The New Deal Artists of the Monkey Block

The Montgomery Block in 1862

The Montgomery Block in 1862
The historic headquarters of San Francisco lawyers, financiers, writers, actors and artists.
Photo Credit: Public Domain

San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights Books has been a touchstone of the city’s Bohemian culture for decades, once argued that his North Beach neighborhood “should be officially protected as a ‘historic district’, in the manner of the French Quarter in New Orleans, and thus shielded from commercial destruction such as was suffered by the old Montgomery Block building, the most famous literary and artistic structure in the West until it was replaced by the Transamerica Pyramid.”

When the 4-story Montgomery Block was completed in 1853, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

Transamerica Pyramid

Transamerica Pyramid
The 48-story skyscraper replaced the Monkey Block
Photo Credit: Commons. Wikimedia.org

North Beach was then the “Barbary Coast” and teemed with brothels, dance halls, jazz clubs and saloons that accompanied the Gold Rush. Early on, 628 Montgomery Street held the offices of lawyers and financiers. Over the years, it housed an assortment of actors, artists and writers, including Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, George Sterling, and Emma Goldman. The Montgomery Block survived the earthquake and fire that destroyed much of the city in 1906. Though down-at-the-heel, it continued as a low-rent refuge through the Great Depression when as many as 75 artists and writers rented studios there for as little as $5 a week. The building was affectionately dubbed, “The Monkey Block.”

A number of artists at the Monkey Block got commissions from the federal government to paint the 26 murals at nearby Coit Tower—the first of hundreds of public art installations the New Deal would fund across the country. The political ferment that culminated in San Francisco’s General Strike in 1934 found expression in the murals, which delayed their public opening for fear of adding to the restiveness.

Edith Hamlin and Maynard Dixon

Edith Hamlin and Maynard Dixon 
The artists met at the Monkey Block where they had studios down the hall from one another. They worked together on Edith’s second Federal Art Project mural at Mission High School.
Photo Credit: Courtesy SUU.org

The artists would unwind at the bars and restaurants of the surrounding neighborhood. A favorite watering hole was the Black Cat Café, located a few blocks downhill from the Monkey Block. Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Ralph Stackpole, Maynard Dixon, Dorothea Lange, Benny Bufano, Sargent Johnson and William Saroyan were part of the vibrant community of artists the New Deal fostered. Harry Hopkins, administrator of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), famously defended employment programs for artists and writers. “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people,” he said. Though the wages were low, the federal art programs enabled artists not only to eat but to develop their craft, through their proximity to and collaboration with fellow artists.

In her oral history, artist Shirley Staschen Triest recalled the working relationships that emerged at the Black Cat Cafe,“…it was where you’d hear about jobs, if there were any for artists and writers…It was where you’d go because that’s where everything was happening.”

California Industrial Scenes, Coit Tower

California Industrial Scenes, Coit Tower
WPA Muralist John Langley Howard captured the restive mood of Depression-era workers.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FoundSF

Edith Hamlin, who, in addition to Coit Tower, painted murals at Mission High School, credited the WPA “as the beginning of my professional life as a muralist.” Sargent Johnson, whose sculptures adorn public spaces including what is now San Francisco’s Maritime National Historical Park, credits the WPA with his ability to continue as an artist. “The WPA was the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me an incentive to keep on working, where at the time things looked pretty dreary.” Fellow sculptor Benny Bufano summed it up, “WPA’s Federal Art Project laid the foundation of a renaissance of art in America. It has freed American art.”

The New Deal left a legacy of public art in post offices, schools and public buildings. Once the gloom of the Depression lifted, many who had worked for the federal art programs went on to be some of the most important American artists of the 20th century.

Plaque

Plaque 
The former site of the Monkey Block is a California Historical Landmark.
Photo Credit: Public Domain

Fostered by the New Deal, the community that came together at The Monkey Block offers a vivid and inspirational example that, if replicated, could again buoy the lives of artists, writers and performers and perhaps even lead to a new renaissance in American art.

