In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised the American people a “New Deal.” Over the decade 1933-43, a constellation of federally sponsored programs put millions of jobless Americans back to work and helped to revive a moribund economy. The result was a rich landscape of public works across the nation, often of outstanding beauty, utility and craftsmanship.
No city, town, or rural area was untouched by the New Deal. Hundreds of thousands of roads, schools, theaters, libraries, hospitals, post offices, courthouses, airports, parks, forests, gardens, and artworks—created in only one decade by our parents and grandparents—are still in use today. The long-term payoff from this public investment helped propel American economic growth after the world war and is still working for the American people today.
Because these public works were rarely marked, the New Deal’s ongoing contribution to American life goes largely unseen. Given the scale and impact of the Roosevelt years across America, it seems inconceivable that no national register exists of what the New Deal built. The Living New Deal is making visible that enduring legacy.
Today, our team is building a national database of thousands of documents, photographs, and personal stories about public works made possible by the New Deal. And it’s all just a click away on our national map of New Deal public works sites. California’s leading historian and former State Librarian, Kevin Starr, has likened the Living New Deal to a WPA project from the 1930s in its ambition and scope.
Far from an antiquarian exercise, the Living New Deal aims to help preserve New Deal art and architecture from destruction or privatization, to see that New Deal sites are properly marked, and to help communities and families across the nation rediscover their heritage.
The Living New Deal is even more timely because of the worldwide economic crisis of 2008-2012, which has invited so many comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s, as well as calls for similar government programs to revive the economy and relieve the severe unemployment and financial suffering of millions of Americans. For five years the unemployment rate hovered near 10 percent, wages stagnated, home foreclosures were epidemic, and national growth anemic. Unlike the Great Depression, however, many government programs shrank, infrastructure continued to decay, and the wealthiest 1% gained a larger share of national income.
The legacy of the New Deal has much to teach about farsighted leadership and what can be achieved when our country rallies to serve needs of ordinary people in troubled times. What is more, it provides a shining example of what positive government can achieve when it invests in public works that serve the collective good. Yes, government can work for all the people by creating useful infrastructure, job for the unemployed, and things of beauty like public murals and elegant buildings.
The Living New Deal is hosted by the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. It is funded by a mix of public grants and private donations.
We need your help: we want to involve thousands of Americans in a collective effort of rediscovery of what New Deal public works agencies did to extricate this country from the Great Depression and lay the foundation for postwar American prosperity.