Revisiting the “Blue Bible”

 
The “Blue Bible,” compiled 82 years ago, is a “best of” the PWA’s thousands of construction projects. Photo by Gray Brechin.

President Biden’s initial $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal is merely a belated down payment on decades of cost-cutting neglect and deferred maintenance that has brought much of U.S. infrastructure to near third world status. If it passes Congress, his proposal would create a myriad of needed jobs, but it’s also a reminder of the stupendous feat that ”Honest Harold” Ickes achieved modernizing the country in just half a decade. During that time, he served as both a seemingly never sleeping Secretary of the Interior and head of the Public Works Administration (PWA), a vast public works construction agency often confused with its sometimes rival, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under Harry Hopkins.

Harold Ickes
As U.S. Secretary of the Interior throughout FDR’s presidency, Harold Ickes was in charge of implementing major New Deal relief programs, including the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the federal government’s environmental efforts. Courtesy, Wikipedia.

I call the doorstopper of a tome with the snoozer title Public Buildings: Architecture Under the Public Works Administration, 1935-1939 the Blue Bible not only for its buckram binding of that color but also because of the volume of information, much of which the Living New Deal has used on its website. Published by the Government Printing Office in 1939, the richly illustrated book is proof of what could be accomplished in the future.

Contracting with both small, local and giant construction companies such as Bechtel and Kaiser, the PWA stimulated the economy by building dams, airports, schools, colleges, bridges, public hospitals, art galleries, sewage treatment plants, lighthouses, libraries and even sleek Staten Island ferries and Coast Guard cutters. At over 600 pages of text, black and white plates and floor plans arranged by building type, the book shows a nation transformed in short order, yet it is only an abbreviation of a larger report requested by President Roosevelt and compiled by architects C.W. Short and R. Stanley-Brown. They culled hundreds of what they regarded as all-stars from more than 26,000 PWA projects, many of which remain to be discovered.    

Blue Bible Project page

Blue Bible Project page
The PWA funded and administered the construction of more than 34,000 projects. Many outstanding examples appear in these pages. Photo by Gray Brechin.

Despite the gigantic scale and quality of many of the buildings, the plates included in the book identify neither the architects nor engineers responsible for the projects, although the cost is given. They show the smorgasbord of styles popular during the New Deal, ranging from Georgian to Pueblo, from Art Deco and Streamline Moderne to hints of the new International Style. Lavish government patronage led many artists employed by New Deal agencies to compare their era to that of the Renaissance.  The architects who compiled the book wrote, “Today architecture in the U.S. is passing through a period of transition, thus creating a condition which has much in common with that which existed in Italy in the 15th century when the architecture of the Middle Ages was changing to that of the Renaissance.” 

Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho

Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho
The PWA’s accomplishments include building LaGuardia Airport, the Tri-borough Bridge, and Lincoln Tunnel in New York City; the Skyline Drive in Virginia, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Grand Coulee Dam. Courtesy, Bridgehunter.com

Scanning the book reminds me of architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham’s famous command in the early 20th century: “Make no small plans,” he said, since “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Ickes himself said when dedicating California’s Friant Dam that “Even those of us in Washington who are responsible for carrying out orders sometimes lack comprehension of the mighty sweep of this program.”

Short and Stanley-Brown closed their introduction with a claim you won’t find in any government report today: “This vast building program presents us with a great vision, that of man building primarily for love of and to fulfill the needs of his fellowmen. Perhaps future generations will classify these years as one of the epoch-making periods of advancement in the civilization not only of our own country, but also of the human race.”

PWA Map
Vintage poster describing some of the PWA’s construction projects across America. Courtesy, Digital.library.Cornell.edu

The Blue Bible reminds us today how far the U.S. once materially advanced civilization, even as forces in Europe conspired toward its destruction.

Copies of the book can be acquired on Amazon as originals or as a 1986 paperback reprint by Da Capo Press.

Until Covid

WPA poster

WPA poster
New Deal posters promoted public health
Photo Credit: Courtesy LOC

Until Covid-19 made its murderous debut in the U.S., the withering of the nation’s public health care system had gone largely unnoticed. The response to the epidemic has been so ineffectual as to call into question the U.S.’s status as a “developed” nation.  

