Spring 2019

When FDR ran for president in 1932 promising a new deal for the American people, no one quite knew what a New Deal would be. His plan for fighting the Great Depression was long on hope and short on details. Many of the ideas were untried. But nearly everyone agreed that more needed to be done to meet the economic, humanitarian, and environmental crisis. Most were ready to try anything that might work.

Many then in Congress branded the New Deal as “socialist,” claiming it was unaffordable and unattainable—just as they’re doing now in response to the Green New Deal. FDR was undeterred. “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another,” he said. The spirit of experimentation, innovation, and grit of the New Deal offers both hope and a model for meeting our biggest, greenest challenges today.

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In this Issue:

Green New Dealers Turn Up the Heat

Organizers are mobilizing youth to put pressure on Congress

Green New Dealers
Organizers are mobilizing youth to put pressure on Congress  Source

In a radical departure from business as usual, talk of a “New Deal” has lately been reverberating through the halls of the nation’s Capitol. Newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass) have introduced a resolution for a Green New Deal that is making headlines and rapidly gaining public support.

The Green New Deal resolution, introduced in early February, cites catastrophic repercussions for the economy, the environment, humans, and wildlife as a result of climate change. The Green New Deal is a package of federal programs and investments to transition the nation from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean, renewable energy over 10 years, creating millions of high-wage jobs in the process. The details are still to come.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Announces the Green New Deal resolution on Feb 7

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Announcing the Green New Deal resolution on Feb 7
Photo Credit: OaklandNews

The original New Deal offers a blueprint. Like its proposed green offspring, the New Deal was a massive response to an unprecedented national emergency. The government took multiple and experimental approaches to the economic, social and environmental crises of the Great Depression.

One of the first and most popular programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), begun in 1933, deployed millions of men over ten years to improve the environment. The “first responders” of their day, the CCC men fought wildfires and epic floods, planted billions of trees, stabilized soils in the Dust Bowl and elsewhere, and developed a system of national refuges to sustain diminishing wildlife.

Millions found work through federal programs to modernize America’s “commons,” building roads, bridges, dams, housing, schools, hospitals, parks, and playgrounds.

CCC at work, Installing phone lines at Logan Pass, Montana, 1938

CCC at work
Installing phone lines at Logan Pass, Montana, 1938
Photo Credit: National Park Service

While the New Deal brought jobs and enhancements to cities, towns and rural nationwide, many minority communities were left behind. African Americans, domestic, and agricultural workers were often excluded in exchange for the support of Republicans and Dixiecrats in Congress who held the purse strings.

Recognizing this failure, the Green New Deal resolution is explicitly inclusive in its aim “to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”

More than sixty progressive House members and several 2020 presidential candidates have already declared their support for a Green New Deal, as have several labor unions and environmental organizations. The trillion-dollar question is how to pay for it. A carbon tax, raising taxes on the ultra wealthy, and redirecting subsidies away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, are among the ideas.

WPA sewer project, Men laying pipes for the city of San Diego, California, 1935

WPA sewer project
Men laying pipes for the city of San Diego, California, 1935  Source

Not surprisingly, Republicans dismiss the Green New Deal, branding it “socialist,” “reckless,” “expensive,” and “unattainable.” Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin pronounced: “The Green New Deal, like Medicare- for-All and tuition-free college, is nothing but an empty promise that leaves American taxpayers on the hook.”

But climate activists point out that a Green New Deal would be far less costly than the climate disasters, pollution, and health problems that come from fossil fuels. Polls show growing public support for a Green New Deal. A December 2018 poll by Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication, found more than 90 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of self-identified “conservative Republicans” support a Green New Deal.

WPA emblem, Posted at work sites nationwide during the Great Depression

WPA emblem
Posted at work sites nationwide during the Great Depression

Organizers want to make the resolution a litmus test for those running for office in 2020. The Sunrise Movement is one of a growing number of grassroots groups mobilizing support among the nation’s youth. Its stated goal, “To build the movement for a Green New Deal.” Their social media campaign enjoins supporters to “turn up the heat” on Congress.

Sign the petition for a Green New Deal

The Living New Deal website’s new page on the Green New Deal describes ten
principles that led to the success of the original New Deal.

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

New Deal Murals Spur Controversy

Victor Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936

Victor Arnautoff at work
George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Hot on the heels of widespread demands to remove Confederate monuments come calls to remove or destroy New Deal works of art believed by some to be racist.

