Audio Archaeology

FAP Art Sold as Scrap

FAP Art Sold as Scrap
New York curio shop owner Henry Roberts shows one of hundreds of FAP easel paintings he offered for sale at prices from $3 to $44 in 1944. He obtained the artworks from a scrap dealer who had purchased a job lot of “junk canvas” at a government surplus sale. Courtesy, LOC.gov Prints & Photos Division.

Like artifacts from a lost civilization, oral histories conducted by the Archives of American Art (AAA) in 1964-1965 have kept alive the thoughts and memories of New Deal artists, craftspeople and administrators for those of us in their future.

The interviews, conducted more than two decades after the New Deal’s art programs were dissolved, constitute an invaluable supplement to the vast body of material culture that these government-commissioned artists produced. Like the famous slave narratives gathered by the WPA’s Federal Writers Project from 1936 to 1938, the interviews with New Deal artists and administrators constitute an audio archaeology of those who have since passed on.

The Archives of American Art (AAA) was founded in Detroit in 1954 and ten years later launched an oral history initiative to document the arts programs of the Roosevelt administration. The AIA moved to Washington, D.C. in 1970 to become a unit of the Smithsonian Institution.  

“The abrupt termination of the projects and the situation in Washington during the war made an orderly gathering together of the results of the projects impossible,” an article in the Archives’ Journal at the time explained.  “We undertook the study because we believe that this is an area of America’s cultural history which is badly in need of clarification and that the time is right for a thorough, objective study of the New Deal and its art projects.”

Beating the Chinese, “History of San Francisco,” by Anton Refregier, 1941
Conservatives in Congress wanted the mural series destroyed. Courtesy, LOC.

Time was of the essence thirty years after the federal art projects began. Many of the records and artworks had by then been scattered or burned. Some of those who had worked in the art projects had already died, but many were still in middle age and were cogent, opinionated and eager to pass on what they remembered.

Through the interviews one can hear the voices of of FSA photographers Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein, CCC artist and architect Victor Steinbrueck, Resettlement Administration head Rexford Tugwell, artist and photographer Ben Shahn, sculptor Mary Fuller McChesney and hundreds of other painters, sculptors, administrators and craftspeople.

Last year, the Archives launched an ambitious series of podcasts titled Articulated: Dispatches from the Archives of American Art. The first four episodes produced and narrated by the AAA’s Scholar for Oral History Ben Gillespie and Digital Experience Chief Michelle Herman featured Living New Deal team members Richard Walker, Barbara Bernstein and myself, as well as other scholars and archivists who use the interviews to learn about an unprecedented experiment in public arts patronage.


Sculptor Mary Fuller McChesney appears at her one-woman show at the Artists’ Guild Gallery, San Francisco, 1947. Courtesy, eichlernetwork.com.

The podcasts comprise interviews recorded in homes and studios under less-than-ideal conditions. The subjects are heard over a background of barking dogs, ringing telephones, children and typewriters. Memories that otherwise would have been lost nonetheless live on, captured by astute interviewers who were often themselves artists and even friends of their subjects, sometimes willing to lubricate their conversations with a gifted bottle of scotch.  

I, myself, have used the extensive papers of the New Deal artist Anton Refregier at the AAA to learn more about his intentions for the immense historical cycle he painted for San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office in 1946-1947, the last artwork produced under the federal arts programs.

"Artists in WPA," by Moses Soyer, 1935
“Artists in WPA,” by Moses Soyer, 1935. Courtesy, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Employed by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, Refregier considered the 28 murals depicting the history of California his masterpiece, so I also wanted to know his thoughts during an extraordinary 1953 hearing at which reactionary Congressmen sought to destroy the murals for what they asserted were its anti-American content.

The AAA has digitized five minutes of an interview with Refregier, so hearing his Russian-inflected voice at home was like encountering an old friend whom I had never met but knew well.  “Ref” began by advocating for a renewed program of government-sponsored arts for public spaces like those that had once employed him.


Arthur Rothstein, photographer for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

For its pioneering 1976 exhibition of New Deal art in California, the DeSaisset Museum at the University of Santa Clara secured an NEH grant to make video recordings of many New Deal artists alive at the time. Copies of those recordings are now in the possession of the AAA, which itself relies on grants and donations to carry on its work of transmitting knowledge to the present and future.

With sufficient funding, the AAA hopes to digitize those recordings so that anyone excavating the cultural archaeology of the New Deal will be able to see, as well as hear, the departed men and women who left the abundance of riches that survives.

