Frances Perkins Center Acquires Perkins’ Homestead

Frances Perkins, 1935

Frances Perkins, 1935
Perkins served as Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

Some 95 million Americans collect Social Security and unemployment insurance benefits, yet few today know about Frances Perkins, the woman responsible for the social safety net so many depend on.

Perkins (1880-1965) was the first woman ever appointed to a presidential cabinet. She served as FDR’s Secretary of Labor from his first term in 1933 until his death in 1945.  “I came to Washington to work for God, FDR and the millions of forgotten, plain, common workingmen,” she said.

A savvy and trusted advisor to Roosevelt, Perkins accepted the job as U.S. Labor Secretary on the condition that he let her pursue what she called “practical possibilities.” Those possibilities encompassed a broad portfolio of policy initiatives, including landmark legislation that enacted unemployment insurance and Social Security, widely viewed as the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history.

Inspecting the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge

Inspecting the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco, 1935
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

Author Adam Cohen extolled Perkins in the introduction he wrote to her biography of FDR, “The Roosevelt I Knew”:  “If American history textbooks accurately reflected the past, Frances Perkins would be recognized as one of the nation’s greatest heroes—as iconic as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine. Like Franklin, Perkins was a brilliant self-creation: There had not been anyone like her before and there has not been anyone like her since.”

To shine a light on Perkins’ underknown legacy, the Frances Perkins Center, established in 2009, has acquired the place Perkins considered her true home—a 57-acre farm that was settled by her ancestors on the Damariscotta River in Newcastle, Maine. Perkins spent her childhood summers at the 1837 “Brick House” surrounded by fields, forests and miles of stone walls and returned throughout her life. She is buried in the local cemetery.

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935
Perkins considered Social Security her greatest achievement.

Designated the Frances Perkins Homestead National Historic Landmark in 2014, the property will serve as the Center’s headquarters and as a living memorial to its namesake when it opens in 2021. Exhibits, public programs and community use will follow.

A $500,000 matching grant to the Center from the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program, awarded in August, is a major step toward realizing the Center’s long-held vision and $5.5 million capital campaign goal.

Perkins greets FDR

Perkins greets FDR
FDR’s return from the Teheran Conference, December 17, 1943
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Perkins relied on facts and well-crafted legislation rather than “fiery rhetoric” to address social ills, on the advice of her mentor, Florence Kelley, the legendary progressive for whom Perkins worked.  Perkins’ outrage at witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911, which killed 146 young workers for lack of safety codes, led her to Albany as a factory investigator and a series of key government positions culminating in her appointment as state Labor Commissioner by Governor Franklin Roosevelt. She lobbied for worker safety laws that became models for the nation. She later said, “the New Deal began on March 25, 1911,” the day of the fire.

Though her handiwork often went unrecognized, Perkins’ proposals laid the foundation for New Deal social policies. Her persistence and political skills as Labor Secretary brought them to fruition. Consciously dressing to appear “motherly” and unthreatening in a political world dominated by men, Perkins chaired key panels, hired brilliant aides, cajoled naysayers, built coalitions, and helped launch large-scale public works programs to create millions of jobs for skilled and unskilled workers.

Her legacy includes the first federal minimum wage laws, restrictions on child labor, provisions for workers’ safety and the right to unionize. Her biographer, Kirstin Downey, aptly credits Perkins as “the woman behind the New Deal.”

Frances Perkins with Balto

Frances Perkins with Balto
Perkins Homestead, 1935
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

The Brick House

The Brick House
Newcastle, Maine, 2013
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

 

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 

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)

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.

New Deal Park Structures Face Demolition in NYC

East River Park, 1938. Tennis Center Comfort Station in foreground; Track House in far background. Photo: NYC Parks Photo Archive

East River Park, a ribbon of greenspace that runs along Manhattan’s Lower East Side waterfront, was part of a visionary plan of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who together oversaw a massive wave of New Deal construction in New York. The 1.5-mile-long park was integral to plans for East River Drive (now the FDR Drive), one of Manhattan’s primary north-south arteries, which received federal funding in 1935.