Despite a movement to preserve it, the Monkey Block was demolished in 1959. The neighborhood’s rough-and-ready reputation was much diminished once the TransAmerica skyscraper rose from the rubble of what had for more than a century been a magnet for the city’s counterculture.

Come Home, America

Residential Street, Greendale, WI, 1939

Residential Street, Greendale, WI, 1939
A community planned by the Suburban division of the U.S. Resettlement administration
Photo Credit: Columbia.edu

Homelessness in the U.S. has become so normalized as to be accepted as a fact of life. The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that more than a half million people are without shelter on any given night. Public officials seem at loss to help the thousands now sleeping in our parks and city streets.

This was not always the case. In his “Second Bill of Rights” speech in 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt declared employment, education, housing and medical care as rights due every citizen— values that underpinned the New Deal and the humane policies they inspired.  

Drafting room, Washington D.C., 1936

Drafting room, Washington D.C., 1936
Architects with U.S. Resettlement Administration design plans for Greenbelt, MD
Photo Credit: Carl. M Mydans, Columbia.edu

Public housing was once thought of as being positive, radical, and hopeful—the product of a government optimistic about its ability to improve the lives of its poor and working-class families. Today, market-based solutions are touted as the answer to society’s problems. Developers may be required to dedicate a few affordable units in exchange for permits for their market-rate housing projects, but this does little to help low-income people. In fact, long-time residents are often displaced by the resulting gentrification.

When millions were displaced by the Dust Bowl and job loss during the Great Depression, the federal government made housing a priority. The Roosevelt Administration enlisted leading thinkers, collectively known as “housers.” These architects, designers and social scientists challenged barriers to housing for all.  

Catherine Bauer Wurster (1905-1964)

Catherine Bauer Wurster (1905-1964)
The foremost housing advocate of her generation and primary author of the landmark U.S. Housing Act of 1937, the nation’s first affordable housing legislation.
Photo Credit: Ced.berkeley.edu

Catherine Bauer was among the most influential, as author of a seminal book on government-supported housing in post-WWI Europe. In “Modern Housing,” Bauer argues for making decent housing a “public utility” and a basic right. Bauer was the primary author of the U.S. Housing Act in 1937 that provided federal subsidies to local public housing agencies to improve living conditions for low-income families. Bauer also worked with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which lowered financial barriers to home ownership. She promoted non-speculative housing owned by public agencies or nonprofit cooperatives and was a vocal advocate for racially integrated public housing at a time when Blacks and other minorities were excluded.

In 1933 about half of the nation’s home mortgages were in default. Millions had lost their homes and millions more were in danger of doing so. The Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration set about building public housing, while the Resettlement Administration relocated struggling urban and rural families to communities planned by the federal government.

Logan Fontenelle Homes

Logan Fontenelle Homes
PWA Public Housing Project, Omaha, Nebraska
Photo Credit: John Vachon, 1938

During this time, New Deal legislation brought home ownership into reach for many, creating a bridge to the middle class. The Home Owners’ Loan Act of 1933 helped those in danger of losing their homes. The National Housing Act of 1934 produced the Federal Housing Administration and the Federal Savings and the Loan Insurance Corporation; which raised housing standards and provided a system of mortgage insurance. The Housing Act of 1937 established the U.S. Housing Authority (USHA) to provide loans for low-cost housing projects. The G.I. Bill of 1944 provided low-interest home loans to war veterans.

In 1940, Bauer reported that 193 loan contracts had been approved between USHA and local authorities for 467 different projects to rehouse more than 150,000 families—some 650,000 people—and that 100,000 dwellings had been completed or were under construction.

WPA Poster

WPA Poster
Housing for Low-Income Families
Photo Credit: Cleveland Housing Authority

Other influential “housers “were landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, who worked for both the USHA and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) designing housing for migrant agricultural workers and Vernon DeMars, also with the FSA, who planned and designed affordable housing for thousands of wartime workers.

The “housers” emphasized affordability, quality construction and human-scale design in harmony with the environment.  Or, as, Eckbo put it, “What is good for the rich is good for the poor.”

