Notes from the Field: The Living New Deal at the NPS Centennial

The Old Santa Fe Trail BuildingFrom June 21-23, landscape architects, historians, program designers, and other park professionals converged on Santa Fe for A Century of Design in the Parks, a symposium marking the centennial of the National Park Service. 150 people attended this sold out conference.


The Living New Deal was well represented. Our project’s Founder, Gray Brechin, delivered “A New Deal for the Arts and Crafts,” a biography of architect Herbert Maier, whose Rustic Style buildings are themselves landmarks in America’s national parks. Our Communications Director, Susan Ives, provided historical context for the Civilian Conservation Corps in “Cultural Landscapes of the New Deal.” Susan also moderated a panel on the New Deal in the Southwest. Project Advisor  Harvey Smith presented a poster, “Remembering the New Deal in the Parks,” arguing for the necessity of a CCC-style program today.


As the Associated Press notes in “In New Mexico, New Deal legacy gets a second look,” the choice of Santa Fe as a conference location was apt: The city is dotted with public works and art that owe their existence to various New Deal programs. Beloved buildings and parks showcase the craftsmanship that marks so many New Deal sites, with their twin emphases on durability and a beauty reflecting the surrounding landscape. (Exhibit A: The Old Santa Fe Trail Building.) The article also provides some much-welcomed publicity for The Living New Deal, emphasizing our site’s importance in chronicling a moment in history that, in the words of Nina Roosevelt Gibson (Franklin and Eleanor’s granddaughter), “would be difficult or impossible to replicate today—but still serve as call to collective action.” Susan Ives is also featured in this article, where she explains the disavowal of the New Deal’s legacy, and the importance in crowd-sourcing our map to people who can share family stories or bring the expertise of personal archives and experience: Many of the plaques that used to mark public works as New Deal sites “were taken down when the pendulum swung to the right.”


The legacy of public investment and public service exemplified by the New Deal in the parks has been typically overlooked. Furthermore, Congress has starved the parks to the point that the NPS is essentially selling the parks off to corporations that use the parks for branding purposes. (Current visions for a new Civilian Conservation Corps have even proposed a similar kind of corporate branding.) The New Deal offers a different model.


Susan Ives contributed to this post.

A New New Deal from the Bottom Up

great-depression-soup-lineAt The Living New Deal, we’ve long been tracking rumblings of a new New Deal in American political circles. So often, though, that conversation centers on the biographies and affiliations of major politicians. Over at The American Prospect, Christopher Faricy takes a bottom-up perspective in his article, “Is It Time for a New New Deal?” Maybe young people today don’t have the sentimental attachments to FDR that, say, Bill de Blasio has; but the socioeconomic realities they face have made New Deal policies an obvious solution—whether or not they invoke (or even know to invoke) Roosevelt.


Indeed, Faricy attributes Hillary Clinton’s “increasingly liberal tilt … not just in response to the Sanders insurgency, but to burgeoning demographic and economic trends that will last well beyond the 2016 presidential election.” The generation coming into adulthood today has grown up in an America “defined by privatization, deregulation, and devolution.” Along with people reacting against growing income inequality and the evaporation of worker protections, an increasingly diverse electorate also accounts for a population supporting social services and workers’ rights.


What would a new New deal look like? Faricy describes recent political promises of better health care coverage, increased access to college, universal basic income, and more. The middle-class would have to pay its share, along with the wealthy. But he also suggests that many Americans are ready to do so, so long as people in power “respond to their calls for economic equity, income security, and a more sustainable social safety net.”


A CCC Park Reopens in Missouri

Cutting the ribbon on the newly-reopened Jensen's PointJensen Point, a Pacific, Missouri, park overlooking famed Route 66, has reopened to the public. The site, constructed by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Company 1770 in 1939, has been closed for the past 25 years, during which time it fell into disrepair. A recent blog post for the Washington Missourian details the history and recent preservation efforts to save the park. Thanks to the work of citizen Wayne Winchester, city government, and the St. Louis County Municipal Parks Grant Commission, Jensen Point has now been returned to a position of prominence in Pacific and preserved for future visitors–including you!

