Summer 2017

New York City was the country’s single greatest recipient of New Deal investment. This summer, the Living New Deal was warmly welcomed to the city to celebrate the publication of our new map and guide to New York’s vast New Deal legacy. We are deeply grateful to Roosevelt House at Hunter College, the Museum of the City of New York, and the New York Society; to the National Jobs Coalition; and to our Advisory Council members Professors Frank Roosevelt, Ira Katznelson, and Willliam Leuchtenburg; and Ambassador William vanden Heuvel of the Roosevelt Institute for their participation and support.

Many social and political leaders brought their ideas and talents to Washington in 1933 via New York, among them Frances Perkins, Henry Alsberg, Harry Hopkins, Homer Folks, Jane Hoey, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and FDR himself. Their values drove the New Deal agenda—relief, recovery, and reform.

In this issue, you’ll learn about some of New York’s most charismatic New Dealers and the lasting impression they made on the city and beyond. The Living New Deal’s message of positive, public-spirited leadership is evermore important. We appreciate your support!

In this Issue:

A 20-million Word Experiment in Collective Writing Henry Alsberg and the FWP
By Susan DeMasi

American Guide Series

Federal Writers' Project Poster
American Guide Series
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

In the first half of the 20th century—before he fell through the cracks of history—Henry Alsberg’s byline appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines. When Harry Hopkins tapped him to lead the Federal Writers’ Project in 1935, Alsberg had already lived a remarkable life.

Born in New York City in 1881, Alsberg spent the 1920s as an activist and writer in the U.S. and abroad. He worked on behalf of political prisoners, reported on the geopolitical changes in Europe and Russia for The Nation and other publications, and aided Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. He produced and wrote plays at the Provincetown Playhouse and the Neighborhood Playhouse. In 1930, he helped Emma Goldman edit her autobiography. His close friendship with Goldman developed at least partially from her open stance on homosexuality. As a gay man living in horrendously dangerous times, Alsberg found a safe haven in her company.

By the time of the Great Depression, the boundlessly energetic Alsberg had suffered economic as well as personal setbacks. Freelance writing jobs were scarce. A contract with the Metropolitan Opera House to adapt one of his plays fell through. But Roosevelt’s New Deal brought a promising new deal for Alsberg.

Alsberg with Eleanor Roosevelt, an ardent FWP supporter, 1938 At WPA Exhibit in Washington, D.C.

Alsberg with Eleanor Roosevelt, an ardent FWP supporter
At WPA Exhibit in Washington, D.C., 1938
Photo Credit: Courtesy of National Archives

At age 53, he landed a writing job with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and authored America Fights the Depression, a large-format book promoting the accomplishments of the Civil Works Administration (CWA). Then, he brought his progressive beliefs to the Federal Writers’ Project, which he headed from 1935-1939.

Under Alsberg’s guidance, the Project—dubbed by Pathfinder Magazine as “a 20-million word experiment in collective writing”—produced hundreds of books. The highly acclaimed American Guide series detailed the histories and cultures of each of the then-48 states, Alaska, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico, and provided descriptions of every major city and town.

Among the 10,000 unemployed people hired by the FWP over its 8-year existence were many up-and-coming writers, including John Cheever, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright. Ralph Ellison, May Swenson, and others collected oral histories for the FWP, preserving by the thousands the life stories of former slaves, immigrants, factory workers, and other Americans who didn’t typically make it into the history books.

Henry Alsberg, Director of the Federal Writers' Project Testifying at House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearing, 1938

Henry Alsberg, Director of the Federal Writers' Project
Testifying at House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearing, 1938

Alsberg and Hallie Flanagan, his counterpart at the Federal Theatre Project, constantly battled with anti-New Deal forces. Their mutual nemesis, Congressman Martin Dies, chair of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), led the opposition that ultimately defunded both projects in 1939. Colonel Francis Harrington, Harry Hopkins’ successor as head of the WPA, ordered Alsberg to resign, but he stubbornly refused to leave while he was in the midst of ushering a number of books to publication. Harrington fired Alsberg; the FWP was renamed the WPA Writers Program, and continued in a diminished capacity under state auspices until its closure in 1943.

