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.

New Deal Artworks Showcased in Upstate NY

“First Snow” by Neva Coffey

“First Snow” by Neva Coffey
Part of the New Deal collection at the GVCA, the scene shows New Yorkers at play, while the “Store to Let” sign acknowledges the Great Depression. Courtesy, GVCA.

The New Deal Art programs were a lifeline to struggling artists, of which New York had more than its share. Of the more than 10,000 artists commissioned nationwide by the WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP) some 2,300 artists were in New York City. 

A little-seen collection of paintings by WPA artists is on display in the village of Mount Morris, curated by the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts (GVCA). The artworks, most dating from 1936-1937, offer a window on life in New York during the Great Depression.

While many of the New Deal’s administrators believed that art could enrich the daily lives of all Americans, the main objective of the federal art programs was to provide jobs. The FAP hired thousands of unemployed painters, sculptors, muralists and graphic artists, with various levels of experience, and paid them a flat wage of $23.50 a week along with a stipend for materials. In addition to art production, the FAP offered art classes, held exhibitions and organized community arts centers through which many Americans were introduced to the arts for the first time.

"Blue and Gold” by Inez Abernathy

"Blue and Gold” by Inez Abernathy
The foreground illustrates a rural setting in the midst of an urbanizing town in the background – a changing sociocultural climate in New York during the 1930s. Courtesy, GVCA.

In the 1930s, New York State opened tuberculosis sanatoriums in Mount Morris, Oneonta and Ithaca. Each facility was allocated a number of paintings by WPA artists. The landscape and still-life paintings that were sent to the Mount Morris Tuberculosis Hospital may have been chosen for their ‘restful’ subject matter. The paintings, by both American-born and European-immigrant artists, reflect the social realism popular at the time that FAP Director Holger Cahill praised as a “rediscovery of the American scene.” Changes underway, such as the expansion of cities, are depicted in paintings “Long Island Farm” by Philip Cheney and “Blue and Gold” by Inez Abernathy.

“Apples” by Fred Adler

“Apples” by Fred Adler
FAP artist Adler was first assigned to paint scenes at an Iowa CCC camp.
This later still-life suggests the plight of minimally employed apple vendors on New York City streets during the Great Depression. Courtesy, GVCA.

“Apples,” by artist Fred Adler, suggests the plight of those minimally employed.

When the Mount Morris sanatorium closed in 1971, some 200 paintings were distributed to various Livingston County government offices. In 1999, the paintings were inventoried by the County and the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts, where the collection—on loan from the federal government—is currently on rotating exhibit. Many of the paintings are in their original frames bearing a “Federal Art Project” plaque on the front and typed tags on the back indicating the state of origin. All were produced in New York. Most of the artists lived in Manhattan. Until recently, little was known about them or their subsequent works. 

In 2018, students from a local college, the State University of New York at Geneseo, under the supervision of Professor Ken Cooper, photographed and catalogued the WPA paintings and researched the artists that produced them. This work led to an exhibit at the GVCA’s New Deal Gallery in 2019. The students also produced a digital exhibit, The Green New Deal: Art During a Time of Environmental Emergency”—that looks at these Depression-era paintings through a modern lens. The online exhibit includes a map showing where sea level rise now threatens some of the locations that inspired the paintings including several of Central Park.”

"Pelham Bay Park #1" by Moses Bank

"Pelham Bay Park #1" by Moses Bank
Some landscapes depicted by FAP artists, such as Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, are now endangered by rising sea levels. Courtesy, openvalley.org.

The Federal Art Project’s easel and print divisions provided an important lifeline at a time when opportunities for women and non-white artists were limited. The GVCA’s New Deal Gallery holds paintings by more than twenty women, including Dorothy Varian and Selma Gubin, as well as more than a dozen works by Japanese American artists, including Fuji Nakamizo and Tomizo Nagai. Varian, Gubin and Nakamizo all have works in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  Other well known artists in the GVCA collection include David Burliuk and Fritz Eighenberg.