With the US economy crushed by the coronavirus, homelessness is on the rise. The values expressed in FDR’s Second Bill of Rights have been sidelined, along with the social welfare policies they inspired. But, as the New Deal shows us, homelessness can be solved, given the political will to do so.

“Movements are not made by a handful of specialists,” Bauer concludes in “Modern Housing.”  Change would come only when Americans “demanded a positive program of good housing—not merely for some vague, hypothetical ‘slum-dwellers,’ but for themselves and their families.”

Neighborhood Gardens, St Louis, MO, 1936

Neighborhood Gardens, St Louis, MO, 1936
One of the first low-income housing projects funded by the PWA
Photo Credit: Courtesy St Louis Landmark Association

Watch: New Deal Housing Projects: Housing in Our Time (1930s ca) – CharlieDeanArchives / Archival Footage (20 min)

Building Bridges, Not Walls
by Harvey Smith

Birdseye View, 1936

Birdseye View, 1936
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge under construction
Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Last November, following the election of Donald Trump, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution declaring the City’s commitment to values of multiculturalism and tolerance.

RESOLVED, That no matter the threats…,San Francisco will remain a Sanctuary City; we will not turn our back on the men and women from other countries who help make this city great, and who represent over one third of our population. This is the Golden Gate—we build bridges, not walls.

In that spirit, the Living New Deal will host “Building Bridges, Not Walls” two concurrent exhibitions featuring art and performance celebrating the role of immigrants in building the Bay Area’s bridges, and the unity these iconic structures represent.

Bridge workers on catwalk

Bridge workers on catwalk
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge
Photo Credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, both completed during the Great Depression, were designed by immigrants: Ralph Modjeski, a Polish immigrant, was chief engineer on the Bay Bridge. Leon Moisseiff, a Latvian immigrant, was the lead designer of the Golden Gate Bridge. Both bridges had been largely constructed by the children of immigrants, including legendary ironworker Al Zampa, whose parents came from Italy. Zampa was one of the first workers to survive a fall from the Golden Gate Bridge, making him a charter member of the Half Way to Hell Club, a fraternity of men who had fallen and landed in the bridge’s safety nets. Thirty-five men died working on the Bay and Golden Gate bridges.

A starting point for the exhibit is the twenty steel rivets that the Living New Deal obtained when the original Bay Bridge, which opened in 1936, was dismantled, having been replaced by a new eastern span.

Miss Berkeley, International Queen, and Miss Oakland hold a chain barrier to the bridge at the opening ceremony.

Miss Berkeley, International Queen and Miss Oakland
Opening of San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The themes of immigrants, diversity, and internationalism are symbolized by the bridges, that connect the Bay Area’s diverse communities and give the region its common identity.

In July, “Building Bridges, Not Walls,” a celebration of these bridges and the people who built them, will open at the History Center at San Francisco Main Library. A companion exhibit featuring Bay Area artists, photographers, and poets will be held at the historic Canessa Gallery in San Francisco’s North Beach.

For more information:  Harvey Smith [email protected]

Bridge worker Alfred Zampa

Bridge worker Alfred Zampa
Golden Gate Bridge 50th Anniversary
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

New Documentary on WPA Artist, Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong
“Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death.”

A film honoring the 105–year old artist Tyrus Wong recently premiered at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Tyrus attended! “Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death,” says Tyrus in the just released film.

From his early artistic work with Works Progress Administration (WPA) Tyrus went on to become the creative force behind the Walt Disney film, Bambi, and later, the classic Rebel Without a Cause. He designed sets and storyboards for Hollywood studios. His artistic work spanned greeting cards and popular pottery designs and, later in life, intricate and colorful Chinese kites. He once exhibited with Picasso.

Directed by Pamela Tom, the film begins with Tyrus’s emigration from China at age 9—he never saw his mother again. When he arrived in the U.S. he was detained for months at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay.

Support from his father enabled Tyrus to pursue his talent. Teachers at the well-known Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles further encouraged him, as did other WPA artists like Benji Okubo and Hideo Date. Tyrus produced watercolors, lithographs and murals for the Federal Art Project. As he tells it, his success was based on “luck and hard work.” His wife, Ruth, and their three daughters, also featured in the film, attest to Tyrus working late into the night.

