Forgetting Decency

A 1937 painting by Edward Millman, Flop House depicts the despair that the New Deal sought to address.

Flop House
A 1937 painting by Edward Millman, Flop House depicts the despair that the New Deal sought to address.

Today’s San Francisco, even more so than other successful cities, is a study of jarring contrasts as sleek skyscrapers rise from streets on which ever-increasing legions of the desperate, destitute, and demented sleep, beg, and offend the sensibilities of tourists and residents alike. Poverty—with all its pathologies—has reached crisis proportions in tandem with pathological wealth.

President Roosevelt’s administration dealt with many of these same problems. By contrast, Washington today is ignoring or actively worsening the social ills that the New Deal tackled head on.

Based on what he witnessed in San Francisco, the 19th Century political economist Henry George explained in his bestseller Progress and Poverty how concentrated wealth produces widespread poverty.

Homeless: I used to be your neighbor

Homeless in San Francisco
Homeless: I used to be your neighbor  Source

Such social inequality is the subject of much of the art produced during the New Deal. The Federal Theatre Project’s widely seen play, One-Third of a Nation, was based on Roosevelt’s 1936 inaugural declaration in which he said he saw “one third of a nation ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-fed”— and promised to use the federal government to do what the market could not do to alleviate that disgrace.

It is telling that the opulent San Francisco Museum of Modern Art occupies a site in a neighborhood once known for flophouses—the cheap housing that urban redevelopment cleared away to accommodate the city’s expanding financial and retail districts. Flophouses gave seasonal workers and those too old to work marginal shelter, but even as that housing was being eliminated by redevelopment, so were their jobs by automation, off-shoring, and market downturns.

Nowhere are the multiple dysfunctions associated with poverty more evident than at downtown San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza. A front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle—“Complaints skyrocket over syringes on streets in S.F.”—accompanied a photo of a city worker collecting used needles in a long-neglected fountain commemorating the founding of the United Nations in 1945 just three blocks away.

FDR’s Second Bill of Rights: “The right of every family to a decent home.”

Homeless Man Sleeps on a Bench
FDR’s Second Bill of Rights: “The right of every family to a decent home.”

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights laboriously shepherded through the UN by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948 in hopes of ending future wars reads:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

It codified much of what Franklin Roosevelt had succinctly enunciated as a Second Bill of Rights in his fourth inaugural address, including “The right to a useful and remunerative job” and “The right of every family to a decent home.

Labor Secretary Francis Perkins recalled that “”Decent’ was the word (Roosevelt) often used to express what he meant by a proper, adequate, and intelligent way of living.”

That we have opted for indecency as a way of life is evermore evident on our streets and battlegrounds as they become one and the same.

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.

Elvis Slept Here

Elvis PresleyThe federal government’s foray into urban redevelopment that began under the New Deal reshaped cities across America—with mixed success. The Public Works Administration (PWA) began clearing slums in many cities in 1934, but work was temporarily halted after a Supreme Court ruling in 1935 prevented the federal government from condemning private property for low-cost housing. That left the housing projects to local control.

Memphis, Tennessee was one of the first cities in the nation to pick up the banner of housing for its poor. It chose two rundown, crowded neighborhoods—uptown Memphis and Quimby Bayou—to site the first two of five public housing projects paid for with New Deal funds.

Public housing was subject to local segregation laws, and Lauderdale Courts, one of the first such housing projects in the nation, was for whites only. Constructed in 1938, Lauderdale Courts’ Colonial Revival-style apartment buildings were arranged around a common area and connected via bisecting walkways, a design feature meant to foster community relationships. But by mid-1990s Lauderdale Courts was deemed derelict. What ultimately saved it from the wrecking ball was unit #328—home to a teenaged Elvis Presley and his parents from 1949 until 1953.

Elvis Presley Apartment, Lauderdale CourtElvis fans forged partnerships with local preservationists, historians, and developers to save Lauderdale Courts and transform it into mixed-income housing.  After a $36 million rehab it reopened in July 2004 as Uptown Square, with 347 apartment homes. It is one of the few New Deal housing developments still in existence and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The office still bears the PWA plaque. Dixie Homes opened in 1938 for black families. It featured two-story apartment-style homes with balconies and a commons, meant to encourage community building. Dixie Homes was demolished in 2006. LeMoyne Gardens, constructed in 1941 for black families, was demolished in the 1990s despite having been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The fate of Memphis’s two other New Deal housing projects is still in play. Lamar Terrace, built in 1940 for whites, is undergoing redevelopment as University Place, mixed-income housing. The fate of William H. Foote Homes, constructed for blacks in 1940, is in Limbo. The City had planned to raze it and redevelop the area for mixed-income housing. But a grassroots organization in the Vance neighborhood, opposed the plan, which it said would disperse longtime residents.

Recently, the group convinced the City to put the demolition on hold in order to consider the community’s own proposal, which calls for renovation, not removal, of these homes. The group is holding fast to the original New Deal vision of fostering relationships within a community.

Susan is a Professor of Social Work at the University of Mississippi and is particularly focused on murals and other New Deal sites in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. Susan writes a regular column for a Mississippi historic preservation blog under the pen name Suzassippi.