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.

Indians at the Post Office

Indian Bear Dance, by Boris Deutsch, adorns the post office in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Indian Bear Dance
Indian Bear Dance, by Boris Deutsch, adorns the post office in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service

As communities around the nation protest the dismantling of the U.S. Postal Service and the sell off of historic post offices—some containing New Deal art works—the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian and National Post Office Museum have jointly debuted an online exhibition of post office art depicting Native Americans: Indians at the Post Office: “Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals.”

A research team pouring over photos of the roughly 1,600 post office murals that were sponsored by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts in the 1930s found that about a quarter of them depicted Indians. From these, the team selected two-dozen murals that it organized into categories including Treaties, Encounter, Conflict, Evangelization, Indian Lifeways, and The Myth of Extinction.

Two Eagle Dancers, 1936 by Stephen Mopope a Kiowa Indian, is one of 16 WPA murals commissioned for the Anadarko, Oklahoma Post Office.

Two Eagle Dancers
Two Eagle Dancers, 1936 by Stephen Mopope a Kiowa Indian, is one of 16 WPA murals commissioned for the Anadarko, Oklahoma Post Office.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service

An essay accompanies each mural detailing its locale, the circumstance of its creation, subject matter, tribal details, artist biography, and more. Largely thanks to papers collected and oral histories conducted by the Archives of American Art, the sometimes subversive intentions of the artists, not obvious to the casual viewer, can now be explained.

Like the lands over which Native Americans and immigrants fought, the team has staked out contested terrain: many New Deal painters hired to adorn the post offices visually reiterated mythologies congenial to those who had won and occupied the land.  But, as a Forward to the exhibition correctly states, the muralists often encountered political minefields, “Artists were constantly reminded by Treasury officials that the communities were their patrons, and they must go to great lengths to satisfy the desires of everyone involved in the project in order to save their commission. Needless to say, “everyone” did not include the Indians they so often depicted. With the exception of a few Native artists and others sympathetic to their forcible displacement, history was portrayed by the victors to legitimate their conquest.

Early Indian Life on Analostan Island is one of seven murals created by Auriel Bussemer in the Arlington, Virginia Post Office

Early Indian Life Analostan Island
Early Indian Life on Analostan Island is one of seven murals created by Auriel Bussemer in the Arlington, Virginia Post Office
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service

‘Indians at the Post Office” suggests other themes yet to be tackled in the continent-spanning gallery of public art created during the Great Depression by the Treasury Section. These could include themes such as local labor and economy, nature, technology, African-Americans, and above all, postal work and service. Since art encompasses fine architecture, such an exhibition should be staged at the National Building Museum only a few blocks from the National Postal Museum. It would provide Americans an opportunity to see what we paid for, and what we are now so rapidly losing.

 

The Moral Equivalent: Redefining the Warrior Spirit

CCC Men

CCC Men
Fighting Fires

Our National Forests, no less than their infrastructure, are a mess after decades of neglect. The Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park last summer made that abundantly clear as it burned over 400 square miles of the Sierra Nevada flank — the largest wildfire in California history — after similar monster wildfires decimated Colorado’s Front Range.

During this fiery summer, Columbia University professor Mark Mazower published an essay in the Financial Times titled “The West Needs A Replacement of the Warrior Spirit“. Mazower seemed to rue the loss of the civic virtue and egalitarian camaraderie that, he asserts, linked warfare in the 20th century to the kind of welfare typified by Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The problem of how a nation sustains political unity in the absence of an external enemy also vexed the American psychologist and philosopher William James, especially once advanced weaponry made it possible for war to erase entire cities, nations, and ultimately the planet. James’s answer was more definitive than Mazower’s rhetorical question “where is the heroism, or the warrior spirit, in wielding a joystick?”

CCC Men
in front of barracks, 1933

In his influential 1910 essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” based on a talk he delivered at Stanford University, James recommended that in place of military conscription the U.S. should adopt a “conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature.”

Many feel that James’s essay played a role in FDR’s advocacy for and creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. Less adversarial in its approach to nature than James, the C’s were known as Roosevelt’s Tree Army, not only for the forests and wind breaks they planted but for the extent to which three million young men manually managed existing stands of trees; repaired and stocked streams; countered flooding and erosion; constructed fire look outs, and served on fire crews.

