Associate Andrew Laverdiere discovered a yearbook chronicling the work of the Maine Emergency Relief Administration (MERA) in 1934. Loaded with detailed breakdowns of how relief was administered, the structural organization of the Emergency Relief Administration, and expenditures and returns, Reviewing the ERA in Maine sheds light on the massive mobilization of the New Deal as it functioned in just one state.

More than simple accounting, Reviewing the ERA in Maine tells a human story. Participants in MERA not only built schools, they also taught in them. Mainers gave as much as they got. Indeed, we learn of the program that one of its key aims was to “derive for the public as much value as possible for the money expended.” It is a story of building and repairing communities and citizens alike. One of the more fascinating sections examines how “the Federal Government applied its funds for the care of transients” (pictured here). In exchange for classes, sports programs, and board and lodgings, more than 2000 young, formerly itinerant men constructed trout and salmon ponds and hatcheries. It was argued that “Many only needed the proper diet and simple life of the camps to enable them to once more take their place in the world.” You can find the entire source here.

Those “Dam Kids”: Lessons from the New Deal in Shasta County

Shasta Dam created thousands of jobs, facilitated the growth of surrounding towns, and reshaped California’s economy. © 2017, U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation.

Amidst Trump’s call to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ recent Report Card for America’s Infrastructure (our GPA is a sad D+), Marketplace’s Sarah Gardner visited Shasta Lake, California, to get a sense of what large-scale projects once looked like for the people who built them, for their families, and for the folks who live in their shadows and benefit from them today. Indeed, Shasta Dam, a massive Bureau of Reclamation/Public Works Administration project, employed around 13,000-15,000 workers during the seven years (1938-1945) it took to build, fostered a boom town around it, and is today “a key part of California’s complex plumbing system” and central to its status as “an agricultural powerhouse.” We hear from New Deal scholars and from some of the “dam kids” (children of workers, as they were colloquially known) about the dam and life during the Great Depression and New Deal.

In terms of infrastructural benefits, employment opportunities, and the spirit of hard work and civic mindedness it fostered, Shasta Dam is a prime example of the positive legacies of the New Deal. But what would a massive public works program look like today, amidst changed circumstances? As economist Edward Glaeser notes in Gardner’s piece, “Much of infrastructure today is quite technologically intensive. It involves a lot of machines relative to the level of unskilled labor, and thinking that you’re just going to hop readily from one industry to another seems like a mistake.” Living New Deal Director Richard A Walker wades into the debate while further suggesting a crucial difference between then and now: “Why don’t we insulate every house and apartment in America? Think of the people we could put to work upgrading houses in every city, every town, every rural area to help with energy conservation. Those are not exotic, sophisticated projects.” Jason Scott Smith, a Living New Deal Research Board member and professor of History at the University of New Mexico, is also interviewed and notes that the New Deal sought to build “‘socially useful’ infrastructure.” In 2017, we need to also imagine what socially responsible infrastructure looks like.

A Stamp to Make FDR Proud

Stamps to make philatelists proud. Photo courtesy Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

Over at his Postlandia blog, our New York Regional Director Evan Kalish reports from the First-Day stamp ceremony at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. There, on March 7, “a crowd of 175 gathered to celebrate the issuance of ten WPA Poster-themed Forever postage stamps.” These new stamps, replicating WPA Posters “produced by a division of an arts program, which was known as Federal Project No. 1,” commemorate an under-appreciated element of the New Deal. Indeed, along with shaping things, the WPA shaped culture by giving employment to out-of-work artists. As Evan writes, “WPA artists also created posters that were displayed in public places. These posters encouraged exploration of America’s landmarks and natural treasures, ‘education, health, conservation and other civic ideals’ (USPS). Two million posters of approximately 35,000 designs were produced. Ten of these designs are commemorated with the new WPA Posters stamp issue.” Click here to read the full post and learn more about the artwork being celebrated, the celebration’s featured speakers, the state of New Deal construction and artwork in FDR’s native Hudson Valley, and even FDR’s own philately (pictured here). And don’t forget to purchase your own booklet of WPA Poster stamps.

Grading America’s Infrastructure. (It’s Not Good.)

1942 photograph of carpenter at work on Douglas Dam, Tennessee (TVA). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has just released its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, an accounting done every four years since 1988. The ASCE grades the nation’s built environment and social services: Public parks, drinking water, bridges, schools, toxic waste disposal, and more—16 categories in all. The results are sobering: The U.S. grades out at a dismal D+.

The near-disaster at California’s Oroville Dam this winter was a dramatic reminder of the costs of crumbling infrastructure. Nor should we forget the everyday failures, such as the poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water.

Damage to the Oroville Dam. Copyright © 2017 ABC Inc., KABC-TV Los Angeles. All Rights Reserved.