The paintings can be viewed online and at the New Deal Gallery, located at 4 Murray Hill Drive in Mount Morris, New York; for more information, visit www.gvartscouncil.org

Making Ends Meat

Soup kitchen
Lining up for free food during the Great Depression.
Photo Credit: National Archives at College Park / Public domain

During the Great Depression soup kitchens opened across America to feed the hungry. People waited in “breadlines” that stretched for blocks. Some eighty years later, Americans are lining up for miles for free food. Food banks are overwhelmed by the demand.

The Great Depression affected nearly 60 million Americans–about half the population. Unemployment reached nearly 25 percent. A half million workers were jobless in Chicago, and nearly a million in New York City, where charities and churches served up some 85,000 daily to those in need.  

Eighty-two percent of farm families were classified as “impoverished.” One who endured the Great Depression in West Virginia recalled when a teacher told an inattentive student to go home and get some food. “I can’t,” the child replied. “It’s my sister’s turn to eat.”

Migrant agricultural worker’s family, 1936

Migrant agricultural worker’s family, 1936
Nipomo, California
Photo Credit: Photo by Dorothy Lange Courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In “the land of plenty,” federal efforts to help those in need were extremely limited. Some families made do growing fruit and vegetables in their backyards. They also canned. They cooked with whatever ingredients were on hand. That might be peanut butter stuffed onions, a dandelion salad or “Hoover Stew,” a concoction of macaroni, canned tomatoes, hot dogs, canned corn and beans. For dessert—for those who could afford the luxury—there was vinegar pie, or mock apple pie—made with crushed Ritz crackers but no apples. There was even water pie.

When the pandemic arrived last year, online searches for Great Depression recipes spiked. (Many can be found on YouTube). Even before the pandemic struck, roughly 37 million people in the U.S. lacked consistent, predictable access to foods required for a healthy lifestyle. That number has risen to 54 million today. Twenty million are kids.

The nonprofit Feeding America reports that its food banks have seen an 83 percent increase in people in need of food assistance since the pandemic began.  

Food insecurity, 2020
Thousands line up at food banks across America.
Photo Credit: feedthevalley.org

Last year, visits to food banks nationwide increased by more than 50 percent, according to a CNN report.

In response to hunger brought on by the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt called for the formation of the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation. Established in 1933, the New Deal agency directed agricultural commodities from the open market—where prices were depressed by surplus farm products—to needy families.

One distributor described his first delivery of surplus salt pork to a down-and-out community: “Finally I sez it was a present from the government. A lot of ‘em – especially the old folks – broke down and cried. I guess all some of ‘em had to eat is potatoes and beans and bread, and not too much of any of that. Some said they hadn’t tasted meat for months.”

Between 1933 and 1935, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, later renamed the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), sent millions of tons of government food to every state in the nation. Michigan alone received 15 million pounds of pork, butter, potatoes, eggs, lard, breakfast cereal, beans, cheese and other food products.

Eat These Every Day, circa 1942

Eat These Every Day, circa 1942
Federal Art Project, NYC WPA War Services.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

The federal government has stepped up food programs that began with New Deal. FERA today is the Emergency Food Assistance Program, part of the United State Food and Drug Administration (USDA).  It provides the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “food stamps.” In 2019, before the pandemic, 38 million Americans—1 in 9—qualified for SNAP; 42 percent of these were working families unable to make ends meet.

Despite recently expanded government assistance such as extended unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, an estimated 30 million U.S. households face food insecurity. With a battered economy and worsening income inequality, America must do more to keep struggling families fed, housed and healthy…far more than salt pork, bologna casseroles and a plate of hobo beans.

Why Not a Beauty New Deal?