Progressive reformers who established the nation’s public health system at the turn of the 20th century understood that the effort was not only a humanitarian pursuit but a bulwark against the spread of disease that does not distinguish between rich and poor. Many New Deal administrators influenced by the Progressive movement held a holistic vision of public health. Hence, their stress on architecturally attractive hospitals often brightened by WPA artworks, as well as the New Deal’s vast expenditures on water treatment, nutritional classes, community clinics and child care. Today, that vision is as scarce as the PPE stockpile was when the coronavirus arrived on our shores. 

Hospital closures

Hospital closures
Rural hospitals are closing nationwide.
Photo Credit: Courtesy CNN

Two maps tell the story. One produced by the University of North Carolina shows at least 170 rural hospitals that have closed in the last 15 years, half of them in Southern states where the virus is now making rapid inroads. The other map displays the 822 hospitals built, repaired or improved between 1933 and 1939 by the Public Works Administration (PWA). When work by other New Deal agencies like the WPA, FERA and NYA is added, the national inventory of rural hospitals leapt to 5,304. 

PWA Administrator Harold Ickes noted in 1939 that “There was, and there still is, a great need for small but modern general hospitals in rural areas all through the country,” while pointing to the hundreds of general hospitals built with PWA funds. 

"America Builds: The Record of PWA”, 1939

"America Builds: The Record of PWA”, 1939
New Deal work programs built and improved thousands of hospitals and clinics.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives

October 31, 2020, marked an important milestone in American public health: the 80th anniversary of the dedication of the campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), located in Bethesda, Maryland at which FDR spoke to the NIH’s role in the “conservation of life,” and using the power of science “to do infinitely more” for the health of all people with “no distinctions of race, of creed, or of color.”

Yet, today fully 25 percent of U.S. rural hospitals are at a high risk of closing, unless their financial situations improve, says an analysis by consulting firm, Guidehouse. It reports that rural hospitals and their communities are facing a crisis that has been lingering for decades.

Movable TB isolation unit, 1937

Movable TB isolation unit, 1937
WPA-built huts, delivered to the patient’s own backyard, protected the family from infection.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives

Data published recently in The Guardian reveals the cost that tax cuts and the Great Recession have taken on the U.S.’s pandemic preparedness. “There are 2.9 hospital beds for every 1,000 people in the United States. That’s fewer than Turkmenistan (7.4 beds per 1,000), Mongolia (7.0), Argentina (5.0) and Libya (3.7). This lack of hospital beds is forcing doctors across the country to ration care under Covid-19, pushing up the number of preventable deaths.”

During the New Deal, legions of jobless were trained and hired to administer to the sick, prevent illness, both physical and mental, and construct public health infrastructure from hospitals and clinics to parks and playgrounds. As author and activist Naomi Klein explains, the New Deal’s investment in public health extended to delivering portable “isolation huts” for those afflicted with tuberculosis, enabling their families to safely and affordably care for them. The backyard huts were built by young men working for the National Youth Administration. State Boards of Health, which arranged regular visits by health workers, distributed the huts. Unlike testing for Covid, these lifeline services were federally funded, widely available and offered free of charge. 

Mobile clinic

Mobile clinic
The Farm Security Administration brought health care to agricultural workers.
Photo Credit: Klamath County, Oregon. Photo courtesy LOC

Health was a very personal issue for Franklin Roosevelt after polio paralyzed him in 1921. Among the economic rights to which he insisted all Americans are entitled was “The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.” Unwelcome as it is, the current pandemic provides us with insight into a public health system we should have built upon but instead forgot we ever had. 

