Summer 2018 Newsletter

Be a Nuisance Where It Counts
This summer, we’re working to fill a significant gap in the New Deal’s backstory—the role of women and their lasting impact on the social welfare of the nation. In collaboration with the Frances Perkins Center and the National New Deal Preservation Association we’ll be hosting “Women and the Spirit of the New Deal,” a conference at UC Berkeley on October 5 and 6. We’ve lined up a number of leading lights—authors, scholars, historians, activists, and political leaders—to share their knowledge and perspectives. We want everyone who’s interested to attend, regardless of ability to pay. If you can donate or become a co-sponsor, we would be grateful for your support.

As you’ll find in our Summer newsletter, the Living New Deal continues to inspire and support efforts to recognize and preserve the New Deal legacy. Thank you for making our work possible.

In this Issue:


Reviving the New Deal’s Lost History in New York City

"Indian Bowman,” by Wheeler Williams. Canal Street Post Office, Manhattan

“Indian Bowman,” Sculpture by Wheeler Williams
Canal Street Post Office, Manhattan
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

 

The eerie absence of historic signage marking the New Deal’s achievements in New York City is striking, especially given the city’s favored status as a recipient of New Deal funding. Between 1936 and 1937, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) funneled one-seventh of its total monies to New York City, earning it the nickname of the “47th state” among Washington insiders.

Today, commuters can thank New Deal programs for making their daily round trip possible via the Lincoln Tunnel, the Triborough Bridge, and the Henry Hudson Parkway. Traffic still pours into Manhattan from the outer boroughs through the Queens-Midtown and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnels. LaGuardia is still a hub for air travel.

Tavern on the Green, Central Park

Tavern on the Green
Central Park, Manhattan
Photo Credit: Deborah Gardner

And these well-known structures are the least of it, says Living New Deal Research Associate Frank Da Cruz, who has been documenting New Deal sites in the city. Da Cruz provided much of the data for the Living New Deal’s map “Guide to New Deal Public Works and Art of New York City,” published in 2016. He has identified about 600 sites around the city so far, many of them in the city’s parks.

Red Hook Recreation Center, Brooklyn

Red Hook Recreation Center
Brooklyn
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress

The WPA, PWA, and other New Deal public works programs created jobs for tens of thousands of workers who shaped the city as we know it today. The New Deal tackled New York’s massive infrastructure needs by constructing power plants, sewers, power lines, water mains, and much of the city’s subway system, along with schools, post offices, hospitals, playgrounds, pools, and recreation centers across the five boroughs.

The reasons for the New Deal’s disappearance from the city’s collective memory aren’t entirely clear. Many believe that its virtual deletion is rooted in the antagonism between FDR and Robert Moses—the controversial powerbroker who, as “czar” of urban development, transformed the city during the mid-20th century. In the post-war years, Americans turned toward private sector solutions in matters of infrastructure, urban renewal, and job creation, relegating “big government” to the past.

Triborough Bridge. The massive project connected Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx

Triborough Bridge, 1936
The massive project connected Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx

Now, a committed group of New Yorkers has set out to recover New York’s New Deal history. “Our aim is to mark hundreds of New Deal sites around the city with commemorative plaques, cornerstones, and other interpretative signage,” says Grace (“Jinx”) Roosevelt, co-chair of the Living New Deal’s New York working group. “We want to ensure that future generations have a visible record of a time and place when government invested in the people of this country.”

For more information and to get involved, write to: [email protected].

Margaret W. Crane is a freelance health and medical writer in New York City. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Scientist, and on numerous health and education websites. She recently joined the Living New Deal’s team as a Program Associate.

Rediscovering Arthur Rothstein’s “Photo Stories”

Families were displaced by the Dust Bowl

Forced to move by drought, North Dakota, 1936
Families were displaced by the Dust Bowl
Photo Credit: Photo by Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

My dad, Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) was the first photographer hired by the Farm Security Administration, the New Deal agency that pioneered the use of photographs and “photo stories” to build public and political support for federal relief programs.

Starting in 1935, the Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration– “FSA,” for short–compiled an unprecedented, nationwide photographic survey of life in Depression-wracked America.

During Dad’s nearly seven years working for the FSA he refined the art of visual storytelling, producing hundreds of in-depth photo essays documenting the need for government assistance and the successful New Deal relief programs created in response.

