Erasing Art and History

Lobby at Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco, Site of the last public murals created under the New Deal

Lobby at Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco
Site of the last public murals created under the New Deal
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

While the nation is transfixed by pitched battles over the removal of artworks representing white supremacy, New Deal murals in San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office graphically demonstrate that such cultural melees are nothing new.

Just before World War II, the Treasury Department commissioned Anton Refregier of Woodstock, New York to paint a cycle of murals for the lobby of what was then the San Francisco main post office. “Ref,” as his friends called him, did extensive research for the project before the war but completed the 27 panels after it. They were the last public murals created under the New Deal.

With their vast narrative sweep, the murals are among the largest and arguably greatest New Deal artworks—and they were nearly destroyed for their creator’s audacity.

Raising the Bear Flag, Mural by Anton Refregier, Two American settlers proclaim California’s independence from Mexico

Raising the Bear Flag, Mural by Anton Refregier
Two American settlers proclaim California’s independence from Mexico

Instead of the customary triumphal march from heroic pioneers to productive industries that Americans expected to see on their post office walls, Ref chose to paint California’s history as a series of class and racial contests. In one corner of the lobby, Ref depicted Union and Confederate partisans violently duking it out in San Francisco’s Union Square during the Civil War, in a scene not different from recent events in Charlottesville, San Francisco, and Berkeley,

Next to it, Irish workers are shown viciously beating Chinese immigrants they accused of taking jobs such as building the transcontinental railroad, which Ref painted on a facing wall. To show that humane voices speak for common decencies at all times, Ref added at the bottom an 1875 statement by Irish labor leader Frank Roney: “Attacks upon the Chinese I consider unreasonable and antagonistic to the principles of American Liberty.”

Beating the Chinese, Mural by Anton Refregier, Workers are portrayed beating Chinese immigrants whom they blamed for taking jobs

Beating the Chinese, Mural by Anton Refregier
Workers are portrayed beating Chinese immigrants whom they blamed for taking jobs

Elsewhere in the immense lobby, Ref painted two American settlers raising the Bear Flag proclaiming California’s independence from Mexico. When the Mexican consul objected that the rebels were depicted standing on the Mexican flag they had just lowered, Ref obligingly covered over it in whitewash thin enough that the flag’s colors still dimly show through.

As for the California natives displaced, enslaved, and exterminated in turn by the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans, Ref showed the Indians as dignified and intelligent individuals and foregrounded them as the workers who had created the wealth of Mission Dolores.

Ref painted a smiling portrait of the man who had made so much art in public places possible—FDR. But his new bosses in the Truman administration ordered him to remove it. He fought the order for seven months but eventually capitulated, writing that even as early as 1947 “the climate was changing. It was necessary to erase the image of Roosevelt and his plans for coexistence, peace, and hope of friendship with the Soviet Union in order to see the American people on to the Cold War.”

Finding Gold at Sutter’s Mill, Mural by Anton Refregier, An argonaut flaunts his find

Finding Gold at Sutter’s Mill, Mural by Anton Refregier
An argonaut flaunts his find

Conservative critics remained unmollified. William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, savaged Ref’s unorthodox murals for their impiety even before he’d finished them so that, he said, he feared for his safety. When the singer and actor Paul Robeson complimented Ref for including an African-American in his panel of wartime shipyard workers, the artist showed Robeson a clipping from the Hearst press captioned “Refregier paints his favorite subject — the Negro.”

Congressman Richard Nixon wrote that as soon as Republicans had taken over the White House and Congress, a committee would be formed to assure “the removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.”

On May 1, 1953, with a Congressional majority and Vice President Nixon in office, the House Committee on Public Works held a dramatic day-long trial of both history and art with Refregier’s murals in the dock. San Francisco leaders of both parties defended Ref’s post office murals, as did others around the world. At home in Woodstock, Ref worried that his masterpiece would be removed and that the lobby would then be like what it was when he started: “White walls, without colors, without ideas, ideas that make some people so mad, and so afraid.”

