A Better United States, c. 1937


Before television, newsreels were a source of current affairs and entertainment for millions of moviegoers.

In order to restore public confidence and hope during the Great Depression, the federal government created a short-lived agency, the U.S. Film Service. Frustrated with anti-New Deal propaganda and obstructionist Republicans in Congress (sound familiar?), Harry Hopkins, chief of the Works Progress Administration, invited commercial producers—“Hollywood,” in popular parlance—to make newsreels that would show mass audiences how workers formerly on relief were building a better United States.

In 1935, with an eye toward the 1936 presidential election, Hopkins invited forty-one firms to bid on a contract for thirty, 600-foot, that is 5-minute, films. Pathé News won the contract with a bid of $4,280 a reel and a promise to include one WPA story each month in its national newsreel.

Colonial Park (now Jackie Robinson Park)

Colonial Park (now Jackie Robinson Park)
African American workers construct Colonial Park pool and bathhouse in Harlem in 1937. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.

It was a challenge to keep to the grueling production schedule. And there was backlash from the Republican National Committee, which charged that these short films would be nothing but “propaganda . . . paid out of relief funds.” But Pathé’s general manager, Jack S. Connolly, countered that the huge array of activities of the WPA would generate enough “straight news for unprejudiced releases.”

(You can judge for yourself by watching these newsreels on the Living New Deal website. The trove of forty-seven films gleaned from the National Archives includes A Better West Virginia,  A Better Chicago, and A Better New Jersey. Some are longer, such as We Work Again, a film about African Americans, and Work Pays America, a survey of WPA accomplishments.)

School Lunch Program

School Lunch Program
A woman makes school lunches in an industrial kitchen. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archive

A Better New York City is in some ways an anomaly in the “A Better” series. Instead of breadlines and beggars the newsreel opens with billowing clouds that part to reveal Manhattan Island; the music swells; the skyline glimmers in the sunshine; and the narrator states that this is, “a great city, the financial, commercial capital of the entire world.” The unfolding panorama features Central Park (restored and improved with CWA and WPA funds and labor) and the Triboro Bridge (built with federal money). Streets, sidewalks, and buildings come into view as the narrator explains the program that “removed residents from relief rolls” and made New York a better city.

Like every newsreel in the “A Better” series, the New York City film highlights work and workers—blue and white collar, unskilled and skilled, men and women, whites and people of color. Manual labor, executed by men with weathered faces, strong hands, and brawny bodies, is valorized.


An African American caretaker and her young charges. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.

They build airports, bulkheads, and highways, and repair streets, sewers, and public buildings. The film heralds public swimming pools and bathhouses the New Deal built in this city.

For all the good that was done here, the New Deal tolerated racial segregation, and the newsreel disseminates a message of racial difference that is consistent across the “A Better” series.

Another consistent message is how the New Deal benefited children. The WPA operated twenty daycare centers in New York City for the children of needy or working mothers. In A Better New York City, youngsters are clean, heathy, and amply fed. They don’t work. Rather, they play in supervised sites such as play streets, parks, playgrounds, pools, day camps, nursery schools, and day care centers and enjoy a school lunch program, substantiating the narrator’s praise “In the knowledge that we are providing healthy bodies in sound minds for our future citizens . . .”  

Play Street

Play Street
Healthy children are shown playing in supervised areas. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.

As we look back to find a way forward, we should assess the imperfections of the New Deal along with its successes. African Americans were the hardest hit by the Depression, and yet they are underrepresented in A Better New York City just as they were underserved by New Deal programs.

Still, the WPA films remind us of the transformative power of the state to improve our wellbeing—and the power of moving images to craft political narratives.

Marta Gutman is professor at the City College of New York and a founding editor of PLATFORM, https://www.platformspace.net where a version of this article originally appeared. mg[email protected]

Marta Gutman teaches architectural and urban history at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research focuses on public architecture for city children.

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

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.

Green New Dealers Turn Up the Heat

Organizers are mobilizing youth to put pressure on Congress

Green New Dealers
Organizers are mobilizing youth to put pressure on Congress  Source

In a radical departure from business as usual, talk of a “New Deal” has lately been reverberating through the halls of the nation’s Capitol. Newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass) have introduced a resolution for a Green New Deal that is making headlines and rapidly gaining public support.

