Happy belated Birthday, Dorothea Lange!

From the wonderful Garrison Keillor at the Writer’s Almanac comes this entry on New Deal documentarian Dorothea Lange, written on May 26, 2013. (You can see some of Lange’s incredible ouvre here on the web site of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.)

“It’s the birthday of documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895. She contracted polio when she was seven, and developed a permanent limp as a result. When she was 12, her father abandoned the family, so she dropped her middle name and adopted her mother’s maiden name. She studied photography at Columbia University, and then in 1918 she began to travel, selling her photographs as she went. She ran out of money by the time she got to San Francisco, so she settled there, opened a photography studio, and made a good living shooting portraits of the Bay Area’s upper class.

She began taking photographs of men on breadlines, striking workers, and the homeless during the Great Depression, to call attention to their plight, and she did indeed attract the attention of other local photographers. She was hired by the Resettlement Administration, which would later become the Farm Security Administration, to document the displacement of American farmers during the Dust Bowl years, and it’s her photo, “Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936” that is her most famous. Her camera gave us a vivid visual memory of the Great Depression even if we weren’t around to experience it.

She was hired by the War Relocation Authority during World War II to document the internment of Japanese Americans, but when she photographed Japanese-American children saying the Pledge of Allegiance shortly before they were sent to the camps, the Army felt the photographs were too critical of U.S. policy, and they were impounded.

She said: ‘One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind. To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable. I have only touched it, just touched it.’ “

From Shorpy.com: "Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, in California atop car with her giant camera. February 1936. "

Dorothea Lange, 1936
From Shorpy.com: “Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, in California atop car with her giant camera. February 1936. “

Raffling off Imperial San Francisco











We are happy to announce the winner of our raffle, held at the San Francisco History Expo on March 2-3, 2013. The Expo was a great opportunity to reach out to new friends and make new connections with people interested in the New Deal.

As part of our contribution to the San Francisco Historical Society, which hosted the event at the amazing Old Mint on Mission Street, we raffled off a copy of Gray Brechin’s Imperial San Francisco.

Alexis Gonzales was the happy winner — we met up with her at our Canessa Gallery New Deal art show at the next week. Alexis got a signed copy of the book, and talked with us about the New Deal, the role of organized labor in contemporary politics, and many other things. Thanks for supporting the Living New Deal, Alexis!!



A Time for a New Deal Museum!

Ruth Gottstein portrayed in Zakheim mural

Portion of Zakheim mural in Coit Tower
Ruth Gottstein portrayed in Zakheim mural

Exhibit: A Time for a New Deal Museum: Finding a Home for the New Deal’s Art, Architecture and Social Policy Treasures

**Opening Reception 5-8 PM  – Monday, March 11, 2013**

The Exhibit will be open all month – join us Monday for slideshow and discussion about the need for a permanent home for New Deal museum!

Throughout the month there will be several salons (discussion groups) focused on the New Deal and how to work towards making the museum concept come to life. Let us know if you’re interested in participating!

DATE: Mon. Mar 11th, 2013 – Sun. Mar 31st, 2013

LOCATION: Canessa Gallery, 708 Montgomery, San Francisco, CA
REGISTRATION: www.canessa.org

Brechin on the USPS: “The heart of the matter is The Public”

Journalist Dennis Bernstein sat down with Living New Deal Project Scholar Gray Brechin for a long interview on the fight to save the US Postal Service, as well as post office buildings and murals across the country. Put it together and it’s a battle to preserve public space and the public good.

We’re reprinting the beginning of the interview here; follow the link below for the full text.

Bernstein writes: “There is a growing grassroots movement to save the U.S. Postal Service from right-wing Republicans who want to privatize it and turn over its most lucrative pieces to the likes of Fed Ex and United Parcel Service. Fed Ex and privatizing advocates have lobbied Congress to make this happen.

“Dennis J. Bernstein spoke with Dr. Gray Brechin, project scholar for the Living New Deal at the University of California, Berkeley. Brechin  is engaged in the effort to save the U.S. Post Office as a public trust, as well as the people’s art commissioned as a part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Bronx Post Office, New York. The structure is among thousands threatened by the privatization regime.

New Deal murals by Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson Shahn
Bronx Post Office, New York. The structure is among thousands threatened by the privatization regime.

“DB: I want to read a little bit from this a piece that you blogged in the middle of last year about this: ‘Thousands of post offices stand to be converted to condos, restaurants, real estate offices or demolished to cover the Postal Service’s largely manufactured deficit.  Those that rely on the Post Office are protesting the disappearance of this still vital public service but few have registered what this fire sale represents to the nation’s architectural and artistic legacy…’

“….and I guess that’s the door we’re going to come in, Gray Brechin. It’s really one of the remaining peoples’ institutions, if you will.  And so maybe you can give us just a little bit of history about how the Post Office evolved and why we need a Post Office when we’ve got the Internet.

