A Better United States, c. 1937

Newsreel

Newsreel
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.

Caretaker

Caretaker
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. [email protected]

Neglecting Our Infrastructure

Rush hour traffic, San Francisco, Calif

Rush hour traffic, San Francisco, Calif
Gridlock has become common in American cities

During a recent crawl through San Francisco’s ever-lengthening rush hour, I had plenty of time to contemplate how the city’s much-ballyhooed growth of high-rise offices and housing is far outstripping the capacity of the region’s roads, transit, water, and above all, emergency services.

Civilization is built on sewers, which, like bridges, roads, and dams, are built on taxes. It’s a simple connection that those such as the late California politician Howard Jarvis and Ronald Reagan, as both governor and president, persuaded us to sever and forget.  We are all paying an ever-mounting price for doing so.

It’s not just that Republican opposition to taxes of almost any kind that has throttled the U.S. Highway Trust Fund and the Mass Transit Account, further adding to the gridlock. Recent catastrophic water breaks  other parts of the country are another sign of how close to disaster we are skating. Every year the American Society of Civil Engineers gives U.S. infrastructure a flunking grade, and it’s getting worse.

A recent water main break in Los Angeles

A recent water main break in Los Angeles
Infrastructure is breaking down due to lack of investment

Few are aware that much of the infrastructure on which everyone depends was built eighty years ago by the New Deal.  That ten-year spasm of public spending extricated the U.S. from the Great Depression by creating millions of jobs and stimulating the domestic construction industry.  Its benefits to the economy were felt immediately after the war and continue to the present day.

Think of it as the government covering the overhead costs of development and thus raising the value of land for the private sector — a cost not being covered today.

WPA workers construct the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, 1937

WPA at Work
WPA workers construct the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, 1937

WPA workers, for example, surveyed what lay beneath San Francisco’s Market Street to prepare for a subway system for both the city’s public transit and the regional Bay Area Transit (BART) systems. New Deal agencies connected the entire Bay Area with the construction of the Bay Bridge and the roads leading to the Golden Gate Bridge. At the same time, the Public Works Administration completed the Hetch Hetchy water system to serve 2.5 million future San Franciscans.

With the exception of a new cross-town subway and a yet-to-be-funded bullet train between San Francisco and Los Angeles, nothing of comparable scale is being built, while existing infrastructure falls into ruin. The same holds true for many other “successful” cities today.

Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed, “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” Taxes are also what we pay for a healthy economy. We apparently have decided that we need neither today.