Remembering–and Saving–the Mothers Building Murals

Detail of a mural at the San Francisco Zoo's Mothers Building

“The first thing that stopped me in my tracks was the two mosaics from 1934 that flank the building’s original doors. Then I stepped in and saw the flowered wood paneling. Finally I lifted my head and saw the faded glorious interior murals by two important San Francisco artists — Helen K. Forbes and Dorothy W. Pucinelli, both working under the auspices of President Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA…. ‘Don’t forget to breathe,’ joked Joe Fitting, deputy director of the San Francisco Zoo.”


Read more about San Francisco Chronicle reporter Caille Millner’s visit to the SF Zoo Mothers Building here. Millner details efforts (helmed by Living New Deal friend Richard Rothman) to save the structure and its threatened New Deal artwork.

Announcing a New Biography of Henry Alsberg

Henry Alsberg, a journalist with a passion for social justice, directed the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project. Under his guidance, thousands of unemployed writers were hired and over one thousand books published, many of the utmost importance to preserving historical voices (as in the WPA Slave Narratives) and to representing America to Americans (as in the American Guide Series).


Susan DeMasi, a friend of The Living New Deal and Professor of Library Services at Suffolk County Community College, has just completed the first biography on Alsberg. Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project will be released in late summer/early fall, and is currently available for pre-order. Congrats Susan!

Bernie Sanders and Historical Memory

In running for President, Sen. Bernie Sanders has compelled Americans to rethink some long-standing political bromides of the neoliberal era, such as the evils of government action and universal health insurance. But how radical is Bernie, really? As Sanders and others have pointed out, he’s basically a New Deal Liberal. It’s a sign of how far the country has moved from New Deal values, that some see his positions as too far left. Yet, in making a case for his ideas as patriotic, Sanders recalls a moment when social and economic justice were envisioned as mutually reinforcing and as essential to American freedom.  Even more surprising to his critics has been Sanders’s popularity among the young and his staying power in the presidential primaries.  Evidently, his old-fashioned New Deal ideas are finding a large audience.

A recent Report in the New Yorker by Jedediah Purdy recounts the source of Sanders’s political philosophy of “democratic socialism”: “the Vermont senator and Democratic Presidential candidate opened with a long invocation of Franklin Roosevelt and the social protections that the New Deal created: minimum wages, retirement benefits, banking regulation, the forty-hour workweek. Roosevelt’s opponents attacked all these good things as ‘socialism’, Sanders reminded his listeners”. FDR’s opponents, not the president himself, used the term, but for Senator Sanders it is a clearly-defined vision with roots deep in America history and links to one of the country’s most vaunted leaders.

Even so, Purdy ends by pointing out the ways in which FDR was actually more radical than Bernie Sanders: “Pressed in the most recent Democratic debate to say how high he would take the marginal income tax, Sanders answered that it would be less than the ninety (actually ninety-two) per-cent level under the Eisenhower Administration. He added, to cheers and laughter, ‘I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower’”.  It’s worth reading the rest of Purdy’s post to find out why Sanders adopts the mantle of socialism and why, though he may be inspired by the New Deal’s ideas of economic security as the foundation of freedom, the present moment is different in important ways.

In still others ways, Sanders’s campaign evokes the turmoil of the 1930s, when a bitter public sought scapegoats for their anger and the pall of anti-Semitism hung over Europe.  Spurred by demagogues like Charles Coughlin, this idea that Jews control the world’s money and financial institutions gained traction in the U.S., and some even derided the New Deal  as “the Jew Deal”.  At a recent appearance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Sanders was asked a question that could’ve come straight from one of Coughlin’s speeches. A young man stood and asked, “As you know, the Zionist Jews—and I don’t mean to offend anybody—they run the Federal Reserve, they run Wall Street, they run every campaign…. What is your affiliation to your Jewish community?” The intense boos from the crowd indicate that such recidivist ideas have little traction today, but Sanders used the comment as a springboard for defining his own relationship to his Jewish background, expressing pride but also promoting the fight for human rights for all people.



