Fall 2014

New Deal in Prime Time

Volunteers from around the country have been sending us their New Deal discoveries at an unprecedented rate. We can barely keep up! Our website has grown to 7,000 New Deal sites and is expanding every day. Our team, too, is expanding—helping to spread the word about what America achieved in hard times and why we need a New Deal today. Millions of people will soon learn more about the New Deal and the vision of government that inspired it. Ken Burns’s new documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” premieres on PBS on September 14. We’ll be watching.  Your generosity keeps us going. We gratefully welcome your tax-deductible donations to the Living New Deal.

In this Issue:

“The Roosevelts” Premieres on PBS

FDR, The RooseveltsKen Burns’s new documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” premieres on PBS on Sunday, September 14 and runs consecutive nights through September 20. The 7-part series interweaves the stories of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

“The Rising Road, 1933-1939,” which airs on Thursday, September 18, focuses on the New Deal, FDR’s massive response to the Great Depression that put millions of people back to work and transformed the relationship of Americans to their government.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Greets Farmers

Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt Greets Farmers
FDR with people hard hit by the Depression

Years in the making, “The Roosevelts” chronicles the relationships and personal struggles that shaped the lives of arguably the most influential family in American history. Their legacy includes the National Parks, the Panama Canal, the New Deal, and victory in World War II, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s work for civil and human rights in the postwar years following FDR’s death.

Ken Burns’s award-winning documentaries include the Civil War, Jazz, Prohibition, Baseball, the Dust Bowl, and National Parks. Burns’s co-writer on “The Roosevelts,” Geoffrey C. Ward, is an authority on FDR, an interest that grew, in part, from the fact that Ward, like FDR, had polio.

“The Roosevelts have played significant roles in other stories we’ve told before, from the National Parks to World War II,” says Burns. “It’s impossible, in fact, to visit many parts of the American experience without encountering their presence.”

“They each shared a passionate belief that America is at its strongest when everyone has an equal chance. And on a personal level, they each struggled to overcome their own fears while maintaining a public face of courage.”

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

Curtis Roosevelt Joins Board

New Advisory Board member

Curtis and Mariana Roosevelt
Curtis and Marina Roosevelt at their home in Southern France

The Living New Deal is delighted to announce that Curtis Roosevelt, eldest grandson of Franklin and Eleanor, has joined our Advisory Board.  Curtis has written many essays about his grandparents and his experiences as a boy in the White House. A memoir, Too Close to the Sun: Growing Up in the Shadow of My Grandparents, Franklin and Eleanor, was published in 2008.  Curtis holds a master’s degree from Columbia University and worked as an administrator at the New School for Social Research and Columbia. He also held posts at the United Nations and was head of Dartington College of Arts in England.  He is happily retired and living in southern France with his wife, Mariana.

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

Bronx Post Office Sold to Developer

Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson Mural at the Bronx Post Office

Ben Shahn Mural at the Bronx Post Office
“America at Work” is one of thirteen murals in the Bronx post office

Despite vigorous protest by the public and public officials, the Bronx General Post Office has been sold. Valued at $14 million, the building reportedly was sold to Korean developer Young Woo & Associates for an undisclosed sum. The U.S. Postal Service has not made an official announcement about the sale and has declined to provide details.

“The United States Postal Service has sold one of the Bronx’s most important community and historic treasures in a completely irresponsible manner,” Bronx Congressman Jose Serrano said. “The USPS has disregarded the voices of the Bronx community, elected officials, historic preservationists, and their own employees—all of whom opposed this process and this sale.”

In 2013 the Postal Service announced its intention to sell the massive Bronx Post Office in order to “right-size our retail operation into smaller leased space,” according to Joseph Mulvey, a real estate specialist for the Postal Service.

The Bronx General Post Office

The Bronx General Post Office
Built in 1935, the Bronx post office is the largest of twenty-nine Depression-era post offices in New York City

The four-story Moderne Bronx Post Office was built in 1935 as part of a Treasury Department program to employ out-of-work architects, artisans, and artists. It is one of more than a thousand post offices constructed during FDR’s presidency. At 175,000 square-feet, it is the largest of twenty-nine Depression-era post offices in New York City.