Life expectancy vs. health expenditure

Life expectancy vs. health expenditure
Americans pay more for healthcare per capita and live shorter lives than do citizens in any other advanced economy
Photo Credit: Ourworlddata.org. With thanks to: richardbrenneman.wordpress.com

Water treatment plant, Michigan City, Indiana

Water treatment plant, Michigan City, Indiana
PWA projects brought clean water to millions of households.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives, 1933-1943

 

Watch: FDR dedicating the new NIH campus, October 31, 1940 

Evictions Revisited

“California Industrial Scenes,” Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA

“California Industrial Scenes,” Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA
Social and political messages emerge from Langley’s mix of visual images: demonstrating workers, homeless, a strip mining operation, and Shasta Dam.  Source
Photo Credit: Courtesy Coit Tower

Detail, “California Industrial Scenes,” Fresco mural by John Langley Howard, 1934

Detail, “California Industrial Scenes”
Fresco mural by John Langley Howard, 1934
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

The blank and pitiless eyes of unemployed workers in John Langley Howard’s mural, “California Industry Scenes,” have stared out at visitors to San Francisco’s Coit Tower ever since the New Deal artist painted them in 1934. They are a burning reminder of the hunger, illness and eviction countless Americans faced during the Great Depression.

President Franklin Roosevelt addressed their suffering when he accepted his renomination in 1936, declaring, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

The icy indifference to which Roosevelt referred was that of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, while the eyes are those of the potential revolution that Hoover’s inaction aroused and the New Deal largely averted. Current events reprise that history.

Pandemic-driven shutdowns in 2020 have spiked unemployment to levels not seen since the 1930s, but the immediate effect on the U.S. economy was hidden by an early bipartisan infusion of $3 trillion. So great were the needs of suddenly jobless workers, however, that even that immense sum was quickly exhausted. With Congress in deadlock and the Senate on vacation, that buffer against destitution has disappeared. Princeton’s Eviction Lab estimates that 40 million people face expulsion from their homes.

The U.S. actually faced an eviction epidemic even before the pandemic, a crisis that dwarfed that of the Depression. With flagging help from the federal government as Pandemic Summer wore on, tactics adopted in the 30s have returned. Rent strikes and neighborly defense of those evicted from their homes are taking place across the country.

Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, 1939, New Madrid County, MO

Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, 1939
New Madrid County, MO
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein

Courtesy LOC, Homeless encampment, 2020

Courtesy LOC
Homeless encampment, 2020
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

An interactive map shows over 700 rent and unemployment actions that took place from 1930-1932. In January, 1932, the largely Communist Upper Bronx Unemployed Council initiated a rent strike that spread to other boroughs, provoking rent riots against the police that at times involved thousands of participants. It served as a model for other cities.

Rural areas were not immune to uprisings against property law. In Iowa, desperate farmers blocked highways, resisted marshals evicting families and, in one notorious event garnering national attention, not only hauled District Court Judge Charles C. Bradley from his Le Mars courtroom to prevent him from signing foreclosure papers on local farmers, but then beat, stripped and nearly lynched him.

Roosevelt confronted this state of near-insurrection upon taking office in 1933. Infusions of federal money into home and farm relief bureaus as well as New Deal work relief programs — including public housing projects — released much of the pressure one can still feel in the angry eyes staring out from the walls of Coit Tower. Those men stand for the desperation of our own time as much as their own.

Just Scratching the Surface

WPA concrete bridge

WPA concrete bridge
Escambia County, Alabama, 1939
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

The work of the Living New Deal is a lot like an archaeological dig.  Archeologists discover lost civilizations with the benefit of new Lidar technology, but we come upon exciting new finds digging through old journals, newspapers and archives.

I recently exhumed an obscure 1939 WPA report from the UC Berkeley library. Far more than dry statistics, the report illustrates how the New Deal transformed the lives of small town and rural residents alike.

The report, Progress of the WPA Program, contains everything the Works Progress Administration accomplished in two rural counties—Mahaska, Iowa and Escambia, Alabama, and two cities—Erie, Pennsylvania and Portsmouth, Ohio. In all four places, government put hundreds of men, women and youth to work providing needed infrastructure and services to their communities in order to combat unemployment during the Great Depression.

Sidewalk construction in Atmore, Alabama

Sidewalk construction in Atmore, Alabama
The WPA laid 15,000 feet of sidewalk to this city.
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

With the help of a nationwide network of volunteers, the Living New Deal’s growing website now documents more than 16,000 sites nationwide—parks, airports, city halls, stadiums, sewers, schools and more. The WPA report reveals that we have just scratched the surface, however. But since New Deal projects are rarely marked or mentioned in local histories, few, if any, of the New Deal’s improvements to their towns and counties are known to today’s residents.

