Like the WPA crews that unearthed huge fossils while constructing public works, the Living New Deal is discovering a lost world. Thousands of “artifacts”— films, artworks, parks, roads, bridges, and public buildings—are the among the hidden legacy of the New Deal. Every city and town benefitted from government programs that got Americans working during the Great Depression—perhaps none more than New York City, where we are uncovering a trove of New Deal treasures. You can learn about them on our ever-expanding website, using our new and improved Search feature. Express your inner paleontologist, and thank you for your support.
Born in 1944 at the height of World War II, I missed the WPA by just one year. Growing up in rural Virginia I never heard of it; nor in the years I lived Germany—first as an Army brat, and then in the Army itself. Then, in 1966, I arrived in New York City, where I lived alongside Riverside Park.
The 6.7-mile-long park along the Hudson River was my backyard for 46 years. I played there. My kids played there. As a runner, I covered every inch of it, from 72nd Street to the very top of Manhattan. I would run all the way uptown before there was even a running path, when the high grass was littered with broken glass and the hulks of abandoned cars.
All that time I had no idea that the park had been created in the 1930s by the New Deal. How would I know? There were no signs, no cornerstones, no plaques. Nobody knew. It wasn’t until I moved to the Bronx at the edge of a magical neighborhood park where people of all ages play, exercise, relax, and socialize, that I became curious. Where did this park come from?
It took some digging, but I found out it had been constructed by the WPA, completed in 1937. I soon discovered that I was surrounded by New Deal creations: parks, playgrounds, schools, college campuses, beaches, highways, bridges, post offices, swimming pools, stadiums, athletic fields, court houses, bicycle paths, and subways. And that’s just in the Bronx! And here, too, nobody knows.
Given the current economy and the upcoming 2016 elections, more people need to know about what was created during the Great Depression—and can be again. So I go around photographing New Deal sites, unearthing their stories, and sending them on to the Living New Deal.
When I went back to Manhattan recently to photograph Riverside Park, I saw it in a whole new way: This great green space, access to the river, boat basin, ball fields, playgrounds, running paths, benches, fountains, lights, bathrooms— all created by thousands of unemployed laborers, designers, architects, and engineers hired by the federal government to convert what had been a muddy, smelly, railroad bed into all of this splendor for generations to come.
It was September 1935. A WPA project was underway to drain and dredge a muck-filled pond on Charing Cross Road in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a leafy suburb Detroit, a city hard hit by the Great Depression.
Suddenly, a steam shovel on the south side of the pond unearthed an enormous bone from the muck and marl. The workers first thought they had discovered the remains of a dinosaur and dubbed the site “Dinosaur Pond.” They contacted geologists at the nearby Cranbrook Institute of Science, who carefully excavated the “dinosaur” and properly identified it as a young mastodon, still with its milk teeth. The skull, jaw, tusks and a few vertebrae were taken to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History in Ann Arbor and further studied by paleontologists, who deemed the fossil to be 10,000 years old.
Mastodons were shaggy, elephant-like creatures standing up to 14 feet tall and weighing 4 to 6 tons. They lived 30 million years ago—long after the dinosaurs, which thrived in the Mesozoic era some 250 million to 66 million years ago. Mastodons, like their larger cousin, the wooly mammoth, roamed the region as recently as 10,000 years ago. With cusped teeth for crushing leaves and branches, mastodons fed on plants around creeks and marshy areas, where their remains tend to be found buried in mud. Early discoverers of mastodon bones in Europe erroneously assumed that the huge mastodons had been burrowing animals.
In 1936, a WPA crew digging a ditch near Kenosha, Wisconsin, came upon a 20-foot leg bone. The local history museum applied for a federal grant— approved by then-President Franklin Roosevelt—to excavate the skeleton of what turned out to be a wooly mammoth. In 1935, WPA workers clearing a creek near Williamston Township, Michigan, found a mastodon jawbone with several teeth still intact.