The Green New Deal resolution, introduced in early February, cites catastrophic repercussions for the economy, the environment, humans, and wildlife as a result of climate change. The Green New Deal is a package of federal programs and investments to transition the nation from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean, renewable energy over 10 years, creating millions of high-wage jobs in the process. The details are still to come.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Announces the Green New Deal resolution on Feb 7

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Announcing the Green New Deal resolution on Feb 7
Photo Credit: OaklandNews

The original New Deal offers a blueprint. Like its proposed green offspring, the New Deal was a massive response to an unprecedented national emergency. The government took multiple and experimental approaches to the economic, social and environmental crises of the Great Depression.

One of the first and most popular programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), begun in 1933, deployed millions of men over ten years to improve the environment. The “first responders” of their day, the CCC men fought wildfires and epic floods, planted billions of trees, stabilized soils in the Dust Bowl and elsewhere, and developed a system of national refuges to sustain diminishing wildlife.

Millions found work through federal programs to modernize America’s “commons,” building roads, bridges, dams, housing, schools, hospitals, parks, and playgrounds.

CCC at work, Installing phone lines at Logan Pass, Montana, 1938

CCC at work
Installing phone lines at Logan Pass, Montana, 1938
Photo Credit: National Park Service

While the New Deal brought jobs and enhancements to cities, towns and rural nationwide, many minority communities were left behind. African Americans, domestic, and agricultural workers were often excluded in exchange for the support of Republicans and Dixiecrats in Congress who held the purse strings.

Recognizing this failure, the Green New Deal resolution is explicitly inclusive in its aim “to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”

More than sixty progressive House members and several 2020 presidential candidates have already declared their support for a Green New Deal, as have several labor unions and environmental organizations. The trillion-dollar question is how to pay for it. A carbon tax, raising taxes on the ultra wealthy, and redirecting subsidies away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, are among the ideas.

WPA sewer project, Men laying pipes for the city of San Diego, California, 1935

WPA sewer project
Men laying pipes for the city of San Diego, California, 1935  Source

Not surprisingly, Republicans dismiss the Green New Deal, branding it “socialist,” “reckless,” “expensive,” and “unattainable.” Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin pronounced: “The Green New Deal, like Medicare- for-All and tuition-free college, is nothing but an empty promise that leaves American taxpayers on the hook.”

But climate activists point out that a Green New Deal would be far less costly than the climate disasters, pollution, and health problems that come from fossil fuels. Polls show growing public support for a Green New Deal. A December 2018 poll by Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication, found more than 90 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of self-identified “conservative Republicans” support a Green New Deal.

WPA emblem, Posted at work sites nationwide during the Great Depression

WPA emblem
Posted at work sites nationwide during the Great Depression

Organizers want to make the resolution a litmus test for those running for office in 2020. The Sunrise Movement is one of a growing number of grassroots groups mobilizing support among the nation’s youth. Its stated goal, “To build the movement for a Green New Deal.” Their social media campaign enjoins supporters to “turn up the heat” on Congress.

Sign the petition for a Green New Deal

The Living New Deal website’s new page on the Green New Deal describes ten
principles that led to the success of the original New Deal.

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

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

WPA Model of San Francisco Restored at Last

Author Gray Brechin restoring the model, 2018

Author Gray Brechin restoring the model, 2018
In 2010, Gray discovered the then 70-year-old WPA model of San Francisco was in storage at a UC warehouse and began advocating for its public display.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

As I was scanning photos of New Deal public works at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, I was startled to run across one that showed the dedication in 1940 of an enormous wooden model of San Francisco. WPA workers spent three years building the 37 X 41 square-foot, 3-D replica of the city for planning and educational purposes.

The New Deal wrought huge changes to the Bay Area—the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, the airports, the East Shore Highway, and Caldecott Tunnel, (not to mention the locally financed Golden Gate Bridge). Planners understood that bigger changes were on the way to which the city’s hilly topography and constricted site presented unusual challenges. A model would also give scores of people jobs.

