The New Deal Artists of the Monkey Block

The Montgomery Block in 1862

The Montgomery Block in 1862
The historic headquarters of San Francisco lawyers, financiers, writers, actors and artists.
Photo Credit: Public Domain

San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights Books has been a touchstone of the city’s Bohemian culture for decades, once argued that his North Beach neighborhood “should be officially protected as a ‘historic district’, in the manner of the French Quarter in New Orleans, and thus shielded from commercial destruction such as was suffered by the old Montgomery Block building, the most famous literary and artistic structure in the West until it was replaced by the Transamerica Pyramid.”

When the 4-story Montgomery Block was completed in 1853, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

Transamerica Pyramid

Transamerica Pyramid
The 48-story skyscraper replaced the Monkey Block
Photo Credit: Commons. Wikimedia.org

North Beach was then the “Barbary Coast” and teemed with brothels, dance halls, jazz clubs and saloons that accompanied the Gold Rush. Early on, 628 Montgomery Street held the offices of lawyers and financiers. Over the years, it housed an assortment of actors, artists and writers, including Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, George Sterling, and Emma Goldman. The Montgomery Block survived the earthquake and fire that destroyed much of the city in 1906. Though down-at-the-heel, it continued as a low-rent refuge through the Great Depression when as many as 75 artists and writers rented studios there for as little as $5 a week. The building was affectionately dubbed, “The Monkey Block.”

A number of artists at the Monkey Block got commissions from the federal government to paint the 26 murals at nearby Coit Tower—the first of hundreds of public art installations the New Deal would fund across the country. The political ferment that culminated in San Francisco’s General Strike in 1934 found expression in the murals, which delayed their public opening for fear of adding to the restiveness.

Edith Hamlin and Maynard Dixon

Edith Hamlin and Maynard Dixon 
The artists met at the Monkey Block where they had studios down the hall from one another. They worked together on Edith’s second Federal Art Project mural at Mission High School.
Photo Credit: Courtesy SUU.org

The artists would unwind at the bars and restaurants of the surrounding neighborhood. A favorite watering hole was the Black Cat Café, located a few blocks downhill from the Monkey Block. Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Ralph Stackpole, Maynard Dixon, Dorothea Lange, Benny Bufano, Sargent Johnson and William Saroyan were part of the vibrant community of artists the New Deal fostered. Harry Hopkins, administrator of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), famously defended employment programs for artists and writers. “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people,” he said. Though the wages were low, the federal art programs enabled artists not only to eat but to develop their craft, through their proximity to and collaboration with fellow artists.

In her oral history, artist Shirley Staschen Triest recalled the working relationships that emerged at the Black Cat Cafe,“…it was where you’d hear about jobs, if there were any for artists and writers…It was where you’d go because that’s where everything was happening.”

California Industrial Scenes, Coit Tower

California Industrial Scenes, Coit Tower
WPA Muralist John Langley Howard captured the restive mood of Depression-era workers.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FoundSF

Edith Hamlin, who, in addition to Coit Tower, painted murals at Mission High School, credited the WPA “as the beginning of my professional life as a muralist.” Sargent Johnson, whose sculptures adorn public spaces including what is now San Francisco’s Maritime National Historical Park, credits the WPA with his ability to continue as an artist. “The WPA was the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me an incentive to keep on working, where at the time things looked pretty dreary.” Fellow sculptor Benny Bufano summed it up, “WPA’s Federal Art Project laid the foundation of a renaissance of art in America. It has freed American art.”

The New Deal left a legacy of public art in post offices, schools and public buildings. Once the gloom of the Depression lifted, many who had worked for the federal art programs went on to be some of the most important American artists of the 20th century.

Plaque

Plaque 
The former site of the Monkey Block is a California Historical Landmark.
Photo Credit: Public Domain

Fostered by the New Deal, the community that came together at The Monkey Block offers a vivid and inspirational example that, if replicated, could again buoy the lives of artists, writers and performers and perhaps even lead to a new renaissance in American art.