Just last January a contractor noticed a giant rib sticking out of the ground at a job site near Lansing. Markings on this and dozens of other mastodon bones found there indicate the animal may have been a meal for Paleo-Indians some 12,000 years ago.
Records show that 250 mastodon bones have been unearthed in 50 locations across Michigan. The mastodon was declared the “official state fossil” in 2002.
I recently made a trip to Ann Arbor hoping to see “Bloomfield Hills Mastodon.” Upon entering the museum I was awestruck by a huge mastodon skeleton on display, but it wasn’t the mastodon I was looking for! Ironically, this specimen had been discovered at Hyde Park, New York, near the Roosevelt family estate.
Where was the Bloomfield Hills Mastodon? It’s on loan to the Cranbrook Institute of Science, only a few miles from the pond where WPA workers discovered it 80 years ago.
Nothing brings to life the countless ways the New Deal saved millions from bleak poverty while catapulting the nation into the 20th century like the movies its agencies produced.
The Living New Deal’s Berkeley Associate John Elrick compiled a list of one hundred films at San Francisco’s Prelinger Archives, which helped Maryland Associate Brent McKee locate and digitize many held by the National Archives film division in College Park, Maryland. Then Chris Carlsson, a San Francisco historian and writer, entered the films into the Internet Archives where anyone can access them.
A few of the New Deal documentaries such as The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains directed by Pare Lorentz with musical scores by Virgil Thompson, are justifiably famous and classroom fare, but most New Deal films were more amateurish, using stock footage and martial music that has nothing to do with the visuals or narration, and little, if any, plot. Nonetheless, they provide a wealth of historical information including typical work days and camp life of CCC enrollees; how farm-to-market roads, enormous dams, and rural electrification improved the lives of farmers and stimulated productivity; productions by the Federal Theatre Project, which hired and entertained millions of Americans; and an array of public works projects and social programs. For example, Making Aviation Safer for America shows how the hundreds of municipal airports built by the WPA laid the foundation for the commercial airline industry, while stimulating local economies.
While most workers shown in the films are white, We Work Again displays the myriad skilled and unskilled jobs that the WPA provided African-Americans, whose unemployment rate during the Great Depression far exceeded the nation’s rate of 25 percent. Other movies show racially integrated WPA-run nursery schools and CCC camps.
A 1935 newsreel produced by Paramount Pictures —Three Billions to Use — opens with an emphatic address by WPA chief Harry Hopkins, insistent that the U.S. must find its own unique way to put its citizens to work to give them a decent standard of living. Hopkins uses the word decent three times in just two minutes, reiterating what Labor Secretary France Perkins recalled as Franklin Roosevelt’s self-imposed moral responsibility to improve the lives of ordinary Americans: “’Decent’ was the word he (FDR) often used to express what he meant by a proper, adequate, and intelligent way of living.”
The ephemeral movies demonstrate how the Roosevelt administration used an activist government to promote common decency. Unfortunately, many of the films have suffered from deterioration as well as from sequential copying to videotape and digital media. The Living New Deal is prioritizing films for repair so that we can make high-quality movies available to scholars, documentarians, and all interested in watching the New Deal in action. Donations for this work are most welcome!
On August 14, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, declaring: “If the Senate and the House of Representatives … had done nothing more than pass this Bill, the session would be regarded as historic for all time.” Nonetheless, Roosevelt acknowledged that the groundbreaking legislation was “a cornerstone in a structure … by no means complete.”
Once the cornerstone was laid, Social Security soon expanded. Initially, its two social insurance programs, Old Age Insurance and Unemployment Insurance, covered only a portion of the work force. Left out were workers in very small establishments and the public sector, along with the self-employed. Also excluded were domestic workers—largely women and agricultural workers—occupations in which many African Americans were employed.
Within four years Social Security extended benefits to widows and orphans. In 1950, Congress added coverage for domestic and agricultural laborers. Disability insurance was also added in the fifties, and Medicare in the mid-1960s. In 1972, automatic cost-of-living increases began. Unemployment Insurance has been less expandable, but groups previously excluded became covered in 1970 when Congress also provided for automatic extensions of benefits during recessions when many workers are laid off.