Roosevelt and others in his administration often likened the New Deal to a war against want, a battle that constructed rather than destroyed communities and land while it built the self respect of the men and women it employed.

CCC Worker Statue
photo: Creative Commons

 

When I read the accounts of CCC vets, I am as struck by the pride and gratitude they carried throughout their lives as a result of their service as I am by their superb craftsmanship in our national and state parks.

That was the constructive surrogate for the warrior spirit of the past that our forests — and our youth — cry out for today.

Communities Fight to Save U.S. Post Offices and New Deal Art

Coast to coast, from the Bronx and Chelsea in New York City to Venice, La Jolla, Ukiah, Redlands, and Berkeley in California, the Postal Service has decided that it will sell historic downtown post offices without looking at alternatives.

Hundreds of post offices are up for sale or lease, and the list is growing. Of the 56 U.S. post office buildings currently for sale, six are on the National Register of Historic Places and more may be eligible.

The Berkeley-based National Post Office Collaborate has filed suit in federal court to stop the sale of the Renaissance-style Stamford, Connecticut, Post Office and is prepared to do the same for Berkeley and La Jolla, California and the monumental post office in the Bronx, renowned for its thirteen murals by New Deal artist Ben Shahn.

Stamford Post Office, Courtesy Save the Post Office
Stamford, Connecticut’s Renaissance-style post office may be sold and largely demolished for luxury condos.

After months of public protest and formal appeals by the city, on July 18 Postal Service officials announced that, despite near-unanimous community opposition, it would sell Berkeley, California’s historic post office, citing “dire financial circumstances facing the Postal Service.”

The announcement provoked a month-long encampment in downtown Berkeley to defend the post office and the New Deal artworks it contains.

Berkeley Planning Commissioners voted unanimously on a measure restricting the use of historic buildings in the civic center, including the post office, to community-serving purposes. The California State Legislature passed a measure urging the U.S. Congress to stop the sale of historic post offices and undo the constraints that Congress imposed in 2006 requiring the Postal Service to pre-pay 75-years of health benefits for Postal Service employees—part of the conservative agenda to privatize the U.S. Postal Service by pushing it into bankruptcy.

Berkeley Post Office Protest
Slated for sale: Downtown Post Office, Berkeley, California

Two weeks ago, the Downtown Berkeley Post Office was listed for sale. CBRE holds an exclusive contract with the U.S. Postal Service to sell and lease the post office properties, valued at billions of dollars. The USPS-CBRE relationship is the subject of an explosive exposè by investigative reporter Peter Byrne that found that CBRE — chaired and largely owned by Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum — has consistently sold valuable public properties to its associates at prices well below market rates.

The Collaborate is urging an investigation by the USPS Office of Inspector General David Williams. Contributions to defray substantial legal expenses can be made to NPOC, PO Box 1234, Berkeley, CA 94701.

The CCC: Conserving Land and Youth, Again

I looked up from news of another mass shooting at the industrial wasteland passing by the Metroliner on my way to D.C.  I saw a cage full of young men who have few prospects now but drugs, prison, and the military, and I recalled Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration during the last depression that no nation, no matter how rich, can afford to waste its human and natural resources. That connection by a man who, according to his wife, studied the American landscape from train windows so that he would know what was needed when he took office, spawned the Civilian Conservation Corps as a top priority of his presidency.

Prince George's County, Maryland

CCC Men at Work
Prince George’s County, Maryland

As remarkable a feat as the full-scale mobilization for war less than nine years later, the CCC saved the lives of millions of young men and their families. It provides a lesson by which we could once again save the land, water, and people whom we treat today as if we are rich enough to squander them en masse.

Roosevelt knew and loved trees. He planted thousands of them on his Hudson River estate both for their beauty and as a cash crop. As governor of New York while the nation sank deeper into the Great Depression, he pioneered a work relief program of reforestation that he would expand to national scope as president.