The Forgotten Coup of 1933

Bonus Army


In 1932 WWI veterans laid siege to the U.S. Capitol demanding their service bonuses. Wealthy businessmen plotted to mobilize the disaffected soldiers and overthrow the newly elected FDR. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

That the American press largely ignored an attempt to forcibly overthrow President Franklin Roosevelt only months after his inauguration in 1933 seems less extraordinary in light of the right-wing media’s current efforts to dismiss a far more alarming—and televised—coup attempt on January 6, 2021.

Jonathan M. Katz resurrects that earlier effort in his just-released book Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire. Author Sally Denton also did so in 2012 with her book The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, And the Rise of the American Right.

A week following the 2021 attack on the Capitol, Denton explicitly linked the two conspiracies. “The nation has never been at a potential brink as it was then—up until, I think, now,” she said. She reiterated her fears in an op-ed in the Post on the first anniversary of the attempted overthrow of the presidential election.

Smedley Butler

Smedley Butler
Retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler asserted that wealthy businessmen were plotting to create a fascist veterans’ organization with Butler as its leader and use it in a coup d’état to overthrow Roosevelt. In a 1935 video clip, Smedley Butler describes the foiled “fascist plot.” (1.22 minutes) 

The plot against FDR might well have succeeded had Retired Major General Smedley Butler not blown the whistle on it. The revered former Marine claimed that a representative of some of the nation’s wealthiest men had approached him to lead an army of half a million veterans against the president and install a dictator in his place. It resembled a game plan inspired by European fascists admired by those same men.

A Congressional committee took testimony from Butler, who fingered such titans as J.P. Morgan, Jr., Irénée du Pont and others as the plot’s financial backers, calling them “the royal family of financiers.” FDR echoed Butler when accepting his party’s nomination at Madison Square Garden on June 27, 1936, branding his foes “economic royalists” to wild applause and going so far as to assert, “they are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” Thanks to Butler, FDR had good cause to know the lengths to which they would go, though few others did.  

On the campaign trail in 1932

On the campaign trail in 1932
FDR with daughter Anna and Mrs. Roosevelt. He defeated incumbent President Herbert Hoover in a landslide. Courtesy, Wikipedia Commons.

Roosevelt’s friend Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. confirmed that hatred in his tell-all autobiography Farewell to Fifth Avenue, in which he revealed that both of President Hoover’s Treasury Secretaries—Andrew Mellon and Ogden Mills—had privately tipped off leading members of their caste to the probability that the U.S. would go off the gold standard, giving them adequate time to move their assets to Swiss bank accounts while immeasurably worsening the Great Depression just before Roosevelt’s inauguration. Three months later, when the new President began the process by which the U.S. left the gold standard, they apparently moved more decisively against him.

The Business Plot, or “Wall Street Putsch,” today remains largely unknown and is seldom mentioned in Roosevelt biographies, perhaps because the nation’s major newspapers—whose owners largely opposed FDR—mocked it, if they mentioned it at all.

In its report, the Congressional committee charged with the investigation said it “had received evidence that certain people had made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country,” but deleted the names of the people Butler had given it. The incensed Butler observed, “Like most committees, it has slaughtered the little and allowed the big to escape. The big shots weren’t even called to testify.” Without those names and further investigation, the report and plot sank into obscurity—until a violent mob stormed the Capitol 88 years later. 

It Can’t Happen Here

It Can’t Happen Here
Published in 1935, the height of fascism in Europe, Lewis’s book portrays the rise of totalitarian rule in the U.S. with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force. It was adapted into a play in 1936.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Wikipedia.

A 2007 radio documentary by BBC4 suggests that the plot is so little known because Roosevelt did not charge the conspirators with treason in exchange for a pledge by them not to oppose his New Deal policies. Whether that is true or Roosevelt simply felt that such a spectacular trial would even further divide the country at a time of crisis will probably never be known. That such a conspiracy happened, let alone was all but erased from public memory, seems far more conceivable after the events of January 6—not to mention Republicans’ attempt to block to any such investigation today.

The attack on the U.S. Capitol—not to mention the four years that preceded it—dealt a heavy blow to the American exceptionalism that Sinclair Lewis lampooned in his 1936 play, It Can’t Happen Here. “It” very nearly did in 2021, and may yet still.

Digging the New Deal

Lost City Museum, Nevada

Lost City Museum, Nevada
Built by the CCC, the museum houses artifacts from ancient sites flooded by Hoover Dam. Courtesy, Lostcitymuseum.org.