WPA Workers Putting together the scale model, 1938

WPA Workers
Putting together the scale model, 1938
Photo Credit: Courtesy the San Francisco Planning Department Archive at the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Jointly sponsored by the federal government and the City of San Francisco, the model could be used for planning a subway down Market Street (later BART and MUNI lines) as well as freeways to connect the bridges and the city with the Peninsula (later blocked by the Freeway Revolt.) It was only briefly on display in a lightwell of City Hall before wartime activities evicted it, eventually finding its way to a warehouse at the University of California, Berkeley, where it remained, in 16 large wooden crates, until last summer.

Dedication of WPA model at City Hall

Dedication of WPA model at City Hall
The WPA formally presented the map to the city on April 16, 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. (Public Domain)

Deena Chalabi, the Curator of Public Dialogue at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, introduced me to the Dutch conceptual artists Liesbeth Bik and Jos van der Pol (collectively Bik Van Der Pol) who were intrigued by the possibility of returning the model to the public and using it for stimulating dialogue about the city’s past, present, and future. With the invaluable assistance of Stella Lochman, the museum’s Senior Program Associate of Public Dialogue, the model was transferred from the East Bay to a San Francisco Public Library facility with enough space to uncrate it. Over the summer, volunteers meticulously cleaned decades of dust from its dozens of component sections, marveling at the detail, technical ingenuity, and subtle coloration that emerged.

Restoring the WPA model

Restoring the WPA model
Volunteers carefully cataloged and cleaned the model, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Thanks to Bik Van Der Pol, SFMOMA, and the San Francisco Public Library system, the model will be back on display this winter at 29 branch libraries throughout the city where locals can view their own neighborhoods in miniature as they looked in 1940. After that, it will hopefully be reassembled in its entirety at the SFMOMA contemporaneous with a special exhibition of Diego Rivera’s Pan-American Unity mural that he created for the 1939-40 World’s Fair on San Francisco’s Treasure Island. The model will then need a permanent home. It would make a superb centerpiece for the New Deal museum that the Living New Deal hopes to build in the city that the model depicts.

Close up. The model of San Francisco reflects the city as it was in 1939-1940.

Close up
The model of San Francisco reflects the city as it was in 1939-1940.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

St Anne of the Sunset Church

St Anne of the Sunset Church
Corner of Funston and Judah
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Overlooking Playland-at-the-Beach

Overlooking Playland-at-the-Beach
The amusement park was demolished in 1972
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

War Memorial Opera House and Herbst Theatre

War Memorial Opera House and Herbst Theatre
Van Ness Avenue
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

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.

New Deal Utopias, by Jason Reblando

New Deal Utopias CoverOver three years Jason Reblando, a Chicago artist and photographer, trained his camera on three Greenbelt towns — Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin— constructed during the Depression to house poor Americans, many of them displaced from the Dust Bowl.

Rexford Tugwell, a Columbia economics professor tapped to head FDR’s Resettlement Administration (RA), modeled the Greenbelt program on the Garden City movement of early 20th Century England, integrating housing with nature. Tugwell’s dream was to create not only housing for those in need, but also a flourishing community. “My plans are fashioned and practical,” he said. “I shall roll up my sleeves—make America over!”

Jason Reblando, Photographer

Jason Reblando
Author and photographer Jason Reblando

The towns incorporated features designed to encourage neighborly interaction—shared courtyards and lawns, parks and playgrounds, intersecting pathways, public artworks, a swimming pool. Town residents managed schools, shops, and community buildings as cooperatives.

Not surprisingly, conservatives in Congress derided the Greenbelt experiment as both extravagant and “socialist,” and sought to end it.

To win support for the Greenbelt projects, Tugwell called on his former graduate student, Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the RA (soon to become the Farm Securities Administration). Stryker famously deployed FSA photographers to document the human desperation that the New Deal agencies were working to address. Photographs by the likes of Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans captured some of the best-known images of the victims of the Great Depression. Lesser known were the RA’s photographs of the Greenbelt towns that conveyed an America on the road to recovery. Nonetheless, under pressure from Congress and wealthy farmers deprived of their tenant work force, the RA was discontinued in 1936.