Berkeley Rose Garden, Berkeley, California

Berkeley Rose Garden, Berkeley, California
Architect Bernard Maybeck designed the terraced garden. Constructed by hundreds of workers from the CWA and later, the WPA, the garden was dedicated in 1937.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Recently, progressive Democrats have proposed a Green New Deal, a massive transition to protect our planet from further damage from the juggernaut of climate change. It’s time to consider as well a Beauty New Deal to protect and restore America’s natural environment and enrich and deepen the quality of our lives.

There is an inherent human need for beauty and the vitality of creative expression. Beauty impacts all of life. Studies show that beautiful built surroundings and access to parks, nature and green space contribute to good health, social connection, altruism, equity, tolerance, reduced consumerism and increased sustainability.

While beauty’s private aspects are subject to the same unjust distribution as other private goods, beauty, as a public good, has equity as its larger dimension.

In the 1960s, amid antiwar and civil rights marches, members of Congress worked across the aisle, responding to President Lyndon Johnson’s warning that we were becoming “an ugly America” and needed to restore and protect a beautiful America for future generations.

“The Progress of the Negro Race,” 1938

“The Progress of the Negro Race,” 1938
A decorative frieze by Daniel Olney adorns the Langston Terrace Dwellings public housing complex in Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

This led not only to expanding national, state and local parks and beautifying highways, but to beautifying urban America as well.

Encouraged by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Lady Bird Johnson led a broad “beautification” campaign, starting with the nation’s badly neglected capital, Washington D.C. and African American neighborhoods most deprived of natural beauty by institutional racism. The “beautification” initiative was among the most widely popular of Johnson’s Great Society.

Franklin Roosevelt’s original New Deal was multi-dimensional, not merely economic-material, but also green and beauty-oriented.

Robert Stanton Theater, King City, California

Robert Stanton Theater, King City, California
The high school auditorium, built in 1939 with WPA funding is embellished with sculpture by Joseph Jacinto Mora. The Art Modern-style building was designed by Robert Stanton.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

With a major focus on environmental protection and restoration, New Deal programs hired artists, writers, photographers, actors, playwrights and musicians to take public art and performance to cities and s towns across America, while providing inspiration and income to hard-hit creatives. Earlier, encouraged by Theodore Roosevelt, the City Beautiful Movement that flourished during the 1890s and 1900s added parks and other public spaces to beautify American cities.

The importance of beauty has been largely neglected in public policy discussions of our times, but these bygone efforts provide a rich store of ideas to draw upon.

 

 

 

Lake Michigan Beach House

Lake Michigan Beach House
The CCC developed Michigan’s Ludington State Park, including its beautiful beach house, completed in 1935.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

A Beauty New Deal should:

  • Provide greater public support for artists, writers, poets and performers by re-establishing the original New Deal’s WPA Arts programs
  • Educate students to appreciate, create and cultivate beauty in their communities
  • Preserve and promote natural beauty by expanding parks, wilderness areas and open spaces, while strengthening protections from commercial encroachment
  • Re-establish the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) for beautification and environmental restoration projects
  • Encourage use of property taxes for urban beautification, including planting millions of flowering and shade trees
  • Build new public squares
  • Support urban mini-farms and gardens
  • Provide “Equal Access to Beauty” through free summer camps for underserved children
  • Support “Renaissance Zones” using grants and tax incentives for beauty-led economic development in poor communities
  • Support repertory theatre and other performing arts in small towns and cities
  • Direct beautification funding to areas other than the established cultural centers, and finally,
  • Support colleges to culturally enrich the communities around them.

Even as the current struggles threaten to tear us apart, the “Politics of Beauty” can bring Americans together and closer to the America the Beautiful of which we can all be proud.

The Case for New Deal Art

“Women’s Contributions to American Progress,” Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe appear in a mural panel by Edward Millman.

“Women’s Contributions to American Progress,” Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe appear in a mural panel by Edward Millman.
Lucy Flower Technical High School for Girls, Chicago, Illinois  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Registry

President Roosevelt and his circle believed in the value of the public realm and public service, so they made government investment in public goods such as parks, schools and civic buildings a pillar of the New Deal. Along with its immense building programs, the New Deal brought a level of government support for public art never seen before-–or since. This is reason enough to celebrate the legacy of New Deal art.