FSA photos put a human face on problems such as “drought” and “failing farms” targeted by New Deal programs.

Dust threatens to engulf a home. Liberal, Kansas, 1936
FSA photos put a human face on problems such as “drought” and “failing farms” targeted by New Deal programs.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

Dad was fiercely patriotic. His parents, Jews displaced from Eastern Europe by pogroms, had found both refuge and opportunity in America. He was drawn to stories of migrants and the dispossessed that, through no fault of their own, needed government help. He brought a powerful sense of purpose to his New Deal assignments.

Dad’s boss at the FSA, Roy Stryker, shared Dad’s sense of purpose. Stryker believed that photography could serve as a tool to advance social justice. He thought that words with pictures provided irrefutable evidence of the need for federal assistance to struggling Americans. More than a dozen FSA photographers would eventually contribute images to Stryker’s extensive visual record of American life during the Depression and the early years of World War II. That collection, preserved at the Library of Congress, includes iconic images my Dad took as a young FSA photographer. His photographs of the devastation wrought by the drought and Dust Bowl remain the most famous of his career.

Photo by Arthur Rothstein for Look magazine

Eddie Mitchell, Birmingham, Alabama
Photo by Arthur Rothstein for Look magazine
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

The values my father inherited from his immigrant parents, reinforced by his New Deal tenure under Roy Stryker, can be seen in the work Dad created throughout his 50-year career as a photojournalist and documentary photographer.

After serving as a photographer in the US Army Signal Corps during WW II, and as chief photographer for a United Nations relief agency in China after the war, Dad spent 35 years as director of photography at the popular Look and Parade magazines. One of Dad’s first and most memorable stories for Look depicted the daily indignities of a young black man living in the segregated South.

Dad’s New Deal portfolio still stands out as surprisingly relevant. My father’s images from nearly 80 years past remind us that we still live among the dispossessed—those denied justice and made vulnerable by forces beyond their control—and that government has a responsibility to shield and support those who need a leg up.

 
Tenant farmer, Tennessee, 1937

Tenant farmer, Tennessee, 1937
The collapse of the rural economy displaced farmers from their land.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

Dr. Ann Segan is the one of Arthur Rothstein’s four children. Her interdisciplinary Ph.D. is in the field of expressive arts for healing and social change. Her work on the value of visual storytelling in oral history projects was celebrated at the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. She frequently lectures on Rothstein’s legacy and creates photographic exhibits with husband, Brodie Hefner. She is a Research Associate for the Living New Deal in New York City.

Victory for Berkeley’s Historic Post Office

Berkeley’s historic Post Office

Berkeley’s historic Post Office
The 1915 Renaissance-revival building anchors a five block area listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Preservation activists in Berkeley, California, worked for years to protect their city’s historic core. In 1998, they achieved National Register of Historic Places status for a 5-block area encompassing the New Deal-era Civic Center Park and 13 buildings—the Beaux Arts-style Old City Hall, Veterans Building, Berkeley High School, Community Theater, and the Main Post Office, a Berkeley Landmark.

In 2014, amidst a downtown development boom, the City created a “defined district”—the Civic Center Historic District Zoning Overlay— restricting uses within it to civic and cultural purposes. The year before, the U.S. Postal Service announced it planned to sell the historic Post Office, potentially to local developers, who planned to develop it for a Target store.

Since legislation Congress passed in 2006 placed onerous financial obligations on the U.S. Postal Service, hundreds of post offices nationwide—many historic—have been listed for sale or sold to developers.

Rally

Rally
Campaigners hoping to halt the sale of the downtown Berkeley Post Office protest outside Senator Feinstein’s office in San Francisco in 2012.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Designed by architect Oscar Wenderoth, Berkeley’s century-old Renaissance Revival post office, like many civic buildings of the time, was embellished with artworks during the New Deal under the Treasury Relief Art Project.

Suzanne Scheuer, one of 23 New Deal artists whose work can be seen at San Francisco’s landmark Coit Tower, painted the mural in the lobby of the Berkeley Post Office. “Incidents in California History,” depicts Native Americans, Spanish explorers, Californios, and other early residents of the Bay Area. Sculptor David Slivka, who later exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, carved the bas relief of postal workers on the post office’s exterior. Carved in stone are the sculptor’s initials and the words: “From D.S., To: All Mankind, Truth Abode on Freedom Road.”

