Spring 2018

Activist and art critic Anita Brenner was excited by the New Deal. She saw a “New Deal spirit” in the struggling artists of the WPA. “You can see it in his grin . . . in his truculent exuberance; you can see that he knows the future belongs to him.”

That New Deal spirit persists today. Some of its keepers appear in this issue: A steadfast guardian of a disregarded Diego Rivera mural; a town fighting for its New Deal heritage; advocates calling to revive FDR’s “Tree Army,” the CCC.

The New Deal lives on not only through its great public works, but also through the undimmed exuberance of the keepers of the New Deal spirit. Thank you for helping to keep the spirit alive!

In this Issue:

Rivera Masterpiece to SFMOMA for 2020 Retrospective

Pan American Unity Mural, 1940 By Diego Rivera
“My mural will picture the fusion between the great past of the Latin American lands, as it is deeply rooted in the soil, and the high mechanical developments of the United States.” – Diego Rivera.  Source
Photo Credit: City College of San Francisco

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) have announced plans to display Diego Rivera’s massive mural, “Pan American Unity,” at a major exhibition of the artist’s work in 2020. The mural is considered one of the most important works of public art in San Francisco.

Rivera and Pflueger, 1940
By Peter Stackpole.  Source
Photo Credit: City College of San Francisco

The 74-foot-wide, 22-foot-high masterpiece was commissioned under the auspices of the 1939-40 WPA and the Golden Gate International Exposition held on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, itself a creation of the New Deal’s PWA and the WPA.

Rivera was among dozens of artists participating in Art in Action, a live exhibit at which fairgoers could watch paintings, sculptures, weavings, and frescoes in the making in an airplane hangar that served as the Exposition’s Palace of Fine Arts, a gallery and studio.

Rivera at work
Diego Rivera on scaffolding
Photo Credit: Charles Hughes, WPA

The prominent San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, an organizer of the Exposition, invited Rivera to participate. In a letter to Pfleuger, Rivera happily accepted “ . . . on the condition that I be permitted to make this my personal contribution toward the promotion of good will between our countries and because of my great affection for my friends in San Francisco who made my previous stay such a pleasant one.”

“For years I have felt that the real art of the Americas must come as a result of the fusion of the machinism and new creative power of the north with the tradition rooted in the soil of the south, the Toltecs, Tarascans, Mayas, Incas, etc., and would like to choose that as the subject of my mural,” he wrote.

At the time, Pflueger was designing the Science Building for the new San Francisco Junior College (now City College of San Francisco). Pflueger also projected a Grand Library building where Rivera’s mural would be permanently installed once the fair closed. Because the mural would need to be portable, Rivera painted the giant buon fresco on ten steel-frame panels. It weighed 20 tons.

The mural is a sweeping panorama of the Bay Area, and interweaves images of Western industrialization and indigenous cultures. Rivera and his assistants were still working on the massive mural when the fair closed in September 1940. In December more than 25,000 people crowded into the hangar to view the finished work. The panels were then packed into five crates and moved to storage.

Because of wartime austerity, the Grand Library Pflueger had designed for City College was never built. Pflueger died in 1946. In 1961, his brother, Milton, arranged to shoehorn the Pan American Unity mural into the lobby of the college’s Little Theater, where it has resided ever since in a confined space.

Detail of Unity Mural
“It is about the marriage of the artistic expression of the North and of the South on this continent.”—Rivera
Photo Credit: City College of San Francisco

Plans are underway to move the mural to the college’s new Performing Arts and Education Center, where it will be visible from the outside through the building’s glass façade.

Upon hearing of plans to move the masterpiece, SFMOMA approached the college about showcasing it as part of a 2020 Rivera retrospective. In return, SFMOMA will underwrite the costs for the moves and the conservation of this great work.

Watch the (silent) video of Rivera and other artists at work at the Golden Gate International Exhibition.


Rendering of Mural at SFMOMA
The mural will on display at a major exhibition of Rivera’s work in 2020.
Photo Credit: SFMOMA

For 22 years Will Maynez has been the steward of Diego Rivera's Pan American Unity mural at City College of San Francisco and maintains the mural’s website: riveramural.org and newsletter. Will currently serves on various committees surrounding the 2020 SFMOMA-CCSF collaboration. He has written a one-act play,“Interview with Frida Kahlo,” and “Rapsodia en Azul: An American in Mexico,” a play about a 1935 party for George Gershwin.

A New Deal Town Fights for Its Future

Greenbelt sign, 1937

Greenbelt sign, 1937
The Greenbelt housing project was seen as a social experiment
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The first of three greenbelt towns built and owned by the federal government during the Great Depression, Greenbelt, Maryland, ten miles north of Washington, D.C. was considered “utopian” when it opened in 1937.

Greenbelt’s residents had to overcome many obstacles from the start, and today a new threat is bearing down on the New Deal town.

Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan, state legislators, and the private company Northeast MAGLEV, are hawking a public-private partnership to build a high-speed train,  between D.C and New York that could impact this historic community.