The ASCE Report Card’s website provides a wealth of information. You can chart America’s crumbling landscape through infographics and maps by state and type of infrastructure, plus a live feed of Congresspeople tweeting about the report. There is also a section with proposed solutions and ways to become involved. (Over at his New Deal of the Day blog, Brent McKee highlights some of the shortcomings of these proposals, while also suggesting the role that New Deal-inspired programs might play in improving American infrastructure.)

But the backlog of maintenance, repair, and replacement is daunting: some $4.7 trillion, according to the engineers. Compared to the needs, President Trump’s promise to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure falls pitifully short. Worse, he is not talking about public investment, but, as Marketplace points out, private construction that will have to be repaid through user fees. Nor does Trump’s vision account for such important innovations as green building technologies and new materials.

What is crystal clear is that America needs a new New Deal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and public services. A program of national reconstruction must, as the report notes, speak to the times, “improving the ‘triple bottom line’ with clear economic, social, and environmental benefits.’” It is doubtful, though, that the current leadership in Washington is capable of launching such an effort, leaving the future economic, social, and environmental well-being of the country in serious doubt.

Brent McKee, Richard A Walker, and Gray Brechin contributed to this post.

Mail Your Letters with a WPA Poster (Stamp)

20 WPA poster stamps, on sale March 7.©2017 Hearst Communications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Here at The Living New Deal, we’ve preordered the latest edition to the Postal Service’s stamp gallery: Renderings of works initially created for the Poster Division of the WPA/FAP. These 20 “striking and utilitarian” images depict tennis players and bighorn sheep, industrial workers and ocean liners, and one of the most iconic images to emerge from the WPA Poster Division.

Amidst increasing privatization, these stamps, to be released on March 7, serve as reminders of an era when government was dedicated to “civic-minded ideals.” What better way to recapture that spirit than by supporting the USPS?


Working Together

Singer, actor, athlete, lawyer, and political activist Paul Robeson at a workers’ demonstration in Oakland, 1942. Credit: National Archives.Copyright © 2017 AAIHS. All rights reserved.

With good reason, histories of the New Deal have emphasized the failure of its programs to overcome the traditional barriers of race, ethnicity, and gender in American life. The New Deal revolutionized many aspects of US society and politics, but not its racial order. Indeed, some of the New Deal’s hallmark achievements rested squarely on discriminatory politics. For example, agricultural and domestic workers were excluded from Social Security in 1935—an effective way of excluding Southern African Americans and Southwestern Chicanos. The Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River flooded traditional hunting grounds of Pacific Northwest Indians and interrupted salmon migrations on which the natives depended, and the government did not even make irrigation water available to local reservations. As the New Deal was winding down after Pearl Harbor, FDR issued Executive Order 9066 imprisoning some 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans, which can only partly be explained by war hysteria.

One reason for the New Deal’s failings was President Roosevelt’s need to keep Southern Democrats in the New Deal Coalition to get his programs passed at all. Another was that New Deal programs deferred to local oversight in the selection and implementation of projects and distribution of funds. In public housing, WPA work teams and CCC camps, segregation reigned in Jim Crow country. This “deference to localism” (Sugrue, 60) was a strength of the New Deal, giving local politicians and players a stake in the massive expansion of federal programs. At the same time, it crippled the national government’s ability to force change from above. Japanese internment rested squarely on long-standing anti-Asian views on the  West Coast.

Then there were long-standing cultural biases that equated Whiteness with the American Republic. In art and literature, the injustice of poverty was typically framed as most acute for long-suffering, salt-of-the-earth whites, as in Dorothea Lange’s FSA photograph, Migrant Mother. When non-white art practices and spaces were promoted, they were often treated as something apart, as when Thomas C. Parker, Assistant Director of the WPA/FAP, romanticized Black aesthetics by isolating them in segregated arts centers (Musher, 159). What’s more, integrated arts projects, like the FTP, were targeted by Southern Democrats, who attacked the program in congressional hearings and cut funding. Asians were long regarded as not truly American and inherently untrustworthy, making it easier to suspect them as potential Fifth Columnists in the Second World War.

Nevertheless, New Deal programs and the era’s larger political and cultural groundswell began to transform the country in a way that would help launch the Civil Rights Movement. For example, FDR’s “black cabinet” of advisors and his appointment of William Hastie as the first Black federal judge put African Americans into positions of power not seen since Reconstruction. The Indian Reorganization Act “ended the half-century-old policy of forced assimilation and alienation of tribal lands and encouraged tribes to establish their own self-governing bodies and to preserve their ancestral traditions” (Kennedy, 378-379).

Letter from Harry Hopkins laying out goals for the WPA. Courtesy FDR Library and Museum.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FDR Library and Museum.