Dock Strike, Mural by Anton Refregier, Bloody Thursday, 1934

Dock Strike, Mural by Anton Refregier
Bloody Thursday, 1934

However blasphemous his paintings may have seemed to the self-styled patriots at the time, Ref’s brilliant colors and ideas remain on the walls and are now widely recognized as among San Francisco’s greatest—and most truthful — works of public art.

Playing Through: Recreation and the New Deal
By Gray Brechin

The Pelham Club House, Bronx, New York Pelham Bay Golf Course was renovated in 1936 as part of a WPA–funded project.

The Pelham Club House, Bronx, New York
Pelham Bay Golf Course was renovated in 1936 as part of a WPA–funded project.
Photo Credit: Frank Da Cruz

The Works Progress Administration (WPA)-built Pelham Bay Golf Course clubhouse in the Bronx is a knockout, but not so unusual in the exceptional quality it offered to the public. David Owen, in a 2005 article on public golf courses in the New Yorker, described the clubhouse as looking “a little like Monticello without the dome,” although its circular foyer and expansive salon are more Art Deco Hollywood than Jeffersonian Palladian. When Living New Deal Director Dick Walker and I visited it in June with local resident and New Deal researcher Frank da Cruz, I mistook it for one of the private clubs in the tonier suburbs of New York City rather than the still working-class Bronx.

Renovated concession stand at Pelham Club House, 2017

Renovated concession stand at Pelham Club House, 2017
The Club House serves the Pelham Bay and Split Rock Golf Courses
Photo Credit: Frank da Cruz

Pelham Bay and adjacent Split Rock Golf Courses share the clubhouse and both were, Owens writes, designed by noted golf architect John R. Van Kleck as two among many outstanding public courses commissioned by parks czar Robert Moses in four of the city’s five boroughs. Owen’s article also describes Brooklyn’s WPA-built Dyker Beach clubhouse as “a French-inspired gentleman’s house” but with a membership including “carpenters, cops, lawyers, firefighters, accountants, masons, city employees—a typical mix for a New York City golf course,” by which he means a public golf course open to all.

Original concession stand. The concession stand as it appeared in 1940

Original concession stand
The concession stand as it appeared in 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy New York City Parks

By building ski lodges, tennis courts, equestrian facilities, archery ranges, swimming pools, innumerable baseball fields as well as golf courses, New Deal agencies like the WPA democratized sports previously available only to the wealthy while realizing what Franklin Roosevelt called for at a 1943 press conference: “We must plan for, and help to bring about, an expanded economy which will result in more security, in more employment, in more recreation.” New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia also saw the need to plan for the greater leisure time that would result from automation once the Depression was over. In his recent book, City of Ambition, Mason Williams writes,  “The core of La Guardia’s “economic readjustment’ . . . was the reduction of working hours (and the retention of existing wage levels) to create what he called a “spread of employment” which in turn would “create an opportunity for education, for recreation, for travel, for enjoyment of life.” At the same time, recreational facilities would provide numerous jobs for those who staffed them. 

Club room Décor is Art Deco-style with an ocean-wave motif

Club Room
Décor is Art Deco-style with an ocean-wave motif
Photo Credit: Frank da Cruz

FDR doubtless thought a lot about the benefits of physical activity since they were largely denied the once-athletic man after he contracted polio in 1921. But, like La Guardia, he also knew that Americans in the near future would have much more spare time, and that recreational and educational opportunities should be available to them to productively fill it.

The New Deal encouraged public health in its broadest dimension: the development of a full human being and a healthy society of citizens, not consumers. Though few remember who built them and why, public golf courses continue to deliver on that promise by building the community of which David Owens writes many decades after WPA workers traded their shovels for four irons.   

Uncovering California’s New Deal Art

Catalogue from 1976 Exhibition on New Deal Art in California

Catalogue
1976 Exhibition on New Deal Art in California

A daring exhibition at the University of Santa Clara in 1976 began the rediscovery of a buried civilization then itself only forty years in the past.

