Leading economists are calling for new New Deal–public investment to get our country working again and to build the foundation for America’s future. If you want to see what a New Deal can do, take a look at our interactive map. You’ll find schools, houses, parks, roads, airports, hospitals, post offices and cultural centers across the nation–the legacy of New Deal programs that put millions back to work in tough times. What started as a project to catalog New Deal sites in California has grown to include thousands of New Deal sites across the country. We’re now a sponsored project of the National New Deal Preservation Association. If you haven’t explored our website recently, you’ll want to check out some big changes!
The fire sale of our post offices is accelerating while the media remain largely asleep at the wheel.
In July 2011, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) gave an exclusive contract to liquidate the public’s property to the giant commercial real estate firm C.B. Richard Ellis (CBRE), which also advises the Postal Service on which properties to sell. It’s no surprise, then, that so many of the post offices listed for sale or already sold happen to be in expensive real estate markets like Santa Monica, Venice, Palo Alto and Berkeley in California; Greenwich, Connecticut; Towson and Bethesda in Maryland; Northfield, Minnesota; and New York City.
CBRE is effectively owned and chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband, billionaire private equity financier Richard Blum. If you visit the CBRE website devoted to marketing postal properties you will find no distinction between superb, historic post offices and blandly utilitarian processing facilities or vacant lots. For CBRE, it’s all simply real estate thrown into the same lucrative bin. A listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the presence of art works created during the New Deal only serve as impediments to moving those properties quickly.
The USPS seems only too happy to help with removing those obstacles. To get around historic preservation rules, for example, the USPS claims that it is not actually closing and selling the historic buildings that it is, in fact, closing and selling, but is simply “relocating services.”
These relocations mean the USPS will be paying millions of dollars in rent from which it is exempt in buildings it now owns. Further, it means trading ennobling public spaces for outlets in strip malls and Walmarts devoid of the aesthetic or historical merit in which the USPS once took pride.
The fire sale of the public’s portfolio is largely the result of legislation Congress passed in 2006 to effectively put the Postal Service out of business by requiring that it prepay billions to cover health benefits for its future employees—payments that no other government agency or business is required to make. For more than a year, the Postal Service has been seeking legislation that would allow it to reduce the $5 billion annually it must pay the U.S. Treasury, but Congress has failed to act. In September, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe warned that the Postal Service could be insolvent within the year. “Absolutely, we would be profitable right now,” he told The Associated Press, when asked whether congressional delays were to blame for much of the postal losses, expected to reach a record $15 billion this year.
To staunch the bleeding, some 3,700 post office properties are being studied for possible sale—often without public review or input. Attorneys for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in a lengthy letter to the USPS enumerated the many preservation and environmental laws that the agency appears to be ignoring in Berkeley and elsewhere. On October 22 a USPS representative curtly responded that the Trust’s request to be a consulting party was premature and its allegations were “not correct.”
In 1935, Stephen Voorhees, the president of the American Institute of Architects, wrote that the profession’s job was to “hold up before the people a high standard of excellence both in design and craftsmanship, utilizing for this purpose every aesthetic and technical resource of the nation, so that every citizen may have the opportunity of becoming familiar with good architecture, good painting and good sculpture.”
America’s historic post offices are unique in their variety and quality as well as in the public art that make them the People’s Art Gallery. Without the magnificent post offices built during the New Deal and before, Voorhees said, “there would be a distinct loss to the spiritual and patriotic relationship between the citizen and the government if its activities were carried on in bare warehouses without architectural significance or dignity and constructed as cheaply and as shoddily as the average speculative structure.”
The sell off and relocation of the post offices is the nightmare that Voorhees foresaw. Perhaps it is precisely to break that relationship between the citizen and government that our post offices are now regarded not as our shared legacy, but simply as surplus real estate to be liquidated.
For more on the loss of America’s post offices, why it is happening, and what you can do, visit http://www.savethepostoffice.com/
The Downtown Berkeley’s Main Post Office is widely recognized as not just a local treasure but also a national treasure. Completed in 1913, this strikingly handsome building is modeled on Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital in Florence, an architectural icon of the Italian Renaissance. Like hundreds of post offices around the country, Berkeley’s is adorned with art commissioned by the Treasury Department during the New Deal. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In June, the U.S. Postal Service notified the City of Berkeley of the impending sale of the downtown post office. Gray Brechin, Harvey Smith and Ying Lee of the Living New Deal quickly joined forces with labor and community organizers to form Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office. They began working with the City Council and Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office to seek a solution and rallied public opposition to the sale.
In September, the City Council held a public meeting at City Hall with post office officials to discuss alternatives to selling the post office. At the standing-room-only meeting, several Berkeley residents spoke passionately about the loss of Berkeley’s main post office and dismantling of the Postal Service. The Postal Service is the second largest employer in the country after Walmart. Layoffs proposed by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe threaten over 200,000 living wage jobs that can only worsen a lingering recession.