The Living New Deal is like an archaeological dig into a lost civilization. Within just a decade, the Roosevelt Administration catapulted the profession of archaeology into the future, while leaving a trove of artifacts and field notes that researchers continue to mine eighty years on.

Archaeologists today still study what their predecessors of that period did. Excavating sites in the path of a new highway in southwestern Pennsylvania in the early 1990s, Dr. Bernard Means’ researched documents and photographs he discovered in dusty cigar boxes in the State Museum that, he later said, “was like opening a whole new world” to him. That led Means to revive a now-robust professional group within the Society for American Archaeology to study New Deal archaeology, as well as to produce numerous articles, a book of essays titled Shovel Ready: Archeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America and an invaluable website on the legacy of Depression-era federal relief archeology.

Excavation near Boulder Dam, 1937

Excavation near Boulder Dam, 1937
Many of the Federal agencies supported New Deal archeology, including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Civil Works Administration (CWA), Public Works Administration (PWA), National Youth Administration (NYA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Courtesy, Lostcitymuseum.org.

In the process of mapping archaeological digs, Means and his associates discovered that all of the many New Deal work relief agencies (CWA, WPA, FERA, CCC, NYA, TVA) conducted projects in at least three quarters of the then-48 states, employing in the process thousands of professionals, while training others to perform this exacting work.

“New Deal archaeology … radically transformed our understanding of America’s past” he wrote, and “led to the professionalization of archaeology [while generating] tremendous collections from significant sites that have enduring value to researchers. New Deal archaeology also represents the one time in history when ordinary American citizens were themselves closely integrated into the efforts to uncover the nation’s heritage.”

A WPA crew excavates a prehistoric mound in Montgomery, Kentucky, 1938.

A WPA crew excavates a prehistoric mound in Montgomery, Kentucky, 1938
Crews collected more than 3000 Native American artifacts, but such excavations often destroyed these sacred cultural places. Courtesy, 30daysofKentuckyarcheology.wordpress.com.

Among the innumerable project sites was the elaborate Irene Mounds, five miles from downtown Savannah. Before a WPA-built airport leveled the mounds, a meticulous investigation was carried out by a WPA crew consisting largely of African-American women directed by archaeologist Joseph R. Caldwell. It is the best documented such site in Georgia.

In Kentucky, similar salvage archaeology preceded the flooding of valleys by dams built by the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority. Diligent workers trained on the job could work up the ranks from “shovel men” to crew supervisors. Some no doubt went on to careers in archaeology and associated fields as many CCC boys did into forestry and soil conservation. The University of Kentucky’s WPA records remain its most requested research materials.

Map of U.S. showing New Deal archaeology projects

Map of U.S. showing New Deal archaeology projects
Counties having projects are highlighted. States shown in gray have no known New Deal archaeology surveys or excavations. Courtesy, Newdealarcheology.com.

The bounty of information about America’s past benefited more than professionals alone.

The Civilian Conservation Corps built a archeological  museum in Overtown, Nevada, to house artifacts recovered from local prehistoric sites, most of which were flooded when the Colorado River was dammed to form Lake Mead. On the National Register of Historic Places, the “Lost City Museum is itself a New Deal artifact. Its collection of Native American antiquities is open to the public.

Work: A Journal of Progress

Work: A Journal of Progress
The January, 1937 issue of the WPA journal features archaeological investigations. Courtesy, newdealarcheology.com.

The American Guides Series produced by the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, according to Dr. Gloria Everson, professor of archeology, “provided the general  public with a window into the archaeological heritage of each state — and in many cases, even gave them driving instructions.”  

That we have such a window onto a past otherwise lost to us is not only thanks to those like Caldwell, whose names we know, but to those largely forgotten men and women whom the New Deal digs saved from destitution and despair and on whose shoulders we unwittingly stand today.

 

VIEW HISTORICAL FILM FOOTAGE OF WPA ARCHEOLOGICAL DIG

Maintaining Civilization

CCC forestry

CCC forestry
Men of the Civilian Conservation Corps cleared brush, fought fires and replanted forests. Courtesy, US Forest Service.

Maintenance is much on my mind as megafires once again rage across California and President Biden’s infrastructure proposals collide with the partisan stonewall in Congress. During the 1930s, it took about 16,000 Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) recruits two years to build the Ponderosa Way, an 800-mile-long fire break the length of the Sierra Nevada. A few decades of neglect following the Second World War erased the fire break from the landscape and memory. Now, it will take trillions of dollars of public investment to redress the nation’s decaying infrastructure which, like the Ponderosa, Americans largely but unknowingly owe to the New Deal. 