Bas Relief

Bas Relief
Sculptor David Slivka carved the relief on the post office’s exterior.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

The USPS sued the City, claiming its Civic Center District Zoning Overlap frustrated efforts to sell the post office.  Last month, after nearly two years in federal court, the City prevailed. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Alsup rejected the Justice Department’s claim that the special zoning had deprived the Postal Service of the ability to sell the property.

Save the Berkeley Post Office and the National Trust for Historic Preservation view the ruling as a victory for cities that, like Berkeley, seek to use zoning as a tool for historic preservation.

“Incidents in California History"

“Incidents in California History"
New Deal artist Suzanne Scheuer painted the mural in the lobby of the Berkeley Post Office.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Susan Ives is a communications consultant and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

“Be a nuisance where it counts,” The Legacy of Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Writer and activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“It is as if there were places and times in which human activity becomes a whirlpool which gathers force not only from one man’s courage and ambitions and high hopes but from the very tides of disaster and human foolishness which otherwise disperse them.”

“A whirlpool which gathers force.” Interestingly, these words were written by Marjory Stoneman Douglas–the namesake of the school in Parkland, Florida, where in February, yet another shooting massacre took place.

American Guide to Miami

American Guide to Miami
Published under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project, the American Guide Series contains detailed histories of each of the then 48 states and major cities and towns.

Douglas, who died in 1998 at the age of 108, might have been describing the student activists who have taken up the fight against the NRA and the politicians who support archaic gun laws. But Douglas’s words appeared in the foreword she wrote to the 1941 edition of A Guide to Miami and Dade County, one of the books in the Works Progress Administration’s American Guide series.

The WPA guides, published by the New Deal’s Federal Writers Project between 1935 and 1943, were intended to create jobs and spur tourism during the Great Depression. The FWP hired thousands of unemployed writers, librarians, clerks, researchers, editors, and historians around the country—including Douglas, a journalist, and activist throughout her long life.

Douglas is best known for her tireless crusade to save the Florida Everglades. But throughout her life, she also supported such causes as women’s rights, civil liberties, and racial justice.

The Everglades, River of Grass

The Everglades, River of Grass
Douglas’s book, published in 1947, the same year that the Everglades became a national park, remains a call to action.

She was a suffragette at Wellesley College, and actively fought for women’s right to vote until the 19th Amendment was enacted in 1920. Arriving in South Florida in 1915 when barely 5,000 people lived in Miami, she began her career as a society columnist for her father’s newspaper, which later became the Miami Herald.

Like Henry Alsberg, director of the FWP and editor of the WPA American Guide series, Douglas spent time in Europe after World War I aiding war refugees. Upon returning to Florida, she turned to covering social and environmental themes, including the importance of preserving the Everglades and its ecosystem.

Douglas, who stood 5 foot 2 and weighed barely 100 pounds, famously did battle with the Army Corps of Engineers, the State of Florida, and powerful business interests over draining the Everglades for agriculture and real estate development. Her 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass, still considered groundbreaking, “galvanized public interest in protecting the Everglades,” according to the Florida Department of State. In 1969, at age 79, Douglas founded Friends of the Everglades.

When she was 103, President Bill Clinton, calling her the “Grandmother of the Glades” presented Douglas with the Medal of Freedom. Still-wild portions of the Everglades are named in her honor. At a ceremony on Earth Day, 2015, Douglas’s home in Dade County, Florida, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Student March

Student March
Students in Parkland, Florida mounted a campaign to end gun violence after 17 died at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But more than these “official” honors Douglas would surely be proud of the students who hail from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for carrying on her efforts to build a better world.

“Be a nuisance where it counts,” Douglas once said. “Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption, and bad politics—but never give up.”

John Rothchild, who helped write Douglas’s autobiography, said that her death was the only thing that could “shut her up.”

He added, “And the silence is terrible.”

Sue Rubenstein DeMasi is the author of 'Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project', published by McFarland & Co in 2016. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and other publications. She works as a librarian at Suffolk County Community College in New York.