WPA murals in the lobby of San Francisco’s George Washington High School have recently come under fire. Painted by renowned Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff in 1935, one of the mural panels shows Washington with his slaves at Mount Vernon; another depicts Washington pointing pioneers westward over the body of a dead Indian. African Americans and Native Americans have complained to the school district, which has appointed a special committee to decide what to do about the offending art works. Destruction is one serious option.

“Life of Washington”

“Life of Washington”
The murals are painted on 12 panels, measuring 1600 square feet
Photo Credit: Richard Evans

Some New Deal art can be interpreted as demeaning or even racist, but Victor Arnautoff’s daring murals, I believe, fall into a more problematic category. They depict the father of our country as also being the father of a genocide later claimed by the victors as Manifest Destiny. It is a position so contrary to the national mythology of the time that I have often wondered how the artist got away with such criticism in a public space.

Even Arnautoff’s friend and fellow left-winger, Russian artist Anton Refregier, said that he knew what had happened to the California Indians but could only go so far in his great New Deal mural cycle of California history, which he completed in 1947 for San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office. Nonetheless, during the McCarthy era conservative Congressmen nearly destroyed Refregier’s murals for showing uncomfortable aspects of American history and for their implicit criticism.

Entrance to George Washington High School

Entrance to George Washington High School
The school was completed by the WPA in 1936
Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

That is precisely what Arnautoff was doing in his murals at George Washington High, but his criticism went where Refregier feared to tread. Unlike all the other colorful figures in Arnautoff’s murals, he painted the westward-moving pioneers in ash-grey and armed them with rifles and a pickaxe with which to take the mineral wealth of the fallen Indian who, unlike them, he painted in full color. Arnautoff’s pioneers represent not heroes but a death march. They march to the far right of the painting toward the signing of a treaty that their armed progress will violate, just as so many treaties with Native Americans were broken. Arnautoff is saying that the U.S. was born and grew upon bad faith and over the body of a people that had lived for ages on their land until invaders violently took it from them.

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier
This panel depicts the Sir Francis Drake arriving in California. Notice the blood in the tip of Drakes’ sword

Refregier’s Rincon Annex murals were so controversial at the time he painted them that then-Representative Richard Nixon wrote to a constituent in 1949 that “I believe a committee should make a thorough investigation of this type of art in government buildings with the view to obtaining the removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.” On May 1, 1953, with Nixon as vice president, that committee met in Washington, D.C. to put on trial not only Refregier’s art but then-popular versions of history as well.

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier, "The Waterfront"

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier, "The Waterfront"
This controversial mural depicts the longshoremen’s strike in 1934, when two strikers were killed.  Source

It is because San Franciscans of both parties rose up in defense of the murals, that Refregier’s works narrowly escaped destruction. Today they are regarded as masterpieces of New Deal art. San Francisco schools use them to teach about history and racial diversity, as well as conflict—themes that were hardly popular when Refregier painted them.

Victor Arnautoff, Self-portrait

Victor Arnautoff

Arnautoff’s murals, like Refregier’s, offer such an opportunity to teach the power of art to encourage critical thinking and to challenge conventional wisdom.

Shortly after completing his paintings, Refregier wrote of his fear that “some night, perhaps, men will come with buckets of white paint and it will take very little time to destroy that which took me so long to make. And in the morning it will be just like it was three years ago. White walls without colors, without ideas, ideas that make people so mad and so afraid.”

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.

New York City Never Stops Eating

1st Avenue Market, Manhattan, ca. 1937

1st Avenue Market
Manhattan, ca. 1937
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

When the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), the literary arm of the WPA, closed down in 1943 — after a prolific few years that saw hundreds of publications issued — massive amounts of research materials and unfinished manuscripts were put away, unused. Now, more than seventy years later, many of those documents are seeing the light of day in the form of books, documentaries, and exhibitions.

In September, the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) launched an exhibit, Feeding the City: The Unpublished WPA Federal Writers’ Project Manuscript, 1935-1942, drawn from the unpublished manuscript written and edited by members of the New York City unit of the Federal Writers’ Project.

Writers at work, Federal Writers Project

Writers at work
Federal Writers Project
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

“What did New Yorkers eat? Where did the food come from? How was it marketed?

The New York City Municipal Archives exhibit provides the answers to these questions, just as just as the Municipal library (located in the same facility and closely associated with the Archives)  provided answers to WPA researchers and writers who did research there during the Projects’ heyday.