“GB:  Well, I never imagined I’d be getting into Post Office studies but I sort of got sucked into it because in the last ten years I’ve been studying the New Deal. We’ve been inventorying and mapping it and it got me thinking about The Public, in general.  Because what I realized is what the New Deal was, it was a huge expansion of the idea of The Public, or if you like, the commonwealth. That is what we all own. And very often — as with the Post Office — it’s what we’ve paid for. What our parents and our grandparents paid for and built.

“But it also got me interested in the war against the New Deal, against Franklin Roosevelt, and I realized it’s been going on for thirty to forty years. And it really gained strength under President Reagan who was sort of the anti-Roosevelt, you know.  Equally as charismatic but to opposite ends.

“And what happened was that these neoliberals, as we now call them, and libertarians began taking over under Reagan. And in 1986 they came up with something called ‘Starve the Beast.’ That came out of the White House. First off, it’s interesting that you would refer to your government as, The Beast. You know that’s a great way to begin distancing people from it, and seeing it as the enemy rather than as us. And Reagan was very good at that. But the idea behind Starve the Beast was that you deliberately bankrupt your government through tax cuts and tax shifts; that is, shifting from progressive to regressive taxes.

“You do this over a long period of time, it’s a long march through the institutions and in doing that you can actually get rid of The Public. And you can actually make a very nice profit from doing so as you privatize what was the commons and take it away from the public that paid for and built it. And that’s essentially what’s happening with the Post Office.

“I’ll tell you another thing that happened because what’s happening to the Post Office is linked to what’s happening to public education, public parks, etc. In the 1990s, I was teaching geography and I gave a tour of the San Francisco Presidio, which was just being transferred from the Army to the Park Service at that time. And as I was taking the students into a building, one of the new rangers took me aside and said ‘Watch this very carefully.’ He said, ‘No other national park has been required to turn a profit.’ He said, ‘This is the entering wedge for what they are going to do to the national parks.’

“And sure enough, what happened was that the Presidio Trust which is appointed by the President is mostly real estate people. So the Presidio serves as a kind of model for what could happen to the other national parks, particularly if we go off the fiscal cliff and there’s no money to operate them anymore. And that’s essentially what happened to the Post Office. In 2006, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act was passed by Congress, a paid Congress I might add, paid by UPS and Fed Ex and Pitney Bowes and other companies.   …”

Read the full interview here.

Update: Watch Us Grow!

2012It’s been an incredible year! The Living New Deal map, which is the centerpiece of our website, has expanded dramatically, thanks to new volunteers in Virginia, Wisconsin, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas, and Mississippi.  In Virginia, our research team is identifying New Deal sites in the New River Valley and on the Virginia Tech campus, like the majestic Burruss Hall.

In Maryland, our research director Brent McKee spent weeks at the National Archives helping us map the New Deal in Washington, DC.  We continue to seek volunteer researchers around the country.  This winter we welcomed our first Living New Deal cartography interns who are working to create a variety of artistically rendered New Deal maps, starting with New Deal sites in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Living New Deal is active and evolving. We’ll be unveiling a new home page soon. We hope that our expanding website will host a national conversation about New Deal topics. Check us out and let us know what you think. You can trace the growth of our New Deal map here.

The goal of the Living New Deal remains simple, yet ambitious—mapping the New Deal from coast to coast. Whether you’re curious about a mural or a building in your hometown, or want to join the growing chorus calling for a renewed expansion of public investment, we welcome your involvement and support.

We need your help: we are actively seeking financial support to make the continued growth of the project possible. Your donations are tax deductible. No donation is too small; please be in touch with us if you have connections at foundations or friends with the ability to donate significant funds.

New Deal Archeologies: The Old Los Angeles Zoo

The landscapes we walk through every day are laden with New Deal structures; it’s not uncommon to “discover” long forgotten New Deal sites hidden from plain sight. One of our friends in Los Angeles was walking through LA’s Griffith Park recently and discovered the ruins of the Old Los Angeles Zoo. The zoo was active from 1912 to 1965. County relief workers, hired through the WPA, fortified the site with new walls, murals and other projects in the 1930’s. Old LA Zoo Sign

We added the zoo immediately to our map, you can look at the page we’ve devoted to it here.  Hint: Click on the main photo, then hover your mouse over the photo. You should see an arrow that you can use to scroll through all of the zoo photos. We love getting submissions for the map. Send us yours!

“Greendale: A Planned Community in the Great Depression”

From Living New Deal intern Erin TerBeek comes this nice piece on Greendale, one of the New Deal resettlement towns. Erin wrote the article for the Express Milwaukee where she writes regularly:

“Combining city and nature—affordable homes, ample parks and gardens, schools and commercial centers within walking distance—was the idea for Greendale, Wis. A community planned by the government during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Greendale was one of three ‘Garden Cities.’

During President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, the federal government allocated billions of dollars to government agencies through a program called the New Deal. With the idea of pushing America out of what was a crippling economic depression, The New Deal created projects to put Americans back to work while improving infrastructure.

