Winter 2012 Newsletter

Leading economists are calling for new New Deal–public investment to get our country working again and to build the foundation for America’s future. If you want to see what a New Deal can do, take a look at our interactive map. You’ll find schools, houses, parks, roads, airports, hospitals, post offices and cultural centers across the nation–the legacy of New Deal programs that put millions back to work in tough times. What started as a project to catalog New Deal sites in California has grown to include thousands of New Deal sites across the country. We’re now a sponsored project of the National New Deal Preservation Association. If you haven’t explored our website recently, you’ll want to check out some big changes!

Help us spread the word! Add to our New Deal map. Support the Living New Deal.

In this Issue:


Congress to Postal Service: “Drop Dead!”

The fire sale of our post offices is accelerating while the media remain largely asleep at the wheel.

In July 2011, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) gave an exclusive contract to liquidate the public’s property to the giant commercial real estate firm C.B. Richard Ellis (CBRE), which also advises the Postal Service on which properties to sell.  It’s no surprise, then, that so many of the post offices listed for sale or already sold happen to be in expensive real estate markets like Santa Monica, Venice, Palo Alto and Berkeley in California; Greenwich, Connecticut; Towson and Bethesda in Maryland; Northfield, Minnesota; and New York City.

CBRE is effectively owned and chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband, billionaire private equity financier Richard Blum. If you visit the CBRE website devoted to marketing postal properties you will find no distinction between superb, historic post offices and blandly utilitarian processing facilities or vacant lots. For CBRE, it’s all simply real estate thrown into the same lucrative bin. A listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the presence of art works created during the New Deal only serve as impediments to moving those properties quickly.

The USPS seems only too happy to help with removing those obstacles. To get around historic preservation rules, for example, the USPS claims that it is not actually closing and selling the historic buildings that it is, in fact, closing and selling, but is simply “relocating services.”

Former Bethesda Post Office

Former Bethesda Post Office
Bethesda, Maryland, built in 1938.

New “consolidated” Bethesda post office

New “consolidated” Bethesda Post Office
Bethesda, Maryland, 2012.

These relocations mean the USPS will be paying millions of dollars in rent from which it is exempt in buildings it now owns. Further, it means trading ennobling public spaces for outlets in strip malls and Walmarts devoid of the aesthetic or historical merit in which the USPS once took pride.

The fire sale of the public’s portfolio is largely the result of legislation Congress passed in 2006 to effectively put the Postal Service out of business by requiring that it prepay billions to cover health benefits for its future employees—payments that no other government agency or business is required to make. For more than a year, the Postal Service has been seeking legislation that would allow it to reduce the $5 billion annually it must pay the U.S. Treasury, but Congress has failed to act. In September, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe warned that the Postal Service could be insolvent within the year. “Absolutely, we would be profitable right now,” he told The Associated Press, when asked whether congressional delays were to blame for much of the postal losses, expected to reach a record $15 billion this year.

To staunch the bleeding, some 3,700 post office properties are being studied for possible sale—often without public review or input. Attorneys for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in a lengthy letter to the USPS enumerated the many preservation and environmental laws that the agency appears to be ignoring in Berkeley and elsewhere. On October 22 a USPS representative curtly responded that the Trust’s request to be a consulting party was premature and its allegations were “not correct.”

In 1935, Stephen Voorhees, the president of the American Institute of Architects, wrote that the profession’s job was to “hold up before the people a high standard of excellence both in design and craftsmanship, utilizing for this purpose every aesthetic and technical resource of the nation, so that every citizen may have the opportunity of becoming familiar with good architecture, good painting and good sculpture.”

Edward Biberman's Venice Post Office Mural

Edward Biberman's Venice Post Office Mural
Despite community opposition, the USPS sold the Venice Post Office at 1601 Main Street to Hollywood producer Joel Silver. At a press conference closed to the public, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the L.A. Conservancy lauded Silver, the producer of the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon action films, for re-purposing the building for his film company. Silver is now seeking exclusive rights to the post office lobby mural, “Story of Venice,” completed in 1941 by Edward Biberman. Biberman, who died in 1986, was himself a champion of public murals. The Coalition to Save the Venice Post Office is fighting for public access to the mural.

America’s historic post offices are unique in their variety and quality as well as in the public art that make them the People’s Art Gallery. Without the magnificent post offices built during the New Deal and before, Voorhees said, “there would be a distinct loss to the spiritual and patriotic relationship between the citizen and the government if its activities were carried on in bare warehouses without architectural significance or dignity and constructed as cheaply and as shoddily as the average speculative structure.”