Moses insisted that construction include a waterfront park, even though extensive landfill would be required on the highway’s eastern border. Such a recreational amenity would be a healthful benefit for the crowded Lower East Side immigrant community. This transformative plan also included public housing on the highway’s western border. The first such apartment complex, the Vladeck Houses, opened in 1940, a year after East River Park.

Track House. East River Park, Manhattan. Photo: LESPI

The importance of East River Park—as the Lower East Side’s largest open space—is demonstrated by the team assembled for its construction. Gilmore D. Clarke, the leading landscape architect for New York City’s New Deal projects, designed the grounds, while Aymar Embury II, lead architect, was responsible for the buildings. These include the very distinctive Track House and Tennis Center Comfort Station, now threatened with demolition. Embury is the architect responsible for many New Deal landmarks, including the Triborough Bridge, the Orchard Beach Bathhouse in the Bronx, and Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn. Yet, even for modest, utilitarian structures such as these in East River Park, Embury gave uncommon attention to materials, massing, and design motifs specific to the site.

The Track House and Tennis Center Comfort Station are the only two surviving buildings of five such structures once populating East River Park. They will be razed, along with the entire park, as part of the East Coastal Resiliency Plan, meant to fortify this vulnerable area against flooding.  The ground level will be raised up 8 – 10 feet and a new park will be built on top.

Tennis Center Comfort Station. East River Park, Manhattan. Photo: LESPI

A grassroots organization, Lower East Side Preservation Initiative (LESPI), is rallying to save the Park’s Track House and Tennis Comfort Station. Supported by eight local preservation groups, LESPI applied to the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to qualify the two structures for the National and State Registers of Historic Places. SHPO granted the buildings a Determination of Eligibility, citing them as “outstanding examples of Art Deco and WPA Moderne design,” and noting the “high degree of integrity” they retained, both inside and out.  SHPO described the unusual architectural features of the buildings, which include design references to the waterfront and maritime heritage of the Lower East Side. While such eligibility does not ensure that these buildings will be saved, it requires that serious consideration be given to possibilities for mitigation, such as raising them for adaptive re-use.

Demolition is scheduled to begin this fall. Send any letters of support for preserving these distinctive New Deal buildings to [email protected].

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.

Gordon Parks, “Showing America to Itself”

American Gothic, Washington, DC, 1942

American Gothic
Washington, DC, 1942
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, FSA Public Domain

“What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it.” These are the words of photojournalist Gordon Parks (1912-2006). From his work as a New Deal photographer in the 1940s, through the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and into the 70s, 80s and beyond, Parks’ images of Black America made visible the country’s racist legacy and the struggles to overcome it.

Parks was born in 1912 in segregated Fort Scott, Kansas. His parents, tenant farmers, died when Parks was a child. By age 15 he was on his own, scraping by as a singer, piano player, busboy, and waiter. During the Depression, Parks, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, toured as a semi-pro basketball player. Inspired by photographs of migrant workers, Parks bought his first camera and taught himself how to use it. He got work as a fashion photographer and made portraits of society women, while also turning his eye to the social conditions of African Americans living on Chicago’s South Side. It was this work that earned Parks a fellowship and, in 1942, a job with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). He was the only Black photographer on the staff. It was the beginning of a long career that showcased the lives Black Americans.

Gordon Parks, March on Washington, 1963

Gordon Parks
March on Washington, 1963
Photo Credit: Photographer unknown, Courtesy: Gordon Parks Foundation

Mrs Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, july 1942[1]
Gordon Parks Washington, D.C. Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, July 1942 gelatin silver print sheet: 18.3 × 23.7 cm (7 3/16 × 9 5/16 in.) mount: 24.1 × 29.2 cm (9 1/2 × 11 1/2 in.) Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

 

“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”

—Gordon Parks

Parks admired FSA photographers like Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein and Jack Delano. Under the FSA’s demanding director, Roy Stryker, Parks began making what he called, “stark photographs [that] accused man himself,” protesting the inequities he observed with keen eyes, nimble fingers, the light of a flashbulb. One of his best known photographs, “American Gothic,” a portrait of domestic worker Ella Watson, reflects Parks’ own encounters with racism in the nation’s segregated capital. Stryker feared that the photograph would so outrage white Congressmen that all the FSA photographers would be fired.