“New Deal Art: California,” a six-month exhibition at the De Saisset Gallery, pulled out of storage surviving works of New Deal art while pointing to others long ignored in public spaces: a wealth of paintings, sculpture, photographs, and mosaics whose merit had been buried under the ascendant dominance of modernist abstraction after World War II.

The disinterest or actual contempt with which so much of the Art Establishment regarded the figurative art of the New Deal was not entirely accidental. It had much to do with the deliberate erasure of the New Deal ethos that had produced it, though few at that time were aware of it.

Victor Arnautoff, Metropolitan Life (detail), Coit Tower, San Francisco

Coit Tower Mural
Victor Arnautoff, Metropolitan Life (detail), Coit Tower, San Francisco
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Much of the credit for the rediscovery of New Deal art belongs to Dr. Francis V. O’Connor who, in 1974, published Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s, written by those who worked for the WPA Federal Art Project, still an essential collection of source material. O’Connor served as a consultant for the De Saisset Gallery exhibition along with curators Lydia Modi Vitale and history professor Steven Gelber, who now lives in retirement in Santa Rosa, California. Gelber remembers the exhibition fondly and well.

Dorothea Lange, Tulelake, September 1939

Dorothea Lange, Tulelake, September 1939
Catalogue Number 147

Dr. Gelber recalls today that the artists he interviewed all spoke of the art programs with something akin to love. Government patronage gave them security while enabling them to create art for a broad public rather than wealthy collectors, galleries, and corporate lobbies, as was so often the case when the federal art projects ended.

Two years in the making, the exhibition produced a richly illustrated catalogue containing an extensive inventory of New Deal public artworks throughout California. More important to those now researching New Deal art projects was a unique program of video documentation made possible by an NEH grant that enabled Gelber and Vitale to outfit a van with equipment with which they recorded surviving administrators and artists in their homes and studios. The Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. houses those interviews. Through them, those involved in the vast programs of government-sponsored art speak to us today.

Donal Hord, Guardian of the Water, Fountain Sculpture, San Diego County Administration Building

Donal Hord, Guardian of the Water, Fountain Sculpture
San Diego County Administtration Bldg

The art reproduced in the museum catalogue and in the February 4, 1976 issue of Francis Ford Coppola’s City magazine demonstrates the impressive range of works that emerged through federal patronage.

A cast stone relief on the exterior of the WPA-built Berkeley Community Theatre, for example, depicts people of all races brought together through acts of creation—an ideal that seemed attainable when government actively supported the arts.

Forgetting Decency

A 1937 painting by Edward Millman, Flop House depicts the despair that the New Deal sought to address.

Flop House
A 1937 painting by Edward Millman, Flop House depicts the despair that the New Deal sought to address.

Today’s San Francisco, even more so than other successful cities, is a study of jarring contrasts as sleek skyscrapers rise from streets on which ever-increasing legions of the desperate, destitute, and demented sleep, beg, and offend the sensibilities of tourists and residents alike. Poverty—with all its pathologies—has reached crisis proportions in tandem with pathological wealth.

President Roosevelt’s administration dealt with many of these same problems. By contrast, Washington today is ignoring or actively worsening the social ills that the New Deal tackled head on.

Based on what he witnessed in San Francisco, the 19th Century political economist Henry George explained in his bestseller Progress and Poverty how concentrated wealth produces widespread poverty.

Homeless: I used to be your neighbor

Homeless in San Francisco
Homeless: I used to be your neighbor  Source

Such social inequality is the subject of much of the art produced during the New Deal. The Federal Theatre Project’s widely seen play, One-Third of a Nation, was based on Roosevelt’s 1936 inaugural declaration in which he said he saw “one third of a nation ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-fed”— and promised to use the federal government to do what the market could not do to alleviate that disgrace.

It is telling that the opulent San Francisco Museum of Modern Art occupies a site in a neighborhood once known for flophouses—the cheap housing that urban redevelopment cleared away to accommodate the city’s expanding financial and retail districts. Flophouses gave seasonal workers and those too old to work marginal shelter, but even as that housing was being eliminated by redevelopment, so were their jobs by automation, off-shoring, and market downturns.