Just two days after his inauguration on March 4, 1933, FDR called a meeting of top administration executives to discuss the formation of a civilian army for the purpose of land reclamation. Fifteen days later, he told Congress that even more important than forestry, soil conservation, and flood control would be the “moral and spiritual value of such work” for the men who performed it. Four months after he entered office, about 275,000 young men and veterans had enlisted in the new civilian army. They quickly built thousands of camps of two hundred men each around the country and in the territories.

Frederick County, Maryland

CCC Statue at Gambrill State Park
Frederick County, Maryland

CCC Cabin, Lost River State Park, West Virginia

CCC Cabin
Lost River State Park, West Virginia

Before its dissolution during World War II, about 3.5 million men passed through the CCC. The federal government paid them $30 a month (worth about $480 today), of which $25 was automatically routed to their families in order to buoy local economies in some of the country’s most distressed regions.

The CCC “boys” left a largely unseen legacy of vastly expanded and improved national, state, and regional parks; of lodges, bridges, roads, dams, trails, amphitheaters, and their signature fine stonework, much of which endures eighty years later. They planted entire forests now in their maturity. Instructors in the camps provided job training and educational opportunities upon which many of the men built careers. Veterans often remembered the CCC as salvational— and as the best years of their lives.

Bascom Lodge, Mount Greylock, Adams, Massachusetts

Bascom Lodge
Mount Greylock, Adams, Massachusetts

In today’s terms, the 3.5 billion trees the CCC planted sequestered millions of tons of carbon while conserving soil, water, and wildlife. At a time when climate change increasingly threatens life on the planet and so many young men and women have lost hope, we should remember who and what once worked. We have, after all, been drawing rich dividends on CCC labor ever since.

Congress to Postal Service: “Drop Dead!”

The fire sale of our post offices is accelerating while the media remain largely asleep at the wheel.

In July 2011, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) gave an exclusive contract to liquidate the public’s property to the giant commercial real estate firm C.B. Richard Ellis (CBRE), which also advises the Postal Service on which properties to sell.  It’s no surprise, then, that so many of the post offices listed for sale or already sold happen to be in expensive real estate markets like Santa Monica, Venice, Palo Alto and Berkeley in California; Greenwich, Connecticut; Towson and Bethesda in Maryland; Northfield, Minnesota; and New York City.

CBRE is effectively owned and chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband, billionaire private equity financier Richard Blum. If you visit the CBRE website devoted to marketing postal properties you will find no distinction between superb, historic post offices and blandly utilitarian processing facilities or vacant lots. For CBRE, it’s all simply real estate thrown into the same lucrative bin. A listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the presence of art works created during the New Deal only serve as impediments to moving those properties quickly.

The USPS seems only too happy to help with removing those obstacles. To get around historic preservation rules, for example, the USPS claims that it is not actually closing and selling the historic buildings that it is, in fact, closing and selling, but is simply “relocating services.”

Former Bethesda Post Office

Former Bethesda Post Office
Bethesda, Maryland, built in 1938.

New “consolidated” Bethesda post office

New “consolidated” Bethesda Post Office
Bethesda, Maryland, 2012.

These relocations mean the USPS will be paying millions of dollars in rent from which it is exempt in buildings it now owns. Further, it means trading ennobling public spaces for outlets in strip malls and Walmarts devoid of the aesthetic or historical merit in which the USPS once took pride.

The fire sale of the public’s portfolio is largely the result of legislation Congress passed in 2006 to effectively put the Postal Service out of business by requiring that it prepay billions to cover health benefits for its future employees—payments that no other government agency or business is required to make. For more than a year, the Postal Service has been seeking legislation that would allow it to reduce the $5 billion annually it must pay the U.S. Treasury, but Congress has failed to act. In September, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe warned that the Postal Service could be insolvent within the year. “Absolutely, we would be profitable right now,” he told The Associated Press, when asked whether congressional delays were to blame for much of the postal losses, expected to reach a record $15 billion this year.

To staunch the bleeding, some 3,700 post office properties are being studied for possible sale—often without public review or input. Attorneys for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in a lengthy letter to the USPS enumerated the many preservation and environmental laws that the agency appears to be ignoring in Berkeley and elsewhere. On October 22 a USPS representative curtly responded that the Trust’s request to be a consulting party was premature and its allegations were “not correct.”