The result is that many Americans mistakenly believe that the federal government does little or nothing for them or their communities, as Paul Krugman writes, even though the evidence of what good government can do is literally right under their tires and feet.

Dedication of WPA swimming pool in Edmundson Park

Dedication of WPA swimming pool in Edmundson Park
Oskaloosa, Iowa, 1937
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

A map of Mahaska County, Iowa, for example, shows hundreds of miles of rural roads that the WPA graded and paved, enabling farmers to get their produce to market in all weather. Another map of Portsmouth, Ohio, shows the levees and five new pumping stations that saved the town from frequent flooding of the Ohio River. New storm drains did the same for Erie, PA.

During this time, 400 Erie women—many of them heads of households—sewed more than 200,000 garments to be given to the poor, while some 700 people were engaged in sixty-five orchestra and choral groups. Workers for the Federal Writers Project compiled historical information on a played-out coal region near Oscaloosa, Iowa, whose largely Welsh residents were given music classes. Oscaloosa’s Edmundson Park has so many WPA features, it qualified for the National Register of Historic Places.

Between 1935 and 1939, WPA expenditures in Iowa’s Mahaska County alone totaled $1,150,434—$20,595,724 in today’s dollars.

As extensive as the information in this report is on the WPA, it does not include the work of the PWA, CCC, or other New Deal agencies that benefitted rural as well as urban economies and ultimately lifted the country out of the Great Depression. Much of what government built through local labor still benefits millions of people today, some 80 years on.

With more digging, reports like Progress of the WPA Program as well as unpublished manuscripts, can be unearthed at libraries, town archives and historical societies across America. The Living New Deal is uncovering some of the best evidence anywhere of what a true government for the people once achieved—and could again—and making it freely available. Your support makes our work possible.

Raising the New Deal Flag in New York City

Raising the New Deal Flag in New York City

Raising the New Deal Flag in New York City
Fiorello La Guardia at the formal raising of the NRA flag outside the New York headquarters of the National Recovery Administration, April 1934.
Photo Credit: Encyclopedia Brittanica

Two hundred New Yorkers gathered at the Center for Architecture on May 7 to kick off a Living New Deal initiative to familiarize New Yorkers with the New Deal’s vast imprint on their city.

The reception and panel discussion, “A New Deal for New York City: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” were co-sponsored by the Museum of the City of New York, the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter, Planners Network, Historic Districts Council, National Jobs for All Network, City Lore, FDR Library, Gotham Center for New York City History, and Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.

Welcoming the audience, Phoebe Roosevelt, great-granddaughter of Franklin and Eleanor, expressed gratitude for the remarkable men and women—including her grandparents—who championed the “great experiment we call the New Deal.” She also praised the citizens who “went to the voting booth to give FDR and Congress the mandate for action.”

Keynote speaker Kevin Baker, whose April cover story in Harper’s,“We Can Do It Again,” masterfully reviewed New Deal 1.0 in light of calls for a Green New Deal, commented, “What is most surprising about the city today is not how well it’s doing but how little of its old social dysfunction it has managed to shed,” but which the Roosevelt administration sought to address eighty years ago.

A panel of four, including writer Nick Taylor; Living New Deal’s founder Gray Brechin; Marta Gutman, professor of architectural and urban history at City College of New York; and New York City Deputy Mayor Phillip Thompson, elaborated on Baker’s remarks.

Speaking for the city, Thompson fully endorsed the idea of a policy agenda modeled on the New Deal that would, once again, tackle the city’s social problems while rectifying past injustices via a “Greener” New Deal.

All agreed that the first step toward that goal is making people aware of the enormous legacy the New Deal left to them by commemorating through signage, tours, and educational events, its ubiquitous presence throughout New York City.

The audience was also treated to a short film, “A Better New York City,” produced by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1937. See it here.

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
Self-portraitWikimedia

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.”

A Firebreak Runs Through It

In the wake of the most catastrophic wildfires in California’s history, Donald Trump accused state officials of shoddy forest management and recommended that the state’s dying forests should be raked. “Very important,” he said, to take care of the forest floor. Oddly enough, the New Deal’s enemies accused WPA workers of raking the forest as a synonym for boondoggling the taxpayers’ hard-earned cash.