Nowhere are the multiple dysfunctions associated with poverty more evident than at downtown San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza. A front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle—“Complaints skyrocket over syringes on streets in S.F.”—accompanied a photo of a city worker collecting used needles in a long-neglected fountain commemorating the founding of the United Nations in 1945 just three blocks away.

FDR’s Second Bill of Rights: “The right of every family to a decent home.”

Homeless Man Sleeps on a Bench
FDR’s Second Bill of Rights: “The right of every family to a decent home.”

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights laboriously shepherded through the UN by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948 in hopes of ending future wars reads:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

It codified much of what Franklin Roosevelt had succinctly enunciated as a Second Bill of Rights in his fourth inaugural address, including “The right to a useful and remunerative job” and “The right of every family to a decent home.

Labor Secretary Francis Perkins recalled that “”Decent’ was the word (Roosevelt) often used to express what he meant by a proper, adequate, and intelligent way of living.”

That we have opted for indecency as a way of life is evermore evident on our streets and battlegrounds as they become one and the same.

The New Deal at the Movies

The Plow that Broke the Plains, 1936

The Plow that Broke the Plains, 1936
The Plow That Broke the Plains, about the Dust Bowl, was the first U.S. Government-sponsored documentary.

Nothing brings to life the countless ways the New Deal saved millions from bleak poverty while catapulting the nation into the 20th century like the movies its agencies produced.

The Living New Deal’s Berkeley Associate John Elrick compiled a list of one hundred films at San Francisco’s Prelinger Archives, which helped Maryland Associate Brent McKee locate and digitize many held by the National Archives film division in College Park, Maryland. Then Chris Carlsson, a San Francisco historian and writer, entered the films into the Internet Archives where anyone can access them.

A few of the New Deal documentaries such as The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains directed by Pare Lorentz with musical scores by Virgil Thompson, are justifiably famous and classroom fare, but most New Deal films were more amateurish, using stock footage and martial music that has nothing to do with the visuals or narration, and little, if any, plot. Nonetheless, they provide a wealth of historical information including typical work days and camp life of CCC enrollees; how farm-to-market roads, enormous dams, and rural electrification improved the lives of farmers and stimulated productivity; productions by the Federal Theatre Project, which hired and entertained millions of Americans; and an array of public works projects and social programs. For example, Making Aviation Safer for America shows how the hundreds of municipal airports built by the WPA laid the foundation for the commercial airline industry, while stimulating local economies.

The River, 1938

The River, 1938
This film about flooding on the Mississippi was distributed by the Farm Security Administration

While most workers shown in the films are white, We Work Again displays the myriad skilled and unskilled jobs that the WPA provided African-Americans, whose unemployment rate during the Great Depression far exceeded the nation’s rate of 25 percent. Other movies show racially integrated WPA-run nursery schools and CCC camps.

A 1935 newsreel produced by Paramount Pictures —Three Billions to Use — opens with an emphatic address by WPA chief Harry Hopkins, insistent that the U.S. must find its own unique way to put its citizens to work to give them a decent standard of living. Hopkins uses the word decent three times in just two minutes, reiterating what Labor Secretary France Perkins recalled as Franklin Roosevelt’s self-imposed moral responsibility to improve the lives of ordinary Americans: “’Decent’ was the word he (FDR) often used to express what he meant by a proper, adequate, and intelligent way of living.”

The ephemeral movies demonstrate how the Roosevelt administration used an activist government to promote common decency. Unfortunately, many of the films have suffered from deterioration as well as from sequential copying to videotape and digital media. The Living New Deal is prioritizing films for repair so that we can make high-quality movies available to scholars, documentarians, and all interested in watching the New Deal in action. Donations for this work are most welcome!

 

Erasing the United Nations

World War II interrupted, postponed, and ultimately altered what became the last New Deal art project. Artist Anton Refregier embarked on his monumental mural cycle for San Francisco’s Main Post Office in 1946. He began with a study of a heroic, solitary California Indian, and—27 panels and 18 months later—culminated with thesigning the United Nations Charter at that city’s Veterans Memorial Building.