Critically Commemorating The Tennessee Valley Authority

America is crumbling. And in our current political climate, solutions to this problem will be hard-fought. In a review of five recent studies of our national infrastructure, Elizabeth Drew notes, “today no great vision guides our policies for building and maintaining the arteries of transportation—ports, dams, and bridges—as well as the electrical grid, even the broadband system. Such far-seeing government measures as Roosevelt and Eisenhower championed are inconceivable now.” With pipes leaching lead into the water and bridges collapsing, there’s no denying that work needs to be done. Looking back, the New Deal provides a model that we celebrate for showing what can be achieved through commitment to social investment, civic mindedness, and collective purpose.  At the same time, we need to remember to commemorate the New Deal critically.  We have learned too much in the intervening years about the illusions of Modernity and grand Social Engineering to be naive about the costs associated with triumphal technologies like dams and the architectural hubris of men like Le Corbusier.

With this in mind, we find the book The Tennessee Valley Authority: Design and Persuasion (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) to be a good case study of the two faces of large-scale modernization projects sponsored by the New Deal. Edited by architect Tim Culvahouse, this lushly illustrated book explores the implementation, promotion, and legacies of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a massive, multi-pronged New Deal program designed to “further the economic development of an impoverished, mountainous region covering most of Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states.” (See our Programs Page for more details about the TVA). The Tennessee Valley Authority explores the relationship between official rhetoric and local experience in essays by architects, landscape architects, and designers of all stripes; a creative reflection on locals’ experiences with the program; a photo essay by the renowned photographer Richard Barnes; and an afterword by former Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr. (Rep., TN). Without ignoring the impressive achievements of the program and its aesthetic coherence, which introduced impoverished rural Americans to modern architectural forms, this book peels away a grandiloquent surface to find a brilliant promotional campaign and a sad history of erasure.

As Culvahouse notes in his introduction, for TVA administrators the goal was to craft a “new nature” (22), where infrastructure and edifices could be successfully integrated into one of America’s most isolated regions. Progress and tradition would go hand in hand. As Jane Wolff argues in her essay, “Redefining Landscape,” “as a counterpoint to noble and tragic images of the then present, the TVA offered an equally monumental image of the future: it described the Tennessee Valley of the early 1930s as a lost Eden and proposed to rebuild the region as a new Utopia” (54). Sounds good. And what’s more, a newly electrified population would also become users of electricity and appliances, adding to the consumer spending necessary to pull the country out of the Depression.

But, as Wolff notes, all this new stuff entailed “the destruction and reinvention of much of what had already existed” (52). While TVA architects built structures to echo the landscape (dams that evoked grain elevators) or created programs merging past and present (ceramics studios where local clay was fired by kilns run on newly-installed electricity), noble, now-electrified nature also destroyed a long-standing landscape. Houses, granaries, stores, cemeteries were suddenly underwater as new dams were built to prevent flooding in cities like Knoxville and Chattanooga. Communities were obliterated, remembered only by their former inhabitants or preserved in navigation routes to keep waterborne traffic from crashing into submerged buildings.

The TVA, Wolff suggests, was “so brutal in its erasures” because it “was an activist agency. It effected radical change, but to do so it had to present an unambiguous story about the benefits it brought” (63). For the Culvahouses, the family farm was flooded, leading Chet Culvahouse (the editor’s grandfather) to sue the government, contesting the amount of compensation he received. Chet presented as evidence of all that he’d lost to flooding “fields of corn twice [his] height” (16-17).  Those images are nowhere to be found in the triumphalist story spun by the TVA.

