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.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

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.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He's written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Seattle Magazine.

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.

Richard A Walker is the director of the Living New Deal.

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

 
Fern L. Nesson is a graduate of Harvard Law School and received an MA in American History from Brandeis and an M.F.A in Photography from the Maine Media College. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She practiced law in Boston for twenty years and subsequently taught American History at the Cambridge School of Weston and the Commonwealth School in Boston. She is now a Post-graduate Fellow and an Artist-in-Residence at the Maine Media College and an Associate at the Optical Lab at the MIT Museum. Fern wrote Great Waters: A History of Boston’s Water Supply (1982) and Signet of Eternity (2017). She is currently working on a combined history and photography book on the WPA’s American Guide Series. Her photographs have been shown in galleries in Massachusetts and Maine, at “Les Rencontres de la Photographie” in Arles, France and at the Center for Maine Cotemporary Art. Her work appears on the Living New Deal website as well as on the Global Voices and Berkman-Klein Center at Harvard Law School websites. Fern’s photography work can be found at www.fernlnesson.com.

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.

Rob Bakewell has lived hard by Golden Gate Park for 30 years. He is co-founder of the Friends of Oak Woodlands GG Park, a volunteer organization that, under the fiscal sponsorship of SF Parks Alliance, has worked for more than 25 years to restore the park’s historic woodlands. A nature trail through the woodlands was recently dedicated by San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department and reopened to the public.

A New Book Recognizes the Women of the New Deal

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Ellen Woodward, 1938

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Ellen Woodward, 1938
During the New Deal Woodward served as the director of the Women’s Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA); director of the Women’s and Professional Projects of the WPA; and as a member of the Social Security Board, She was considered “the second highest ranking woman appointee in the Roosevelt Administration, after Frances Perkins.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives

When millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes, and life savings in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt promised them a new deal. A new book, “Women and the Spirit of the New Deal,” reveals the extensive role women played in shaping government’s all-out response to the Great Depression.

Inspired by a conference in 2018 at UC Berkeley, the book is a collaboration of the Living New Deal, the National New Deal Preservation Association, and the Frances Perkins Center to recognize the oft-overlooked female forces behind the New Deal. In brief biographies, it describes one hundred women who shaped the policies and programs that led to America’s economic recovery and protected its most vulnerable.

At a time when society held that “a woman’s place was in the home,” these women expanded the aspirations of the New Deal. They included politicians, administrators, lawyers, social workers, authors, journalists, painters, sculptors, musicians, and scientists. Some are well known like First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Some have been largely overlooked, like political activist Molly Dewson and Clara Beyer, an administrator in the Bureau of Labor Statistics who played an important role shaping legislation to provide worker safety, a minimum wage, and Social Security.

Frances Perkins and Clara Beyer

Frances Perkins and Clara Beyer
Secretary of Labor Perkins was the first woman ever appointed to a presidential cabinet. Beyer was an attorney and associate director in the Division of Labor Standards. She was part of a so-called “Ladies’ Brain Trust,” that advised Perkins during the 1930s and 40s.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Mt Holyoke College

The book is just a beginning. If you know of women who had a part in the New Deal, please share their stories with us so that we may pass on the spirit they brought to the New Deal to inspire a new generation.

 
Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

Eat at Jo’s

Jo’s Café. A popular addition to Monterey County’s New Deal Courthouse building

Jo’s Café
A popular addition to Monterey County’s New Deal Courthouse building
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

In the 1930s, the WPA constructed civic buildings that still hold a significant place in history. More than 80 years later, many are still in use, but many have fallen into disrepair or are out of compliance with today’s building codes. So it is especially gratifying when a New Deal building is restored and retained as a public asset rather than destroyed or sold to private developers. The Monterey County Courthouse in Salinas, California, is one to celebrate.

