In 1934, during the Great Depression, a group of Berkeley’s unemployed left a poignant message to the future in a local park.
Last Friday, Feb. 6, a group of locals gathered briefly during the lunch hour to honor that gift and contemplate what it means for past, present, and future, especially in our era that now echoes the mid-1930s with national recession, widening economic woe, and an energetic new president.
What enduring effects the federal economic stimulus package, making its way through Congress, will have on the Mother Lode remains anyone’s guess.
But past major infrastructure spending — like that presented in President Barack Obama’s plan, called the most ambitious since the Interstate highway system was built in the 1950s — made an impression on the region that has survived for decades.
They include schools, trails and some other things of which people might not think. They also created jobs and laid the foundation for an economy fueled by natural resources and tourism.
Gray Brechin is a historian whose appearance and giddy erudition suggest he might be Truman Capote’s long-lost twin. When I visited him at his UC Berkeley office recently, he excitedly showed me sepia-toned photographs of a lost civilization.
The grandeur of this bygone society’s public monuments was unrivaled. There was a glorious open-air theater, bathhouses designed as citadels, and a majestic “Temple of Honor” dedicated to past and future writers. Even mere secondary schools were built to rival Byzantine temples. A school for crippled and malnourished children was covered in Spanish tiles, its stenciled ceilings hung with chandeliers, and filled with the era’s finest in handcrafted furniture.
“They said at the time that it was deliberate, because they wanted them to take their minds off their afflictions,” says Brechin, describing the Mission District’s Sunshine School for disabled children, which was built in 1936. The Byzantine-esque school is George Washington High School in the Richmond — “an Art Deco Acropolis,” he says. The writers’ temple is the now-well-worn Woodminster Amphitheater in the hills east of Oakland.
This lost society Brechin describes reflects the intensely public-spirited America that existed in the years during and following the New Deal, when workers built thousands of exquisite monuments to public life, and Americans responded by rebuilding the country during and after the Great Depression.
Brechin and a team of researchers have spent years creating their Living New Deal Project, seeking out and chronicling the often-forgotten works of the Works Progress Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Writers Project, and the other “alphabet agencies” that transformed America’s landscape during a decade that straddled the 1930s and ’40s.
A stream tumbles down a rocky outcrop behind Lake Temescal‘s log-cabin-like boathouse, passing through shaded pools before flattening out on its way into the lake.
The stream looks as natural as the Oakland hills that rise to the east. In fact, it was built by federal workers in the 1930s – just like the boathouse, and just like hundreds of other Bay Area landmarks that endure as part of the region’s physical and cultural heritage, even though they were spawned by an economic crisis.
“Millions of people enjoy these things all the time who have no idea where they came from,” says Gray Brechin, a visiting scholar in UC Berkeley’s geography department. “I think of it as a buried civilization.”
The flowering of public construction and employment during the New Deal that many people believe saved America during the Great Depression offers lessons for today far beyond architecture, says Gray Brechin, who has launched a treasure hunt to locate and share the riches of the New Deal.
Researcher Brechin, from UC Berkeley’s Geography Department, told delegates at the CFT Convention that lavishly funded right-wing think tanks have since the 1970s been trying to kill what remains of the New Deal. Nonetheless, he admires the message Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered during an era of economic collapse, especially “when the president we have now has nothing to peddle but fear itself.”
THREE MEMBERS of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps were honored Saturday at the Mountain Theater on Mount Tamalpais, the stone amphitheater the corps built in the 1930s.
“We’ve outlived all the rest of them,” said 88-year-old Arnold Blumhardt, who joined the corps when he was a 17-year-old North Dakota farm boy. “We’re all going fast. Down the road we’ll all be gone.”
The occasion was a California State Parks “remembrance day” salute to the corps – a revolutionary federal work project created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 – on its 75th anniversary.
Berkeley geographer to discuss Depression-era structures built in Sonoma County.
Revered, reviled, and largely forgotten, the public-works legacy of the FDR era is all around us – and the Living New Deal Project is drawing the map.