Headed by FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the Committee on Economic Security, which proposed the Social Security Act, recognized that “employment assurance” was the key to economic security. The committee acknowledged that public-work programs might be necessary not only during periods of economic depression, but during normal times as well. Roosevelt and Federal Relief Administrator Harry Hopkins considered creating a permanent government employment program for those still jobless after receiving short-term unemployment compensation.
Ultimately, the government settled on permanent, short-term Unemployment Insurance as part of the Social Security Act, and a temporary employment program—the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which hired millions of people and vastly enriched the country’s physical, social, and cultural resources. The WPA was terminated during World War II when job creation became temporarily unnecessary. Thus, Perkins wrote in the mid-1940s, “Unemployment Insurance stands alone as the only protection for people out of work.”
What might Roosevelt, Hopkins, and Perkins have said when, in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, many jobless workers collected extended unemployment benefits instead of getting paid to restore the country’s decaying infrastructure, making our economy and planet more sustainable, and providing sorely needed social services?
Nearly seven years after the Great Recession 20 million people remain jobless or are forced to work part time. The proportion of working-age people working or actively looking for work is the lowest since 1976.
Federal legislation pending in Congress comes close to completing the Social Security edifice begun 80 years ago. The Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment & Training Act, http://conyers.house.gov/index.cfm/jobs introduced by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) commits the U.S. to full employment at a living wage, paid for by a small tax on financial transactions. Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s (D-OH) bill for a 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps http://kaptur.house.gov/images/114th-Kaptur-CCC-bill.pdf would, like its famous New Deal predecessor, create needed jobs dedicated to preserving and restoring the nation’s resources.
Let’s observe Social Security’s 80th birthday by taking steps toward employment assurance—jobs—the keystone of economic security.
On August 4 the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service named Colorado’s Mount Morrison CCC Camp and Red Rocks Amphitheatre—both built by the CCC— as National Historic Landmarks. They are the first New Deal-era historic sites to be listed in the state. Friends of Red Rocks spearheaded the 14-year effort, with politicians, historians, and a number of musicians who performed at Red Rocks lending support.
Acclaimed as the only naturally occurring, acoustically perfect amphitheatre in the world, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, ten miles from Denver, has served as a music venue for much of the city’s history. Since the first documented performance there in 1906, which featured a 25-piece brass band, the amphitheater has hosted opera and rock stars—though rock music was briefly banned during the 1970s when fans overran the 9,450-seat venue.
The city acquired the 868-acre site on the Front Range for its Mountain Parks system in 1928. Denver’s then-parks director, George Cranmer, convinced the mayor to build a permanent stage amidst the massive slabs. With help from the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps construction began in 1936.
The amphitheater was largely built by hand. The 200 men of Company 1848, Camp SP-13-C, Mount Morrison each earned a dollar a day. They learned and performed skilled labor such as stone masonry, electrical engineering, cement work, carpentry, and landscaping.
A 1936 account of the CCC in Colorado described the effort: “They are building an amphitheatre that will stand for centuries, and in generations to come this work will remain a symbol of advancement of the western culture of today…an enduring monument to the Civilian Conservation Corps in Colorado…”
The Red Rocks Amphitheater was dedicated in 1941. The Mount Morrison camp closed in 1942. It is one of only a few CCC camps to remain largely intact. Denver Mountain Parks uses the buildings for offices and storage. The former mess hall houses a small museum dedicated to the CCC, with artifacts and memorabilia on display.
The camp is open to the public by appointment, in season. Email [email protected] or call 720.865.0900 to arrange a visit.
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.
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.
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.
The 80th anniversary of the WPA has awakened interest, both academic and popular, in the New Deal’s legacy, including the development of some 800 state parks throughout the United States, courtesy of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). To honor and… read more