After a brief speaking tour, Alsberg resumed freelance writing and returned to New York City, living for a time next to Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn—later renamed the Stonewall Inn—today a landmark of the gay rights movement. In 1942, he returned to Washington D.C. as an editor for the Office of War Information. But that didn’t last long. The Civil Service Commission investigated Alsberg for being in an “immoral,” homosexual relationship, forcing him to resign.

FWP display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair Oversized American Guide books placed on a U.S. Map

FWP display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair
Oversized American Guide books placed on a U.S. Map

He returned to writing and working as an editor for Hastings House into his 80s. In his final years, he moved to Palo Alto to live with his sister, a civil rights activist. He often visited City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, where his friend, Vincent McHugh, a former New York City FWP editor, was involved in the Beat poetry scene. After Alsberg’s death in 1970, McHugh recalled their FWP years: “We were one of the Berkeleys of the 1930s.”

Alsberg and the Federal Writers’ Project changed the literary landscape of America. We can look forward to this legacy expanding exponentially as more original FWP materials become digitized.

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]

Playing Through: Recreation and the New Deal
By Gray Brechin

The Pelham Club House, Bronx, New York Pelham Bay Golf Course was renovated in 1936 as part of a WPA–funded project.

The Pelham Club House, Bronx, New York
Pelham Bay Golf Course was renovated in 1936 as part of a WPA–funded project.
Photo Credit: Frank Da Cruz

The Works Progress Administration (WPA)-built Pelham Bay Golf Course clubhouse in the Bronx is a knockout, but not so unusual in the exceptional quality it offered to the public. David Owen, in a 2005 article on public golf courses in the New Yorker, described the clubhouse as looking “a little like Monticello without the dome,” although its circular foyer and expansive salon are more Art Deco Hollywood than Jeffersonian Palladian. When Living New Deal Director Dick Walker and I visited it in June with local resident and New Deal researcher Frank da Cruz, I mistook it for one of the private clubs in the tonier suburbs of New York City rather than the still working-class Bronx.

Renovated concession stand at Pelham Club House, 2017

Renovated concession stand at Pelham Club House, 2017
The Club House serves the Pelham Bay and Split Rock Golf Courses
Photo Credit: Frank da Cruz

Pelham Bay and adjacent Split Rock Golf Courses share the clubhouse and both were, Owens writes, designed by noted golf architect John R. Van Kleck as two among many outstanding public courses commissioned by parks czar Robert Moses in four of the city’s five boroughs. Owen’s article also describes Brooklyn’s WPA-built Dyker Beach clubhouse as “a French-inspired gentleman’s house” but with a membership including “carpenters, cops, lawyers, firefighters, accountants, masons, city employees—a typical mix for a New York City golf course,” by which he means a public golf course open to all.

Original concession stand. The concession stand as it appeared in 1940

Original concession stand
The concession stand as it appeared in 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy New York City Parks

By building ski lodges, tennis courts, equestrian facilities, archery ranges, swimming pools, innumerable baseball fields as well as golf courses, New Deal agencies like the WPA democratized sports previously available only to the wealthy while realizing what Franklin Roosevelt called for at a 1943 press conference: “We must plan for, and help to bring about, an expanded economy which will result in more security, in more employment, in more recreation.” New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia also saw the need to plan for the greater leisure time that would result from automation once the Depression was over. In his recent book, City of Ambition, Mason Williams writes,  “The core of La Guardia’s “economic readjustment’ . . . was the reduction of working hours (and the retention of existing wage levels) to create what he called a “spread of employment” which in turn would “create an opportunity for education, for recreation, for travel, for enjoyment of life.” At the same time, recreational facilities would provide numerous jobs for those who staffed them. 