The display, which runs through March, 2019, offers vintage recipes, oversized, bold photographs of New Yorkers shopping for groceries, and excerpts from the unpublished manuscript, which complemented other FWP projects that were planned to chronicle America’s food culture.

Waiting on customers in an Italian grocery store , Manhattan, 1937

Waiting on customers in an Italian grocery store
Manhattan, 1937
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

Had it been published, it’s not hard to imagine the book and its promotional catchphrase, “New York City Never Stops Eating,” adorning bookstore displays.

Two books published recently, America Eats: On the Road with the WPA (Bloomsbury, 2008) and Food of a Younger Land (Riverhead Books, 2009), used the material the WPA collected to show America’s eating habits nearly a century ago.

Federal Writers’ Project units were formed in each of the 48 states, as well as in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and major cities. The Project’s writers, editors, and researchers told the story of America through travel guidebooks and other publications. The NYC Unit was one of the most prolific units.

Description of foodstuffs at a Sicilian grocery.

Description of foodstuffs at a Sicilian grocery.
FWP writers went to the city’s ports, warehouses, restaurants, and wholesale markets to interview New Yorkers who had some role in feeding the city.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

It’s fitting that the exhibit is shown at the Municipal Archives building, itself part of a larger story of the WPA writers’ relationship to the city and particularly to Rebecca Rankin, the City’s reference librarian from 1920 through 1952 who led the way for the formation of the Archives. According to Assistant Commissioner of DORIS Kenneth R. Cobb, when the FWP project closed down, 6o cartons of the FWP’s materials (including 13 boxes from Feeding the City) were sent to the Archives to “to have and hold forever,” at least partially due to the help Rankin provided to the writers, along with her commitment to progressive principles. (For more on Rankin, see this NYC DORIS article.)

The Municipal Archives houses a trove of other FWP and WPA materials. Among them are documents collected for the FWP’s Ethnic Heritage books. The Italians of New York and an English and Yiddish version of The Jewish Landsmanschaften of New York came out in 1938 and 1939. A book about Spanish-speaking New Yorkers was planned but never published. Those research materials reside in the archive.

Also in the care of the Archives are photographs taken by the WPA in 1939 and 1941 documenting every city building, surveys and architectural descriptions of houses of worship within the five boroughs, reports on child nutrition and education, and more.

To see the exhibit, visit the NYC Municipal Archives 1st Floor Gallery, 31 Chambers Street, Manhattan. The gallery is open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Thursday: 9 a.m. to 7p.m.; Saturday: 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

The Municipal Archives preserves and makes available New York City government’s historical records.

Potatoes: A layout for the never-published book.

A layout for the never-published book.
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

Feeding the City

Feeding the City
FWP writers went to the city’s ports, warehouses, restaurants, and wholesale markets to interview New Yorkers who had a role in feeding the city.
Photo Credit: Susan DeMasi

Susan Rubenstein DeMasi is the author of the 2016 biography, Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project. She is a visiting scholar in this summer’s National Endowment for the Humanities program, “The New Deal Era’s Federal Writers’ Project,” as well as a contributor to an upcoming book on the literary legacy of the FWP, edited by Sara Rutkowski, for the University of Massachusetts Press. [email protected]

A Bridge into the Forest: The CCC in Ohio’s Shawnee State Forest

Shawnee State Park, In the “Little Smoky Mountains” in southern Ohio along the Ohio River

Shawnee State Park
In the “Little Smoky Mountains” in southern Ohio along the Ohio River
Photo Credit: Credit Wikipedia Commons

Shawnee State Forest, a 63,118-acre preserve bordered by the Ohio River in Southern Ohio, began with a 5,000-acre purchase in 1922. By far the largest of Ohio’s forests (making up nearly one-third of the entire Ohio State Forest system), the Shawnee was largely inaccessible to the public until, in 1933, it became the first Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) site in Ohio.

The CCC built lakes, dams, spillways, bridges, roads, hiking trails, park shelters, picnic groves, stone grills, and overlooks, opening the forest for public recreation.

More than 1,500 CCC men worked at Shawnee. Of the seven CCC camps, four were segregated. Some 220 African American enrollees from Company 1545 were stationed at Camp Roosevelt, a camp made up entirely of World War I veterans. Having fought abroad and explored the world beyond segregation, many of these men struggled to readjust to life in the U.S. In the CCC they were guaranteed work and lodging. They were paid the same wage as white CCC members–one dollar per day.