The signing of the U.N. Charter. Mural by Anton Refregier

War and Peace
The signing of the U.N. Charter. Mural by Anton Refregier
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

That event is depicted in a triptych terminating in the post office’s long lobby in which Refregier’s also depicted the horrors of the recent war, multiracial representatives gathered to end war, and Franklin Roosevelt’s face bridging the two. Almost immediately after Roosevelt’s death, reaction set in even as Refregier was still painting.

Refregier had used a photograph of FDR taken after the president’s return from signing the peace treaty at Yalta. “It is a tired, sensitive, and completely beautiful face,” he wrote, “one expressing Roosevelt to me.” He wanted that face to act as a bridge between war and peace and to dedicate the mural cycle to the man “who lives in the heart and minds of the people,” and whose ultimate plan for an international mediating body would, many hoped, end war forever. Hiroshima had demonstrated that the next world war would be the world’s last.

But Refregier’s new bosses in Washington ordered him to delete FDR’s portrait. After resisting the order for seven months, the artist capitulated by replacing the face with a family group representing the Four Freedoms, which Roosevelt had enunciated in his 1941 State of the Union address. Freedom of speech and religion, FDR insisted, must be added to freedom from fear and from want everywhere in the world.

Regregier’s personal papers indicate that he understood the larger implications of the order to remove FDR’s face from this very public building. “The fight was lost[s1] !… The [political] climate was changing. It was necessary to erase the image of Roosevelt and his plans for coexistence and Peace… in order to see the American people on [to] the Cold War.” When Congressmen sought to destroy the murals in 1953, Refregier wrote, “the attack is part of reaction’s drive to destroy the significance of the 1945 U.N. Conference in San Francisco.”

Refregier was not wide of the mark. Although the signing of the U.N. Charter was one of the outstanding events in San Francisco’s history, it is largely forgotten today.

Virginia Gildersleeve, the Dean of Barnard College who attended the conference and who crafted the opening to the charter’s preamble based on that of the United States Constitution, said in her memoirs that Roosevelt’s sudden death “lay like a black shadow over all the world and particularly over the small nations who had pinned their hopes on him.”

As war becomes perpetual in the 21st century, we should remember that under that black shadow, the nations of the world once gathered to abolish it in his memory.

Voices of Destiny, The Roosevelts on the Radio

In thirty "fireside chats" he delivered between 1933 and 1944. Roosevelt appealed to radio listeners for help getting his agenda passed.

FDR delivering one of his fireside chats.
In thirty “fireside chats” he delivered between 1933 and 1944, Roosevelt appealed to radio listeners for help getting his agenda passed.

To understand just why Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt enjoyed such popularity despite the enmity of the nation’s Republican press, you can read their speeches, but better far to hear their voices. NPR recently aired an audio documentary by American Radio Works titled The First Family of Radio that reveals a little-known facet of the First Couple’s remarkable political partnership by weaving together excerpts from many of their broadcasts.

As one commentator notes, FDR was a natural at utilizing the new medium of radio to reach out to Americans as if he was chatting with them by their firesides. Usually beginning with and punctuating his speeches with “my friends,” FDR explained in simple and direct terms complex topics ranging from how the banking system works to what his administration was doing to fight the Depression and then the war. Less known is that Eleanor used radio far more than her husband did to advance the objectives of the New Deal as well as those causes to which she was committed — world peace, civil rights, and above all moral courage.

Eleanor Roosevelt is remembered for her newspaper column, "My Day," but she reached millions through her weekly radio address.

The First Lady on the air
Eleanor Roosevelt is remembered for her newspaper column, “My Day,” but she reached millions through her weekly radio address.

Unlike her husband, however, Eleanor was not a natural as a clip of one of her first broadcasts demonstrates when she fairly shrieks into the microphone. Voice coaching taught her how to drop her voice and to modulate it almost as skillfully as her husband. Both Roosevelts never lost their patrician, mid-Atlantic accents, nor did they need or try to. Indeed, that accent may have been a subliminal key to their success for they projected that they were both friendly neighbors and benign parents. Their voices brought millions as virtual guests into the White House of which FDR once said “I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust.”

