We live and move daily amidst the remains of a lost civilization that we do not see but that we cannot do without. Nor, I suspect, do those who have loathed Franklin Delano Roosevelt ever since he made good on his promise to deliver a New Deal to Americans 75 years ago want you to see them. To do so would shatter myths beloved of free market fundamentalists whose economic flimflam has—at least until they bring on the next bust—triumphed over what Roosevelt and myriads of Americans accomplished and left us.
FDR himself would likely not have moved into the White House without the stock market crash of 1929 that ended Americans’ love affair with go-go capitalism unhindered by restrictions or safety nets. By the time of his inauguration on March 4, 1933, banks across the nation were going down like dominoes and millions found themselves starving, freezing, dispossessed, and on the move. The terrible hangover of the Roaring 20s called the Great Depression took Roosevelt to Washington with such a solid Democratic majority in Congress that he was able to pass bill after bill regulating business to safeguard citizens and more equitably distribute its benefits.
High on FDR’s to-do list was the creation of “alphabet soup” agencies meant to give back to the impoverished their self-respect by giving them to socially beneficial jobs. In doing so, those workers vastly expanded the concept of the public; a book of the time illustrating New Deal buildings boasted, “this vast building program presents us with a great vision, that of man building primarily for love of and to fulfill the needs of his fellowmen.” It sounds corny until you see what they did.
When I began an effort nearly three years ago to reveal what New Deal workers left behind them when they laid down their picks, paintbrushes, trowels and batons to pick up rifles and riveting guns, I had no idea how much I would find. The deeper I dug, however, the more I encountered—a civilization whose motto is best summarized by an inscription over the door of the WPA-built City Hall in Cucamonga: THE NOBLEST MOTIVE IS THE PUBLIC GOOD. The Living New Deal Project became a group of volunteers—with now a small staff—working to inventory, map, and photograph an unseen matrix of public works ranging from the humble to the dazzling and essential. Within less than ten years of economic hardship, men, women and youth crafted innumerable artifacts that a seemingly far richer nation is allowing to fall into ruin
With practiced eyes, you begin to see those remains everywhere in the East Bay. You use them pretty much every time you turn on a tap, flush your toilet, drive a car, or use an airport. Laborers with the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and its successor, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), graded and paved roads in West Berkeley and boulevards in Oakland, They poured many miles of sidewalks that sometimes bear the WPA stamp. They vastly expanded the East Bay Municipal Utilities District by trenching and laying steel mains that fortunately, according to a WPA report, “are practically indestructible.”
They built power stations for Alameda’s publicly owned utility, improved the Port of Oakland, and largely created the Oakland and San Francisco Airports. And, more problematically, they converted local creeks into straightened and buried storm drains now beleaguering homeowners and cities alike. We all make mistakes.
Roosevelt’s proudest creation was a peacetime army of destitute young men known as the Civilian Conservation Corps. Though the CCC “boys” usually worked from Army-like camps in the boonies to plant forests, fight fires and tree diseases, and build roads and lodges, they worked in the East Bay restoring watershed lands and launching the first units of the East Bay Regional Parks District. Look for the characteristically meticulous rockwork in Tilden Park and Lake Temescal whose landscapes are largely the result of the New Deal. Of the Tilden public golf course, the EBRPD director thanked the WPA supervisor “for the efficient construction of what is said to be one of the finest 18 hole golf courses in America.” He added that “It was built by you at one half the cost of an adjoining private course, despite the fact they did not have the difficult construction problems to surmount.”
If San Francisco’s example is anything to go by, WPA workers created or improved virtually every older park in the East Bay. Their labor is usually invisible in now matured landscapes, picnic grounds, and the baseball diamonds and tennis courts we take for granted, but in places such as Berkeley’s Cragmont and Codornices Parks, Richmond’s Alvarado Park, or in Oakland’s Montclair Park and Joaquin Miller Parks, you can see WPA masonry. Few who enjoy Berkeley’s Aquatic Park or Yacht Harbor probably realize that they are heirlooms left by hundreds of men working with picks, mules and scrapers. Nor do many who enjoy outdoor performances at Berkeley’s John Hinckle Amphitheatre or Oakland’s Woodminster realize the debt they owe to workers who, to judge by what they left, were most certainly not resting on their shovels as Roosevelt’s enemies charged.
The New Deal had a special concern for public education in all its aspects, for without such a commitment, Roosevelt believed, democracy itself would fail. The CWA and WPA put tens of thousands of teachers back to work, hired school librarians and nutritionists, and set up clinics to improve the health of children. Those agencies and the grant-giving Public Works Administration (PWA) left dozens of well-built and well-designed schools throughout the East Bay; many (such as Berkeley High) were embellished by artists employed by various federal art agencies.
Visiting California in 1939, Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes said “I wonder if the people of California have not come to take the Federal Government too much for granted. One breath-taking public work has followed another in such rapid succession that it would not be surprising if, at times, you should overlook what has already been accomplished.” If they overlooked it then, we have forgotten it since.
The New Deal agencies guttered out in the turmoil of war without leaving comprehensive records of their achievements. The Living New Deal Project (www.lndp.org) is a growing collaborative effort now housed at Berkeley’s Institute for Research in Labor and Employment. It is databasing and mapping the invisible matrix of public works left us by a bold, ingenious, and compassionate administration that, as one CCC vet told me, “cared for the little guy.” We hope that the work we are doing here will lead to a national inventory to honor the forgotten contributions of those upon whose shoulders we unwittingly stand.
A sculptural frieze by John Boardman Howard on the Berkeley Community Theater depicts people of all races brought together by the arts. When I walk through the Berkeley or Oakland Rose Gardens, or look at the rock walls left us by the calloused hands of anonymous workers more than seven decades ago, I marvel at our government’s equal commitment to beauty as well as survival in a time of desperation. We once did peace well.
If you have information on local New Deal projects, please contact Harvey Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 510-649-7395. We are interested in talking with WPA or CCC veterans, especially those who worked on the Berkeley Rose Garden.