Despite a movement to preserve it, the Monkey Block was demolished in 1959. The neighborhood’s rough-and-ready reputation was much diminished once the TransAmerica skyscraper rose from the rubble of what had for more than a century been a magnet for the city’s counterculture.

Come Home, America

Residential Street, Greendale, WI, 1939

Residential Street, Greendale, WI, 1939
A community planned by the Suburban division of the U.S. Resettlement administration
Photo Credit: Columbia.edu

Homelessness in the U.S. has become so normalized as to be accepted as a fact of life. The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that more than a half million people are without shelter on any given night. Public officials seem at loss to help the thousands now sleeping in our parks and city streets.

This was not always the case. In his “Second Bill of Rights” speech in 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt declared employment, education, housing and medical care as rights due every citizen— values that underpinned the New Deal and the humane policies they inspired.  

Drafting room, Washington D.C., 1936

Drafting room, Washington D.C., 1936
Architects with U.S. Resettlement Administration design plans for Greenbelt, MD
Photo Credit: Carl. M Mydans, Columbia.edu

Public housing was once thought of as being positive, radical, and hopeful—the product of a government optimistic about its ability to improve the lives of its poor and working-class families. Today, market-based solutions are touted as the answer to society’s problems. Developers may be required to dedicate a few affordable units in exchange for permits for their market-rate housing projects, but this does little to help low-income people. In fact, long-time residents are often displaced by the resulting gentrification.

When millions were displaced by the Dust Bowl and job loss during the Great Depression, the federal government made housing a priority. The Roosevelt Administration enlisted leading thinkers, collectively known as “housers.” These architects, designers and social scientists challenged barriers to housing for all.  

Catherine Bauer Wurster (1905-1964)

Catherine Bauer Wurster (1905-1964)
The foremost housing advocate of her generation and primary author of the landmark U.S. Housing Act of 1937, the nation’s first affordable housing legislation.
Photo Credit: Ced.berkeley.edu

Catherine Bauer was among the most influential, as author of a seminal book on government-supported housing in post-WWI Europe. In “Modern Housing,” Bauer argues for making decent housing a “public utility” and a basic right. Bauer was the primary author of the U.S. Housing Act in 1937 that provided federal subsidies to local public housing agencies to improve living conditions for low-income families. Bauer also worked with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which lowered financial barriers to home ownership. She promoted non-speculative housing owned by public agencies or nonprofit cooperatives and was a vocal advocate for racially integrated public housing at a time when Blacks and other minorities were excluded.

In 1933 about half of the nation’s home mortgages were in default. Millions had lost their homes and millions more were in danger of doing so. The Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration set about building public housing, while the Resettlement Administration relocated struggling urban and rural families to communities planned by the federal government.

Logan Fontenelle Homes

Logan Fontenelle Homes
PWA Public Housing Project, Omaha, Nebraska
Photo Credit: John Vachon, 1938

During this time, New Deal legislation brought home ownership into reach for many, creating a bridge to the middle class. The Home Owners’ Loan Act of 1933 helped those in danger of losing their homes. The National Housing Act of 1934 produced the Federal Housing Administration and the Federal Savings and the Loan Insurance Corporation; which raised housing standards and provided a system of mortgage insurance. The Housing Act of 1937 established the U.S. Housing Authority (USHA) to provide loans for low-cost housing projects. The G.I. Bill of 1944 provided low-interest home loans to war veterans.

In 1940, Bauer reported that 193 loan contracts had been approved between USHA and local authorities for 467 different projects to rehouse more than 150,000 families—some 650,000 people—and that 100,000 dwellings had been completed or were under construction.

WPA Poster

WPA Poster
Housing for Low-Income Families
Photo Credit: Cleveland Housing Authority

Other influential “housers “were landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, who worked for both the USHA and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) designing housing for migrant agricultural workers and Vernon DeMars, also with the FSA, who planned and designed affordable housing for thousands of wartime workers.