A family says grace before dinner, Anacostia Housing Project, 1942

A family says grace before dinner
Anacostia Housing Project, 1942
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, FSA

“I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the world, including racism, intolerance and poverty,” Parks told The New York Times in 2002.

The same can be said for those documenting America’s current social justice movements, like Yachin Parham in New York City. “A photograph makes the story real. You see the emotion, the love, the shapes, the light,” he says. In Boston, OJ Slaughter is also documenting the civil unrest. “While photography helps tell history, it can also alter history,” he says. Chloe Collyer, who is covering protests in Seattle, observes, “There are photographers in every large city in the country documenting a new global movement for Black lives. And that’s uplifting for me both as a photojournalist and a descendant of enslaved people.”

Says New York photographer Andre D. Wagner, who was inspired by Parks, “In America we want to sweep our history under the rug, but any real art won’t let you.”

With the highest caliber cameras and lowliest smartphones, there are a thousand Gordon Parks showing America to itself.

Ten Lessons for a Green New Deal

Poster

The Green New Deal by Jan Berger
The Green New Deal  Source

FDR and the New Dealers were idealists, but their genius lay in a hard-nosed pragmatism and a willingness to experiment. The Green New Deal is still mostly a set of potential policies and hoped-for outcomes.  To succeed, it needs to take seriously ten lessons from the first New Deal.

  1. Advance universal programs. The New Deal succeeded by serving a wide range of Americans, rather than targeted populations. All seniors would receive pensions, all jobless qualified for work relief, and all localities were eligible for public works.
  2. Fix income inequality. The New Deal dramatically reduced income inequality by taxing high incomes and corporate profits, curbing financial speculation and lifting the fortunes of workers through the right to organize, fair labor practices and federal minimum wage. As a result, the postwar era was the most equal in American history.
  3. Civilian Conservation Corps Poster
    In the 1930s the CCC employed millions of young men. They planted a billion trees, fought wildfires, restored cropland, and were on the scene following hurricanes and floods.  Source

    Create good jobs.The New Dealers understood that Americans do not want handouts; they want jobs that provide dignity and a living wage. The Civilian Conservation Corps hired 3.5 million young men to build parks, plant trees and fight wildfires in exchange for family income and education. The Works Progress Administration trained and employed 9 million workers in useful jobs in their communities.

  4. Fiscal stimulus pays. New Dealers rejected the conventional wisdom about balanced budgets that had hamstrung the Hoover Administration and used fiscal stimulus to spur economic recovery.  The higher tax revenues from growth meant the deficit stayed within reason.
  5. Modernize the nation. The Public Works Administration and other agencies invested in big infrastructure, such as airports, dams and bridges, laying the foundation for the nation’s future prosperity. Most of these New Deal public works are still in use today.
  6. Invest in lagging places. The New Deal closed the gulf between urban and rural America by aiding rural areas through programs such as the Farm Credit Administration, Soil Conservation Service and Rural Electrification Administration. It improved the lives of people everywhere through new schools, hospitals, parks, housing and more.
  7. WPA sewer project for the City of San Diego

    WPA sewer project for the City of San Diego
    The Works Progress Administration, a federal jobs programs during the Great Depression, paid for all kinds of projects that federal, state, and local leaders thought would be worthwhile.

    Involve local communities. The New Deal worked with state and local governments to build hundreds of thousands of small-scale projects—parks, sidewalks, waterworks, etc. —requested by local officials. These brought visible benefits to local communities across the country and made Roosevelt the most popular president in U.S. history.

  8. Focus on the public good.The New Dealers sought the public good over private profit and put public careers ahead of personal gain. This spirit of public service pervaded a nation previously in despair.
  9. Restore faith in government. The New Deal rekindled Americans’ belief in government by programs that aided ordinary people and by the example set by the New Dealers. Corruption was extremely rare because it simply was not tolerated.
  10. A growing movement

    A growing movement
    Climate protesters urge Congress to adopt a Green New Deal
    Photo Credit: Sunrise Movement

    Go green. Conservation and environmental restoration were central to the New Deal’s agenda. It provided clean drinking water and new sewers; built thousands of parks and wildlife refuges; and planted billions of trees.  Restoring the land and the people were two sides of the same coin.