In 1936, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the ‘Greenbelt Towns’ project with New Deal funds. Three towns were chosen to create communities with affordable housing near schools and areas of commerce, yet also filled with the beauty of nature through numerous parks and gardens. Located outside of large cities, these towns were intended to combine the best parts of living in a city and living in the country. Greendale, Wis., Greenhills, Ohio, and Greenbelt, Md., became the three chosen communities.

Built on approximately 3,400 acres of old farmland, the planned community of Greendale saw its first tenants on April 30, 1938. The town consisted of 366 homes—with large tracts of green space and in a variety of forms: single family, multi-family and row houses—creating 572 living spaces. Greendale also included a village hall, businesses, a theater, a tavern, a volunteer fire station, schools, a newspaper and a community market.

In 1949, the Public Housing Administration gave residents the chance to purchase the homes.  Many in the community did buy their homes, and in 1952, almost all transfer of ownership to the community was complete.

Greendale, Wis., is now on the state and federal register of historic places, since many of the original homes still exist. Michelle Obama recently marked Greendale as a ‘Preserve America Community,’ part of a federal program that encourages and supports efforts to preserve our cultural and historical heritage, which should keep Greendale on the map for many years to come. ”  [From the Express]


Abdul-Jabbar and New Deal Art

In 2009 the LA Times did a little feature on the National Endowment for the Arts, the fate of which was under debate as conservatives attacked its relevance in the latest iteration of the Obama stimulus package. The Times asked the hoi polloi of Hollywood what they would do if they took over the NEA. Basketball hero Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and actor Bill Pullman both talked about the way that New Deal art programs blended civic worth with aesthetics. Check out what they had to say:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, top all-time scorer in the NBA (also an actor and author): “I’ve been asked what I would do if I were in charge of the NEA. Given that times have taken on a very strong resemblance to the New Deal, I would try to emulate one of the very successful programs from that era. During the 1930s, American artists were hired by the WPA and other agencies to help beautify America in conjunction with many Public Works projects. Thousands of artists, sculptors, landscapers, filmmakers, musicians and writers were involved in using their crafts to help beautify America. The Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers’ Project, and the Historical Records Survey were the vehicles that made this possible. Many of their contributions are still with us and have become a special part of America’s cultural landscape. Someone who understands how all this came about would be the perfect person to help make it possible to again create jobs for America’s artists and craftsmen.”

Bill Pullman, actor (Independence Day, Sleepless in Seattle, and many others): “The $50 million for the NEA is tacked on, and — when fed into the existing pipeline — will disappear like water on fresh pavement. These projects have to be visible and bold in their impact on our national psyche in the next year. We don’t have time to address fears of becoming labeled (socialist, Maoist, etc.), but we need the stiff hit of a new aesthetic playing through some focused creativity to kick us into new models of who we are. Brand the use of this little pile of money and call it ‘Fresh Approach.’ Decree that the projects will go to individuals, not institutions. The individuals’ projects must be their response to: How can I be of service to the common good of our citizens? The aesthetic of the art of the New Deal was the answer to a question of who we are. It can still be seen in murals in post offices, travel books by unexpected authors, and our use of terms for theater like ‘living newspaper.’ The actual look of the aesthetic of ‘Fresh Approach’ can’t be predicted now, but it should give us a caffeine jolt for the huge national endeavor we are beginning that will restate who we are to the world.”

KQED Mobile App to Feature New Deal Art

In one segment of KQED’s “Let’s Get Lost” the Living New Deal’s Gray Brechin talks about New Deal artists who chose to use their platform to shine light on the difficult stories of the day — like this one, on the stock market crash.

Public radio and television producers over at KQED in San Francisco are branching out into the world of mobile applications. One part of the KQED app. “Let’s Get Lost,” was produced in consultation with Living New Deal founder Gray Brechin. It will feature the Coit Tower Murals, which were the first works of art done under the aegis of the New Deal. We’ll have more information soon when this “mobile storytelling program” is closer to completion. Here’s the scoop, from Protect Coit Tower:


Under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, KQED-TV will soon be launching an exciting new multi-media project to promote education and awareness about the Coit Tower murals and other New-Deal era artworks in San Francisco.  Entitled New Deal Murals of San Francisco, the KQED project will feature free iphone and smart phone apps with original audio and video walking tours containing new information and interviews with historians about the Coit Tower murals and other New Deal art around San Francisco.  

As the very first publicly funded New Deal art project, the 27 Coit Tower murals (23 frescoes and 4 oil paintings) and the 25 master artists who created them between January and June of 1934 will receive special attention and exploration as part of the KQED project.  Part of KQED’s “Let’s Get Lost” mobile storytelling program, the New Deal Murals of San Francisco will help visitors and locals alike to better explore the history of some of the city’s New Deal-era murals within the dynamic social and political context of the 1930s.  

The KQED project is now in the final stages of completion and expected to launch within the next two months.  As of us dedicated to celebrating and protecting Coit Tower for generations to come are very much looking forward to it.”