At the City Council’s request, Postal Service officials agreed to consider proposals offering alternatives to privatization. However, they declined to participate in any further Council meetings, insisting on a “more neutral” setting.
The USPS had scheduled its public meeting just two days before Thanksgiving, with scant public outreach. When Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office objected the USPS called off the meeting. The meeting date has not been set.
[Ed. Note: This post has been updated and is accurate as of 11/14/12; we will update again if a new meeting is scheduled.]
Forty years in the making, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park was finally dedicated on October 17, 2012. The new park takes its name from a speech President Roosevelt made on January 6, 1941 in which he said the way to justify the enormous sacrifice of war was to create a world centered on four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The words were later incorporated into the charter of the United Nations.
The 4-acre, tree-lined park is on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island in the East River with spectacular views of Manhattan and the UN.
At the opening ceremony, former President Bill Clinton said Roosevelt’s dream for a better world “is still the right dream for America.”
It was New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay who first announced plans to build the memorial in 1973 and appointed Louis I. Kahn as its architect. Kahn completed the plans for the park’s sleek, minimalist design before he died suddenly in 1974. The city, on the brink of bankruptcy, shelved the plans.
Plans were revived by former Ambassador to the UN William vanden Heuvel in 2005 after an Oscar-nominated documentary about Kahn, “My Architect,” reawakened interest in the project. More than $53 million was raised from private donors, the city and state. A legal dispute with two major donors over how prominently their names would be displayed at the memorial had threatened to further delay the park’s debut.
The park is Kahn’s only work in New York City and is the only memorial to Franklin Roosevelt in his native New York State. Fundraising continues to transform a crumbling, abandoned 19th-century smallpox hospital on the island into the park’s visitor center.
Joseph L. Plaud, advisor to the National New Deal Preservation Association, attended the opening ceremony. “There is nothing more special than an event mainly populated by unreconstructed New Dealers, like myself,” he said. “The speeches by President Clinton and Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the closing speech by Bill vanden Heuvel, renewed our faith in what progressive government can do for the American people, even in our fractious political age…”
The park opened to the public on October 24.
In addition to the economic calamity of Great Depression, in the 1930s the country was further beset by environmental catastrophes such as floods, hurricanes, drought and a Dust Bowl, much as it is today. But in addition to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the nation had something else then that it does not have in 2012 to deal with devastating storm events such as Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy.
WPA and CCC workers were trained in disaster aid and recovery. In the event of natural disasters, tens of thousands of men and women could be quickly moved to affected areas to supplement the National Guard and other emergency workers.
The Work Projects Administration produced an 11-minute documentary titled “Shock Troops of Disaster” that includes dramatic footage of the extraordinary damage caused by the epic 1938 storm in New England as well as the recovery effort by federal workers. It is well worth watching today. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it’s a vivid reminder of the vital role of federal government in disaster relief.
Hailing from the New Deal resettlement town, Roosevelt, New Jersey, Rachel Brahinsky has always been fascinated by the legacy of the New Deal era. She joined The Living New Deal team in September. As our first managing director, Rachel will oversee a growing list of projects while making new connections with citizen-researchers across the country. Rachel worked as a journalist before completing her doctorate in Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, She currently teaches urban policy and writing at the University of San Francisco. She would love to hear from you!
Is there room for a utopian vision in these dark economic times? A recent trip to my hometown for its 75th anniversary offered a glimpse into that possibility. Much of my weekend there was spent hearing stories of how the original New Deal vision for Roosevelt, New Jersey, had crumbled. But for me—having attended the local elementary school where a New Deal mural told a story of struggle and persistence—that possibility remains very much alive.
Originally called Jersey Homesteads and renamed Roosevelt in 1945, the tiny borough was one of 99 towns created under the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration, whose broad mission also included relocating migrant laborers as part of an effort to create employment and social stability.
Established in 1937, the town was a test case in greenbelt town planning, with homes inspired by Bauhaus architectural design. Louis Kahn, who later became an internationally recognized architect, was an assistant to Jersey Homesteads principal architect Alfred Kastner. Years later Kahn designed Four Freedoms Park on New York’s Roosevelt Island, an homage to FDR.
Jersey Homelands also was a social experiment among largely working-class Jewish immigrants in creating a collectively managed community; it was the only Jewish resettlement town. Many of the first residents had fled Eastern Europe in the ‘teens for places like Brooklyn, New York and Philadelphia. When they left the city, it was to found what they called an “agro-industrial cooperative.” It was a dream propelled by town founder Benjamin Brown, a Russian immigrant who devoted much of his life to establishing Jewish agricultural cooperatives.