While the centerpiece of the Green New Deal is climate change, its advocates understand the need to address inequality, jobs and infrastructure. They now need to come up with dozens of concrete ways to attack the many problems facing the nation, as did the New Deal.

Meanwhile, critics calling the Green New Deal pie-in-the-sky need to learn the greatest lesson of the New Deal.  A climate program that does not address the needs of ordinary Americans is not only unjust, it is doomed to failure. Only a sweeping call to rebuild the country while serving the people will galvanize Americans to work for their common betterment.

Opposition to the Green New Deal

Opposition to the Green New Deal
Conservatives decry the plan.
Photo Credit: Heartland Institute

 

A version of this article appeared in The Washington Post.

On the Road with the American Guide Series

WPA American Travel Guides

WPA American Travel Guides
From the author’s collection
Photo Credit: Fern Nesson

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) between 1937 and 1942, is one of the best-known projects of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested driving tours and accompanying essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions also have their own WPA guidebooks.

Poster for American Guide Week

Poster for American Guide Week
President Roosevelt offered his support for the Federal Writers’ Project American Guide Series on this poster celebrating American Guide week, November 10–16, 1941. The individual state guides were meant, as he noted, to “illustrate our national way of life, yet at the same time portray variants in local patterns of living and regional development.”
Photo Credit: Poster courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Each guide was written by a team and published anonymously. Several now-famous American authors got their start working for the FAP. Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neale Hurston were among those who survived the Great Depression as writers of the American Guides.

Less renowned and anonymous writers deserve equal credit. They were a careful and inquisitive bunch with a wide range of talents and interests. The wealth of knowledge conveyed in each guide is astonishing.  From architectural history, economic research, fishing and hunting, folklore, regional foods, cooking, Native American history, literature, regional language differences, botany, geology, race relations, labor movements, to women’s rights—there was someone at the FAP who could write with authority on it.

I first became interested in the guides in the 1980s when I was a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Brandeis University. In that pre-internet era, finding the WPA guides presented quite a challenge. It took me nearly five years searching used bookstores around the country to amass a complete set of the 48 state guides and many regional and city guides—most of them first editions. 

The guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity of the country at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guides are as much fun to read today as they must have been for travelers in the 1930s.

The Crescent City

The Crescent City
New Orleans City Guide, 1938

Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras
New Orleans City Guide, 1938

Maps from Oklahoma Guide

Maps from Oklahoma Guide
Stages of development of the Oklahoma through its history
Photo Credit: Fern Nesson

For years, I considered writing about the guides, but it was not until last November, after 20 years as a lawyer, 25 more as a teacher, and the last three as a student of fine art photography that I hit upon a format for doing so. After completing my MFA I found the time to travel and decided to use the guides as inspiration for where to go. Going back to their delightful mélange of cultural and historical essays and suggested back roads seemed a wonderful way to explore the country. Reportedly John Steinbeck hit the road with the WPA guides when he embarked on a 10,000-mile road trip with his poodle in 1960, memorialized in his travelogue Travels With Charley: In Search of America.  

The project has been endlessly fascinating. Remarkably, much along the routes remains unchanged, at least in the places I have visited so far. Yet, much has changed—some things for the better, others distinctly not. Old houses in Maine that were derelict in the 1930s are now beautifully restored homes for wealthy summer residents. Once sleepy towns and small cities are today engulfed by sprawl and strip malls. The encouragement that the guides gave to sightseeing by automobile—tourism being a way to lift the economy—now seems positively regrettable, cars being no longer a novelty but a bane.

