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From Issue #46 July 3, 2014

Works in Progress

The New Deal’s infrastructure and arts program left a legacy that’s being rediscovered.

By Celeste LeCompte Twitter icon 

“An Early Newspaper Office” by Anton Refregier at Rincon Annex Post Office.

This story originally appeared October 24, 2013, in Issue #28.

The Works Progress Administration was one of the marquee programs of the New Deal. Launched in 1935, the program was aimed at addressing widespread unemployment in the wake of the Great Depression. Over its eight-year lifespan, the WPA — which was just one of more than 30 programs under the New Deal umbrella — directly employed about 8.5 million Americans and put them to work modernizing America.

Water lines and sewage treatment plants were built. Airports and highways connected the nation. Schools, post offices, courthouses, and other public buildings rose up across the country. Murals were painted. Books were written, and parks were constructed. Astronomical data was recorded. Plays were performed. Children were vaccinated.

When in 2010 Brent McKee lost his job providing prisoners in Maryland with legal resources — a job he told people he could do forever — he found an odd resonance with the WPA. “Before I was laid off, other people were getting laid off by the hundreds and thousands,” he recalls. Amid the endless reporting and commentary on the unemployment crisis, though, something caught his attention. “I started hearing people talk about the WPA.”

The breadth of the WPA’s work was, to use McKee’s word, “mind-boggling.” But what has become of it all? McKee put his research skills to work learning what he could, and what he found amazed him.

The WPA is still around us, he says, if only you know where to look. And he’s here to help you find it.

“Gold Mining in California” by Anton Refregier at Rincon Annex Post Office.

Better than Prozac

McKee began traveling around the Baltimore area, researching and photographing WPA projects. He shared the images and their stories on his own website, WPAToday. In doing so, he discovered a small but thriving community of like-minded New Deal researchers who are interested in documenting and recording how its legacy continues to serve the country.

Among them was Gray Brechin, a geographer and historian at the University of California, Berkeley, and founder of the Living New Deal project. A national database and interactive map of photographs, document records, and anecdotes about public works made possible by the New Deal, the Living New Deal is an ambitious attempt to catalogue this lost history.

I met up with Brechin at the Rincon Center in downtown San Francisco. The building’s historic lobby, a former post office, houses the final murals created through New Deal funding for the arts. An impressive 27-panel series depicts the history of California, from the native tribes through conquest, settlement, social transformation, and World War II, closing with the signing of the peace treaty.1

In the late 1990s, Brechin says he embarked on a photo-essay project with his longtime friend the photographer Robert Dawson. Entitled Farewell, Promised Land, the book looks critically at changes in the California environment. As the two men drove around the state, photographing and documenting the history of ruined ecosystems, extinct Native American cultures, and polluting industries, Brechin was overwhelmed with a sense of loss. “It was the most depressing thing I’ve ever done,” he says.

In a review of the book, UC Santa Cruz historian Willie Yaryan captures this dismay:

Brechin describes California as “the world’s greatest stag party” which has been trashed “as thoroughly as a saloon in a drunken brawl.” In imagery which often goes over the top but achieves its objective to evoke and provoke, the author depicts California allegorically on its 150th birthday as “a badly used whore — chemically dependent and disfigured by abuse — who has seen and tried everything.”

After years of working on environmental reporting, Brechin says he looked at the state and all he could think was this: “Oh, we’re so f-----d.”

But working on the project, he’d also seen signs of hope, largely in the beautiful buildings and artworks around the state that were left behind by New Deal programs. The book’s conclusion turned a hopeful eye on civic engagement, partly inspired by these structures, and the pair began working on a second book, initially titled California’s Living New Deal. But the two soon parted ways.

The dispute was aesthetic on the surface, but it speaks volumes about the goals of the Living New Deal project today. While Dawson preferred to photograph empty buildings, Brechin says he found the static images too much of an “epitaph.” What he wanted to show was the active, daily use of the New Deal infrastructure. People living and working in the buildings were part of the point. Working on the Living New Deal “saved me from despair,” Brechin says.

Treasure hunters

Creating the Living New Deal’s database has required an army of local historians, enthusiasts, and activists to help dig up what remains. One of the biggest myths the team hopes to combat is that the New Deal was “all about centralization,” as Brechin puts it. The works programs of the New Deal, in particular, were highly localized. Projects were proposed by local governments, funded through New Deal grants, and records were minimal — when they were kept.

“There wasn’t a huge bureaucracy set up to pinch the pennies,” says Alex Tarr, project manager for the Living New Deal. “Accountability was how many people were employed, not what projects were getting done. It’s forced the project to re-create that local knowledge and local investment.”

At first, Brechin traveled around the state, uncovering treasure troves of data about New Deal projects, often found in newspaper clippings or in scrapbooks gathered by a local program office and squirreled away in the town’s archives.

In a nice circular outcome, the New Deal was responsible for the development of many such local archives. Town recording offices, libraries, museum archives, and other institutions benefited from WPA workers who sorted through material and catalogued it.

But about the programs themselves, little data exists today. It became “like an archaeological dig — except that we are rediscovering a civilization that is all around us, that we use all the time,” Brechin says.

Harvey Smith, one of Brechin’s first collaborators on the Living New Deal, started looking into the old projects after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I very naively thought I could go to UC Berkeley to the architecture library and pull out a big fat book that said, ‘New Deal sites’ or ‘New Deal architecture,’” he recalled. “It didn’t exist, I found. I realized that if I wanted to know about this, I’d have to kind of do it on my own.…I started to photograph sites and document them.”