FDR and Wallace Richards, 1936

FDR and Wallace Richards, 1936
Richards, coordinator for the Greenbelt project, shows plans to President Roosevelt
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Home to 23,000 residents, Greenbelt is the legacy of Rexford Tugwell, a friend and advisor whom FDR appointed to head the short-lived Resettlement Administration (RA). Tugwell, inspired by England’s Garden City movement—a turning point in urban planning—envisioned hundreds of “greenbelt towns” around the country. Surrounded by greenbelts of forests and farms, they were meant to provide affordable homes with easy access to jobs in nearby cities.

The affordable houses, landscaping, parks, playgrounds, schools, and civic buildings were designed to nurture a sense of community. Applicants for residency were screened based on income, occupation, and a willingness to become involved in community activities. Much of the towns’ business was conducted through cooperatives, to the dismay of conservatives in Congress who nicknamed Tugwell “Rex the Red.”

Postcard, 1938

Postcard, 1938
Greenbelt, Town Center

Congress soon pared plans for the greenbelt towns and delayed funding. Lacking the heavy construction equipment they needed to break ground, WPA workers used picks and shovels.

Ultimately just three towns, Greenhills, Ohio; Greendale, Wisconsin; and Greenbelt, Maryland were completed. A fourth town, planned for New Jersey, was summarily cancelled.

House and Garden, 1938

House and Garden, 1938
Greenbelt offers apartments and single-family homes like these English-style row houses with pitched slate roofs.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Over the years, Greenbelt, Maryland has suffered fewer alterations than its sister towns, but “progress” has taken a toll. Despite residents’ opposition to the Baltimore–Washington Parkway it was built through the greenbelt in 1954. The Capital Beltway also pushed through the middle of the greenbelt in the 1960s. Thanks to the Committee to Save the Green Belt and other advocates, the city reacquired 230 acres of the original greenbelt that had been sold to developers in the 1950s and established the Greenbelt Forest Preserve to permanently protect the land. In 1997 Greenbelt was designated a National Historic Landmark. 

In 2017, plans emerged for a high-speed MAGLEV (magnetic-levitation) train. Two routes are under consideration. One is east of town and would tunnel under Eleanor Roosevelt High School and several neighborhoods. The other, on the west side of town, would mostly follow the Parkway, tunneling below the town to emerge in the Greenbelt Forest Preserve or possibly north of the town.

The proposed train would cut the 32-minute Amtrak ride from Baltimore to D.C by 17 minutes.

Greenbelt Pool, 1939

Greenbelt Pool, 1939
Parks, playgrounds and recreation facilities have been part of the community from the start.
Photo Credit: Marian Wolcott Post, Library of Congress

Opponents up and down the proposed corridor point to the project’s $10 billion price tag and the cost overruns that have plagued other high-speed rail projects, leaving taxpayers on the hook.

The federal government has provided $27.8 million for an Environmental Impact Study, scheduled for completion in January 2019.

Meanwhile, Northeast Maglev has acquired the ability to use eminent domain to build the track. 

What you can do: Take Action.

The City also posted information on how to oppose.

“Mother and Child” by Lenore Thomas, 1938

“Mother and Child” by Lenore Thomas, 1938
WPA artists adorned the Commons and public buildings.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Greenbelt Elementary School, 1937

Greenbelt Elementary School, 1937
The art deco building became the community center after a new school was built in the 1990s.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

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

Anita Brenner: WPA Art Critic and Cultural Bridge-Builder

Portrait of Anita Brenner

Portrait of Anita Brenner
Brenner, an American born in Mexico, befriended many artists and activists.
Photo Credit: Tina Modotti, 1926

Born in Mexico in 1905, Anita Brenner, a Jewish American writer and intellectual, lived her life on both sides of the border.

Educated in Mexico and the U.S., Brenner explicated Mexican culture to Americans, offering an antidote to the biases that shape relations between the two nations to this day.

Brenner’s family left their home in Aguascalientes, Mexico, for Texas in 1914 to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution. After the war, Anita moved back to Mexico City on her own and was introduced into an international community of artists, refugees, and intellectuals living in the capital.

Idols Behind Altars

Idols Behind Altars
Brenner wrote several books and hundreds of articles about Mexican art and culture.

Returning to the U.S., she completed her doctorate in Anthropology at Columbia University in 1930. At age 24, she published Idols Behind Altars, the first study to document the artworks, styles, and artists of Mexico, from early indigenous peoples up to the Mexican Renaissance, in which many of her friends and partisans played a role.

Brenner was excited by the New Deal and its support for artists. She saw Mexican influence in the art emerging from the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. Like the Mexican artists whose work responded to the social inequity in that country, New Deal artists, too, reflected the lives and travails of ordinary people coping with the Great Depression.

The History of Mexico, 1929-1935, by Diego Rivera

This History of Mexico, 1929-1935
Rivera’s murals depicting the struggles of campesinos influenced artists of the WPA.
Photo Credit: Wikiart

WPA muralist George Biddle acknowledged Brenner’s influence on his work. “I had sucked to the pulp all the wisdom and scholarship of Anita Brenner’s Idols Behind Altars, so that I felt a certain sympathy and understanding of the ideology, the causal circumstances, the germination and the quick tropical flowering of the Mexican School,” he wrote.