A culture of political organizing permeated the town in its early days. Over the 75th anniversary weekend one member of the original settlement recalled the seemingly endless march of organizational meetings in which his parents took part. He said he would fall asleep to the voices of adults debating–only to wake up the following morning to hear them still at it!
The cooperative experiment did not last long. The garment factory, farm and store that were Jersey Homestead’s economic base transferred to private ownership, and many residents sought work elsewhere or moved away. Some blame disagreements among settlers, but the stories vary.
What has lasted is a concern for preserving the town’s generous open space and unusual architecture. Preservation fights beginning in the late 1990s kept the town’s greenbelt from succumbing to cookie-cutter suburban development. The Bauhaus-inspired, flat-roofed-cinderblock homes always seemed misplaced, given New Jersey’s cold, wet winters. Still, many current residents have retained the Bauhaus feel of their homes.
Roosevelt’s 884 contemporary residents include a thriving artist community through which the town maintains some of the leftward tilt of its original residents. Perhaps it helps that the Roosevelt Public School still boasts the amazing mural by New Deal artist Ben Shahn, whose family lives in town. Depicting the town’s founders and one of its most famous supporters—Albert Einstein—the 1937-38 mural shows attacks on progressive political models while recording the town’s utopian aspirations.
For a story about Roosevelt, New Jersey 75th anniversary, visit http://www.npr.org/2012/09/23/161494490/new-deal-town-turns-75-utopian-ideals-long-gone
[Editors note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that Albert Einstein lived in Roosevelt. He was a political supporter of the town, which is about 16 miles from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ, Einstein's academic home until his death in 1955.]
San Francisco activists are celebrating their successful campaign to protect and preserve the historic murals at San Francisco’s Coit Tower. The frescos were created under the Public Works of Art Project, the first of the New Deal federal employment programs for artists during the Great Depression.
The city-owned landmark perched atop Telegraph Hill draws some 150,000 visitors a year to its panoramic views and famous murals.
Over the years, water damage and neglect took their toll on the artwork even as millions in revenue Coit Tower adds to the city’s coffers was being spent elsewhere.
That changed after a group of local citizens formed the Protect Coit Tower Committee and advanced a ballot measure to dedicate the tower’s revenues to preserving the tower itself. San Francisco voters passed Measure B in June. The city has since earmarked $1.7 million for repairs and restoration and adopted a plan to prevent further damage.
In August activists won new rules restricting private events at the tower. Adam Gottstein, grandson of Coit Tower muralist Bernard Zakheim, argued that some activities the city permits imperil the murals. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors agreed and adopted a new policy that restricts the use of the tower in several ways, including prohibiting candles, food and drink in the mural rooms.
Watch a story on the Coit Tower murals on the PBS Newshour: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/jan-june12/fadingmurals_01-18.html
I had spoken to Beth Danysh many times over the phone but it was not until 2010 that I finally met her in person. Beth was an interior designer, a talent clearly in evidence at her beautiful home in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico. It was my interest in Beth’s late husband, Joseph Danysh, that led me to her door.
Joe headed the New Deal’s Federal Art Project in the West, hired by Harry Hopkins, a close advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt and Holger Cahill, the National Director of the WPA’s Federal Art Project. For several years, before he went to supervise the arts program for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Joe traveled by train through seven western states commissioning and supervising those who today are regarded among America’s finest artists.
Beth shared many wonderful memories about the New Deal artists she came to know through Joe—Beniamino Bufano, Ansel Adams, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Lucien Labauldt and Bernard Zakheim, whom she described as a “wild man” who loved verbal sparring.
She told me that the sculptor Benny Bufano used black shoe polish on his hair. (He wanted to be sure people knew he was Italian). Bufano was a houseguest when the Danyshes lived in Carmel, California, but according to Beth, he would never sleep. She recalled that the frenetic Bufano had been commissioned to create 200-foot-high statue of Saint Francis that would overlook San Francisco from Twin Peaks, but the night before the work was to be approved, Bufano gave a talk espousing the joys of communism to the executives of U.S. Steel, from whom Joe had procured the steel for the work. “The project was cooked!” Beth recounted.
In 2010 I was co-curator of an exhibit of New Deal art at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, California. Beth generously loaned Bufano’s maquette of the ill-fated Saint Francis sculpture. It was to become a focal point of the show.
Beth said Joe considered Oregon’s Timberline Lodge his crowning glory because it was all hand made. The project required that a temporary town be built on Mount Hood to house the workers. The convergence of fine woodwork, mosaics, glass and wrought iron make the Timberline a showcase of New Deal craftsmanship. The Civilian Conservation Corps did the stonework. Joe was there for the dedication, along with FDR.
Clearly, Beth and Joe had a wonderful life together. Her stories brought to life an era so different from today. I’ll miss her grace and openness, and her wonderful stories about those whose work has come to define the New Deal.