Architect Robert Stanton (1900–1983) designed the unique, 3-story International Moderne-style building, which was dedicated upon its completion in 1937. He turned to artist Joseph Jacinto (Jo) Mora (1876–1947), to add decorative elements to the building’s exterior and interior courtyard. With funding from the Federal Art Project, Mora’s bas-relief panels, column caps, and figurative heads of archetypical and historical figures around the building remain a source of civic pride. The courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

Monterey County Courthouse building, Salinas, California

Monterey County Courthouse building, Salinas, California
Funded by the WPA and a local bond, the courthouse opened 1937.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Visionary and artful, architect Stanton incorporated earthquake-resistant features in the courthouse. To keep the wheels of justice turning, Stanton’s plans called for the WPA courthouse to be built around its outgrown predecessor, which continued to operate while the new courthouse was under construction.

The need for additional courtrooms prompted the construction of an adjacent court building in 2010 and the WPA courthouse was vacated. That’s when the asbestos and lead paint were discovered there.

Fortunately, the County chose to update, rather than abandon its historic courthouse. The Board of Supervisors saw fit to allocate the funds needed for the complex renovation. The remediated building opened in 2018. It houses the offices of the District Attorney, Civil Grand Jury, and the County Law Library, with more new offices planned. A snack shop–Jo’s Café—named in honor Jo Mora, is a welcome addition.

More Mora
Dozens of sculptures and bas reliefs embellish the former courthouse
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Opening Day Poster. Monterey County Courthouse dedication.

Opening Day
Monterey County Courthouse dedication
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

The café displays copies of some of Mora’s artworks. Two large murals, “Serving the Feast” and “Welcome to The Fable” are reproduced in the hallway. Lobby displays illuminate the building’s history and Mora’s contributions.

In June, the Living New Deal and Jo Mora Trust will co-sponsor an exhibit, “Jo Mora: From the Old West to the New Deal,” at San Francisco’s Canessa Gallery. Presentations about Mora’s life and work will take place on opening night, June 7, and closing night, June 27. Sales of the artworks will benefit the two nonprofits.

 

Peter Hiller is the collection curator for Jo Mora Trust.

Raising the New Deal Flag in New York City

Raising the New Deal Flag in New York City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret W. Crane ("Peg") is the Living New Deal program associate for New York City. A freelance writer, her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Scientist, and numerous health and education websites.

Clabe Wilson and the WPA

Leora and Clabe Wilson, Dexter, Iowa, July 22, 1934.

Leora and Clabe Wilson
Dexter, Iowa, July 22, 1934.
Photo courtesy: Joy Neal Kidney

My grandfather, Clabe Wilson, was an Iowa farmer. During the slump in farm prices after WWI, he lost his farm. Clabe, my grandmother Leora, and their seven kids ended up in the small town of Dexter. He hired out to work on farms, but as the Great Depression deepened, farmers couldn’t afford to pay for help.

In the summer of 1930, his daughter, Doris, was nearly 12. She spent her free time in the upstairs bedroom she shared with a younger sister, where she read and read in a wooden rocking chair, leaning against the open window to get a breeze that sultry summer. That was the year Dexter’s first public library–with 100 donated books–opened in Allen Percy’s law office.

By the next summer, Clabe got a job in Redfield at the brick and tile plant. But he had lost blood during an operation and was weak for months so couldn’t work much.

Main Street, Dexter, Iowa

Main Street, Dexter, Iowa
The top of the two-story building was removed and the materials reused to create a town library on the first floor
Photo Credit: Courtesy Joy Neal Kidney

In 1933, because so many Americans were out of work, President Roosevelt’s New Deal was set up. Funds were granted to the states to operate relief programs to create new unskilled jobs. Such jobs were make-work programs to hire jobless men during the Great Depression. Yes, it was more expensive than to hand over welfare payments (called the “dole”), but men were embarrassed and ashamed by taking unearned money. They would rather earn it by working.

Clabe hated having to apply for a government relief job. At first he was turned down because he had two sons in the Navy. The two older boys had joined up because there was nothing for them to do in Iowa. They sent home $5 or $10 a month from their meager wages. Their mother said the money was a real godsend, that the coal they bought with it one winter kept them from freezing.

