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Gray Brechin


After working as a journalist and television producer covering environmental and urban issues in San Francisco, Gray Brechin received his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of California in 1998. The following year, the University of California Press published his dissertation as Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin and (with Robert Dawson) Farewell, Promised Land: Waking from the California Dream. His increasing concern is the diminution and theft of the public domain. He lives in Berkeley and Inverness, California.

I came late to a meeting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but when I did so, I found among the many qualities I admired in our 32nd president that of his affinity for land. Eleanor Roosevelt claimed that from her husband she had learned to observe from train windows: “He would watch the crops, notice how people dressed, how many cars there were and in what condition, and even look at the wash on the clothes lines.” Yet he was no passive observer, she said: “When the CCC was set up, he knew, though he never made a note, exactly where work of various kinds was needed,” thus setting millions of destitute men to work redeeming past mistakes to the land as well as those of an economic nature for which they were not to blame. “Franklin saw geography clearly,” concluded Eleanor.

I received my B.A. in geography and history in 1971 and my Ph.D. in geography in 1998, all from U.C. Berkeley. In between, I also obtained an M.A. in art history from the same university, then worked as architectural historian for the Foundation for San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage, and served as the first director of the Mono Lake Committee. As a journalist and television producer in San Francisco during the 1980s, I covered urban design and environmental issues, lecturing and teaching extensively on land use issues. Following a winter sojourn in Venice in 1985, my interests turned to the long-term environmental impact of great cities upon their hinterlands, culminating in a doctoral dissertation. Published by the University of California Press in 1999 as Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, that study spent sixteen weeks on the San Francisco Chronicle best seller list and is now frequently used as a college textbook.

As winners of the 1992 Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize given by Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, photographer Robert Dawson and I collaborated during the go-go 1990s on a study of California’s environmental health. We never anticipated until well into the project that our work would necessarily reveal the deteriorating conditions of California’s public sector, but we found that we could not ignore in our extensive travels about the Golden State the widespread and growing evidence of poverty, ignorance, crime, fear, and violence that are all symptoms of communal contraction and collective disenfranchisement. The University of California Press published Farewell, Promised Land: Waking from the California Dream in 1998, by which time Bob and I had come to see our book as news from an alien land, one in which we had both grown up but whose promise had become almost as unrecognizably distant to millions of our fellow citizens as to those “forgotten men” and women who were the subjects of Dorothea Lange’s photographs and Paul Taylor’s writings during the Great Depression.

Fortunately for that previous generation, those men and women were not forgotten by a cadre of compassionate visionaries swept into Washington by the Crash of ‘29, chief of whom was one who “saw geography clearly.” Bob and I — and colleagues such as teacher Harvey Smith and Professor Bob Leighninger — came to understand that embedded within the outward geography we saw and Bob photographed lies hidden another which we inherited from that earlier age, a public landscape whose rich harvest we unwittingly enjoy and rely upon today. In measuring that invisible landscape of the past against the disappearance of the public sector in our own time, we found what we believe may be an exit from the moral and fiscal impasse in which America — and the world — now finds itself.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were people of faith in times as perilous as our own. “In these days of difficulty,” candidate Roosevelt proclaimed in 1932, “we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice, the path of faith, the path of hope and the path of love toward our fellow men.” When others sought to divide Americans by reminding them of their differences and resentments, Roosevelt brought them together by invoking their commonalities, their potential for growth, and their mission as children of the Enlightenment. It is our job to reveal the message that Roosevelt’s legions of workers indelibly inscribed upon our land, a message whose true import for our own time we have yet to read.

Living New Deal. Still Working for America.