The Treasury Section of Fine Arts and the Federal Arts Project of the WPA are the best-known programs, but there were others: The Public Works of Art Project of the Civil Works Administration, the Art and Culture Projects of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the Treasury Relief Arts Project. Together they produced tens of thousands of artworks, most of which still adorn public places and brighten the lives of Americans to this day.

“Espirito Santo Grant, Old Cuba Road” by William Henderson

“Espirito Santo Grant, Old Cuba Road” by William Henderson
In 1938, Henderson completed the six WPA murals begun by Gerald Cassidy for the US Courthouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

New Deal art programs employed thousands of unemployed artists during the Great Depression, establishing careers and sometimes literally saving lives. Some of America’s greatest artists worked under the New Deal, such as early 20th century giants like Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton and Maynard Dixon. Followers of the famous Mexican artists Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, like Bernard Zakheim, Victor Arnautoff and George Biddle, produced inspirational murals. Postwar Abstractionists Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Phillip Guston and Lee Krasner came out of the New Deal, as did a host of artists of color such as Sargent Johnson, David Park, Charles Davis, James Auchiah, Gerald Nailor, Jo Mora, Lusi Arenal, Dong Kingman and Isamu Noguchi.

“Ohio” Mural by WPA artist Paul Meltsner displays the social realism popular during the New Deal.

“Ohio,” Mural by WPA artist Paul Meltsner displays the social realism popular during the New Deal.
Bellevue, Ohio Post Office  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

New Deal artists were not just diverse and prolific, they had wide license to exercise their inspiration and talents. As a result, the quality of New Deal art deserves respect for its aesthetic brilliance and originality. A recurrent thread of celebration of American life runs through much of public art of the era, but New Deal artists frequently infused their works with social commentary and criticism. Because people today understandably question art that includes dishonorable people and practices from America’s past, hasty judgement of New Deal murals frequently miss their qualities and subtleties.

"Scenes of Indian Life" by Allan Cafran Houser, 1949

"Scenes of Indian Life" by Allan Cafran Houser, 1949
Native American artist Allan Houser and other Indian artists were invited by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts to paint murals at the Department of Interior Building in Washington, DC.  Source
Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Full appreciation of New Deal art can also be impeded by the dominant painting styles of the time, Social Realism and American Scene, which have long been out of fashion. Social Realism has often come under attack for its celebration of manual (and masculine) labor and resemblance to Soviet art, while American Scene painting is dismissed for being nostalgic and vernacular. Only recently has art of the New Deal-era enjoyed a revival in the art world.

New Deal art is all around us yet too often poorly maintained, unmarked or inaccessible to the public. A growing number of these artworks are jeopardized when the buildings that house them are torn down or renovated. Our society needs to value and protect the New Deal’s legacy of public-spirited art. Furthermore, we sorely need a new New Deal to support struggling artists of today so that they may create diverse and inspiring imagery for the future.

The Living New Deal offers recommendations to communities and institutions dealing with challenges to New Deal artworks.

Mural Panel, “From Slavery to Reconstruction,” 1934. Aaron Douglas, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, painted “Aspects of Negro Life,” a four-panel mural, for the Public Works of Art Project.

Mural Panel, “From Slavery to Reconstruction,” 1934. Aaron Douglas, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, painted “Aspects of Negro Life,” a four-panel mural, for the Public Works of Art Project.
Shomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

“Cotton Pickers,” Linden, Texas Post Office mural, 1939

“Cotton Pickers,” Linden, Texas Post Office mural, 1939
Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff trained with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and taught at Stanford. New Deal murals portraying Native Americans and enslaved people can be considered controversial today, but are often misconstrued.  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

 

A Light Went On: New Deal Rural Electrification Act

Girl in front of family home described as "representative" of the "poorer" houses in the area.