Popular Science Magazine, 1934

Popular Science Magazine, 1934
Black line on this map shows the location of the 800-mile fire break then being built to create the man-made barrier, which will be known as Ponderosa Way.

President Franklin Roosevelt knew a good deal more about forestry than his current successor. He described himself as a grower of trees, and historian Douglas Brinkley, who called him the Forester-in-Chief, ascribed the inception of the Ponderosa Way to him. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933, and in 1934, CCC workers began to cut a north-south firebreak and access road—by some accounts up to 800 miles long—through the rugged foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada. The Ponderosa Way project employed 16,000 CCC men building bridges, laying culverts, and grading the road to create a barrier to keep wildfires in the scrubby lower elevations from reaching timber at mid-elevations. It was the CCC’s largest project in California.

CCC Enrollees Help to Control a Fire near Angeles National Forest, California

CCC enrollees work to control a fire, 1935
Angeles National Forest, California

FDR regretfully ended the CCC’s immense labor force in 1942 during the mobilization for World War II. The decline of the great California firebreak began almost immediately. In 1949, the federal government turned it over to the California Department of Forestry (CDF), which showed scant interest in maintaining it. At one point, the Ponderosa Way partially reverted back to federal jurisdiction, but no public agency much wanted the orphaned firebreak or remembered the purpose for which it had been so painstakingly built. It became discontinuous and, in many places, disappeared.

In 2007, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) attempted to get some other agency to take responsibility for it. The CDF in Butte County told the BLM that what remained of the road might be useful for public access but it did not consider it vital for fire protection. Local resident Richard Faulkner, who at the time was living in the woods outside town, told a local newspaper, “For years now there hasn’t been any maintenance on this road of any kind. I want them to fix the road and maintain the bridge. I think it is very important from a fire standpoint.”

Ponderosa Way South over the North Fork of the Calaveras River

Ponderosa Way South over the North Fork of the Calaveras River
CCC bridge built in 1935. The deck was destroyed by the Butte Fire in 2015 and never repaired.
Photo Credit: Craig Philpott Courtesy Craig Philpott

When the Camp Fire, considered the worst wildfire in California in more than a century virtually erased the town of Paradise last month, few knew that the lengthy CCC firebreak transected the town. Like so many other public works bequeathed to us by the New Deal, it is a relic of a lost civilization that we neglect at our own peril. Whether the Ponderosa Way could have saved the town or offered an evacuation route may never be known.

 

Ponderosa Way, North fork of the Mokelumne River, Amador and Calaveras Counties, California.

Ponderosa Way, North fork of the Mokelumne River, Amador and Calaveras Counties, California.
After the road deck was destroyed by fire, Ponderosa Way leading up to it was abandoned. It fell into disrepair and was deemed unsafe.
Photo Credit: Craig Philpott Courtesy Craig Philpott

Ponderosa Way Bridge crossing the North Fork of the American River Placer County, California.

Ponderosa Way Bridge crossing the North Fork of the American River Placer County, California.
Pony truss bridge built in 1935. It is still open to traffic.
Photo Credit: Craig Philpott Courtesy Craig Philpott

 

Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project, by Susan Rubenstein DeMasi

“The 1930s was the most creative period in American cultural life” claimed actress Toby Cole when I interviewed her shortly before her death at 92. I thought she was exaggerating because she had worked for the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) during the New Deal.  But after reading Susan Rubenstein DeMasi’s absorbing biography of Henry Alsberg, who headed the Federal Writers Project (FWP), I’m inclined to agree. It is virtually impossible to imagine such inventive individuals as Alsberg and Hallie Flanagan, who headed the Federal Theater Project during the New Deal, being hired by government today—even in a Democratic administration. 

A rumpled bear of a man from a secular New York Jewish family, Alsberg was born in 1881 in New York and died in Palo Alto 89 years later after spending a lifetime necessarily hiding his homosexuality from all but radical friends like Emma Goldman.