Club room Décor is Art Deco-style with an ocean-wave motif

Club Room
Décor is Art Deco-style with an ocean-wave motif
Photo Credit: Frank da Cruz

FDR doubtless thought a lot about the benefits of physical activity since they were largely denied the once-athletic man after he contracted polio in 1921. But, like La Guardia, he also knew that Americans in the near future would have much more spare time, and that recreational and educational opportunities should be available to them to productively fill it.

The New Deal encouraged public health in its broadest dimension: the development of a full human being and a healthy society of citizens, not consumers. Though few remember who built them and why, public golf courses continue to deliver on that promise by building the community of which David Owens writes many decades after WPA workers traded their shovels for four irons.   

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.

Paint and Politics—the Life and Work of Victor Arnautoff
By Robert Cherny

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, 1934

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, 1934
The artist included this self portrait in his “City Life” mural.
Photo Credit: Robert Cherny

Victor Arnautoff was a prolific artist of public murals during the New Deal, many of which are still in place.

Born in Russia in 1896, Arnautoff was a cavalry officer in WWI and later in the White Siberian army during the Russian Civil War. Escaping into northeastern China, he married and his father-in-law paid for him to attend the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. His first public mural, in 1929, can be seen in the city’s Old Cathedral of the Holy Virgin.

Arnautoff and his family moved to Mexico where he worked as an assistant to the famed muralist Diego Rivera. Returning to San Francisco in 1931, Arnautoff gained attention by painting a large fresco mural on his studio wall. He then did several fresco panels at the Palo Alto Clinic that remain on view.

Painting the mural “City Life.”

Painting the mural “City Life.”
San Francisco’s Coit Tower, 1934
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

With the New Deal in 1933, federal funds became available for public art. In San Francisco, the Public Works of Art Project hired 25 artists to create murals at Coit Tower. Arnautoff, highly experienced in fresco technique, was designated technical coordinator of the project. His mural, City Life, completed in 1934, presents a vivid kaleidoscope of downtown San Francisco at a time of economic and social upheaval.

Arnautoff’s next New Deal commission, a large mural in the Protestant chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco, funded by the State Emergency Relief Administration, depicts historical vignettes and contemporary activities at the military base, including the Army’s supervision of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

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

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

Arnautoff’s political views moved to the left in the mid-1930s, and he sometimes incorporated social criticism into his art. His largest single New Deal commission was thirteen fresco panels on the life of George Washington, painted in 1936 at the newly built George Washington High School in San Francisco. Funded by the WPA’s Federal Art Project, the murals present a counter narrative to the high school history texts of the time: the panel on Mount Vernon emphasizes Washington’s dependence on slave labor, and that on the westward “march of the white race” (Arnautoff’s description) shows it taking place over the body of dead Indian.

He exhibited at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, the 1935 California Pacific Exposition, and the 1940 New York World’s Fair.

Mural, “Life of Washington,” George Washington High School, San Francisco The fresco, consists of 12 panels and measures 1600-square-feet

Mural, “Life of Washington,” George Washington High School, San Francisco
The fresco, consists of 12 panels and measures 1600-square-feet
Photo Credit: Richard Evans

Between 1938 and 1942 Arnautoff completed five Treasury Section post office murals. Those in College Station and Linden, Texas, prominently featured African Americans, rarely depicted in public artworks. His post office murals can still be seen at Linden and at Pacific Grove and South San Francisco, California. Arnautoff’s mural for the Richmond, California, Post Office was recently discovered in a packing crate in the post office’s basement. It is being restored for exhibition in the Richmond Museum of History.

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, c:1950

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, c:1950
Arnautoff painted this self-portrait opposing HR 9490, the McCarran Internal Security Act. The Act required Communist organizations to register with the U.S. Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board.
Photo Credit: With kind permission of INVA publishing house, Russia

In the 1950s, Arnautoff, while teaching at Stanford, was shunned for his leftist views and was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1963, after the death of his wife, he emigrated to the Soviet Union where he continued to paint and make prints and created three large public murals using mosaic tiles. He died in 1979.