The “housers” emphasized affordability, quality construction and human-scale design in harmony with the environment.  Or, as, Eckbo put it, “What is good for the rich is good for the poor.”

With the US economy crushed by the coronavirus, homelessness is on the rise. The values expressed in FDR’s Second Bill of Rights have been sidelined, along with the social welfare policies they inspired. But, as the New Deal shows us, homelessness can be solved, given the political will to do so.

“Movements are not made by a handful of specialists,” Bauer concludes in “Modern Housing.”  Change would come only when Americans “demanded a positive program of good housing—not merely for some vague, hypothetical ‘slum-dwellers,’ but for themselves and their families.”

Neighborhood Gardens, St Louis, MO, 1936

Neighborhood Gardens, St Louis, MO, 1936
One of the first low-income housing projects funded by the PWA
Photo Credit: Courtesy St Louis Landmark Association

Watch: New Deal Housing Projects: Housing in Our Time (1930s ca) – CharlieDeanArchives / Archival Footage (20 min)

Anita Brenner: WPA Art Critic and Cultural Bridge-Builder

Portrait of Anita Brenner

Portrait of Anita Brenner
Brenner, an American born in Mexico, befriended many artists and activists.
Photo Credit: Tina Modotti, 1926

Born in Mexico in 1905, Anita Brenner, a Jewish American writer and intellectual, lived her life on both sides of the border.

Educated in Mexico and the U.S., Brenner explicated Mexican culture to Americans, offering an antidote to the biases that shape relations between the two nations to this day.

Brenner’s family left their home in Aguascalientes, Mexico, for Texas in 1914 to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution. After the war, Anita moved back to Mexico City on her own and was introduced into an international community of artists, refugees, and intellectuals living in the capital.

Idols Behind Altars

Idols Behind Altars
Brenner wrote several books and hundreds of articles about Mexican art and culture.

Returning to the U.S., she completed her doctorate in Anthropology at Columbia University in 1930. At age 24, she published Idols Behind Altars, the first study to document the artworks, styles, and artists of Mexico, from early indigenous peoples up to the Mexican Renaissance, in which many of her friends and partisans played a role.

Brenner was excited by the New Deal and its support for artists. She saw Mexican influence in the art emerging from the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. Like the Mexican artists whose work responded to the social inequity in that country, New Deal artists, too, reflected the lives and travails of ordinary people coping with the Great Depression.

The History of Mexico, 1929-1935, by Diego Rivera

This History of Mexico, 1929-1935
Rivera’s murals depicting the struggles of campesinos influenced artists of the WPA.
Photo Credit: Wikiart

WPA muralist George Biddle acknowledged Brenner’s influence on his work. “I had sucked to the pulp all the wisdom and scholarship of Anita Brenner’s Idols Behind Altars, so that I felt a certain sympathy and understanding of the ideology, the causal circumstances, the germination and the quick tropical flowering of the Mexican School,” he wrote.

Brenner discerned what she called the “New Deal spirit” in the work of the WPA artists. Of the celebrated painter Joe Jones, who then worked for the WPA, she wrote, “You can see it in his grin, in the pattern of his vigorous brush, in his truculent exuberance; you can see that he knows the future belongs to him,”

As an art critic, Brenner enthused that the WPA artists had “more skill, more freshness, and incomparably greater feeling” than the other graphic artists in a Brooklyn show.

She was not uncritical. She once described herself as a “best friend with sad news” in reviewing a WPA easel show that she said lacked “vigor and freshness.”

In an article for The Nation in 1934, Brenner cautioned artists working for the New Deal against the “safe isolation which capitalism develops, in various forms, to protect itself from the honest, invincible courage indispensable to great art.”

When the WPA faced budget cuts in 1936, she wrote, “we can almost take it for granted that the most important things that have happened in our arts these years are the achievements of the artists on the WPA projects.”