The sell off and relocation of the post offices is the nightmare that Voorhees foresaw. Perhaps it is precisely to break that relationship between the citizen and government that our post offices are now regarded not as our shared legacy, but simply as surplus real estate to be liquidated.

For more on the loss of America’s post offices, why it is happening, and what you can do, visit http://www.savethepostoffice.com/

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.

Berkeley Fights to Save Its Post Office

The Downtown Berkeley’s Main Post Office is widely recognized as not just a local treasure but also a national treasure. Completed in 1913, this strikingly handsome building is modeled on Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital in Florence, an architectural icon of the Italian Renaissance. Like hundreds of post offices around the country, Berkeley’s is adorned with art commissioned by the Treasury Department during the New Deal. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In June, the U.S. Postal Service notified the City of Berkeley of the impending sale of the downtown post office. Gray Brechin, Harvey Smith and Ying Lee of the Living New Deal quickly joined forces with labor and community organizers to form Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office. They began working with the City Council and Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office to seek a solution and rallied public opposition to the sale.

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office
Berkeley, California

In September, the City Council held a public meeting at City Hall with post office officials to discuss alternatives to selling the post office. At the standing-room-only meeting, several Berkeley residents spoke passionately about the loss of Berkeley’s main post office and dismantling of the Postal Service. The Postal Service is the second largest employer in the country after Walmart. Layoffs proposed by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe threaten over 200,000 living wage jobs that can only worsen a lingering recession.

At the City Council’s request, Postal Service officials agreed to consider proposals offering alternatives to privatization. However, they declined to participate in any further Council meetings, insisting on a “more neutral” setting.

The USPS had scheduled its public meeting just two days before Thanksgiving, with scant public outreach. When Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office objected the USPS called off the meeting. The meeting date has not been set.

[Ed. Note: This post has been updated and is accurate as of 11/14/12; we will update again if a new meeting is scheduled.]

For more information, contact Harvey Smith.
Harvey Smith is an advisor to the Living New Deal.

FDR Four Freedoms Park Opens At Last

Bronze bust of FDR by American portrait sculptor Jo Davidson

Bronze bust of FDR by American portrait sculptor Jo Davidson
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park dedication ceremony, Roosevelt Island, New York, 2012.

Forty years in the making, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park was finally dedicated on October 17, 2012. The new park takes its name from a speech President Roosevelt made on January 6, 1941 in which he said the way to justify the enormous sacrifice of war was to create a world centered on four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The words were later incorporated into the charter of the United Nations.

The 4-acre, tree-lined park is on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island in the East River with spectacular views of Manhattan and the UN.

At the opening ceremony, former President Bill Clinton said Roosevelt’s dream for a better world “is still the right dream for America.”

It was New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay who first announced plans to build the memorial in 1973 and appointed Louis I. Kahn as its architect.  Kahn completed the plans for the park’s sleek, minimalist design before he died suddenly in 1974. The city, on the brink of bankruptcy, shelved the plans.

Plans were revived by former Ambassador to the UN William vanden Heuvel in 2005 after an Oscar-nominated documentary about Kahn, “My Architect,” reawakened interest in the project. More than $53 million was raised from private donors, the city and state. A legal dispute with two major donors over how prominently their names would be displayed at the memorial had threatened to further delay the park’s debut.

Four Freedoms Aerial View

Four Freedoms Aerial View
Roosevelt Island, New York, 2012

The park is Kahn’s only work in New York City and is the only memorial to Franklin Roosevelt in his native New York State. Fundraising continues to transform a crumbling, abandoned 19th-century smallpox hospital on the island into the park’s visitor center.

Joseph L. Plaud, advisor to the National New Deal Preservation Association, attended the opening ceremony. “There is nothing more special than an event mainly populated by unreconstructed New Dealers, like myself,” he said. “The speeches by President Clinton and Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the closing speech by Bill vanden Heuvel, renewed our faith in what progressive government can do for the American people, even in our fractious political age…”

The park opened to the public on October 24.

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

Shock Troops of Disaster

In addition to the economic calamity of Great Depression, in the 1930s the country was further beset by environmental catastrophes such as floods, hurricanes, drought and a Dust Bowl, much as it is today. But in addition to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the nation had something else then that it does not have in 2012 to deal with devastating storm events such as Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy.