In 1935, Stephen Voorhees, the president of the American Institute of Architects, wrote that the profession’s job was to “hold up before the people a high standard of excellence both in design and craftsmanship, utilizing for this purpose every aesthetic and technical resource of the nation, so that every citizen may have the opportunity of becoming familiar with good architecture, good painting and good sculpture.”

Edward Biberman's Venice Post Office Mural

Edward Biberman's Venice Post Office Mural
Despite community opposition, the USPS sold the Venice Post Office at 1601 Main Street to Hollywood producer Joel Silver. At a press conference closed to the public, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the L.A. Conservancy lauded Silver, the producer of the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon action films, for re-purposing the building for his film company. Silver is now seeking exclusive rights to the post office lobby mural, “Story of Venice,” completed in 1941 by Edward Biberman. Biberman, who died in 1986, was himself a champion of public murals. The Coalition to Save the Venice Post Office is fighting for public access to the mural.

America’s historic post offices are unique in their variety and quality as well as in the public art that make them the People’s Art Gallery. Without the magnificent post offices built during the New Deal and before, Voorhees said, “there would be a distinct loss to the spiritual and patriotic relationship between the citizen and the government if its activities were carried on in bare warehouses without architectural significance or dignity and constructed as cheaply and as shoddily as the average speculative structure.”

The sell off and relocation of the post offices is the nightmare that Voorhees foresaw. Perhaps it is precisely to break that relationship between the citizen and government that our post offices are now regarded not as our shared legacy, but simply as surplus real estate to be liquidated.

For more on the loss of America’s post offices, why it is happening, and what you can do, visit http://www.savethepostoffice.com/

Shock Troops of Disaster

In addition to the economic calamity of Great Depression, in the 1930s the country was further beset by environmental catastrophes such as floods, hurricanes, drought and a Dust Bowl, much as it is today. But in addition to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the nation had something else then that it does not have in 2012 to deal with devastating storm events such as Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy.

WPA flood relief, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937

WPA flood relief, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937
WPA workers pile sandbags for flood protection.

WPA and CCC workers were trained in disaster aid and recovery. In the event of natural disasters, tens of thousands of men and women could be quickly moved to affected areas to supplement the National Guard and other emergency workers.

The Work Projects Administration produced an 11-minute documentary titled “Shock Troops of Disaster” that includes dramatic footage of the extraordinary damage caused by the epic 1938 storm in New England as well as the recovery effort by federal workers. It is well worth watching today. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it’s a vivid reminder of the vital role of federal government in disaster relief.

San Francisco Model Update

Chronicle reporter Carl Nolte’s article on the WPA-made model of San Francisco (see News post of Sept. 11, 2010) elicited a great deal of interest in and information on the 3-D map, including a number of suggestions of where it might go. We have followed up on the suggestions; our chief concern is that it be made available to the public with interpretative text explaining how the model and other relief maps were made by WPA and CCC workers and for what reasons. We also want to be assured that the model will be well cared for since another similar one was reassembled and installed at SF’s Laguna Honda Hospital in the 1980s but it has disappeared without a trace.

Among the feedback we got was that the NE quadrant of the city is still intact at UC Berkeley’s Wurster Hall where it has been used for environmental modeling for many years. Professor Peter Bosselman has been using the model for teaching purposes, saving all of the original blocks as the downtown has been transformed by post-war highrises.

If reassembled, the model could be restored to a freeze-frame of San Francisco c. 1930 when — because of the Great Depression — building largely stopped.  Unfortunately, Prof. Bosselman wants to continue to use a portion of the model, and the rest remains in storage at UC Berkeley.  We would prefer that it be on public view and there were some guarantee of its good-keeping by the university (which has a checkered record on such things — see our 2012 posts on the sale of the Sargent Johnson sculpture).

WPA model update
Northeast quadrant of San Francisco model at Wurster Hall

Northeast quadrant of San Francisco model at Wurster Hall

San Francisco District Agricultural Association Grounds - Daly City CA
Model stored at UC warehouse in 17 wooden crates

WPA model update
Section of model showing upper Glen Park & Diamond Heights undeveloped in 1940.

WPA model update
Reporter Carl Nolte examining his neighborhood on a section of the model