Society Freed Through Justice, 1936, by George Biddle

Society Freed Through Justice
The influence of Diego Rivera is evident in Biddle’s five fresco panels for the Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Brenner’s 1943 book, The Wind That Swept Mexico, The History of the Mexican Revolution, told, from a Mexican perspective, the struggles behind the civil war. It was her response to the version of events Americans got from their newspapers—particularly those owned by William Randolph Hearst, whose ownership of millions of acres of Mexican land was endangered by the Revolution.

Brenner later edited Mexico/this month, a magazine about the culture and history of the country she loved.

She died in car accident in Mexico in 1974, ending a prolific life that, for a time, bridged the persistent cultural divide across the Rio Grande.

 

We Demand, 1934 by Joe Jones

We Demand, 1934 by Joe Jones
The WPA painter embodied the “New Deal Spirit.”

 

Building Bridges, Not Walls
by Harvey Smith

Birdseye View, 1936

Birdseye View, 1936
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge under construction
Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Last November, following the election of Donald Trump, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution declaring the City’s commitment to values of multiculturalism and tolerance.

RESOLVED, That no matter the threats…,San Francisco will remain a Sanctuary City; we will not turn our back on the men and women from other countries who help make this city great, and who represent over one third of our population. This is the Golden Gate—we build bridges, not walls.

In that spirit, the Living New Deal will host “Building Bridges, Not Walls” two concurrent exhibitions featuring art and performance celebrating the role of immigrants in building the Bay Area’s bridges, and the unity these iconic structures represent.

Bridge workers on catwalk

Bridge workers on catwalk
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge
Photo Credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, both completed during the Great Depression, were designed by immigrants: Ralph Modjeski, a Polish immigrant, was chief engineer on the Bay Bridge. Leon Moisseiff, a Latvian immigrant, was the lead designer of the Golden Gate Bridge. Both bridges had been largely constructed by the children of immigrants, including legendary ironworker Al Zampa, whose parents came from Italy. Zampa was one of the first workers to survive a fall from the Golden Gate Bridge, making him a charter member of the Half Way to Hell Club, a fraternity of men who had fallen and landed in the bridge’s safety nets. Thirty-five men died working on the Bay and Golden Gate bridges.

A starting point for the exhibit is the twenty steel rivets that the Living New Deal obtained when the original Bay Bridge, which opened in 1936, was dismantled, having been replaced by a new eastern span.

Miss Berkeley, International Queen, and Miss Oakland hold a chain barrier to the bridge at the opening ceremony.

Miss Berkeley, International Queen and Miss Oakland
Opening of San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The themes of immigrants, diversity, and internationalism are symbolized by the bridges, that connect the Bay Area’s diverse communities and give the region its common identity.

In July, “Building Bridges, Not Walls,” a celebration of these bridges and the people who built them, will open at the History Center at San Francisco Main Library. A companion exhibit featuring Bay Area artists, photographers, and poets will be held at the historic Canessa Gallery in San Francisco’s North Beach.

For more information:  Harvey Smith [email protected]

Bridge worker Alfred Zampa

Bridge worker Alfred Zampa
Golden Gate Bridge 50th Anniversary
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

New Documentary on WPA Artist, Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong
“Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death.”

A film honoring the 105–year old artist Tyrus Wong recently premiered at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Tyrus attended! “Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death,” says Tyrus in the just released film.

From his early artistic work with Works Progress Administration (WPA) Tyrus went on to become the creative force behind the Walt Disney film, Bambi, and later, the classic Rebel Without a Cause. He designed sets and storyboards for Hollywood studios. His artistic work spanned greeting cards and popular pottery designs and, later in life, intricate and colorful Chinese kites. He once exhibited with Picasso.

Directed by Pamela Tom, the film begins with Tyrus’s emigration from China at age 9—he never saw his mother again. When he arrived in the U.S. he was detained for months at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay.