The most remarkable speech for me was one that Eleanor delivered shortly after the White House learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The day before FDR delivered his famous “Day of Infamy” speech, Eleanor was preparing for her weekly radio show across the hall from where the president and his advisors were consulting. She pivoted on a dime and, at 6:45 in the evening, spoke to the nation about the ordeal ahead.

She addressed other mothers as a one who herself had “a boy at sea on a destroyer” (and soon would have three others in combat.) With unwavering determination, she rallied Americans to help one another, concluding “I feel as if I was standing on a rock, and that rock is my faith in my fellow citizens.”

In his 1936 nomination speech, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed that his was a generation that had a rendezvous with destiny. Through their radio addresses, both Roosevelts ensured that destiny was met.

“Everything Possible” The New Deal Response to Polio

FDR at Hyde Park, New York 1941

FDR at Hyde Park, New York 1941
A rare photograph of FDR in his wheelchair

More than fifty years before the passage of the Americans With Disability Act, the WPA and PWA were building special schools to help children crippled by polio. These schools were, to a large extent, the result of FDR’s own paralysis from the disease.

In 1921 Franklin D. Roosevelt became permanently paralyzed from the waist down.  Most Americans knew that their president had contracted “infantile paralysis” in adulthood, but few knew the extent of his disability. The White House carefully orchestrated a vigorous image of the president. Photographs of FDR almost never capture him in his wheelchair or on crutches. FDR could stand with the help of braces and a cane, on the arm of a family or staff member, but it’s said that a bodyguard would carry the president up a rear stairwell slung over his shoulder like a sack of flour.

A campaign in the fight against polio

Billboard
A campaign in the fight against polio

Roosevelt helped to found the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938which later became the March of Dimes. Rather than soliciting large gifts from wealthy philanthropists it sought small donations. Millions of people contributed. Every year, on January 30, the President’s birthday, dances were held to raise funds to help victims of the scourge as well as to defeat it. The organization raised more funds than all of the U.S. charities at the time combined, with the exception of the Red Cross. Its efforts funded research that led to the development of polio vaccines.

A manuscript I discovered at the National Archives titled “Special Schools for Physically Handicapped Children” by Corinne Reid Frazier, noted that handicapped children in regular schools were often taunted, damaging their scholarship and self-esteem.  Special schools were designed to “help [the crippled child] grow into a normal, self-respecting citizen.”

By 1938, fifty to sixty thousand children were attending such schools.

With the help of special supports, President Roosevelt leaves his home at 65th Street in New York City.  September 1933

FDR Getting Better
With the help of special supports, President Roosevelt leaves his home at 65th Street in New York City. September 1933
Photo Credit: Getty Images

The special schools sometimes replaced make-do charity facilities often in wood-frame buildings. Roosevelt himself feared being trapped by fire, so the new schools were pointedly fireproof, as well as featuring ramps, elevators, and solariums. Above all, they had warm pools for the hydrotherapy to which Roosevelt had been introduced at Warm Springs, Georgia. There, “Dr. Roosevelt” met and helped people of different classes and races. He devoted much of his personal fortune to create the Warm Springs Foundation to go on helping them.

Beauty was considered therapeutic in the polio schools as in other New Deal efforts to build a healthier nation.  New Deal orthopedic schools are unusually handsome and well crafted. San Francisco’s Sunshine School in the Mission District, for example, features a pool, stenciled ceilings, Moorish tiles, chandeliers, and carved oak doors.

Sunshine School for Crippled Children, San Francisco

Sunshine School for Crippled Children, San Francisco, 1937
Students and staff in a courtyard at Sunshine Orthopedic School, 1937  Source

“Everything possible has been done to create the most cheerful possible atmosphere in order to encourage the children to forget as far as possible their disabilities,” noted a compilation of the best PWA projects at the time.

One might well believe that austerity prevailed during the Great Depression, but one often finds prodigal generosity instead.