Two sculptures by Charles Rudy and Henry Kreis adorn the outside of the massive building. The lobby contains thirteen murals, entitled “America at Work, painted in 1937 by American artists Ben Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson. Shahn (1898-1969), a prolific artist, is known for his works of social realism. His works appear in several government buildings in Washington, D.C. and are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of the City of New York.

The Postal Service has faced severe criticism of its disposal of its historic properties, many of which contain artworks intended for the public that paid for them. Last year the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the lobby of the Bronx Post Office and its murals a historic landmark to give them some protection in the event of a sale.

Exterior of the Bronx Post Office

Exterior of the Bronx Post Office
Charles Rudy and Henry Kreis sculptures decorate the landmark building

The U.S. Postal Service receives no public funds, yet in a push to privatize the agency, Republicans in Congress enacted legislation in 2006 requiring the U.S. Postal Service to prepay 75-years of benefits to postal workers within ten years. Without that $5.6 billion prepayment, the USPS would have made a profit of over $600 million last year.

Postal officials have insisted that they must sell thousands of post offices in order to fix the cash-strapped agency. Local opposition to the sale of many post offices led Congress to appoint the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) to look into the matter. In April 2014 the Council recommended  that the Postal Service refrains from selling historic post offices until it improves its program and procedures.

The international real estate firm CBRE has the exclusive contract to sell “surplus” post office properties. Until recently, the chairman of the board of CBRE was Richard Blum, the husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein. Blum stepped down as chairman in May, but continues to be a major stockholder. The USPS Inspector General is looking into whether CBRE may be selling postal facilities to its partners at below-market prices at the Postal Service’s expense. Young Woo & Associates, the Korean developer that purchased the Bronx Post Office has done several deals with CBRE. According to Save the Post Office, CBRE CEO Robert Sulentic also serves on the board of directors of Staples, where a pilot program has been underway to see if the Postal Service could cut costs by outsourcing retail services to big box stores.

“It’s not clear why the Postal Service is so reluctant to share information about the sale of the Bronx Post Office, what it sold for, what the plans are, or where the postal retail operation is relocating,” says NYU professor Steve Hutkins, whose Save the Post Office https://www.savethepostoffice.com/search website has been bird-dogging the sell off of the nation’s post offices. Save the Post Office, among the many organizations objecting to the sale. In April, a coalition of elected officials that included New York Mayor Bill De Blasio and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer urged that the sale be put on hold. Congressman José Serrano introduced legislation to halt the sales until the Postal Service implements the ACHP recommendations. Hundreds of concerned citizens and postal workers turned out at a public hearing to oppose the sale.

Because the USPS will divulge nothing about the sale of its public property, its fate and that of its great murals remains unclear.

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

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. 


Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

Documenting the New Deal

Evan Kalish at Pointe-a-La-Hache, Louisiana Post Office

Evan Kalish at Pointe-a-La-Hache, Louisiana Post Office
Volunteer Evan Kalish has documented over 6,000 Post Offices

Evan Kalish is not one to shy away from a challenge.  A Living New Deal volunteer, Evan, 27, has added 1,200 New Deal projects to the Living New Deal’s online database—“wherever I saw some gaps in the Living New Deal map,” he explains.

A native of Queens, New York, Evan has photographed nearly 6,000 post offices throughout the country, as well as more than five hundred New Deal projects—from post offices and New Deal artworks to school buildings, libraries, town halls, parks, courthouses, and any other project he can get a geographic fix on.

“My favorite New Deal projects are post offices constructed with funds from the U.S. Treasury because they embody the government’s commitment to serving communities all across the country through public buildings that were built to last.”

New Deal murals adorn city offices

Reidsville City Hall Finance Office
New Deal murals adorn city offices
Photo Credit: Evan Kalish

Evan began documenting U.S. Post Offices in 2008 describing the history, architecture, artwork, and what the buildings reveal about the places they serve in his blog, https://colossus-of-roads.blogspot.com.  He began sharing his extensive knowledge and photographs to the Living New Deal’s website in 2012 and became New York Regional Research Director earlier this year.