Support from his father enabled Tyrus to pursue his talent. Teachers at the well-known Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles further encouraged him, as did other WPA artists like Benji Okubo and Hideo Date. Tyrus produced watercolors, lithographs and murals for the Federal Art Project. As he tells it, his success was based on “luck and hard work.” His wife, Ruth, and their three daughters, also featured in the film, attest to Tyrus working late into the night.

Tyrus’s dedication to his art and soulful approach to life and family shine through in the film. His story is another example of a young artist nurtured by the WPA at critical period in their career. Watch for a screening in your area – http://tyruswongthemovie.com/screenings/.

A Call to Artists… Building Bridges: A New Concept for Bay Bridge Steel

What is the best way to honor the workers who made the original San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge?


What is the best way to honor the workers who made the original San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge?  SourceFine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2016

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, on New York City’s Roosevelt Island, is sited across the East River from the United Nations. Why not a memorial to New Deal workers and artists on Treasure Island in San Francisco where the U.N. was founded?

 

The San Francisco Arts Commission has announced plans to dedicate areas on Treasure Island to temporary installations of public art using steel reclaimed from the old San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.  A permanent installation honoring the city where the U.N. originated would serve to commemorate not only those who built the bridge, but all workers whose efforts restored America’s economy and spirit during the Great Depression. Those who found work with the various New Deal “alphabet soup” agencies enacted to provide jobs for millions of unemployed included San Francisco artists whose works enriched the public sphere. New Deal artists included many women and people who reflect our region’s multicultural diversity.

 

Treasure Island is in direct sight line of Coit Tower (home to 27 New Deal-era murals depicting life in California) and is the site of the Art in Action program at the second year of the 1939 World’s Fair, where Diego Rivera and WPA artists worked and interacted with the public.

 

Bay Bridge steel could be used with other media, like the enameled mural on steel depicting the 1934 general strike across from the Rincon Annex Post Office or like the photographs and text on onyx of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Memorial across from the Ferry Building. Artists might interpret the multiple legacies of the memorial with images and quotes from the workers, artists or writers of the period.

 

This is a unique opportunity for San Francisco. The materials are available, and there are many artists capable of taking up this challenge. There are arts and civic-minded funders who could get behind this concept. It only needs broad public exposure to spark the creative synergy to make it a reality.

 

One possible funding source for this project is through the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, which is seeking proposals for art installations, public sculptures, projects and performances between January and December, 2016.

 

For more information visit Bay Bridge Steel, or contact Harvey Smith at 510-684-0414 and [email protected].

Memories of Photographer Rondal Partridge (1917-2015)

Ron Partridge

Ron Partridge
Bedford Gallery Exhibition, 2010
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Ron Partridge was still working in his Berkeley, California, dark room well into his 90s. This brought his life full circle. Ron began his career in the darkroom, assisting his mother, photographer Imogen Cunningham. Ron went on to assist both Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange during the 1930s. Lange’s influence can be seen in Ron’s photographs for the National Youth Administration (NYA), a job that sent him throughout California chronicling the lives of young people on the brink of World War II.

Over the course of his long career as a photographer and filmmaker, Ron’s work embraced landscapes, people, objects, and architecture.

Photo of Dorothea Lange at work, 1936

Dorothea Lange, 1936
Photo of Dorothea Lange at work
Photo Credit: Rondal Partridge

In 2010, I co-curated an exhibit of New Deal art at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, California. I made a point of inviting the few living New Deal artists that I knew of. It was a short list: Photographer Rondal Partridge, sculptor Milton Hebald, and WPA and Disney artist Tyrus Wong, (now 104 years old!)

Ron and I drove to the opening reception in my classic Plymouth Valiant. He clearly appreciated the attention that he and his work received that night. I continued to visit Ron after that exhibition. He was always excited about his latest project. In recent years he focused on framing dried plants—preserving the unique quality of each specimen. They were studies in form, some in partial states of decay. He relished the second-hand frames he collected for this work.