Girl in front of family home described as "representative" of the "poorer" houses in the area.
Union County, Tennessee
Photo Credit: Norris Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940)

The cities were electrified; rural areas were not. A light went on when Nebraska Senator George Norris had an idea: Rural homes across the country should have greater access to electricity. Rural Americans weren’t being given a fair chance, Norris said. They were “growing old prematurely; dying before their time; conscious of the great gap between their lives and the lives of those whom the accident of birth or choice placed in towns and cities.”

Morris needed to have President Franklin D. Roosevelt understand that truth. By 1930, nearly 90 percent of urban homes had electricity; only ten percent of farms did. The high cost of bringing electricity to rural areas left rural residents to languish under the flickering lights of candles, gas lamps, oil lanterns. Electricity would revolutionize their lives.

“Electricity for All”

“Electricity for All”
TVA Pamphlet, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1934
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Roosevelt heard Morris’s call for change. As part of the New Deal, FDR signed the Rural Electrification Act (REA) on May 20, 1936, providing federal loans for the installation of electrical systems in rural areas. It was three years after Roosevelt had signed the TVA Act, establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority to address the Valley’s need for energy and economic development by creating a public corporation.

The REA established the Rural Electrification Administration, which provided thousands of much-needed jobs. Crews, including teams of electricians, travelled nationwide stringing thousands of miles of wire.

Many believed privately owned power companies were charging too much for power, did not employ fair operating practices, and were subject to abuse by the utility holding companies that owned them. By 1939, 288,000 households had electricity provided by hundreds of rural electric cooperatives. Most of these electric coops received loans from the REA.

Workers on Pole (1938)

Workers on Pole (1938)
Installing electrical wires. San Joaquin Valley, California.
Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, Courtesy Library of Congress

Just as Norris thought it would, impoverished regions of America became more productive and more prosperous. REA funding and the work of the newly formed cooperatives transformed rural life. In 1942, half of US farms had electricity. By 1950, 87 percent of farms had electrical service. By the mid-50s most all of them did.

The Rural Electrification Administration still exists today as the Rural Utilities Service, under the US Department of Agriculture. Nearly 900 rural electrical coops are still in operation, providing service coast to coast.

New challenges for rural Americans have arisen, however. Many today are living in digital darkness—10 times more likely to lack broadband internet access than their urban counterparts.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a New Deal agency established in 1934, estimates that today a quarter of rural Americans and a third on tribal lands do not have access to broadband internet, defined as download speeds of at least 25 megabytes a second. Fewer than 2 percent of urban dwellers have this same problem. A 2018 analysis by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association noted that 13.4 million people lack adequate high-speed internet service.

“Our lines” Poster

“Our lines” Poster
Rural Electrification Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Photo Credit: Lester Beall, Courtesy Library of Congress

“Light” Poster

“Light” Poster
A farmhouse with light beaming from its windows
Photo Credit: Lester Beall, Courtesy Library of Congress

 

REA Coop (1942)

REA Coop (1942)
Members of the U.S. Rural Electrification Administration (REA) cooperative in Hayti, Missouri.
Photo Credit: Photographer: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress

As it was in the early 1930s, the issue is cost. Stringing fiber optic cable costs about $20,000 per mile. There are many miles to cover in rural America and not a lot of customers populating those miles. The estimated cost hovers at $40 billion. Federal action is required. President-elect Biden has pledged to spend $20 billion on digital infrastructure.

Senator George Norris would be pleased if the federal government did more on this front. Rural Americans deserve a fair chance. Lacking broadband isn’t just an inconvenience—not being able to watch Netflix or shop Amazon. Studies have proven lack of access to broadband internet is a major hindrance to employment, health, civic engagement and education—particularly in light of COVID and the need for online learning. A better life should only be a mouse click away.

REA Poster

REA Poster
Courtesy National Museum of American History
Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution

Meters (1942)

Meters (1942)
Checking electric meters at the U.S. Rural Electrification Administration (REA) cooperative headquarters in Hayti, Missouri.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress

 

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.