 Repairing the gold dome, 1934.

Repairing the gold dome, 1934.
Civil Works Administration workmen cleaning and painting the dome at the Colorado State Capitol. Courtesy, Wikimedia Commons.

Infrastructure undergirds the growth of all complex civilizations. Its neglect or sabotage contributes mightily to their fall. In 1936, the top marginal tax rates in the U.S. jumped from 63 to 79 percent, largely to pay for the New Deal’s public works programs. It rose further still to 92 percent in 1952 under President Eisenhower. But that rate began to fall sharply in the 1980s during the Reagan Administration. Though already low, funding for infrastructure plummeted after 2010, falling far short of the $450 billion annually that the American Society of Civil Engineers 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure says would be needed to protect public safety and assure productivity.

Rosedale Playground, Washington, D.C.

Rosedale Playground, Washington, D.C.
The WPA renovated city playgrounds. WPA and National Youth Administration (NYA) workers ran recreation programs. Courtesy, National Archives.

Maintenance is not sexy, nor do politicians reap credit for it, so it’s easy to scrimp. The millions of public jobs created by New Deal agencies during the Great Depression made the 1930s a golden age not just of building but also of maintenance. Refurbishing schools and parks raised the spirits of those who used them and arguably contributed to the social order. In fact, 80 percent of Americans today support rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure—more than almost any other top issue facing the current Administration. According to the Value of Water’s 2020 National Survey on Public Opinion on Water Infrastructure, nearly everyone (97 percent) said that America’s infrastructure is at least somewhat important. Only strengthening the economy ranked slightly higher, at 81 percent, and the two are inextricably linked. 

In 1942, as Washington closed down work relief agencies such as the Works Progress Administration and CCC to free men up for war, Roberts Mann, the Superintendent of Maintenance for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois, wrote in Parks and Recreation what he saw coming to Chicago’s richly endowed parks and those elsewhere as they “entered upon the lean years:”

Washington Monumen

Washington Monument
PWA funds restored the famous D.C. landmark. Courtesy, National Archives.

“The past ten have been years of plenty—too fat for those of us who blithely drifted with the flood of federal labor and materials, to find ourselves with more acres, more buildings, more facilities and more frosting-on-the-cake than we possibly can maintain. It has been proven that poor maintenance engenders disrespect, misuse, abuse and vandalism by the public. Dirt breeds dirt, disorder breeds more disorder; shoddy, ill-kempt buildings and grounds invite contemptuous, careless treatment by our customers.

Mann could well have been describing our own time, though it was not war but a starved tax base—even in fat years—that led the nation to neglect the maintenance that has held it—and its people—together.

Revisiting the “Blue Bible”

 
The “Blue Bible,” compiled 82 years ago, is a “best of” the PWA’s thousands of construction projects. Photo by Gray Brechin.

President Biden’s initial $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal is merely a belated down payment on decades of cost-cutting neglect and deferred maintenance that has brought much of U.S. infrastructure to near third world status. If it passes Congress, his proposal would create a myriad of needed jobs, but it’s also a reminder of the stupendous feat that ”Honest Harold” Ickes achieved modernizing the country in just half a decade. During that time, he served as both a seemingly never sleeping Secretary of the Interior and head of the Public Works Administration (PWA), a vast public works construction agency often confused with its sometimes rival, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under Harry Hopkins.

Harold Ickes
As U.S. Secretary of the Interior throughout FDR’s presidency, Harold Ickes was in charge of implementing major New Deal relief programs, including the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the federal government’s environmental efforts. Courtesy, Wikipedia.

I call the doorstopper of a tome with the snoozer title Public Buildings: Architecture Under the Public Works Administration, 1935-1939 the Blue Bible not only for its buckram binding of that color but also because of the volume of information, much of which the Living New Deal has used on its website. Published by the Government Printing Office in 1939, the richly illustrated book is proof of what could be accomplished in the future.

Contracting with both small, local and giant construction companies such as Bechtel and Kaiser, the PWA stimulated the economy by building dams, airports, schools, colleges, bridges, public hospitals, art galleries, sewage treatment plants, lighthouses, libraries and even sleek Staten Island ferries and Coast Guard cutters. At over 600 pages of text, black and white plates and floor plans arranged by building type, the book shows a nation transformed in short order, yet it is only an abbreviation of a larger report requested by President Roosevelt and compiled by architects C.W. Short and R. Stanley-Brown. They culled hundreds of what they regarded as all-stars from more than 26,000 PWA projects, many of which remain to be discovered.    