Dallas County News, Adel, Iowa, May 10, 1939

Dallas County News
Adel, Iowa, May 10, 1939
Photo Credit: Courtesty Joy Neal Kidney

Clabe was finally hired by the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA), doing roadwork. Later he worked sixteen hours a week for the WPA keeping the Dexter town pump oiled.

After 1934 the library was moved from Mr. Percy’s office to a room at the town hall. That fall Clabe and his daughter Doris spent late hours working on corn at the Dexter Canning Factory.

Doris graduated Dexter High School in 1936–the same year the library became tax supported and reorganized under Iowa library laws.

Dexter Town Library, Constructed by the WPA

Dexter Town Library
Constructed by the WPA
Photo Credit: Courtesy Joy Neal Kidney

In 1939 a WPA project was approved to remove the second story of the building that had once housed the Chapler-Osborn Clinic. The men–including Clabe Wilson–were hired to reuse materials from the second story for a Library Hall, which included a library, and also a community room with a kitchen and dining area.  

Seven years later, Doris married my father, a Dallas County farmer who had volunteered for the Army Air Corps in WWII. In the early 1950s, they bought a farm south of Dexter. Their daughters regularly used the Dexter library. When I was in high school and needed more about the Bronte family for a term paper, a Dexter librarian introduced me to the wonder of ordering free books through the Iowa State Traveling Library.

Today, a bench commemorating the WW II service of Clabe Wilsons’ five sons sits right outside the same brick building their father worked on decades ago.

Commemorative WPA Plaque, Dexter Library

Commemorative WPA Plaque
Dexter Library
Photo Credit: Courtesy Joy Neal Kidney

Bench outside the town library. In memory of the five Wilson brothers, who served in WWII.

Bench outside the town library
In memory of the five Wilson brothers, who served in WWII.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Joy Neal Kidney

Joy Neal Kidney is the keeper of family letters, pictures, combat records, telegrams, research, and casualty reports. Born to an Iowa farmer who became a pilot and flight instructor during WWII, and an Iowa waitress who lost three of her five brothers during that war, she spent her childhood in a farmhouse with a front porch on Old Creamery Road south of Dexter, Iowa. A graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, she has published two genealogies as well as dozens of essays. She lives with her husband, a Vietnam veteran, in a house with a front porch in the suburbs of Des Moines. Her stories can be found at joynealkidney.com

Women and the Art of Treasure Island

“I am quite open and unashamed in my liking for expositions—“
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, opening broadcast for the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, February 18, 1939

Postcard, Treasure Island, 1939, Golden Gate International Exposition at Night

Postcard, Treasure Island, 1939
Golden Gate International Exposition at Night

Thanks to FDR, at least six of the American expositions of the 1930s received generous federal funding. The Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE), 1939-1940, was originally to be a celebration of the recently completed Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges. As plans progressed, the idea grew to encompass the countries and cultures of the Pacific—with San Francisco as the gateway.

The WPA and PWA paid to build the site in San Francisco Bay that became Treasure Island, as well as its three permanent Art Moderne airport buildings. The island was publicized as the site for a world’s fair (temporary) and an airport (permanent). But GGIE president Leland Cutler wrote that President Roosevelt “was intensely interested in both airport and a national defense site on San Francisco Bay.” In spite of public outcry, it was really no surprise when the Navy seized Treasure Island in 1942 for the war effort.

Treasure Island Map. The map appeared in the guidebook to the fair 1939

Treasure Island Map
The map of the fairgrounds was the work of a woman artist, Ruth Taylor White.
Photo Credit: Wikicommons

Thankfully, the WPA funded art as well as artillery, and the federal government funded many art programs, particularly in the Federal Building and in the Palace of Fine and Decorative Arts. The GGIE was also progressive in its employment of women artists. Of the thirteen local artists commissioned to convey the fair’s theme in the “Court of Pacifica,” more than half were women: Adaline Kent, Helen Phillips, Ruth Cravath, and Cecilia Graham each created three of the twenty “Pacific Unity” sculptures, and the Bruton sisters—Helen, Esther and Margaret—created the huge “Peacemakers” relief mural.

