During our recent travels Jean and I have discovered a few of the treasures of the Works Progress Administration (1935-1943). The delightful Riverwalk in San Antonio and in San Francisco the Ocean Beach Chalet (with its splendid murals and views) and the Aquatic Park Bath House (designed in the shape of an ocean liner) were built by the WPA. We were impressed by the quality of craftsmanship in these projects and the national pride that shines through them. These are just a few examples of the thousands of projects undertaken by engineers, architects, skilled and unskilled workers, artists, musicians, and writers. The WPA was a courageous response to the devastating crisis of the Great Depression. It was in large part due to the efforts of President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, and to Harry Hopkins, Director of the WPA from 1935-1938.
Conservatives bitterly opposed the WPA. Some like Congressman Martin Dies Jr. (Chair of the House Unamerican Activities Committee) had at first supported the New Deal but by 1936 was strongly opposed. As the Federal Government played a larger role in the economic life of the nation, Dies and other conservatives believed that individual initiative and freedom would be restricted. They thought the Government should cut taxes on corporations who in turn would create jobs. Southern Congressmen were also afraid of Federal interference in the South’s system of racial segregation. Dies believed that the nation’s unemployment problem was caused by too many immigrants from other nations. He sponsored bills to limit immigration and to deport those here illegally. He was also a conspiracy theorist and claimed that many immigrants were sent by the Soviet Union to spread communism and to overturn the government (from The WPA -Putting America To Work by Jeff Hill, 2014). Does all of this sound familiar in 2017?
It is certainly unrealistic in 2017 to expect the conservatives who control the government to adopt programs like the WPA. It feels like a part of a romantic past that is gone forever. But it is good to remember that once upon a time the President and Congress believed in the American people enough to invest in them directly. It is naïve to think that reducing taxes for wealthy corporations will enrich the working class. John Milton Keynes, the great British economist, said that “trickle down” economics used to be called “the horse and sparrow” theory of economics (as far back as the 1890s): “if you feed enough oats to the horse some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.”
Projects undertaken by the WPA and the other agencies of the New Deal, like the Civilian Conservation Corps, touched nearly every community in the USA. I encourage you to see how your region benefited from these projects. An extensive index of New Deal projects may be found at Livingnewdeal.org. Thousands of art works may be found at newdealartregistry.org and wpamurals.com. and postersforthepeople.com
In addition to the sites mentioned in my first paragraph the following places have inspiring stories to tell about American workers, showcasing their artistry and dedication, and tell the story of a time when our government truly represented the people.
- The murals in the Coit Tower overlooking Fishermen’s Wharf, San Francisco.
- Timberline Lodge atop Mount Hood in Oregon, a showcase for interior decoration and furniture by local artisans.
- Murals in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
- Camp David Presidential retreat, Maryland.
- The Triborough Bridge, NYC
- Restoration of sites like Antietam Civil War battlefield and Fort McHenry in Maryland.
- LaGuardia Airport, New York City.
- 8000 park creation or renovation projects; 13,000 playgrounds; thousands of stadiums and athletic fields.
- 572,000 miles of rural roads, including farm to market routes.
- 20,000 miles of water lines; 24,000 miles of sewer lines; 2000 sewage and water treatment plants.
- 40,000 public buildings including libraries, schools, fire stations, hospitals, military facilities.
For those who live in Southeast New England here’s a partial list of WPA projects:
Rhode Island: Hope High School in Providence, John O. Pastore Post Office and Federal Building and relief sculptures in Providence, stone fireplaces at Haines Memorial Park, East Providence; city hall Pawtucket, city hall Cranston, McCoy Stadium, Mount Pleasant High School; roads, sidewalks, bridges in Roger Williams Park; Providence Public Library murals.
Massachusetts: Suffolk County Courthouse, Boston; expansion of East Boston Airport to become today’s Logan Airport; widening the Cape Cod Canal; Bourne Railroad Bridge; Sagamore Bridge; Camp Edwards military base on Cape Cod; East Boston Station Post Office (with murals), Eliot Tower at Blue Hills Reservation, Gloucester City Hall murals, Goodell Hall at U. Mass. Amherst; Statehouse murals, Boston; Memorial Park, Mansfield; many Post Offices with murals and reliefs; improvements to water flow and flood prevention along 10 Mile River in North Attleboro.
For a history of the WPA see American Made by Nick Taylor (2008). For 500 of the 35,000 poster designs see Posters for the People by Ennis Carter (2008). Also: WPA Buildings: Art and Architecture of the New Deal by Joseph Maresca (2017).