Blue Bible Project page

Blue Bible Project page
The PWA funded and administered the construction of more than 34,000 projects. Many outstanding examples appear in these pages. Photo by Gray Brechin.

Despite the gigantic scale and quality of many of the buildings, the plates included in the book identify neither the architects nor engineers responsible for the projects, although the cost is given. They show the smorgasbord of styles popular during the New Deal, ranging from Georgian to Pueblo, from Art Deco and Streamline Moderne to hints of the new International Style. Lavish government patronage led many artists employed by New Deal agencies to compare their era to that of the Renaissance.  The architects who compiled the book wrote, “Today architecture in the U.S. is passing through a period of transition, thus creating a condition which has much in common with that which existed in Italy in the 15th century when the architecture of the Middle Ages was changing to that of the Renaissance.” 

Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho

Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho
The PWA’s accomplishments include building LaGuardia Airport, the Tri-borough Bridge, and Lincoln Tunnel in New York City; the Skyline Drive in Virginia, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Grand Coulee Dam. Courtesy, Bridgehunter.com

Scanning the book reminds me of architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham’s famous command in the early 20th century: “Make no small plans,” he said, since “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Ickes himself said when dedicating California’s Friant Dam that “Even those of us in Washington who are responsible for carrying out orders sometimes lack comprehension of the mighty sweep of this program.”

Short and Stanley-Brown closed their introduction with a claim you won’t find in any government report today: “This vast building program presents us with a great vision, that of man building primarily for love of and to fulfill the needs of his fellowmen. Perhaps future generations will classify these years as one of the epoch-making periods of advancement in the civilization not only of our own country, but also of the human race.”

PWA Map
Vintage poster describing some of the PWA’s construction projects across America. Courtesy, Digital.library.Cornell.edu

The Blue Bible reminds us today how far the U.S. once materially advanced civilization, even as forces in Europe conspired toward its destruction.

Copies of the book can be acquired on Amazon as originals or as a 1986 paperback reprint by Da Capo Press.

Until Covid

WPA poster

WPA poster
New Deal posters promoted public health
Photo Credit: Courtesy LOC

Until Covid-19 made its murderous debut in the U.S., the withering of the nation’s public health care system had gone largely unnoticed. The response to the epidemic has been so ineffectual as to call into question the U.S.’s status as a “developed” nation.  

Progressive reformers who established the nation’s public health system at the turn of the 20th century understood that the effort was not only a humanitarian pursuit but a bulwark against the spread of disease that does not distinguish between rich and poor. Many New Deal administrators influenced by the Progressive movement held a holistic vision of public health. Hence, their stress on architecturally attractive hospitals often brightened by WPA artworks, as well as the New Deal’s vast expenditures on water treatment, nutritional classes, community clinics and child care. Today, that vision is as scarce as the PPE stockpile was when the coronavirus arrived on our shores. 

Hospital closures

Hospital closures
Rural hospitals are closing nationwide.
Photo Credit: Courtesy CNN

Two maps tell the story. One produced by the University of North Carolina shows at least 170 rural hospitals that have closed in the last 15 years, half of them in Southern states where the virus is now making rapid inroads. The other map displays the 822 hospitals built, repaired or improved between 1933 and 1939 by the Public Works Administration (PWA). When work by other New Deal agencies like the WPA, FERA and NYA is added, the national inventory of rural hospitals leapt to 5,304. 

PWA Administrator Harold Ickes noted in 1939 that “There was, and there still is, a great need for small but modern general hospitals in rural areas all through the country,” while pointing to the hundreds of general hospitals built with PWA funds. 

"America Builds: The Record of PWA”, 1939

"America Builds: The Record of PWA”, 1939
New Deal work programs built and improved thousands of hospitals and clinics.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives

October 31, 2020, marked an important milestone in American public health: the 80th anniversary of the dedication of the campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), located in Bethesda, Maryland at which FDR spoke to the NIH’s role in the “conservation of life,” and using the power of science “to do infinitely more” for the health of all people with “no distinctions of race, of creed, or of color.”

Yet, today fully 25 percent of U.S. rural hospitals are at a high risk of closing, unless their financial situations improve, says an analysis by consulting firm, Guidehouse. It reports that rural hospitals and their communities are facing a crisis that has been lingering for decades.