Neglecting Our Infrastructure

Rush hour traffic, San Francisco, Calif

Rush hour traffic, San Francisco, Calif
Gridlock has become common in American cities

During a recent crawl through San Francisco’s ever-lengthening rush hour, I had plenty of time to contemplate how the city’s much-ballyhooed growth of high-rise offices and housing is far outstripping the capacity of the region’s roads, transit, water, and above all, emergency services.

Civilization is built on sewers, which, like bridges, roads, and dams, are built on taxes. It’s a simple connection that those such as the late California politician Howard Jarvis and Ronald Reagan, as both governor and president, persuaded us to sever and forget.  We are all paying an ever-mounting price for doing so.

It’s not just that Republican opposition to taxes of almost any kind that has throttled the U.S. Highway Trust Fund and the Mass Transit Account, further adding to the gridlock. Recent catastrophic water breaks  other parts of the country are another sign of how close to disaster we are skating. Every year the American Society of Civil Engineers gives U.S. infrastructure a flunking grade, and it’s getting worse.

A recent water main break in Los Angeles

A recent water main break in Los Angeles
Infrastructure is breaking down due to lack of investment

Few are aware that much of the infrastructure on which everyone depends was built eighty years ago by the New Deal.  That ten-year spasm of public spending extricated the U.S. from the Great Depression by creating millions of jobs and stimulating the domestic construction industry.  Its benefits to the economy were felt immediately after the war and continue to the present day.

Think of it as the government covering the overhead costs of development and thus raising the value of land for the private sector — a cost not being covered today.

WPA workers construct the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, 1937

WPA at Work
WPA workers construct the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, 1937

WPA workers, for example, surveyed what lay beneath San Francisco’s Market Street to prepare for a subway system for both the city’s public transit and the regional Bay Area Transit (BART) systems. New Deal agencies connected the entire Bay Area with the construction of the Bay Bridge and the roads leading to the Golden Gate Bridge. At the same time, the Public Works Administration completed the Hetch Hetchy water system to serve 2.5 million future San Franciscans.

With the exception of a new cross-town subway and a yet-to-be-funded bullet train between San Francisco and Los Angeles, nothing of comparable scale is being built, while existing infrastructure falls into ruin. The same holds true for many other “successful” cities today.

Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed, “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” Taxes are also what we pay for a healthy economy. We apparently have decided that we need neither today. 


 

Report Tells Congress to Halt Post Office Sell Off

Post Office Protest
Protestors at historic post office in Berkeley, California
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Privatizing the postal system—a declared goal of the Republican Party — has led to the sale of hundreds of historic post offices, over 1,100 of which were built under the New Deal. Public opposition to the scheme has been growing nationwide, with the Living New Deal playing a significant role.

In response to the outcry, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) has issued a report to Congress expressing “significant concerns” about the lack of transparency and accountability by which the USPS is transferring public property to private ownership.

The Council’s recommendations include a moratorium on the sale of historic post offices around the country and greater protection for the New Deal artworks ornamenting many of the 1930s post offices that, the report notes, “captured the American scene and transformed the post office into a truly democratic art gallery.”

A federal lawsuit brought by the National Post Office Collaborate halted the sale of the post office in Stamford Connecticut, sold to a developer who planned to tear part of it down and put up luxury apartments.

Stamford, Conneticut Post Office
A federal lawsuit brought by the National Post Office Collaborate halted the sale of the post office in Stamford Connecticut, sold to a developer who planned to tear part of it down and put up luxury apartments.
Photo Credit: Save the Post Office

CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate company, has an exclusive contract to sell USPS properties, valued at around $105 billion.  A recent expose found that CBRE is largely owned by Richard Blum, husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein and has led to several Inspector Generals’ investigations.

Widespread citizen action to preserve the postal system includes a landmark lawsuit brought by the National Post Office Collaborate in Berkeley, California that blocked the sale of the historic post office in Stamford, Connecticut.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Berkeley has become the epicenter of opposition to the sell off.

The ACHP is comprised of presidential appointees, but as its name implies, is merely advisory.  It remains to be seen whether its prestige will alter the rouge course of the USPS.

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