What does the New Deal mean today? As federal budget cuts and the sell-off of the U.S. Postal Service threaten jobs, our economy, and common heritage, the New Deal reminds us that government can be a source of leadership and purpose for all of its constituents instead of a few.
After more than a half-century of indifference, the federal government has become interested in the New Deal art that it commissioned, paid for, and then lost track of. A recovery effort is under way.
At issue are thousands of easel paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures produced by artists working for the Federal Art Project of the WPA, the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, and other Depression-era agencies. Some of the works were loaned out to schools, libraries, and government offices; others were haphazardly stored. When the art-funding agencies disbanded with the onset of WWII, their inventories were essentially abandoned—left in place, lost, stolen, sold as scrap, auctioned off as “government surplus,” or simply thrown away. Much of it ended up in private hands. Now the General Services Administration wants it back.
About ten years ago the GSA began monitoring galleries, auctions, and on-line sales for art with Federal Art Project labels or other identifying marks. On the theory that they still belong to the government, the agency confiscates works that it verifies as New Deal art. Owners are not reimbursed or even allowed a tax deduction. The art is placed in public buildings or given to museums.
The GSA emphasizes that it steps in only when there is a “sales event” and will not interfere with private holdings. Still, some collectors challenge the whole effort, maintaining that the government relinquished its claim to the art through poor stewardship over the years. They are indignant at what they consider government “seizure” of private property. For its part, the GSA maintains that New Deal art belongs to the American people. (The GSA Art Recovery web page is here.)
This situation presents WPA-art aficionados with a conundrum. For years, passionate individuals documented and promoted the New Deal legacy when few in Washington were interested. Some bought, found, or were given art that nobody else seemed to want, frequently investing in restoring and conserving it. Now that their efforts have helped make New Deal art “hot” again, the Feds show up. On the other hand, people interested in New Deal artifacts tend to believe in public institutions and would probably agree that ultimately these works should find their way back there. The problem may have more to do with the GSA’s approach than with its goal.
It does seem ironic that the GSA is spending scarce resources tracking down small works of variable artistic value while failing to protect the far more significant large-scale New Deal murals and sculptures in the hundreds of post offices and other government buildings that it is allowing to pass into private hands.
I looked up from news of another mass shooting at the industrial wasteland passing by the Metroliner on my way to D.C. I saw a cage full of young men who have few prospects now but drugs, prison, and the military, and I recalled Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration during the last depression that no nation, no matter how rich, can afford to waste its human and natural resources. That connection by a man who, according to his wife, studied the American landscape from train windows so that he would know what was needed when he took office, spawned the Civilian Conservation Corps as a top priority of his presidency.
As remarkable a feat as the full-scale mobilization for war less than nine years later, the CCC saved the lives of millions of young men and their families. It provides a lesson by which we could once again save the land, water, and people whom we treat today as if we are rich enough to squander them en masse.
Roosevelt knew and loved trees. He planted thousands of them on his Hudson River estate both for their beauty and as a cash crop. As governor of New York while the nation sank deeper into the Great Depression, he pioneered a work relief program of reforestation that he would expand to national scope as president.
Just two days after his inauguration on March 4, 1933, FDR called a meeting of top administration executives to discuss the formation of a civilian army for the purpose of land reclamation. Fifteen days later, he told Congress that even more important than forestry, soil conservation, and flood control would be the “moral and spiritual value of such work” for the men who performed it. Four months after he entered office, about 275,000 young men and veterans had enlisted in the new civilian army. They quickly built thousands of camps of two hundred men each around the country and in the territories.
Before its dissolution during World War II, about 3.5 million men passed through the CCC. The federal government paid them $30 a month (worth about $480 today), of which $25 was automatically routed to their families in order to buoy local economies in some of the country’s most distressed regions.
The CCC “boys” left a largely unseen legacy of vastly expanded and improved national, state, and regional parks; of lodges, bridges, roads, dams, trails, amphitheaters, and their signature fine stonework, much of which endures eighty years later. They planted entire forests now in their maturity. Instructors in the camps provided job training and educational opportunities upon which many of the men built careers. Veterans often remembered the CCC as salvational— and as the best years of their lives.
In today’s terms, the 3.5 billion trees the CCC planted sequestered millions of tons of carbon while conserving soil, water, and wildlife. At a time when climate change increasingly threatens life on the planet and so many young men and women have lost hope, we should remember who and what once worked. We have, after all, been drawing rich dividends on CCC labor ever since.
For years, conservative think tanks have pushed privatization schemes and Republicans in Congress have followed along. In 2006 Congress approved a bill requiring the U.S. Postal Service to prepay 75 years of postal workers benefits within a 10-year period. No other public or private enterprise is subject to this onerous requirement. Unable to come up with the billions of dollars it needs, the USPS is downsizing, potentially closing up to 15,000 post offices and distribution centers. See the map of post office closures.