Gazebo, Greendale, WI

Greendale, WI
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Seventy-five years later, author and photographer Jason Reblando has re-captured the founding vision of the Greenbelt towns in his large-format book, New Deal Utopias. His color photographs of the tidy homes and well-tended grounds surrounded by farms and forests recall a kind of everyday orderliness—both ordinary and reassuring. Portraits of the towns’ 21st Century inhabitants depict a sense of small-town pride.

Despite what Reblando’s photos convey, not all is utopian in these New Deal “utopias.” Residents of Ohio’s Greenhills near Cincinnati have struggled for years to defend their historic district from redevelopment. They won National Historic Landmark status for their town, but that doesn’t ensure its preservation. In a recent letter to the citizens of Greenhills, the National Park Service acknowledged the town’s historic significance and the need to preserve it: “Bear in mind that the shared heritage and stewardship of the village should extend throughout the community, and decisions made today will impact current and future generations,” it cautioned.

Published under the fiscal sponsorship of the Living New Deal, New Deal Utopias serves as a reminder that this shared heritage comprises far more than buildings alone.

Pool, Greenbelt, MD

Greenbelt, MD
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Lake, Greenhills, OH

Greenhills, OH
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Daffodil House, Greendale, WI

Daffodil House
Greendale, WI
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

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

Frances Perkins: The Woman behind the New Deal

Frances Perkins, The first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.

Frances Perkins
The first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

In 1963, at the age of 83, Frances Perkins gave a series of lectures at UCLA entitled, “Labor Under the New Deal and the New Frontier.” She told her audience that for years after her tenure as FDR’s Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, people would frequently ask her, “What was the New Deal anyway?”

“It was an attitude,” she would answer, “an attitude toward government, toward the people, toward labor . . . an attitude that found voice in expressions like, ‘the people are what matter to government,’ and ‘a government should aim to give all of the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.’”

The first woman to serve in a U.S. presidential cabinet, Perkins spent 33 years of her long work life in government service–twelve of those years as U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Born Fannie Coralie Perkins in Boston in 1880, she spent her childhood between her family’s home in Worcester and the Perkins farm in Newcastle, Maine. Her grandmother, Cynthia Otis Perkins, a source of Yankee wisdom as well as family stories of life before and after the Revolution, encouraged her not to shy away from opportunity. “If a door opens, walk through it,” she said.

Frances Perkins, Factory inspector, 1911

Frances Perkins
Factory inspector, 1911

Thus, Fannie came of age with a deep respect for the American dream and the belief that everyone, with opportunity, could be whatever he or she wanted to be.

That idealism was reinforced at Mount Holyoke College where, during a course in the history of industrialism, she visited factories in neighboring Holyoke, Massachusetts, and observed first-hand the drudgery and dangers endured by working men, women, and children. She knew she had to do something about what she saw as “unnecessary hazards of life, unnecessary poverty.” Upon graduation she taught at an elite school for girls in Lake Forest, Illinois, and spent her free time volunteering at Chicago Commons and Hull House, two pre-eminent settlement houses. She changed her name to Frances and her religious affiliation to the Episcopal Church, where she was a devout congregant for the rest of her life.

Upon receiving her Master’s from Columbia University in 1910, she accepted a position with the New York City Consumer League where she gained a reputation as an effective lobbyist on behalf of working people and workplace safety.

U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Time Magazine Cover, August 14, 1933

U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins
Time Magazine Cover, August 14, 1933

On March 25, 1911, Perkins witnessed the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where 146 garment workers—mostly young women—lost their lives. It was, she later said, the day the New Deal was born.

In the wake of the fire, she was appointed to head New York’s Committee on Safety and principal investigator of a legislative commission that resulted in the most comprehensive state laws on workplace health and safety to date. Governor Al Smith appointed her to the state’s Industrial Commission in 1919 and later named her its chair.

Perkins joined FDR’s cabinet when he served as governor of New York from 1929 to 1933. Before appointing her, the two spent a day at the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park. As FDR drove them around the property, she told him that if she accepted the position she would promote a progressive policy agenda that would limit the hours women worked, restrict child labor, develop a better workman’s compensation system, and broaden the state’s labor laws to more industries. He agreed and promised to help her. She soon became the most prominent state labor official in the nation, responding to the deepening economic depression and, at the same time, advancing her boss’s visibility.