Movable TB isolation unit, 1937

Movable TB isolation unit, 1937
WPA-built huts, delivered to the patient’s own backyard, protected the family from infection.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives

Data published recently in The Guardian reveals the cost that tax cuts and the Great Recession have taken on the U.S.’s pandemic preparedness. “There are 2.9 hospital beds for every 1,000 people in the United States. That’s fewer than Turkmenistan (7.4 beds per 1,000), Mongolia (7.0), Argentina (5.0) and Libya (3.7). This lack of hospital beds is forcing doctors across the country to ration care under Covid-19, pushing up the number of preventable deaths.”

During the New Deal, legions of jobless were trained and hired to administer to the sick, prevent illness, both physical and mental, and construct public health infrastructure from hospitals and clinics to parks and playgrounds. As author and activist Naomi Klein explains, the New Deal’s investment in public health extended to delivering portable “isolation huts” for those afflicted with tuberculosis, enabling their families to safely and affordably care for them. The backyard huts were built by young men working for the National Youth Administration. State Boards of Health, which arranged regular visits by health workers, distributed the huts. Unlike testing for Covid, these lifeline services were federally funded, widely available and offered free of charge. 

Mobile clinic

Mobile clinic
The Farm Security Administration brought health care to agricultural workers.
Photo Credit: Klamath County, Oregon. Photo courtesy LOC

Health was a very personal issue for Franklin Roosevelt after polio paralyzed him in 1921. Among the economic rights to which he insisted all Americans are entitled was “The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.” Unwelcome as it is, the current pandemic provides us with insight into a public health system we should have built upon but instead forgot we ever had. 

Life expectancy vs. health expenditure

Life expectancy vs. health expenditure
Americans pay more for healthcare per capita and live shorter lives than do citizens in any other advanced economy
Photo Credit: Ourworlddata.org. With thanks to: richardbrenneman.wordpress.com

Water treatment plant, Michigan City, Indiana

Water treatment plant, Michigan City, Indiana
PWA projects brought clean water to millions of households.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives, 1933-1943

 

Watch: FDR dedicating the new NIH campus, October 31, 1940 

Evictions Revisited

“California Industrial Scenes,” Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA

“California Industrial Scenes,” Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA
Social and political messages emerge from Langley’s mix of visual images: demonstrating workers, homeless, a strip mining operation, and Shasta Dam.  Source
Photo Credit: Courtesy Coit Tower

Detail, “California Industrial Scenes,” Fresco mural by John Langley Howard, 1934

Detail, “California Industrial Scenes”
Fresco mural by John Langley Howard, 1934
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

The blank and pitiless eyes of unemployed workers in John Langley Howard’s mural, “California Industry Scenes,” have stared out at visitors to San Francisco’s Coit Tower ever since the New Deal artist painted them in 1934. They are a burning reminder of the hunger, illness and eviction countless Americans faced during the Great Depression.

President Franklin Roosevelt addressed their suffering when he accepted his renomination in 1936, declaring, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

The icy indifference to which Roosevelt referred was that of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, while the eyes are those of the potential revolution that Hoover’s inaction aroused and the New Deal largely averted. Current events reprise that history.

Pandemic-driven shutdowns in 2020 have spiked unemployment to levels not seen since the 1930s, but the immediate effect on the U.S. economy was hidden by an early bipartisan infusion of $3 trillion. So great were the needs of suddenly jobless workers, however, that even that immense sum was quickly exhausted. With Congress in deadlock and the Senate on vacation, that buffer against destitution has disappeared. Princeton’s Eviction Lab estimates that 40 million people face expulsion from their homes.

The U.S. actually faced an eviction epidemic even before the pandemic, a crisis that dwarfed that of the Depression. With flagging help from the federal government as Pandemic Summer wore on, tactics adopted in the 30s have returned. Rent strikes and neighborly defense of those evicted from their homes are taking place across the country.

Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, 1939, New Madrid County, MO

Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, 1939
New Madrid County, MO
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein

Courtesy LOC, Homeless encampment, 2020

Courtesy LOC
Homeless encampment, 2020
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

An interactive map shows over 700 rent and unemployment actions that took place from 1930-1932. In January, 1932, the largely Communist Upper Bronx Unemployed Council initiated a rent strike that spread to other boroughs, provoking rent riots against the police that at times involved thousands of participants. It served as a model for other cities.

Rural areas were not immune to uprisings against property law. In Iowa, desperate farmers blocked highways, resisted marshals evicting families and, in one notorious event garnering national attention, not only hauled District Court Judge Charles C. Bradley from his Le Mars courtroom to prevent him from signing foreclosure papers on local farmers, but then beat, stripped and nearly lynched him.