DeMasi calls the 1920s “arguably his most active period, [when] he energetically segued from journalism to refugee relief work to theatrical pursuits to political endeavor,” but it is the work he did as head the Federal Writers Project for which, thanks to DeMasi’s book, as well as David A. Taylor’s 2009 Soul of People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America, Alsberg will be gratefully remembered for the FWP’s volcanic output under his inspired leadership.  

In 1934 Alsberg edited the large format book America Fights the Depression whose more than 200 photos showed the myriad of ways in which the new Civil Works Administration hired more than four million people to wage constructive war against the economic calamity during the winter of 1933-34.

It was probably on the strength of that book that WPA chief Harry Hopkins entrusted Alsberg to muster his own army of thousands of unemployed writers. Alsberg wanted to use that talent to reflect Americans back to themselves just as photographers of the Farm Security Administration, notably Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein, were doing at the same time—even when that meant lancing popular mythology and telling the stories of those left in the dust. 

The most famous outcome of the FWP was the now classic WPA guidebooks to all 48 states and many American cities. It also spawned hundreds of other books as well as transcripts of thousands of interviews including those with ex-slaves at the end of their lives and countless pages of research never published but now an invaluable resource to historians, ethnographers, folklorists and others.

Often difficult, utopian, and self-described as a “philosophical anarchist,” Alsberg was himself surprised to find himself working as an administrator within the government. A lifelong progressive in his politics, Alsberg had much to hide from the New Deal’s enemies, and DeMasi does a splendid job not only of resurrecting a secretive man’s life but delineating the reactionary forces in Congress that ultimately brought him and Hallie Flanagan down in a Communist witch hunt that foreshadowed the McCarthy era.

In her introduction, DeMasi admits that in writing her book, she fell in love with Alsberg. You will, too, in reading it.

Erasing Art and History

Lobby at Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco, Site of the last public murals created under the New Deal

Lobby at Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco
Site of the last public murals created under the New Deal
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

While the nation is transfixed by pitched battles over the removal of artworks representing white supremacy, New Deal murals in San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office graphically demonstrate that such cultural melees are nothing new.

Just before World War II, the Treasury Department commissioned Anton Refregier of Woodstock, New York to paint a cycle of murals for the lobby of what was then the San Francisco main post office. “Ref,” as his friends called him, did extensive research for the project before the war but completed the 27 panels after it. They were the last public murals created under the New Deal.

With their vast narrative sweep, the murals are among the largest and arguably greatest New Deal artworks—and they were nearly destroyed for their creator’s audacity.

Raising the Bear Flag, Mural by Anton Refregier, Two American settlers proclaim California’s independence from Mexico

Raising the Bear Flag, Mural by Anton Refregier
Two American settlers proclaim California’s independence from Mexico

Instead of the customary triumphal march from heroic pioneers to productive industries that Americans expected to see on their post office walls, Ref chose to paint California’s history as a series of class and racial contests. In one corner of the lobby, Ref depicted Union and Confederate partisans violently duking it out in San Francisco’s Union Square during the Civil War, in a scene not different from recent events in Charlottesville, San Francisco, and Berkeley,

Next to it, Irish workers are shown viciously beating Chinese immigrants they accused of taking jobs such as building the transcontinental railroad, which Ref painted on a facing wall. To show that humane voices speak for common decencies at all times, Ref added at the bottom an 1875 statement by Irish labor leader Frank Roney: “Attacks upon the Chinese I consider unreasonable and antagonistic to the principles of American Liberty.”

Beating the Chinese, Mural by Anton Refregier, Workers are portrayed beating Chinese immigrants whom they blamed for taking jobs

Beating the Chinese, Mural by Anton Refregier
Workers are portrayed beating Chinese immigrants whom they blamed for taking jobs

Elsewhere in the immense lobby, Ref painted two American settlers raising the Bear Flag proclaiming California’s independence from Mexico. When the Mexican consul objected that the rebels were depicted standing on the Mexican flag they had just lowered, Ref obligingly covered over it in whitewash thin enough that the flag’s colors still dimly show through.

As for the California natives displaced, enslaved, and exterminated in turn by the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans, Ref showed the Indians as dignified and intelligent individuals and foregrounded them as the workers who had created the wealth of Mission Dolores.