WPA flood relief, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937

WPA flood relief, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937
WPA workers pile sandbags for flood protection.

WPA and CCC workers were trained in disaster aid and recovery. In the event of natural disasters, tens of thousands of men and women could be quickly moved to affected areas to supplement the National Guard and other emergency workers.

The Work Projects Administration produced an 11-minute documentary titled “Shock Troops of Disaster” that includes dramatic footage of the extraordinary damage caused by the epic 1938 storm in New England as well as the recovery effort by federal workers. It is well worth watching today. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it’s a vivid reminder of the vital role of federal government in disaster relief.

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.

Welcome Rachel Brahinsky

Rachel BrahinskyHailing from the New Deal resettlement town, Roosevelt, New Jersey, Rachel Brahinsky has always been fascinated by the legacy of the New Deal era. She joined The Living New Deal team in September. As our first managing director, Rachel will oversee a growing list of projects while making new connections with citizen-researchers across the country. Rachel worked as a journalist before completing her doctorate in Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, She currently teaches urban policy and writing at the University of San Francisco. She would love to hear from you!

Hope and Possibility in a Resettlement Town

Mural by Ben and Bernarda Shahn, Roosevelt, New Jersey

Mural by Ben Shahn, Roosevelt, New Jersey
Roosevelt, New Jersey resident Allan Mallach lectured on the history of the Ben Shahn mural during the town’s 75th anniversary celebration.

Is there room for a utopian vision in these dark economic times? A recent trip to my hometown for its 75th anniversary offered a glimpse into that possibility. Much of my weekend there was spent hearing stories of how the original New Deal vision for Roosevelt, New Jersey, had crumbled. But for me—having attended the local elementary school where a New Deal mural told a story of struggle and persistence—that possibility remains very much alive.

Originally called Jersey Homesteads and renamed Roosevelt in 1945, the tiny borough was one of 99 towns created under the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration, whose broad mission also included relocating migrant laborers as part of an effort to create employment and social stability.

Established in 1937, the town was a test case in greenbelt town planning, with homes inspired by Bauhaus architectural design. Louis Kahn, who later became an internationally recognized architect, was an assistant to Jersey Homesteads principal architect Alfred Kastner. Years later Kahn designed Four Freedoms Park on New York’s Roosevelt Island, an homage to FDR.

Mural by Ben and Bernarda Shahn, Roosevelt, New Jersey

Detail of mural by Ben Shahn
A section of Ben Shahn’s mural in Roosevelt, N.J.’s elementary school depicts the plight of laborers.

Jersey Homelands also was a social experiment among largely working-class Jewish immigrants in creating a collectively managed community; it was the only Jewish resettlement town. Many of the first residents had fled Eastern Europe in the ‘teens for places like Brooklyn, New York and Philadelphia. When they left the city, it was to found what they called an “agro-industrial cooperative.” It was a dream propelled by town founder Benjamin Brown, a Russian immigrant who devoted much of his life to establishing Jewish agricultural cooperatives.

A culture of political organizing permeated the town in its early days. Over the 75th anniversary weekend one member of the original settlement recalled the seemingly endless march of organizational meetings in which his parents took part. He said he would fall asleep to the voices of adults debating–only to wake up the following morning to hear them still at it!

The cooperative experiment did not last long. The garment factory, farm and store that were Jersey Homestead’s economic base transferred to private ownership, and many residents sought work elsewhere or moved away. Some blame disagreements among settlers, but the stories vary.

What has lasted is a concern for preserving the town’s generous open space and unusual architecture. Preservation fights beginning in the late 1990s kept the town’s greenbelt from succumbing to cookie-cutter suburban development. The Bauhaus-inspired, flat-roofed-cinderblock homes always seemed misplaced, given New Jersey’s cold, wet winters. Still, many current residents have retained the Bauhaus feel of their homes.

Roosevelt’s 884 contemporary residents include a thriving artist community through which the town maintains some of the leftward tilt of its original residents. Perhaps it helps that the Roosevelt Public School still boasts the amazing mural by New Deal artist Ben Shahn, whose family lives in town. Depicting the town’s founders and one of its most famous supporters—Albert Einstein—the 1937-38 mural shows attacks on progressive political models while recording the town’s utopian aspirations.

For a story about Roosevelt, New Jersey 75th anniversary, visit http://www.npr.org/2012/09/23/161494490/new-deal-town-turns-75-utopian-ideals-long-gone

[Editors note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that Albert Einstein lived in Roosevelt. He was a political supporter of the town, which is about 16 miles from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ, Einstein’s academic home until his death in 1955.]
Rachel Brahinsky is the Living New Deal's managing director and postdoctoral fellow.