Roosevelt confronted this state of near-insurrection upon taking office in 1933. Infusions of federal money into home and farm relief bureaus as well as New Deal work relief programs — including public housing projects — released much of the pressure one can still feel in the angry eyes staring out from the walls of Coit Tower. Those men stand for the desperation of our own time as much as their own.

Just Scratching the Surface

WPA concrete bridge

WPA concrete bridge
Escambia County, Alabama, 1939
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

The work of the Living New Deal is a lot like an archaeological dig.  Archeologists discover lost civilizations with the benefit of new Lidar technology, but we come upon exciting new finds digging through old journals, newspapers and archives.

I recently exhumed an obscure 1939 WPA report from the UC Berkeley library. Far more than dry statistics, the report illustrates how the New Deal transformed the lives of small town and rural residents alike.

The report, Progress of the WPA Program, contains everything the Works Progress Administration accomplished in two rural counties—Mahaska, Iowa and Escambia, Alabama, and two cities—Erie, Pennsylvania and Portsmouth, Ohio. In all four places, government put hundreds of men, women and youth to work providing needed infrastructure and services to their communities in order to combat unemployment during the Great Depression.

Sidewalk construction in Atmore, Alabama

Sidewalk construction in Atmore, Alabama
The WPA laid 15,000 feet of sidewalk to this city.
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

With the help of a nationwide network of volunteers, the Living New Deal’s growing website now documents more than 16,000 sites nationwide—parks, airports, city halls, stadiums, sewers, schools and more. The WPA report reveals that we have just scratched the surface, however. But since New Deal projects are rarely marked or mentioned in local histories, few, if any, of the New Deal’s improvements to their towns and counties are known to today’s residents.

The result is that many Americans mistakenly believe that the federal government does little or nothing for them or their communities, as Paul Krugman writes, even though the evidence of what good government can do is literally right under their tires and feet.

Dedication of WPA swimming pool in Edmundson Park

Dedication of WPA swimming pool in Edmundson Park
Oskaloosa, Iowa, 1937
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

A map of Mahaska County, Iowa, for example, shows hundreds of miles of rural roads that the WPA graded and paved, enabling farmers to get their produce to market in all weather. Another map of Portsmouth, Ohio, shows the levees and five new pumping stations that saved the town from frequent flooding of the Ohio River. New storm drains did the same for Erie, PA.

During this time, 400 Erie women—many of them heads of households—sewed more than 200,000 garments to be given to the poor, while some 700 people were engaged in sixty-five orchestra and choral groups. Workers for the Federal Writers Project compiled historical information on a played-out coal region near Oscaloosa, Iowa, whose largely Welsh residents were given music classes. Oscaloosa’s Edmundson Park has so many WPA features, it qualified for the National Register of Historic Places.

Between 1935 and 1939, WPA expenditures in Iowa’s Mahaska County alone totaled $1,150,434—$20,595,724 in today’s dollars.

As extensive as the information in this report is on the WPA, it does not include the work of the PWA, CCC, or other New Deal agencies that benefitted rural as well as urban economies and ultimately lifted the country out of the Great Depression. Much of what government built through local labor still benefits millions of people today, some 80 years on.

With more digging, reports like Progress of the WPA Program as well as unpublished manuscripts, can be unearthed at libraries, town archives and historical societies across America. The Living New Deal is uncovering some of the best evidence anywhere of what a true government for the people once achieved—and could again—and making it freely available. Your support makes our work possible.

All in This Together

Illustration credit:

Illustration credit:
rawpixel.com

It is an old trope, but true, that disasters often bring out the best in people. That, I think, is the case in the midst of a global pandemic as neighbors too harried to know one another a week ago stop to ask how they and their families are doing and what they can do to help.

But disasters can also bring out the worst; witness the current administration’s response to corona virus, a catastrophe long in the making as the entire public sector largely stitched together by FDR’s New Deal to fight the Great Depression has been starved of the funds needed to protect the public.

In that sense, the coronavirus disaster is analogous to the decades-long neglect of the nation’s physical infrastructure. Much of it was built during the 1930s not just to put millions to work but to vastly improve the physical and mental well-being of U.S. citizens. That long-range investment gave the U.S. the First World status that it subsequently forfeited as it allowed those public works — and entire cities — to fall into ruin.

Like the levees built by WPA, CCC and PWA workers along its rivers, the nation’s matrix of public health facilities and their dedicated staffs have been progressively undermined so that a long-predicted rogue disease could easily breach them, endangering the lives and livelihood of millions.  As always, the poor will suffer first and most, but no one will be immune to a viral onslaught against which a collective absence of forethought provides scant defense.   