Ref painted a smiling portrait of the man who had made so much art in public places possible—FDR. But his new bosses in the Truman administration ordered him to remove it. He fought the order for seven months but eventually capitulated, writing that even as early as 1947 “the climate was changing. It was necessary to erase the image of Roosevelt and his plans for coexistence, peace, and hope of friendship with the Soviet Union in order to see the American people on to the Cold War.”

Finding Gold at Sutter’s Mill, Mural by Anton Refregier, An argonaut flaunts his find

Finding Gold at Sutter’s Mill, Mural by Anton Refregier
An argonaut flaunts his find

Conservative critics remained unmollified. William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, savaged Ref’s unorthodox murals for their impiety even before he’d finished them so that, he said, he feared for his safety. When the singer and actor Paul Robeson complimented Ref for including an African-American in his panel of wartime shipyard workers, the artist showed Robeson a clipping from the Hearst press captioned “Refregier paints his favorite subject — the Negro.”

Congressman Richard Nixon wrote that as soon as Republicans had taken over the White House and Congress, a committee would be formed to assure “the removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.”

On May 1, 1953, with a Congressional majority and Vice President Nixon in office, the House Committee on Public Works held a dramatic day-long trial of both history and art with Refregier’s murals in the dock. San Francisco leaders of both parties defended Ref’s post office murals, as did others around the world. At home in Woodstock, Ref worried that his masterpiece would be removed and that the lobby would then be like what it was when he started: “White walls, without colors, without ideas, ideas that make some people so mad, and so afraid.”

Dock Strike, Mural by Anton Refregier, Bloody Thursday, 1934

Dock Strike, Mural by Anton Refregier
Bloody Thursday, 1934

However blasphemous his paintings may have seemed to the self-styled patriots at the time, Ref’s brilliant colors and ideas remain on the walls and are now widely recognized as among San Francisco’s greatest—and most truthful — works of public art.

City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York, by Mason B. Williams

As a lifelong Californian, the name La Guardia meant little to me other than an airport and a bronze plaque I once saw at Brooklyn College. That was until I read Mason Williams revelatory book, City of Ambition, about the extraordinarily productive and improbable partnership of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

Williams, a professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science at Williams College, masterfully braids together the lives of the two New Yorkers—both born in 1882 and dying just two years apart in their 60s; Roosevelt, the aristocratic country squire; and La Guardia, the glad-handing, Jewish-Italian from Greenwich Village with a knack for languages. Although separated by party affiliation, the Democrat Roosevelt and the Progressive Republican La Guardia both were born to politics and even more so to public service and clean government.

The Roosevelt dynastic fortune was, after all, founded in New York City, which, by the time of the Great Depression, constituted one of the most important and polyglot voting blocs in the country. In the scrappy, irascible, and equally popular mayor, FDR found a partner with whom he could work while delivering support from the city’s voters for his own New Deal initiatives at the federal level. In the city’s Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, both men found a brilliant administrator who used a torrent of New Deal money and labor to radically transform the city, while taking the credit himself.

La Guardia and FDR At the annual Roosevelt Picnic at Hyde Park, NY, 1938

La Guardia and FDR
At the annual Roosevelt Picnic at Hyde Park, NY, 1938
Photo Credit: Courtesy of La Guardia and Wagner Archives, CUNY

The plaque on La Guardia Hall, the handsome brick library building that terminates the grassy axis of Brooklyn College, quotes the Mayor: “Advanced Education Is A Responsibility of Government And Every Boy Or Girl Who Can Absorb It Is Entitled To It.” At a time when students at even public universities obsess more about their debt than sex, I was as impressed by that sentiment as by a campus that has given generations of immigrants and working class youth the opportunity for personal advancement in the ambience of an Ivy League school. 

That, Mason Williams’ book makes clear, is the vision of government’s rightful role that La Guardia and Roosevelt shared. The plethora of parks, schools, colleges, sewers, roads, tunnels, bridges, and libraries they built and the art they left—all of which the Living New Deal has documented in its new map of New Deal sites in New York City—contributed mightily to the city’s rise as one of the world’s foremost cultural hubs and magnets.