Perkins arrives at the White House for a Cabinet meeting in September 1938

Perkins arrives at the White House
Cabinet meeting in September 1938

With his election as president in 1932, FDR was under pressure to appoint a woman to the cabinet. It was no surprise that he chose his trusted advisor as Labor Secretary. In a conversation reminiscent of that day in Hyde Park, Perkins wanted to be sure the new president would share her goals. She pledged to work for a forty-hour work week, a minimum wage, workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, a prohibition on child labor, expanded public works projects, Social Security, and health insurance for all—a list she called “practical possibilities.”

By the end of her long tenure as Secretary, she had accomplished every item on that list except the last.

Collier’s Magazine in 1945, described her accomplishments as “not so much the Roosevelt New Deal as… the Perkins New Deal.”

Shaking hands with steelworkers

Shaking hands with steelworkers
Homestead, PA, 1933

Perkins stands behind FDR as he signs the Social Security Act

Perkins stands behind FDR as he signs the Social Security Act
August 14, 1935

Leah W. Sprague is a founding board member of the Frances Perkins Center, which convenes leaders and future leaders in public policy, labor, and related fields to generate creative solutions to social and economic problems, and preserves the Perkin’s legacy. A campaign is underway to raise $5 million to preserve the Perkins homestead in Newcastle, Maine, as a center for research, education, and public engagement. To learn more and to contribute to the campaign, please visit francesperkinscenter.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Photographing New Deal Utopias

Daffodil House, Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009

Daffodil House
Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Among the various New Deal programs to help displaced farmers and the urban poor was the Resettlement Administration’s plan to construct new communities called Greenbelt Towns. These towns were a utopian model of modern living envisioned by RA administrator Rexford G. Tugwell who served on FDR’s “brain trust.”

I became interested in Tugwell’s egalitarian ideas for fostering community through the physical and social aspects of town planning, encompassing affordable housing, communal activities, natural landscaping, and cooperatively owned businesses. It was a new concept for Americans, but not for Tugwell, who was influenced by the work of Sir Ebenezer Howard, an urban reformer whose work transformed the landscape of British industrial communities in the early 20th Century. In order to provide relief from the overcrowded slums of London, Howard proposed creating Garden Cities–new communities that would combine the best features of both town and country, namely the social and economic advantages of living in a community with fresh air and green spaces.

Mushroom, Greenbelt, Maryland, 2009

Greenbelt, Maryland, 2009
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

I made multiple trips to photograph the three New Deal Greenbelt Towns–Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin. I had learned about the towns through my research on the Garden City, having been inspired by the design and community I found at Julia C. Lathrop Homes, a public housing complex built by the Public Works Administration in 1938. Chicago’s Lathrop Homes had been built with Garden City principles in mind. The New Deal Greenbelt Towns were sited on the suburban frontier outside metropolitan centers.

Gazebo, Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009

Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Photographing the Greenbelt Towns, I was struck by the beauty and modesty of the architecture and surrounding natural landscapes, as well as the generosity of the residents. Wandering the parks and converging paths, I reflected upon Tugwell’s bold attempt to introduce a new American way of life based on cooperation instead of unrestrained competition. I was impressed at how connected residents felt to their own town, and to their sibling model communities borne out of the Great Depression. As these towns celebrate their 80th anniversaries in 2017 and 2018, I view them as vital communities to be protected and celebrated.

Mural, Greenhills, Ohio, 2009

Greenhills, Ohio, 2009
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

I am excited to share my photographs of the towns in my new book, New Deal Utopias, as we continue to grapple with the roles of housing, nature, and government in contemporary American life. Like the Greenbelt Towns themselves, the book is the result of communal effort. I’m fortunate to have Natasha Egan, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, who provided the artistic commentary and Dr. Robert Leighninger, author of Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal, who provided historical context. I’m also indebted to the Living New Deal for providing fiscal sponsorship for the project. Because of the Living New Deal, I was able to secure a publishing grant from the Puffin Foundation as well as connect with an extensive and supportive community committed to preserving the New Deal legacy.