Robert W. Cherny is professor emeritus of history at San Francisco State University. He is the author of Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art (University of Illinois Press, 2017), and numerous books and essays on U.S. history and politics.

My Day, The First Lady in Her Own Words
By Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg

Far and wide, over this country, I have said that for generations to come, there would be people using the things created by WPA workers during this period of depression. The sad part of it is that, of course, few people will realize who built the schools, or the parks, or the playgrounds or the recreation centers.

—Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day, August 1939


Mrs. Roosevelt , journalist

Mrs. Roosevelt , journalist
She wrote “My Day” six days a week for more than 20 years.

Imagine writing a 500-word newspaper column six days a week, some of them while serving as First Lady. Eleanor Roosevelt’s syndicated column, My Day, which ran from 1936 until 1962, appeared in 90 newspapers in all parts of the country and, at its height, reached an audience of more than four million.

Inviting her readers into the White House, ER’s column told them about what she did as First Lady, introduced them to her family and friends, and offered her impressions of books, concerts, and plays. Chatty and informal, My Day nonetheless was imbued with ER’s inimitable humanitarian perspective. Later, “on her own,” she wrote about serving as U.S. delegate to United Nations and framing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s column appeared in 90 newspapers across the country.

My Day
Eleanor Roosevelt’s column appeared in 90 newspapers across the country.

As First Lady Eleanor was a great proponent of the New Deal programs that provided jobs to millions of unemployed workers while greatly expanding and enriching the nation’s resources. Nowhere is this more apparent than in My Day, where she reported on her nationwide travels to visit projects undertaken by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC,), Public Works Administration, (PWA), and National Youth Administration (NYA).

Here are a few examples:

March 10, 1936, Detroit: I set out to visit some WPA projects. First, the project where immunization against whooping cough is being studied….Then we went to another project, a municipal garage which will be a tremendous building…. this project is being supervised by the city engineers and the work was considered as good as any contract work.

November 13, 1936, Milwaukee: I have just come back from one of the most interesting mornings I have ever spent…. a handicraft project for unskilled women…They are binding scrap books for children; books to be used in hospitals; and books for the Braille project….

In 1937, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped lay the cornerstone for WPA project in Montgomery County, Kentucky.

Visiting New Deal projects
In 1937, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped lay the cornerstone for WPA project in Montgomery County, Kentucky.

March 21, 1937, Austin I went out to see a roadside park, one of the NYA projects that has proved most successful in this state. They have built one hundred and sixty-six of these parks….

March 17, 1938, Los Angeles … the Fresno airport… has been greatly improved by WPA labor…some of the buildings have been moved and the administration building has been built. Then we drove through the park to see the artificial lake the WPA has constructed.

February 13, 1939, Washington, DC… a visit I paid to the new Department of the Interior building to look at the murals. Henry Varnum Poor’s mural of wildlife is a grand piece of work. You almost feel that you are walking right into the scene and that the men and birds are alive…. Don’t fail to see them if you are in Washington.

The First Lady on the air, 1941

The First Lady on the air, 1941
In addition to her newspaper column, she reached millions through her weekly radio address.

For many years, the memory of these projects and its workers faded– as Mrs. Roosevelt feared they would. Thanks to the Living New Deal, the public is being made aware of these enormous contributions. May such recognition lead us to recognize that our great gaps in infrastructure, environmental sustainability, human services, and access to culture could once again be filled by men and women in need of living-wage work.

Professor Emerita of Social Work and Social Policy at Adelphi University, Trudy Goldberg has written about the feminization of poverty from a cross-national perspective; the history of work and welfare; and the New Deal. She is chair of the National Jobs for All Network. A version of this article first appeared in the organization’s February 2023 newsletter.