Ron Partridge and Harvey Smith

Ron Partridge and Harvey Smith
New Deal art exhibition, Bedford Gallery, 2010
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Anyone who knew Ron knew that he had strong views, a sense of irreverence, and a wonderful sense of humor. Like others I’ve met who worked for the New Deal, Ron was infused with the spirit of that time—a social conscience, ingenuity, and a drive to create—seemingly indifferent to fame and fortune. Ron passed away on June 19. He and his New Deal generation will be missed.

Memories of Milton Hebald

Milton Hebald

Milton Hebald, WPA Artist
Milton said “I know how to pose.”
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

A man of style, dedicated to a life of art, Milton Hebald passed away in January at age 97. Although I had long heard about him from colleagues in New Mexico, I first met Milton at an exhibit of his artwork in Long Beach, California, in 2009. Many memorable conversations followed.

Milton was dedicated to reaching people through art in public places. He generously lent three of his bronze sculptures to an exhibition of WPA art I co-curated in 2010 at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek.

On his way to becoming a renowned sculptor, Milton won awards for his art as a child in New York City. He was the youngest student to enroll in the Art Students League. In the mid-1930s, Milton went to work for the WPA, teaching and producing public art.

He later put his artistic skills to work making models and casting metal in the defense industry during World War II. He was later drafted into the Army.

In the 1950s he won the Prix de Rome of the American Academy in Rome and with his wife, Cecille, began a half-century of living and working in Italy. After Cecille died he remarried and returned to New Mexico, and later moved to Southern California to be closer to his family.

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet
The sculpture is among of Hebald’s best known works.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Milton was known for celebrating the classic human form at a time when many of his contemporaries were moving into abstract art. Among his most recognized public works is the much-loved Romeo and Juliet sculpture in Central Park; the sculpture of James Joyce at his grave in Zurich, and the monumental Zodiac Screen he created for the iconic Pan American Terminal at JFK Airport in New York City. (The terminal is now demolished, but the sculptures are in storage).

Milton continued to work daily into his 90s, sculpting small terra cotta figures.  His sense of style was on display when I was photographing him next to one of these terracotta pieces. Striking a jaunty pose and a far off gaze, he commented, “I know how to pose.” During our last visit, a few months before he died, I watched him patiently instructing his great-granddaughter, Cecille, in drawing, while his granddaughter, Lara, looked on.

Milton’s memorial celebration last month in Culver City, California brought people together from across the country to extol the life and work of one of the last surviving WPA artists.

Dear Postal Service: Don’t Mess With Berkeley

Post Office Protest

Post Office Protest
Berkeley activists held demonstrations to save their post office.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Following a 3-year struggle that gained national attention, the United States Postal Service backed down from selling Berkeley, California’s historic downtown post office. Built in 1914, the massive Renaissance Revival-style building, which anchors the city’s New Deal civic center, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and houses New Deal murals and sculpture.

When the USPS announced plans to sell the building, the Living New Deal organized meetings that led to the formation of Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office. Teach-ins and demonstrations on the steps of the downtown post office encouraged the mayor and City Council to join the fight.

After months of public protest and meetings with Postal Service officials proved fruitless, the City and the National Trust for Historic Preservation filed a federal lawsuit seeking to require the USPS to conduct public hearings under environmental and historic-preservation laws before trying to sell the building. When confronted in court with multiple violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, the Postal Service told federal court Judge William Alsup that the post office was no longer for sale. The judge ordered a 42-day public notice of any pending sale or relocation of postal services, and will continue to monitor the USPS for five years. Therefore, future legal action challenging the USPS remains an option.

Berkeley’s successful showdown offers hope to other communities struggling to preserve their post offices and living wage jobs. But the losses continue to mount.

Demonstration to Save the Berkeley Post Office

Demonstration to Save the Berkeley Post Office
Ralph Nader speaking at a Berkeley Post Office rally.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Public protest failed to save Venice Beach, California’s post office, built by the WPA in 1939. A treasured local landmark, the 24,000-square-foot, Art Deco building houses a mural, “Story of Venice,” by artist Edward Biberman. To great fanfare, in 2012 the USPS sold the building to a film producer for $7.5 million. At the press conference the buyer assured the mayor and others assembled that the building would be preserved and its mural restored. The building now stands empty, covered with graffiti.