Jason Reblando teaches photography at Illinois State University and is working on a project on the New Deal Greenbelt communities. His work has been published in the New York Times, Slate, and Bloomberg Businessweek. He recently received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar grant to do research in the Philippines. www.jasonreblando.com

New Deal New York: A Living Legacy for Children

Learn to Swim, Poster by John Wagner

Learn to Swim, Poster by John Wagner
NYC WPA Art Project, 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

New Deal New York, a map recently produced by the Living New Deal is not just any map. This one tells a story—the triumph of liberal democracy in the 1930s.

New Deal New York depicts 1,000 sites, showing that the New Deal legacy lives on in all of the city’s five boroughs in the form of artworks, schools, parks, recreation centers, and major public buildings. This infrastructure, the editors of Fortune pointed out, was “a conspicuous example of the social dividend,” promised by the New Deal.

New Yorkers have three politicians to thank for this: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. The city won one-seventh of all expenditures made by the WPA in 1935 and 1936—so much that New York City was known as the fifty-first state. Moses spent some $113 million—nearly $2 billion in today’s dollars— on parks and recreation alone in the New Deal’s first two years.

Colonial Park Pool and Bathhouse, 1936

Colonial Park Pool and Bathhouse, 1936
Jackie Robinson Park, Manhattan
Photo Credit: Courtesy NYC Parks

The construction program faced extraordinary challenges—the need to build fast (no one knew how long Congress would subsidize the public works program); the federal mandate that inexpensive materials be used; and that the unemployed be hired as construction workers, not necessarily skilled laborers.

Writer Lewis Mumford, noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, recognized all that was achieved when he invented the capacious term, “sound vernacular modern architecture,” in praise of the New Deal’s results in New York City. He alluded to the freedom of expression that New Dealers insisted is part and parcel of a democracy. Authoritarian regimes may have mandated specific architectural styles, but not the United States, where pluralism was preferred.

Astoria Pool, 1936, State-of-the-art Olympic-size pool in Queens, NY

Astoria Pool, 1936
State-of-the-art Olympic-size pool in Queens, NY
Photo Credit: Courtesy NYC Parks

In the ensuing building frenzy New Dealers made New York City a better place, a safer place, and a healthier place to live, especially for children. Gyms, playgrounds, parks, ball fields, basketball and tennis courts, and running tracks were built throughout the city. Eleven new public swimming pools and bathhouses were immediately commissioned at a cost of about $1 million each, and several others were added subsequently.

Girls’ Line at Betsy Head Recreation Center, 1939

Girls’ Line at Betsy Head Recreation Center, 1939
Brooklyn, NY
Photo Credit: Samuel Gottscho, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection

Each week the pools opened, one by one, during the hot summer of 1936, and thousands of New Yorkers attended the spectacular opening ceremonies. By Labor Day, more than 1.6 million people had used new facilities. Most were children—working-class boys who had previously skinny-dipped in polluted water surrounding the city (during the launch of New Deal New York, the historian, Bill Leuchtenberg, revealed that he was one of them), and working-class girls who had had no other place to swim.

A wonderful photograph of two children at Red Hook Recreation Center is featured on New Deal New York map. The kids, who are posing for the photographer, Arthur Rothstein (he worked for another New Deal program, the Farm Security Administration) are standing on broad ledges, called scum gutters, designed to keep water clean and swimmers healthy. Kids hung on to the ledges as they practiced kicking, breathing, and stroking. Thanks to funding from the WPA, the Department of Parks ran a “Learn-to-Swim Program,” that benefitted all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.

Children at Red Hook Pool, 1936

Children at Red Hook Pool, 1936
Brooklyn, NY
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress

The WPA also paid for the poster that promoted the program (including the artist who designed it). It is one that some historians insist depicts the color line that segregated pools under the Moses regime. I’ve argued otherwise; while the color line ran through pools and parks that were built in the city’s segregated neighborhoods, it didn’t run through all of them. New Yorkers, prime among them children, tested entrenched racism during the New Deal and did defeat it in this city

As radio host Sarah Fisko said recently on NPR, “when you can’t see ahead, you look back.” New Deal New York helps us to remember what New Dealers accomplished in New York City in the face of the gravest challenges to our democracy, and to grasp what we can do—what we must do—as we face them once again.

Marta Gutman teaches architectural and urban history at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research focuses on public architecture for city children.