Brenner discerned what she called the “New Deal spirit” in the work of the WPA artists. Of the celebrated painter Joe Jones, who then worked for the WPA, she wrote, “You can see it in his grin, in the pattern of his vigorous brush, in his truculent exuberance; you can see that he knows the future belongs to him,”

As an art critic, Brenner enthused that the WPA artists had “more skill, more freshness, and incomparably greater feeling” than the other graphic artists in a Brooklyn show.

She was not uncritical. She once described herself as a “best friend with sad news” in reviewing a WPA easel show that she said lacked “vigor and freshness.”

In an article for The Nation in 1934, Brenner cautioned artists working for the New Deal against the “safe isolation which capitalism develops, in various forms, to protect itself from the honest, invincible courage indispensable to great art.”

When the WPA faced budget cuts in 1936, she wrote, “we can almost take it for granted that the most important things that have happened in our arts these years are the achievements of the artists on the WPA projects.”

Society Freed Through Justice, 1936, by George Biddle

Society Freed Through Justice
The influence of Diego Rivera is evident in Biddle’s five fresco panels for the Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Brenner’s 1943 book, The Wind That Swept Mexico, The History of the Mexican Revolution, told, from a Mexican perspective, the struggles behind the civil war. It was her response to the version of events Americans got from their newspapers—particularly those owned by William Randolph Hearst, whose ownership of millions of acres of Mexican land was endangered by the Revolution.

Brenner later edited Mexico/this month, a magazine about the culture and history of the country she loved.

She died in car accident in Mexico in 1974, ending a prolific life that, for a time, bridged the persistent cultural divide across the Rio Grande.

We Demand, 1934 by Joe Jones

We Demand, 1934 by Joe Jones
The WPA painter embodied the “New Deal Spirit.”

Harvey Smith is an advisor to the Living New Deal.

Time for a 21st Century CCC

Camp Roosevelt, Virginia
The first Ccc camp.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FDR Library

Franklin Roosevelt was, among many other things, a knowledgeable forester. He frequently described himself as a “grower of trees.”

Long before his entrance on the political scene, he spent years reforesting his Hudson River estate at Hyde Park.

As governor of New York, Roosevelt established a “tree army” of unemployed young men to restore the state’s abused forestland. “Forests, like people, must be constantly productive,” Roosevelt told the Forestry News Digest.

After his presidential inauguration in 1933, at the depths of the Great Depression, with millions unemployed, he persuaded Congress to create a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that, he said, would solve two crises by employing “wasted human resources to reclaim wasted natural resources.”

Planting trees, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Planting trees, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
The CCC planted a billion trees in parks, national forests, and on spent farmland
Photo Credit: Creative Commons Creative Commons

Scholars are still not sure whether FDR was aware of the William James 1906 speech at Stanford, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” in which the eminent psychologist and philosopher seeks to replace war with its moral equivalent. In lieu of the destructive outcome of wartime patriotism, James called for constructive civil service in the interests of the individual and the nation. That is precisely what the peacetime army of the CCC did.

During its decade-long run, the CCC employed three-and-a-half million young men to plant over three billion trees.

Racially integrated outside of the South fifteen years before President Truman desegregated the Armed Forces, the “Cs” recruited jobless, indigent, and often illiterate young men and gave them nutritious food, housing, health care, education, and hard work in some of the most rugged and beautiful places in the nation.

Fighting Fires, 1936

Fighting Fires, 1936
CCC enrollees battled wildfires and provided flood relief
Photo Credit: Idaho Department of Forestry

They fought beetle infestation and blister rust as well as forest fires, conserved soil, and were on call to help in the natural disasters—epic floods, hurricanes, and drought—that added to the hardships of the 1930s.

The CCC also left a vast legacy of superb rustic structures in national and state parks and wildlife refuges whose expansion and development during the 30s they were largely responsible for. Many CCC veterans recalled their service as among the happiest times of their lives and attributed it to success later in life.

Brass Button, Collar button from CCC uniform

Brass Button
Collar button from CCC uniform
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

After decades of tax cuts our national, state, and local jurisdictions are today incapable of dealing with the ever-growing danger of conflagrations such as those that recently devastated California, and the hurricanes from which Florida, Houston, and Puerto Rico are struggling to recover.

Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) has introduced the 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps Act, HR 2206, reviving a proven model to address chronic unemployment, heal our forests, and meet the challenges and consequences of climate change. It deserves our support.

Highway maintenance project, 1933.

Highway maintenance project, 1933
Lassen National Park, California
Photo Credit: NPS

The president and key CCC staff, 1933

The president and key CCC staff, 1933
Big Meadows CCC camp, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. Front row, left to right: Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, CCC Director Robert Fechner, FDR, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FDR Library

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.

The Public Landscape of the New Deal, by Phoebe Cutler

I recently plucked a book off the shelf of my library and found the answer to a question I’m often asked: How did you discover the New Deal? I first read Phoebe Cutler’s pioneering book The Public Landscape of the… read more