What’s more, the New Deal (sometimes explicitly) encouraged a widespread effort among Depression-era Americans to work together to improve their situation and to recognize that America was, in the words of a famous sociological study that emerged from the era, a “nation of nations.” The enactment of the NIRA sparked a wave of interracial labor militancy in the Piedmont South (Denning, 352) and the CIO engaged in a host of outreach programs, from the Jim Crow South to Chicano Los Angeles. Even if there is a paucity of contempory studies of New Deal integration of work sites, we have found papers from the time reporting on “special efforts” made on this front. There was even an increase in “requests for naturalization papers” among Los Angeles Chicanos who now felt that they belonged to the nation, and that the nation belonged to them (Sánchez, 261). As an WPA ethnography of Seattle’s Hooverville noted, the Filipino, Black, Mexican, Indian, Japanese, and white residents comprised an “ethnic rainbow” where people lived “in shabby camaraderie.” To one New York highschooler at the time, the New Deal spirit prompted friendships across racial and ethnic boundaries, which he remembered as “implementing equality at the grass roots level” (Fass, 152),

Dorr Bothwell, “Youth and Democracy” (1938) at Hollenbeck Middle School in Los Angeles, Photo: Melissa Lamont, SDSU.

The spirit of the New Deal had an especially elevating effect on public art and critical expression. Government-sponsored writers, painters and performers were free to depict working people as heroes, to recast the images of the nation’s past, and to shine light on contemporary injustices of all kinds. As Sharon Musher notes, “When Treasury-commissioned artists portrayed national figures, they included blacks, Native Americans, and women as well as political radicals” (95). That inspiration went beyond New Deal arts programs. For example, the catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1941 exhibit, Indian Art of the United States, acknowledged that, “At this time, where America is reviewing its cultural resources, this book and the exhibit… open up to us age-old sources of ideas and forms that have never been fully appreciated….” (Belgrad, 55). Or, as Barney Josephson, founder of the integrated Greenwich Village club Café Society (where Billie Holiday debuted 1939’s hit song “Strange Fruit”) recounted, “It was the time of labor organizers… and the W.P.A. Art Movement” and an integrated club with political music-making seemed natural in that moment (Denning 235).

A particularly striking example of New Deal support for a rethinking of American society and history were the FWP chronicles of the experience of African Americans. FWP writers transcribed hundreds of first-person accounts of former slaves for the WPA Slave Narratives, an unparalleled resource for historians and citizens alike. Meanwhile, Alan Lomax was paid to travel the South recording the songs of early bluesmen, creating  a magnificent repository of American folk music. FSA photographers like Walker Evans compiled a superb visual account of popular life and suffering of all races. FWP writers produced such classics as Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Richard Wright’s scathing account of life under Jim Crow and text to the FSA’s photo collection, Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States.

“Mexican típica” dance. Credit: National Archives.
Photo Credit: National Archives

What lessons can we learn from an era when patriotism entailed social justice? When memorialization sought to learn from the past and not just valorize it? When Americans came together to make their country better and to celebrate each other?  We’ve just added a new feature to our site. Entitled, “Working Together,” it creates a photographic archive of New Deal interaction and integration, based on the research of Mid-Atlantic Regional Director Brent McKee. Note how many images there are in this collection of children. Indeed, one of the most heartening aspects of this archive is the promise it invests in new generations.

A Never-Finished New Deal Project Gets Its Due

FAP artists at work. © 2017 Kentucky Educational Television.

From 1936 to 1942, 400 artists in 36 states, operating under the auspices of the Federal Art Project, fanned out into the American countryside to paint the everyday objects they found there. The result—18,527 watercolors of furniture, clothing, ceramics, quilts, and more—was intended to be published in the Index of American Design, a compendium of the nation’s vernacular arts and crafts. Through the Index, utility and hard work were to be celebrated as quintessentially patriotic qualities, as the nation’s common inheritance, and as important counterpoints to the ethno-nationalism that was then taking root in Germany and Italy. Ironically, then, the Index (which was supposed to be distributed to libraries and schools as an object lesson in patriotism) was never published because its funds were diverted to the war effort. Recently, the large-format coffee table book Kentucky By Design detailed the efforts and results of those FAP artists who chronicled what they saw in the small towns and backcountry villages of Kentucky—reproducing the original watercolors and adding introductory essays by scholars and interviews with FAP officials. In fact, we reviewed Kentucky By Design in a recent newsletter.

We were doubly pleased, then, to learn that Kentucky Educational Television has produced a documentary on the Index of American Design as it looked in their state. (It airs in conjunction with the exhibit “Kentucky By Design” at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville.) At nearly half an hour, Kentucky By Design: Kentucky Muse showcases art historians and curators who provide background to the project, situating the Index within contemporaneous debates about art and its uses, the development of the “art worker” as a figure, and Kentucky’s special place as a repository of American craft. Loaded with original documentary footage and a trove of still images, Kentucky By Design: Kentucky Muse provides a timely reminder of what it looks like when a government commits to feeding souls as well as bellies.