Company 1545, A segregated, all-black unit of CCC enrollees dammed the waters of Mackletree Run and Turkey Creek, creating Roosevelt Lake, 1934

Company 1545
A segregated, all-black unit of CCC enrollees dammed the waters of Mackletree Run and Turkey Creek, creating Roosevelt Lake, 1934
Photo Credit: The Ohio State University. Ohio Agricultural Research & Development Center. Wooster OH. Forestry Images Collection

The men of Company 1545 created Roosevelt Lake and built the Mackletree Road Bridge. Arguably the most significant CCC structure in the forest, the bridge was built of local honey-colored sandstone and American Chestnut timbers the men culled from the surrounding forest to flight blight.

While the Mackletree Road Bridge opened the forest for recreation and fire fighting, it also opened it to logging by state Division of Forestry. Clear cutting within Shawnee has led to degradation of the forest’s biodiversity as well as destruction of CCC works, including the Mackletree Road Bridge.

In 2017 when heavy logging equipment could no longer safely pass over the small, rustic bridge, it was replaced by one of concrete. A silver lining was the creation of a memorial to Company 1545, built from the former bridge’s weathered sandstone.

Mackletree Road Bridge, Shawnee State Park, c 1934

Mackletree Road Bridge, Shawnee State Park, c 1934
Designed by Ernest L. Gill,in the National Park Service’s “parkitecture” style, the bridge was built by a segregated, all-black unit of the CCC enrollees.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Ohio Dept of Transportation

While much of the CCC’s physical work remains intact, significant features, like the bridge, have already been lost or closed to the public and additional threats loom. Today, some of the scenic roads the CCC had designed to promote slow motoring and give visitors access to lookouts and picnic spots have been closed to the public and are restricted to logging use. Another threat was delayed last summer when local activists rose up to contest the proposed removal of the CCC’s Churn Creek Lake. Though the project to breach the spillway was delayed, elimination of the lake is likely.

New threats to the land and the CCC-crafted landscape seem to appear daily, including a proposal to open 50-mile trails through the forest for off-road vehicles. This plan is open to public comment, but seems likely to be implemented, despite impacts to the CCC-built landscape and State’s conservation mission.

Signature stone, When the men of Company 1545 completed the Mackletree Road Bridge, they inscribed it with their “signature."

Signature in stone
When the men of Company 1545 completed the Mackletree Road Bridge, they inscribed it with their “signature.”
Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D., from the Scioto Historical Series, private collection, Friendship, Ohio

This is not the future the CCC saw for Shawnee. “But it is never too late for the Ohio Division of Forestry to hear from folks who support preserving and protecting New Deal-era historic sites and structures,” says “Dr. Andrew Feight, a history professor at Shawnee State University. “With the interests of the logging industry primarily shaping forest management policy, state officials would benefit from hearing from the supporters of historical preservation and the being reminded of the original multiple-use and conservation vision of the CCC.”

For more information contact: Save Our Shawnee Forest

To send comments to the Ohio Division of Forestry, write to forestry.comments@dnr.state.oh.us, or ODNR Division of Forestry 2045 Morse Road, Building H-1 Columbus, Ohio 43229 Phone: (614) 265-6694

The story of Company 1545 and the work of the entire CCC in Shawnee State Forest has been well documented by Dr. Andrew Feight on his excellent website www.sciotohistorical.org.

CCC Memorial at Roosevelt Lake, Shawnee State Park

CCC Memorial at Roosevelt Lake, Shawnee State Park
When Mackletree Road Bridge was replaced in 2016, workers salvaged the hand-cut stones of the original bridge for a memorial commemorating the CCC men who built it.
Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Andrew Feight, Ph.D., from the Scioto Historical Series, private collection, Friendship, Ohio. Photographer: Andrew Freight

Living New Deal Research Associate Anne Delano Steinert [email protected] is a PhD candidate in urban American history at the University of Cincinnati. She is writing her dissertation on the use of the built environment as a source for historical inquiry with a series of case studies focused on 19th and early 20th century Cincinnati. Her grandparents, Anne and Stanley Steinert, were original residents of the Resettlement Administration's Greenhills, Ohio and lived in the village for sixty years. She has recently overseen public history students at UC collecting over 20 oral histories from original residents of Greenhills.

Wisconsin Post Office Mural Guidebook, by David W. Gates, Jr.

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