Would this have mattered to the people moving into or visiting the modernized spaces of the TVA? This book abounds with careful readings of the structures, landscapes, and promotional literature that made TVA structures accessible, exciting, and, yes, beautiful. The program promoted itself by turning its dams and electricity stations into tourist sites, with didactic exhibits and picturesque views. The “megatechnologies,” Barry Katz suggests in “Ideology and Engineering in the Tennessee Valley,” were humanized through such features, as well as the work of manning the power stations, on view to tourists. People understood the new technologies and massive buildings they were living among and which now determined the course of their lives.

It was normalized to the point that it became mundane. As “Domesticity and Power,” Richard Barnes’s photo essay, shows, the man-made landscapes and waterways are today used, enjoyed, and ignored. Irony is layered upon irony: In one image, the everyday task of cleaning a swimming pool is belied by the sublime “natural” water and verdant hills beyond, while the landscape’s grandeur is itself deflated when we realize that both aquatic spaces are manmade. In other images, people near the waters  created by TVA flooding do not marvel at the view but talk to each other, read, play guitar, barbecue. In still other photographs, the myriad structures sit desolate, overtaking any sense of the humans for whom they were constructed, even as they are, some of them, still quite impressive.

The Tennessee Valley Authority: Design and Persuasion ends with an appendix of “Travel Suggestions,” detailing the features and significance of four “representative TVA sites” (137). After 130-plus pages exploring propaganda and heavy-handed ideology (as well as its aesthetic innovations and totality of design), one sees these suggestions as more than sardonic. They are also invitations to scrutinize these spaces on one’s own, to account for the massive successes and improvements fostered by the TVA without forgetting that a faith in “progress” obscures as much as it reveals. What if the past is both model and cautionary tale?



An “impassioned conversation across generations”: Oral Histories of the New Deal

Martin Jackson, of San Antonio: Interviewed in 1937, his memories of life under slavery were preserved in the WPA Slave Narratives.

Martin Jackson, of San Antonio: Interviewed in 1937, his memories of life under slavery were preserved in the WPA Slave Narratives., 2016

A vital link to the past, oral history–“preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events”–reflects how individuals of different backgrounds experience capital-H History. (In this case, government programs and policies.) Oral histories compel us to go beyond official rhetoric and see how individual commitments and values also shape our sense of the world and our place in it–often they challenge what we think we know. As such, these memories serve as “an impassioned conversation across the generations.” (The History Matters website provides a valuable introduction to the work of conducting and interpreting oral history, including some of the pitfalls and advantages of learning about the past through subjective, retrospective experience.)


As a site dedicated to both preserving the past and fostering research in the present, oral histories are crucial to our work at the Living New Deal. We’ve long sought and promoted memories of life and work during the New Deal, and you can find examples on our Share Your New Deal Story page and here. These memories evince a reflective population looking back on its contributions to an important era in U.S. history. And we’ve long sought to expand this aspect of the website. Recently, Research Associate Shaina Potts compiled an impressive list of online resources dedicated to peoples’ New Deal stories. You can find this list, divided by state and governmental program, here. It offers readers a wealth of experiences, from CCC workers in Louisiana to members of a resettlement community in Maryland to muralists to African American women who participated in the WPA. Some of these histories focus on an entire group of people; others, on an individual. But all pose the same set of questions: What do people remember? How do they tell their stories? How do these stories compel us to reevaluate our collective past?


New Dealers also recognized the importance of oral histories in preserving the past and in challenging traditional narratives of American history. Workers for the Federal Writers’ Project collected thousands of life histories, “designed to document the diversity of the American experience and ways ordinary people were coping with the hardships of the Great Depression,” and these remain essential sources for learning about individuals whose experiences would otherwise have gone unrecorded. (This, by the way, places those government-funded interviewers at the vanguard of oral historiography.) Shaina has compiled a list of websites that provide links to such oral histories. The most famous are undoubtedly the WPA Slave Narratives, thousands of first-hand accounts of life under slavery, and still the most comprehensive resource for scholarship on the lives (and inner lives) of slaves.