Tyrus’s dedication to his art and soulful approach to life and family shine through in the film. His story is another example of a young artist nurtured by the WPA at critical period in their career. Watch for a screening in your area – http://tyruswongthemovie.com/screenings/.

From the Gilded Age to the Digital Age:
The New Deal in Context

FDR stumping along the Jersey shore, 1932

FDR and farmers
FDR stumping along the Jersey shore, 1932
Photo Credit: Farm Security Administration

The New Deal, arguably one of the forgotten eras of U.S. history, grew out of earlier, also largely erased reform efforts. The Grange Movement’s roots are in the mid-19th century when, after the Civil War, Midwestern farmers organized to oppose the monopolistic railroads and grain elevator companies that charged exorbitant rates to move their crops to market. At its peak, the Grange Movement had over 850,000 members in several states.

By the late 1800s the Farmers’ Alliance, another populist movement, fought back the robber barons. It grew to three million members, spreading the gospel of farmers’ co-ops, conservation, and mutual aid through a network of some 40,000 lecturers and organizers. The movement eventually led to the Populist Party, which garnered well over a million votes in the national election in 1892. Its platform included nationalizing the telegraph, telephone, and railroads, a graduated income tax, and “postal savings banks,” a solution often cited for today’s struggling postal service.

As the Farmers Alliance waned at the end of the century, muckrakers exposed Gilded Age injustice and corruption. Teddy Roosevelt won the presidency as a “trustbuster.” His successor, Woodrow Wilson, oversaw passage of the progressive income tax.

Following World War I, Wall Street went off the speculative deep end, bringing on the Great Depression. FDR’s New Deal revived many ideas of the early Progressives, including those of FDR’s cousin, Teddy.

Political cartoon from the Gilded Age showing business controlling the government.

Oligarchy
Political cartoon from the Gilded Age showing business controlling the government.

Labor’s gains in the 1930s came out of FDR’s push for legislation requiring collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Act in 1935 gave workers the right to organize, providing a counterbalance to corporate power. Empowered, unions pressed for the progressive reforms that raised the standard of living for the middle class and provided some economic security to the elderly, disabled, and poor.  Both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were Grange members, and supported creation of a cooperative farm loan association to limit foreclosures. FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” speech in 1944 posited that all humans have inherent economic rights.

The country’s turn to the Right in the 1980s and neoliberal austerity ever since gave tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the needy. Free market economics unleashed deregulation and moved to privatize the public sector. Union membership has fallen precipitously—thanks in part to so-called “right-to-work-laws.”

Graduation Day protest

Student Debt
Graduation Day protest
Photo Credit: Nation of Change

There are signs of resistance. The American Postal Workers Union has formed Grand Alliance Save our Public Postal Service. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, local activists, and city governments have sued the U.S. Postal Service over the sale of historic post offices to private developers. And millions of young people saddled with student debt are beginning to demand relief.

As history has shown, these are how reform movements start, and how Americans can come together again to address the biggest wealth gap since the Gilded Age.

Famed Coit Tower Murals Restored

Mural  “California” by Maxine Albro

Orange Harvest
Mural “California” by Maxine Albro

The long-awaited restoration of twenty-seven New Deal murals at San Francisco’s Coit Tower is complete. The tower re-opened to the public with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 14.

The murals were painted in 1934 under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project, the first New Deal employment program for artists.  They depict scenes of California in the 1930s. The Living New Deal’s Advisor Harvey Smith wrote the tower’s new signage interpreting the murals and the tumultuous times that inspired them.

Mural “Library” by Bernard Zakheim

Library
Mural “Library” by Bernard Zakheim

Age and neglect had taken a toll on both the tower and its artworks. Local activists pushed a successful ballot initiative to require the city to dedicate funds to restore and protect the landmark and murals. The tower closed in October 2013 for the $1.3 million upgrade.

Coit Tower, named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a colorful local character, was built in 1933. With 360-degree views of the city and the bay, the tower is one of San Francisco’s most visited landmarks.