Conservatives in Congress have long pushed to privatize the post office. During the Nixon Administration, Congress abolished the U.S. Post Office Department and replaced it with the United States Postal Service, a corporate-like entity with an official monopoly on delivering mail in the United States. In 2007, Congress required that the Postal Service pre-fund 75 years of employee benefits. To avoid forced bankruptcy, the USPS began liquidating properties, often over the objections of local communities. The USPS identified some 600 properties, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, for possible sale. Many are on the National Register of Historic Places, and many were built by the Roosevelt Administration and contain New Deal artworks.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation investigated the USPS sell off. Its report to Congress was highly critical of the USPS and its exclusive contract with the real estate giant, CBRE, in which Richard Blum, husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, has a large interest.

Berkeley’s Congresswoman Barbara Lee has introduced The Moratorium on U.S. Historic Postal Buildings Act, but Congress has yet to act.

From the Gilded Age to the Digital Age:
The New Deal in Context

FDR stumping along the Jersey shore, 1932

FDR and farmers
FDR stumping along the Jersey shore, 1932
Photo Credit: Farm Security Administration

The New Deal, arguably one of the forgotten eras of U.S. history, grew out of earlier, also largely erased reform efforts. The Grange Movement’s roots are in the mid-19th century when, after the Civil War, Midwestern farmers organized to oppose the monopolistic railroads and grain elevator companies that charged exorbitant rates to move their crops to market. At its peak, the Grange Movement had over 850,000 members in several states.

By the late 1800s the Farmers’ Alliance, another populist movement, fought back the robber barons. It grew to three million members, spreading the gospel of farmers’ co-ops, conservation, and mutual aid through a network of some 40,000 lecturers and organizers. The movement eventually led to the Populist Party, which garnered well over a million votes in the national election in 1892. Its platform included nationalizing the telegraph, telephone, and railroads, a graduated income tax, and “postal savings banks,” a solution often cited for today’s struggling postal service.

As the Farmers Alliance waned at the end of the century, muckrakers exposed Gilded Age injustice and corruption. Teddy Roosevelt won the presidency as a “trustbuster.” His successor, Woodrow Wilson, oversaw passage of the progressive income tax.

Following World War I, Wall Street went off the speculative deep end, bringing on the Great Depression. FDR’s New Deal revived many ideas of the early Progressives, including those of FDR’s cousin, Teddy.

Political cartoon from the Gilded Age showing business controlling the government.

Oligarchy
Political cartoon from the Gilded Age showing business controlling the government.

Labor’s gains in the 1930s came out of FDR’s push for legislation requiring collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Act in 1935 gave workers the right to organize, providing a counterbalance to corporate power. Empowered, unions pressed for the progressive reforms that raised the standard of living for the middle class and provided some economic security to the elderly, disabled, and poor.  Both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were Grange members, and supported creation of a cooperative farm loan association to limit foreclosures. FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” speech in 1944 posited that all humans have inherent economic rights.

The country’s turn to the Right in the 1980s and neoliberal austerity ever since gave tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the needy. Free market economics unleashed deregulation and moved to privatize the public sector. Union membership has fallen precipitously—thanks in part to so-called “right-to-work-laws.”

Graduation Day protest

Student Debt
Graduation Day protest
Photo Credit: Nation of Change

There are signs of resistance. The American Postal Workers Union has formed Grand Alliance Save our Public Postal Service. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, local activists, and city governments have sued the U.S. Postal Service over the sale of historic post offices to private developers. And millions of young people saddled with student debt are beginning to demand relief.

As history has shown, these are how reform movements start, and how Americans can come together again to address the biggest wealth gap since the Gilded Age.