Congress has yet to act to address this manufactured crisis. Meanwhile, communities nationwide are taking action to stave off a fire sale of post office properties, many of which are historic buildings, some housing New Deal art. In California, citizens in La Jolla, Palo Alto, and Redlands are working to save their post offices. In Berkeley, activists are working hand-in-hand with the city council to prevent the proposed sale of the downtown post office, which was built in 1914 and contains two New Deal artworks. In Martinez, locals are seeking protection for their post office and its Western-themed New Deal mural by Maynard Dixon by nominating it to National Register of Historic Places. In La Jolla, preservationists are seeking protection for their 77-year-old post office, an effort that has been endorsed by the California State Office of Historic Preservation. In Santa Monica, Congressman Henry Waxman, the Santa Monica Conservancy, and local residents have fought the sale of the downtown post office. Historic post offices in Ukiah and Venice, California were recently lost; the Venice post office was sold to a movie mogul for his private offices.
In New York, officials in Northport, Long Island, heard testimony from community members and postal union workers opposed to the closure of their post office. Also slated for sale is the massive Bronx Post Office. The borough president has questioned the methodology the USPS used in selecting it for sale. According to The New York Times, there is no plan to protect its thirteen New Deal murals by Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson, but citizens in New York and New Jersey are mobilizing to save the murals.
There’s more: In Northfield, Minnesota, citizens formed the Save Our Post Office Task Force. In Maryland, the governor called on state lawmakers to purchase the Annapolis Post Office. The city of Boone, North Carolina purchased its post office several years ago, leasing it back to the postal service. But it, too, is now slated to close.
In South Carolina, the mayor of Cheraw called a special meeting to rally support for the town’s post office. On the other side of the country, the local historical society in Eugene, Oregon is considering buying the downtown post office for a museum.
Officials in Lakewood, New Jersey passed a resolution that declared the sale of their post office to be “extremely inappropriate.” Residents of Princeton have resisted the sale of their post office, which holds a New Deal mural.
To learn more go to https://www.savethepostoffice.org
A National Day of Action will be held Sunday, March 24, to mobilize public support for the post office and to preserve Saturday delivery service. Learn More
UPDATE: Public comments are needed ASAP to oppose the sale of Berkeley’s Downtown Post Office.
Write to Diana Alvarado, USPS, Facilities Implementation Pacific Area, 1300 Evans Ave, #200, San Francisco, CA 94188-8200.
It’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.
As if to reassure Depression-weary audiences, Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s produced a crop of films celebrating Americans’ resilience and pluck. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the Plow That Broke the Plains come to mind. But today, when so many in America (including members of Congress) could use a reminder of how our bootstrap country rose from grinding poverty to middle-class prosperity, we get Hyde Park on Hudson, a film that manages to ignore the remarkable achievements of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency.
With vision and resolve, FDR reassured a nation struggling through hard times. His Administration wasted no time putting millions to work building infrastructure that would modernize America. His landmark legislative achievements included insuring bank deposits; reining in Wall Street; establishing Social Security, and ensuring rights for workers. But Hyde Park on Hudson instead centers on FDR’s sex life, in particular his rumored dalliance with his distant cousin, Daisy Suckley.
Bill Murray as a jaunty FDR is more believable than I had expected, but it’s a shame that he didn’t have much of a script to work with. Olivia Williams’ portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt as a witty and prim wife fails to recognize the First Lady as a powerhouse in her own right, a champion of the poor, and FDR’s emissary on how his New Deal policies were playing out in the lives of ordinary Americans.
Given the parallels between FDR’s time and our own, a popular film about one of our greatest presidents could have been relevant. Instead, Hyde Park represents a lost opportunity for popular entertainment and education.
In 2010, Peter Dreier’s article for The Nation, “The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the 20th Century,” drew both praise and criticism for who made the list and who didn’t. In his book, “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century, A Social Justice Hall of Fame,” Dreier expands the list. It’s a collection of tightly written biographies of those who, against long odds, battled to make the U.S. a more just, humane, and inclusive nation…. read more
This pioneering work of history tells the story of Dust Bowl refugees. Based on in-depth research, census data, and oral histories, it masterfully chronicles the experiences of migrants from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri who moved to California in the 1930s and 1940s…. read more
As a girl, Kathy Flynn took little notice of the New Deal’s presence in her hometown of Portales, New Mexico, though the tiny town held a courthouse, post office, schools and swimming pool, all built by the New Deal. As Deputy Secretary of State Flynn began inventorying New Deal works statewide. What she discovered led her to found the NNDPA (https://www.newdeallegacy.org) and to a book on the New Deal’s lasting impact…. read more