Update: Coit Tower Activists Win Preservation Measure

Coit Tower Mural by Maxine Albro

Coit Tower Mural by Maxine Albro
San Francisco, California

San Francisco activists are celebrating their successful campaign to protect and preserve the historic murals at San Francisco’s Coit Tower. The frescos were created under the Public Works of Art Project, the first of the New Deal federal employment programs for artists during the Great Depression.

The city-owned landmark perched atop Telegraph Hill draws some 150,000 visitors a year to its panoramic views and famous murals.

Over the years, water damage and neglect took their toll on the artwork even as millions in revenue Coit Tower adds to the city’s coffers was being spent elsewhere.

That changed after a group of local citizens formed the Protect Coit Tower Committee and advanced a ballot measure to dedicate the tower’s revenues to preserving the tower itself. San Francisco voters passed Measure B in June. The city has since earmarked $1.7 million for repairs and restoration and adopted a plan to prevent further damage.

In August activists won new rules restricting private events at the tower. Adam Gottstein, grandson of Coit Tower muralist Bernard Zakheim, argued that some activities the city permits imperil the murals. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors agreed and adopted a new policy that restricts the use of the tower in several ways, including prohibiting candles, food and drink in the mural rooms.

Watch a story on the Coit Tower murals on the PBS Newshour: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/jan-june12/fadingmurals_01-18.html

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

Remembering Beth Danysh 1920-2012

Beth Danysh and Harvey Smith

Beth Danysh and Harvey Smith
Rancho de Taos, New Mexico

I had spoken to Beth Danysh many times over the phone but it was not until 2010 that I finally met her in person. Beth was an interior designer, a talent clearly in evidence at her beautiful home in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico.  It was my interest in Beth’s late husband, Joseph Danysh, that led me to her door.

Joe headed the New Deal’s Federal Art Project in the West, hired by Harry Hopkins, a close advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt and Holger Cahill, the National Director of the WPA’s Federal Art Project. For several years, before he went to supervise the arts program for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Joe traveled by train through seven western states commissioning and supervising those who today are regarded among America’s finest artists.

Beth shared many wonderful memories about the New Deal artists she came to know through Joe—Beniamino Bufano, Ansel Adams, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Lucien Labauldt and Bernard Zakheim, whom she described as a “wild man” who loved verbal sparring.

She told me that the sculptor Benny Bufano used black shoe polish on his hair. (He wanted to be sure people knew he was Italian). Bufano was a houseguest when the Danyshes lived in Carmel, California, but according to Beth, he would never sleep. She recalled that the frenetic Bufano had been commissioned to create 200-foot-high statue of Saint Francis that would overlook San Francisco from Twin Peaks, but the night before the work was to be approved, Bufano gave a talk espousing the joys of communism to the executives of U.S. Steel, from whom Joe had procured the steel for the work. “The project was cooked!” Beth recounted.

In 2010 I was co-curator of an exhibit of New Deal art at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, California. Beth generously loaned Bufano’s maquette of the ill-fated Saint Francis sculpture. It was to become a focal point of the show.

Beth said Joe considered Oregon’s Timberline Lodge his crowning glory because it was all hand made. The project required that a temporary town be built on Mount Hood to house the workers. The convergence of fine woodwork, mosaics, glass and wrought iron make the Timberline a showcase of New Deal craftsmanship. The Civilian Conservation Corps did the stonework. Joe was there for the dedication, along with FDR.

Clearly, Beth and Joe had a wonderful life together. Her stories brought to life an era so different from today. I’ll miss her grace and openness, and her wonderful stories about those whose work has come to define the New Deal.

Harvey Smith is an advisor to the Living New Deal.

A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth

A Great Leap Forward

This book makes a surprising claim. In A Great Leap Forward, economic historian Alexander J. Field challenges the notion that the Second World War single-handedly saved the U.S. economy from the Great Depression. In fact, the recovery from the collapse of 1929… read more

Coit Tower San Francisco: Its History and Art

Coit Tower: Its History and Art

Nearly 80 years after it opened, San Francisco’s Coit Memorial Tower stands not only as a celebrated architectural landmark but also as a historical record of the city’s tumultuous past. The murals that embellish the tower’s interior are the legacy… read more