Snake River Gorge from "Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture,” 1937

Snake River Gorge from "Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture,” 1937
Idaho was the first state guidebook in the American Guide Series created by the Idaho Federal Writers’ Project. At the time Idaho had less than half a million residents and few people were planning to go there.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives,

One thing that should never be regretted is the American Guide Series itself. Not only do the guides provide invaluable historical source material and interesting routes for tourists, they also express trenchant but subtle criticism of injustice in our country. The writers exposed racism, anti-unionism, poverty, and inequality when they saw it. Without comment, they let the statistics speak for themselves. But their message was clear: this country could and should do better by its people.

The idealism and open-heartedness with which the FWP explored our country’s diversity, geography, and challenges led me to want to follow in their footsteps. So far, I have completed eight photo essays with the guides as a travel companion. I cannot think of a better way to see this country.

Vermont Guide to the Green Mountain State

Vermont
Guide to the Green Mountain State
Photo Credit: Courtesy Fern Nesson

 

Volunteers “Pitch in” to Save WPA Sculpture at Golden Gate Park

Horseshoe player at Golden Gate Park, 1969

Horseshoe player at Golden Gate Park, 1969
Long neglected, the courts have been largely restored.

A thousand acres of shifting sand with clusters of old-growth live oak were the raw materials for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. By the 1870s the dunes had been transformed into a Victorian-era commons for the burgeoning city.

San Francisco’s elite mingled with the town’s hoi polloi at the ornate Victorian Conservatory of Flowers, on trails wending through the oak woodlands in Mayor Coon’s Hollow, and at the Horseshoe Courts in the old Lick Hill quarry—its stone walls and platforms a tribute to the ancient game of “quoits,” devised by Roman soldiers in occupied Britain subsequently embraced by medieval English peasants.

Horseshoe Courts at Golden Gate Park

Horseshoe Courts at Golden Gate Park
The larger-than-life-size, bas relief horse and rock walls are artifacts of the WPA. The sculpture fell in 2009 and is beyond repair.
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

In the 1930s, with unemployment at an all-time high, Golden Gate Park became one of San Francisco’s major job sites. WPA workers resurfaced roads, installed landscaping for Strybing Arboretum and built horse stables. The archery field, Angler’s Lodge and casting pools, the Model Yacht Club at Spreckels Lake, and the enhancement of the Horseshoe Courts were among the WPA’s projects.

In 1934 Jesse S. “Vet” Anderson, a Spanish American War veteran, illustrator, cartoonist, sculptor, and member of the Golden Gate Horseshoe Club, was commissioned to adorn the Horseshoe Courts with two bas-relief sculptures—the regal “Horse” and the athletic horseshoe “Pitcher.” Cast in concrete, the painted artworks presided over the courts only briefly. By the 1950s, society’s recreational tastes had changed. The courts were neglected, and were slowly overtaken by sand and vandalized. The surrounding oak woodlands became choked with ivy, blackberry, homeless camps, and trash. The sculptures vanished.  

"The Pitcher" at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park

"The Pitcher" at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park
Volunteers launched an effort to restore the court’s remaining 9×12 foot sculpture.
Photo Credit: Rob Bakewell

Forty years on, upset by the loss of the park’s natural assets and diminished public safety, neighbors, civic and environmental groups, and the Recreation and Parks Department’s new Natural Areas Program came together to turn the tide.  It took years and thousands of hours of volunteer labor, but the courts were cleared and repaired, the sculptures were recovered from the tangle of overgrowth, and the surrounding oak woodlands were revived.

Sadly, Vet Anderson’s concrete “Horse” could not be saved. It fell and crumbled in 2009. The WPA “Pitcher,” though partially restored the same year, is now structurally endangered. The estimated cost for the required restoration is substantial.

The artist’s signature

The artist’s signature
Vet Anderson, 1937
Photo Credit: Rob Bakewell

Fortunately, Friends of Oak Woodlands GGP, a partner of the San Francisco Parks Alliance; a new San Francisco Horseshoe Pitching Club; and community volunteers continue their advocacy and stewardship. As Golden Gate Park celebrates its 150th birthday in 2020, efforts are underway to restore Anderson’s WPA-era “Pitcher.”  For information and to support this project, please contact: Friends of the Oak Woodlands GG Park, [email protected], 415-710-9617.