The project’s scope grew over time, attracting new resources — like support from UC Berkeley — and a powerhouse director: Richard Walker, an emeritus professor of geography, who helped attract funding and grow the pool of contributors to the project. Over the last year, Rachel Brahinsky took over project management and built the team; she is now the faculty director of the Master’s Program in Urban Affairs at the University of San Francisco. McKee is still among the most prolific contributors, adding a new project almost weekly, but he’s no longer alone. Tarr says the project is adding new state coordinators to the project each month.

“It’s a small population of people who are interested in this on the research level, which makes it exciting!” McKee told me. “If I were doing work on Civil War history, I wouldn’t be able to add much.”

Coit Tower.

It’s Alive!

I’ve lived in San Francisco for nearly six years, and I’ve sent my parents, my friends, and even readers of the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: San Francisco and Northern California, to which I contributed sample itineraries, up to Coit Tower. But it wasn’t until last month that I ventured there myself, under the guidance of Smith, who leads regular New Deal walking tours of the city.

It was a beautiful September morning in San Francisco: clear blue skies, perfect walking temperature, and a few trees beginning to drop yellow-edged leaves on the sidewalk. The long steps up Telegraph Hill pass through lush bougainvillea vines and neighborhood-tended gardens. On landings, views of San Francisco sweep out below. As we climbed, Smith greeted several friends and acquaintances.

One of the city’s top tourist destinations, Coit Tower is home to a series of well-known murals depicting the California economy and San Francisco life. The murals, painted during a six-month period in 1934, were the pilot project of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first of the arts programs launched under the New Deal. It’s why Smith and I selected the site.

The tower attracts more than 150,000 visitors each year, generating over $600,000 in revenue for the city’s parks department, of which a tiny fraction is used for its upkeep.2 While I (unsurprisingly) wasn’t able to find the official records about the investment made in the Coit Tower murals, other sources indicated that 25 artists and 19 assistants worked on the murals, at an average wage of $33.22 per week, for six months. That’s just over $35,000 in labor costs, or about $625,000 in 2013 dollars.

With annual surpluses nearly matching the initial public investment 80 years after the murals’ completion, it’s not hard to see what Brechin, McKee, and Smith are saying about the continuing contributions of the New Deal to modern America.

Harvey Smith points out details on a mural at Coit Tower.

Close to home

I was struck over and over as I wrote this by the ways in which my daily life is personally touched by the New Deal; the more I learned, the more I saw.

On my regular running route, I head for Bernal Hill, which overlooks the city near my house. A dog run and running path encircle the crown of the hill, but the paths up and around were built in part by New Deal workers. On my way there, I pass at least three public buildings constructed or decorated by WPA workers. And the Bay Bridge, the approach roads to the Golden Gate Bridge, and dozens of other landmarks in San Francisco were funded by the New Deal.

And it’s true not only in California: the water-treatment system that served my apartment in Chicago, the airports I’ve flown through around the country, the power grid that lit up my hometown in the rural Midwest, books I’ve read, the national parks in which I’ve camped and hiked, and even framed photos I’ve ordered from the Library of Congress as gifts for family and friends.

It’s hard to escape. I mention this to McKee, and he points out that the scale of the project makes it nearly impossible for anyone in America today not to have benefited from the New Deal.

“If you add up all the work of these New Deal programs, I would argue that it was the largest public works and construction project in human history,” McKee says. “Bigger than the Great Wall of China. Bigger than the Roman civilization. Bigger than all of that.”

No one knows how many of the projects funded under New Deal programs were “shovel ready” and how many were generated by the availability of funds. But there’s no question that the New Deal’s funds kickstarted the modernization of the country far faster than would have happened otherwise.

Brechin points out that in 1933, a minority of Americans had access to clean drinking water. The New Deal changed that. WPA workers and infrastructure programs constructed water- and sewage-treatment facilities across the nation, spurring “an immense leap in public health,” Brechin says.

But all of the researchers I spoke with say that the biggest benefit of the New Deal was the investment in the human spirit that the programs represented. WPA programs were tuned over time to match skilled workers with opportunities to continue building their expertise and career growth. Artists and writers were given work opportunities just as readily as laborers and engineers. Students were trained, and young people were given discipline and training, while building the national parks.3

As Smith and I sit outside Coit Tower, looking out at the Bay, he contrasts this with the most recent large-scale infrastructure investment: the prison-building boom of the 1990s. “Now, we’ve got this infrastructure of concrete, razor wire, and everything that most of us — well, hopefully we never, ever use it.”

He patted his sheaf of paper notes, listing out New Deal programs, dates, and names. “In the ’30s, they hired down-and-out people, put them to work, and we got all this beautiful stuff because of it.”

Photograph of Harvey Smith by the author. Other photographs by Carol M. Highsmith, from the Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. In the public domain. Call numbers: “Golden Gate,” LC-DIG-highsm-20865; Coit Tower, LC-DIG-highsm-20764; “Newspaper Office,” LC-DIG-highsm-20858.


  1. You can also get Brechin’s insights on the murals courtesy of “Let’s Get Lost,” a part of San Francisco public radio station KQED’s mobile app that Brechin worked on. 

  2. San Franciscans passed a proposition in 2012 recommending that substantial funds be spent to fix up the tower; $1.5 million was allotted. It closes in mid-November for five months. About $250,000 will be used to restore and stabilize the murals. 

  3. “Imagine what it was like to go from the Dust Bowl of Nebraska and be sent to, oh, you know, the Yosemite Valley!” Brechin exclaims, rattling off a list of some of the most beautiful parks in the country — all of them built or expanded by the Civilian Conservation Corps. 

Celeste LeCompte is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco and Guangzhou, China. She writes about innovation and the environment, and thinks amateurs are amazing.

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