Our task at the Living New Deal is to remind Americans that we do not have to live in a dystopia promoted as its opposite. We do not have to tolerate millions of our fellow citizens living in hunger, on the streets and in abject despair — tinder for the match of a new virus. We once had a federal administration that sought security for all as an enduring bulwark against fear itself. As the adjective “Living” in our name implies, the New Deal continues to embellish all of our lives. But we must first learn to see it as well as to learn the lost ethical language in which its relics are trying to speak to us of an alternate reality we once had.  

In the meantime, as you shelter in place, reevaluate what you thought important just a month or even a week ago. Get to know your loved ones — but at a safe distance for a while. As you take hikes in the woods, think of the vast oxygen-producing, wildlife-sheltering forests that an international Civilian Conservation Corps could be planting to fight climate change and to promote peace among competing people just as Roosevelt dreamt his United Nations would someday do.

Listen to music, read books again, organize your long-neglected papers, and stop to pet your neighbor’s dog. Together, we will get through this, coming out the other side far greater for it.

Democratizing Beauty

Berkeley, California Rose Garden

Berkeley, California Rose Garden
The garden, featuring 1,500 varieties of roses, was one of the first of the New Deal’s Civil Works Progress projects. Conceived in 1933, it was dedicated for public use in 1937.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

I had to think hard when a reporter recently asked me what most surprised me about what I’ve learned about the New Deal. After a pause, I replied “The importance of aesthetics.” My response was primed by the first sentence of a list of goals set forth by the National Resources Planning Board [NPRB] for what the Roosevelt Administration sought to achieve after the war:

“The fullest possible development of the human personality, in relation to the common good, in a framework of freedoms and rights, of justice, liberty, equality, and the consent of the governed.”

I marveled at how alien such a high and holistic aspiration seemed not only in the present but in all the administrations of my lifetime. It was especially so in light of the time it was written— January, 1943 at the nadir of the Second World War when Americans were still under food rationing. But, in fact, it succinctly summarizes much of what the New Deal set out to accomplish.

Central Court, Main Library, Toledo, Ohio

Central Court, Main Library, Toledo, Ohio
This public library was constructed in 1939 with the aid of Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). A multi-color glass mosaic crowns the lobby.
Photo Credit: Evan Kalish

Although Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had all of the advantages that inherited wealth and status gave them—spending three months on the Grand Tour of Europe for their honeymoon, for example—they both came to believe that access to beauty should not be the exclusive prerogative of their own class. In 1941, in his dedication of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., President Roosevelt declared that great works of art such as those in the Gallery belong to all men everywhere, but that the government furthermore had a duty to create new art and take it to where there had been none before.

The WPA’s Federal Music, Theatre, Writing, and Art Projects and the Treasury Section of Fine Arts did just that, so that Roosevelt could deftly leap in his speech from Andrew Mellon’s gift of Old Masters in the Gallery to what FDR felt all Americans were entitled to: “Recently… they have seen in their own towns, in their own villages and schoolhouses and post offices, in the backrooms of shops and stores, pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors, people they’ve known and lived beside and talked to.” Both FDR and Eleanor believed that access to beauty was essential for “the full development of the human personality” not only for healthy individuals, but also for a healthy democracy. Even in the absence—or obverse—of such goals at the federal level today, New Deal projects such as Central Park’s Conservatory Gardens, Mt Hood’s Timberline Lodge, and Denver’s Red Rock Amphitheatre have enabled millions to nourish their spirits just as the NPRB hoped they would in the midst of war.

 

Sunshine School for Crippled Children, San Francisco
The richly detailed interior and exterior of the school, built in 1937, was meant to provide a cheerful atmosphere for the disabled children.
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Sculptor Wheeler Williams created this relief for the Canal Street Station Post Office in Manhattan in 1938.

Indian Bowman
Sculptor Wheeler Williams created this relief for the Canal Street Station Post Office in Manhattan in 1938.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

From FDR’s speech at the National Gallery dedication:

“Great works of art belong to all men everywhere. Art was foreign to Americans, they were taught. Recently, they have discovered that they have a part. They have seen their own towns, in their own villages and schoolhouses and Post Offices, in the backrooms of shops and stores, pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors, people they’ve known and lived beside and talked to. They have seen across these last few years rooms full of painting and sculptures by Americans. Walls covered with the paintings by Americans. Some of it good, some of it not so good. But all of it native and human and eager and alive; all of it painted by their own kind in this country. And painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.” 

Dedicated in conviction that the freedom of the human spirit shall go on too.