This book is based on a surprising claim. Economic historian Alexander J. Field argues that it was innovations in technology, politics and culture in America during the Great Depression that set the stage for the unprecedented growth and mass consumption that followed the Second World War–broad changes that were already underway when the attack on Pearl Harbor came in late 1941.
Even as signs of economic strain were starting to show in the U.S., commercial advances like airplanes, cars and radios in what’s remembered as the “Roaring ‘20s” brought innovations in production that, along with the influence of the new field of organizational management, led to the increase in potential output at American factories, says Field.
Environmental and marketplace catastrophes, including the Dust Bowl and Wall Street Crash of 1929 proved disastrous for the economy–farmland dried up and factories fell silent. While the economy sank into the depths of the Great Depression, some patterns of reorganization and development were already starting to emerge. Major advances in structural engineering paved the way for massive public works like Boulder Dam (later renamed the Hoover Dam) and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. According to Field, FDR’s New Deal and Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act benefited far more from basic advances in structural engineering and concrete production than most historians recognized. These advances not only inspired confidence in major public works projects, they also advanced a transportation network increasingly dependent on trucking over other forms of shipping.
A Great Leap Forward challenges the notion that the Second World War single-handedly saved the U.S. economy. Instead, the story of America’s economic recovery is far more complicated, and one that Field–through careful research and keen interpretation–helps to elucidate.
The New Deal represented a series of federal initiatives, yet much of its impact was felt on the state and local level. This was especially true of the efforts of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) whose workers poured into parks across the nation, transforming the landscape and making them more accessible to the public.
In this book, authors Ren and Helen Davis offer park visitors and New Deal scholars alike an important guide to the legacy of the CCC in the U.S. park system. The book checks in at nearly 400 pages, ranging from the introductory essays providing historical context, to historical and contemporary photographs, to guides to existing parks across the country.
The book’s opening offers a historical overview of the CCC, described as the largest peacetime mobilization in our nation’s history, enrolling hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men in laboring to improve public lands. Historical black-and-white images and contemporary color photographs document life in the CCC camps, which were administered by the U.S. Army. The CCC “boys” as they were called, performed the hard labor of building roads, carving out hiking trails and planting trees. Crews also formed their own sports teams that represented parks like Yellowstone in baseball and basketball. The Davis’s book also reminds us that the CCC crews reflected a policy of racial segregation.
State and national parks were hard hit by the onset of the Great Depression. Where others called for further cuts, the Roosevelt administration, according to the authors, “saw an unprecedented opportunity to combine critically needed conservation efforts with men eager for work.”
FDR and his supporters at the National Park Service recognized that the national park system that had been forged out of the conservation battles in the American West, could successfully be expanded in the East. The result was new national parks and monuments in places like Jamestown and Yorktown.
The second section of the book offers a guide to the CCC across the United States. The CCC contributed to more than 700 local, state and national parks. The book includes maps complemented by brief histories and descriptions of CCC sites in about 300 parks. The reader learns about the bridges, shelters and visitor centers in all corners of the country, with representative examples of the program in all fifty states.
While this book is a valuable addition to the libraries of scholars of the New Deal, it will be of equal interest to those readers who simply enjoy visiting and exploring state and national parks today.
The murals that embellish the tower’s interior are the legacy the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) a New Deal program that provided jobs for artists during the Great Depression. The agency hired 27 diverse artists and their assistants to decorate the walls of the new Coit Tower on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill. The resulting frescos document the city and its surrounds. They also capture the social, economic and political ferment of the time.
Many of the Coit Tower artists were inspired by the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, including Berhard Zakheim, who had studied with Rivera in Mexico. Zakheim’s daughters Masha Zakheim and Ruth Gottstein produced “Coit Tower, Its History and Art,” published by Volcano Press. In the book’s forward, Ruth Gottstein, now 90, recalls when Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo were guests in the Zakheim home in San Francisco.
Labor strife had been smoldering in San Francisco during the summer of 1934 while the muralists worked. Two strikers had been killed at the waterfront on what became known as Bloody Thursday. A general strike shut down the city as unions marched up Market Street to honor the fallen.
Scenes of social and political discontent radiate from a number of the Coit murals. Some critics, including public officials, fumed that public money had been spent to “breed dissention.” In the years after the frescos were unveiled, they were vandalized and neglected. By the 1970s they had been further damaged by water damage and cigarette smoke. The public was permitted to view them only from outside through the tower’s locked glass doors.
“Coit Tower, Its History and Art” offers a close up view. Color photographs and descriptions of the murals accompany stories about the artists who rendered them. The book provides the historical and political context in which the murals came to be and deserves much credit for the recent surge of citizen activism that is helping to preserve them.