April 2021

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

A Place of Pilgrimage

Little White House, Photo Credit: Courtesy Commons.Wikimedia.org

On April 12, 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt died of a stroke while at the Little White House at Warm Springs, Georgia. He was 63. During his twelve years as president, FDR sought rest and renewal at a modest 6-room cottage near the therapeutic waters that relieved the symptoms of his polio. He credited this time at Warm Springs as the inspiration for his New Deal programs to alleviate rural poverty. 

The Little White House is today a National Historic Landmark and a place of pilgrimage, receiving more than 100,000 visitors a year. John Kennedy visited during his 1960 campaign for president. Jimmy Carter opened his presidential campaign here in 1976. Joe Biden chose Warm Springs as a final stop during his 2020 presidential run. “This place, Warm Springs, is a reminder that though broken, each of us can be healed,” Biden said. “That as a people and a country, we can overcome this devastating virus, that we can heal a suffering world, and yes, we can restore our soul and save our country.”

Watch: Newsreel, the Funeral of FDR, April 12, 1945 (2:40 minutes)

In this Issue:

Rekindling The Federal Writers’ Project

Birds of the World

Birds of the World
A New York City WPA Federal Writers’ Project book.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

I’ve been writing a lot about the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) lately: articles, a play of sorts, more than a thousand emails to politicians, editors and various keepers of the New Deal flame. Miraculously, after all this badgering, the office of Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) has now drafted a bill to reinvent the Project.  

Hundreds of millions of Americans today have no idea that anything like the federally funded Writers’ Project even existed. From 1935 to 1943 the FWP produced well-written, still-delightful guide books to 48 states, most major cities and U.S. territories. It also recorded oral histories of Americans from coast to coast—including Zora Neale Hurston’s groundbreaking interviews with formerly enslaved people.  Writers as diverse as John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow and Richard Wright got their starts on the Project. 

Poster for Federal Writers' Project

Poster for Federal Writers' Project
Advertising “American Guide Series” volume on Illinois.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

I’ve been buttonholing people and rhapsodizing about the FWP for almost a year now. I can make the case for a reinvented FWP til I’m blue in the face, but I’m really only trying to convince to convince 536 people—federal legislators to pass the bill, and President Biden to sign it. Some of those marks will be pushovers. The rest could be murder. 

Plainly, these people may or may not care what I write in a national publication. But they damn well care about what their constituents think of them. They have to if they want to keep their jobs. Which is where, I hope, you come in. If you’re game, I ask you to write a letter or email on behalf of a reinvented Federal Writers’ Project to your member of Congress and/or senator. If you’re feeling frisky, throw in a local or statewide news outlet, too. 

This is asking a lot, I know. These days, somehow, we’ve all got so much unstructured time that it feels like we have none at all. But believe me, coming from you, letters like these will be read, and they will count.

I’ll even give you some free ammo. The librarians of Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, heaven bless them, have aggregated this list of links. to online versions of all but a few of the original WPA Guides.

American Guide Week

American Guide Week
WPA Writers’ Projects describe America to Americans.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

If you haven’t spent much time with the American Guide to your own state or city, I urge you to dive in. While you’re at it, flag a passage or two that you think the readers of your letters might appreciate. And if ransacking the entire 700-page California Guide, for example, strikes you as daunting, by all means consult this indispensable treasury of good WPA writing culled from all the state guides. However you do it, when you write your letters, quote from a passage or two from an original guide. This will help to make the original FWP come alive on a regional level for people who don’t know the first thing about it—and if you feel like it, by all means loop me in.

If you know the city or town where your recipient lives, you might consider including a relevant passage as a grace note. If you’re writing to a member of Congress, you might cite an especially lyrical or wry description or passage about their district. If you’re writing to a newspaper editor, maybe send an anecdote about some crusading frontier journalist in their vicinity who got themselves horsewhipped for their trouble. 

For instance, check out this nugget from the California Guide:

“Sebastian Vizcaíno, merchant-explorer, sailing into the bay in 1602, named it Monterey … and described it in such superlatives that those who came after him could not recognize it for 167 years.”

American Guide Seires

American Guide Series
WPA guide to the Golden State, history and culture, tours and trails, recreational facilities.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

Authorship of the guide was maddeningly anonymous, but that line could well have come from the California poet Kenneth Rexroth or the feminist writer Tillie Olsen, who worked in the FWP’s California office. Whoever wrote it, Congressman Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel) would probably get a big kick out of it.

Regardless of your state or the WPA guide you quote, make sure your reader understands that a new Federal Writers’ Project would be—like the original—a job-creation initiative. It would provide good, well-paying hard work for idle college graduates and laid-off workers (some of them journalists—but you can leave that part out.)  

During its nearly eight-year run, the original FWP provided jobs for about 700 professional writers, editors and—not the least important job description nowadays—fact-checkers. In addition to the professionals, the original FWP also employed about six thousand destitute men and women who could, maybe, put a sentence together, but had zero related work experience when hired. 

And yet, beyond its social and economic benefits, the most important goal of reviving the Federal Writers’ Project right now may be to help reintroduce a divided country to itself. 

You’ll be urging your readers to create a candid, empathetic modern equivalent to the original guides—written and edited by some of their own constituents and drawing on interviews with their neighbors. If it helps, picture your senator or member of Congress handing out these guides to office visitors like cigars. (If the eventual published guides provide too candid a picture of your region, by then it will be too late). 

Untitled, possibly Main Street of Twin Falls Idaho

Untitled, possibly Main Street of Twin Falls, Idaho
According to the Idaho State Guide, this town had the unusual distinction of being planned.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

The New Deal is alive and the Living New Deal proves it. The Federal Writers’ Project lives on, too—in the American Guides, in the works of the great writers it launched and sustained, and in its priceless oral histories—an art form that the Project more or less invented. 

Co-religionists, it’s up to each of us to demand the resurrection of the Federal Writers’ Project. If America needed it then, we sure as hell need it now.

You can find your member of Congress at https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative. You can find your senator at https://www.senate.gov/senators/senators-contact.htm.  You can find your local opinion editor at their newspaper or radio station’s website. But hurry. The news desert you irrigate may be your own.

Former book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle David Kipen served as Director of Literature for the National Endowment of the Arts under both Democratic and Republican Administrations. He teaches at UCLA and runs Libros Schmibros, the nonprofit bilingual storefront lending library he founded ten years ago. His books include Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542-2018 (Modern Library) and introductions to the WPA Guides to California, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego (UC Press). His work has appeared in the New York Times, Alta and the L.A. Times, where his May 20, 2020, feature helped gin up interest in reinventing the Federal Writers’ Project: . He’s also working on the California Creative Workforce Act, SB 628. He can be reached at [email protected].

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.


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.

Harvey Smith is an advisor to the Living New Deal.