“What’s great about the Living New Deal is that the website enables not only researchers like me, but anyone with information about the New Deal to preserve and share it with the world.”

Evan spent much of last summer at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, researching New Deal documents and photos from the Treasury Department, Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Work Projects Administration (WPA). His sleuthing uncovered many New Deal edifices—some now demolished or repurposed—including water towers in Texas, former schools in Wyoming, railroad overpasses in upstate New York, and WPA park walls in Hawaii—to name a few.  Oftentimes locating the projects involved looking at archival satellite views, aerial photographs, and Google Maps Street View imagery.

“The New Deal represents an important and underappreciated era in our history,” says Evan. “Every day I get to learn something new.”

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

“Everything Possible” The New Deal Response to Polio

FDR at Hyde Park, New York 1941

A rare photograph of FDR in his wheelchair

More than fifty years before the passage of the Americans With Disability Act, the WPA and PWA were building special schools to help children crippled by polio. These schools were, to a large extent, the result of FDR’s own paralysis from the disease.

In 1921 Franklin D. Roosevelt became permanently paralyzed from the waist down.  Most Americans knew that their president had contracted “infantile paralysis” in adulthood, but few knew the extent of his disability. The White House carefully orchestrated a vigorous image of the president. Photographs of FDR almost never capture him in his wheelchair or on crutches. FDR could stand with the help of braces and a cane, on the arm of a family or staff member, but it’s said that a bodyguard would carry the president up a rear stairwell slung over his shoulder like a sack of flour.

A campaign in the fight against polio

A campaign in the fight against polio

Roosevelt helped to found the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938which later became the March of Dimes. Rather than soliciting large gifts from wealthy philanthropists it sought small donations. Millions of people contributed. Every year, on January 30, the President’s birthday, dances were held to raise funds to help victims of the scourge as well as to defeat it. The organization raised more funds than all of the U.S. charities at the time combined, with the exception of the Red Cross. Its efforts funded research that led to the development of polio vaccines.

A manuscript I discovered at the National Archives titled “Special Schools for Physically Handicapped Children” by Corinne Reid Frazier, noted that handicapped children in regular schools were often taunted, damaging their scholarship and self-esteem.  Special schools were designed to “help [the crippled child] grow into a normal, self-respecting citizen.”

By 1938, fifty to sixty thousand children were attending such schools.

With the help of special supports, President Roosevelt leaves his home at 65th Street in New York City.  September 1933

FDR Getting Better
With the help of special supports, President Roosevelt leaves his home at 65th Street in New York City. September 1933
Photo Credit: Getty Images

The special schools sometimes replaced make-do charity facilities often in wood-frame buildings. Roosevelt himself feared being trapped by fire, so the new schools were pointedly fireproof, as well as featuring ramps, elevators, and solariums. Above all, they had warm pools for the hydrotherapy to which Roosevelt had been introduced at Warm Springs, Georgia. There, “Dr. Roosevelt” met and helped people of different classes and races. He devoted much of his personal fortune to create the Warm Springs Foundation to go on helping them.

Beauty was considered therapeutic in the polio schools as in other New Deal efforts to build a healthier nation.  New Deal orthopedic schools are unusually handsome and well crafted. San Francisco’s Sunshine School in the Mission District, for example, features a pool, stenciled ceilings, Moorish tiles, chandeliers, and carved oak doors.

Sunshine School for Crippled Children, San Francisco

Sunshine School for Crippled Children, San Francisco, 1937
Students and staff in a courtyard at Sunshine Orthopedic School, 1937  Source

“Everything possible has been done to create the most cheerful possible atmosphere in order to encourage the children to forget as far as possible their disabilities,” noted a compilation of the best PWA projects at the time.

One might well believe that austerity prevailed during the Great Depression, but one often finds prodigal generosity instead.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal

Did we in 2008 elect another Franklin Roosevelt or another Herbert Hoover? This wonderfully comprehensive analysis of the New Deal’s response to the Great Depression and the Obama Administration’s response to the Great Recession addresses that question. This anthology, edited by… read more