We hope to expand our oral history resource and to even include video interviews. And, of course, we welcome any suggestions you have about how to improve our coverage of this important form of commemoration and preservation.

New Study of Ben Shahn’s Murals a Finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards

"Linden shows that throughout his public murals, Shahn literally painted Jews into the American scene with his subjects, themes, and compositions.”

“Linden shows that throughout his public murals, Shahn literally painted Jews into the American scene with his subjects, themes, and compositions.”  SourceWayne State University, 2016

Ben Shahn’s celebrated New Deal murals can be found throughout the United States. Born in Lithuania, trained under Diego Rivera, Shahn’s work for the federal government depicted a diverse nation of workers, dedicated to the twin aims of progress and justice. (Appropriately, his mural for the recently-sold Bronx General Post Office, painted with his wife Bernarda, was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing.”) We are extremely happy to report that Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene (Wayne State University Press, 2015), by art historian (and friend-of-the-Living New Deal) Diana L. Linden, has been named 2016 Finalist in the Visual Arts Category by the National Jewish Book Awards. In Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals, Linden explores the ways in which the artist’s Eastern European Jewish background informed the conceptualization and production of his celebrated murals.


From the publisher: “In four chapters, Linden presents case studies of select Shahn murals that were created from 1933 to 1943 and are located in public buildings in New York, New Jersey, and Missouri. She studies Shahn’s famous untitled fresco for the Jersey Homesteads—a utopian socialist cooperative community populated with former Jewish garment workers and funded under the New Deal—Shahn’s mural for the Bronx Central Post Office, a fresco Shahn proposed to the post office in St. Louis, and a related one-panel easel painting titled The First Amendment located in a Queens, New York, post office. By investigating the role of Jewish identity in Shahn’s works, Linden considers the artist’s responses to important issues of the era, such as President Roosevelt’s opposition to open immigration to the United States, New York’s bustling garment industry and its labor unions, ideological concerns about freedom and liberty that had significant meaning to Jews, and the encroachment of censorship into American art. Linden shows that throughout his public murals, Shahn literally painted Jews into the American scene with his subjects, themes, and compositions.”


Here at the Living New Deal, we showcase the era’s commitment to pluralist democracy, past, present, and future. In what is the first monograph of any artist’s New Deal-era output, Diana Linden makes a case for the role of the arts and imagination in this all-important endeavor.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the New Deal

An anti-government occupier strolls by his New Deal-era shelter.

An anti-government occupier strolls by his New Deal-era shelter.  Source
Photo Credit: Rob Kerr/Getty Images NARRATIVE CONTENT GROUP, 2016

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has been much in the news lately.  It is the site of an armed standoff between a group of western ranchers and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The conservative militants and their supporters are angry at the government’s perceived mistreatment of two local ranchers at the hands of the federal government (Mother Nature Network has a good run-down of the situation). Ironically, for a movement staking its claim on individual property rights and limited government, the occupiers owe their current shelter in snowy Oregon and, it seems, their “media center” to the greatest federal program ever undertaken in the United States: the New Deal.

As several Living New Deal team members noticed right away, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a New Deal site that has been up on our map for some time.  In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt, backed by the Oregon Audubon Society, established the Malheur refuge on unclaimed government lands to serve “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds” who were being killed in droves by plume hunters working for the hat industry.  A generation later, under the administration of Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, Franklin, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) expanded the refuge, constructing dams, bridges, and roads, and erecting a number of handsome buildings that remain on the grounds.

The occupation of The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has been approached from many angles: Aaron Bady’s analysis of the role of historical narration in the militia’s rhetoric and propaganda; debates about a “racial double standard” in the law’s treatment of the occupiers; and Charles Mudede’s meditations on class and the exploitation of labor, to name just a few.  But it’s worth noting another dimension of current events: The New Deal’s legacy is everywhere and its structures (as well as its lessons) are all-too-easily overlooked and forgotten.