Lulu Hawkins Braghetta designed the GGIE’s giant relief “Path of Darkness” in the Temple Compound, and Helen Forbes and Dorothy Puccinelli painted the four “First Garden” murals in the South Towers. Six sculptures can be seen today at the entrance to the Treasure Island Museum in Building One, including two of Helen Phillips’s “Pacific Unity” sculptures.

Art in Action

Art in Action
Golden Gate International Exposition, 1940
Photo Credit: Herbert "Bud" Stewart, collection of Treasure Island Museum

As vice-chair of the Art Committee in 1940, architect Timothy Pflueger was in charge of all of the activities and exhibits that filled the massive Hall of Fine and Decorative Arts. His big success in 1940 was “Art in Action,” a “theater of the arts” where visitors could observe and interact with artists at work. With Helen Bruton as manager, the program included at least 50 local artists—painters, lithographers, sculptors, and weavers among them.

Most celebrated among these artists was Diego Rivera, who arrived from Mexico to paint his third and largest San Francisco fresco, “Pan American Unity.” Riviera’s colorful 22 x 75-foot mural required an army of assistants, including painters, plasterers, pigment grinders, and a cook. Largely overlooked are Rivera’s painting assistants, several of whom were women. Ely de Vescovi, Thelma Johnson Streat, and Mine Okubo were artists in their own right. Rivera’s chief assistant was Emmy Lou Packard, who met Rivera on a family trip to Mexico and developed a lifelong association with him.

Court of Pacifica

Court of Pacifica
Many sculptures here were created by the GGIE’s women artists

World War II interrupted plans to install “Pan American Unity” at a new library planned for City College. The mural spent decades in storage. It was finally installed at the college’s Little Theater, a space much too small for it. A new performing arts center planned for the campus will provide a more suitable venue. In the meantime, the mural will move to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for a retrospective in 2020.

Treasure Island no longer belongs to the Navy. The city is developing it into “San Francisco’s Newest Neighborhood.”

View a 1939 newsreel about the “Pageant of the Pacific”.

The Golden Gate International Exposition celebrates its 80th anniversary in February of 2019. Please visit http://www.treasureislandmuseum.org/ for information about upcoming events.

The Peacemakers, Court of Pacifica

The Peacemakers, Court of Pacifica
GGIE relief mural by sisters Helen, Margaret, and Esther Bruton, is 144 feet long by 57 feet in height.
Photo courtesy: Treasure Island Museum


“Flutist,” by Helen Phillips

“Flutist,” by Helen Phillips
One of six restored GGIE statues that have been relocated to Building One on Treasure Island.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Art and Architecture SF

Lulu Hawkins Braghetta at work at the Court of Pacifica

Lulu Hawkins Braghetta at work on her Cambodian-inspired bas-relief, "Path of Darkness.”
GGIE, Court of Pacifica
Photo Credit: Treasure Island Museum


Artist Diego Rivera and Assistant Emmy Lou Packard

Artist Diego Rivera and Assistant Emmy Lou Packard
Golden Gate International Exposition, 1940
Photo courtesy: Diego Rivera Mural Project


“Pan American Unity”

“Pan American Unity”
Riviera’s masterpiece was completed in 1940. For a close up view and a key: http://riveramural.org/fullmural
Photo Credit:
Photo courtesy: Diego Riviera Mural Project


US Postage stamp Commemorating the GGIE

US Postage stamp
Commemorating the GGIE
Photo Credit: Wikicommons

Anne Schnoebelen serves on the board of the museum and is a historian of the GGIE and its role in San Francisco art history. She manages the Treasure Island Museum’s “Little Island, Big Ideas” monthly lecture series and lectures about the GGIE throughout the state, as well as giving tours at Coit Tower for SF City Guides. [email protected] Blog: treasureisland1939.com