Monday Mar 25 2013
FDR’s legacy lives on in streets of small town America
By: Matthew Whitley, Special to the Journal
Work Progress Administration responsible for lots of local landmarks
“Auburn, (1,360 alt., 2,660 pop.), spills over hill and hollow, encircled by orchard-covered knolls. It’s winding streets, where old-fashioned white house’s sit back among maples and walnuts are dappled with a leafy lacework of sun and shadow.”
So begins the description of Auburn in 1939 by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration when they created the now landmark American Guide Series, a collection of books about each territory of the United States. These travel and history books were one of the thousands of projects created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression that comprised his New Deal and the Emergency Relief Act of 1935.
The Depression had literally crippled this country economically. Banks were closing by the thousands, millions of people were out of work, and families were literally starving to death. Under President Roosevelt and headed up by Harry Hopkins, close advisor to the president, the Works Progress Administration was one of several programs enacted in what became known as alphabet soup, including the WPA; the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps); TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) were among several others.
Roosevelt and Hopkins believed that work gives people meaning, self respect and pride. By keeping these folks working with programs like the Works Progress Administration, millions of people in a variety of jobs ranging from writers, such as John Steinbeck and photographers like Dorothea Lange; to laborers, construction workers and craftsmen would build America’s modern infrastructure and maintain their dignity as well.
Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA provided almost eight million jobs; built public buildings, firehouses, roads, walls, sidewalks; created art projects; distributed food; extended electricity to rural areas; built parks and trained and created job skills for millions of Americans. Nearly every American city and town has a park, bridge, school or community space created by the WPA. Auburn and Placer County are no exception.
I spoke with Michael Otten, local historian and president of the Placer County Historical Society; and Dr. Gray Brechin, Project Scholar for the Living New Deal and Vice-President of the National New Deal Preservation Association. Brechin is also the author of “Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin” (1999) and founder of The Living New Deal, which is a private organization with the goal of taking “inventory, map, and publicize the achievements of the New Deal and its public works to all 50 states.”
As you walk through Downtown Auburn or along Vernon Street in Roseville, the contributions of WPA are alive and well, featuring some of the most beautiful buildings in Placer County. These include Placer High School, (originally Placer Hills College), Auburn City Hall and Fire Station (1103 High St.), Cooper Amphitheatre (1225 Lincoln Way, originally part of the Auburn Grammar School is now the Auburn School Park Preserve), Auburn Fairgrounds and the Gold Country Museum (1273 High St.), The Roseville Post Office and City Hall (316 Vernon St.) and the original Colfax Grammar school (55 School Road) are among a very long list of projects created by the WPA in Placer County and, according to Otten, provided so many jobs that it probably saved Auburn during the Depression.
In fact, during the Depression the WPA and FDR’s New Deal Projects was America’s largest employer until World War II broke, out sending America’s unemployment below two percent. The program was not popular with many conservatives who felt it was government activism, and many called Roosevelt a socialist or a communist. Even today many of the social programs we have, like Social Security or the FDIC, are holdovers from the Roosevelt New Deal. While many of these structures are still in use today, many are falling into ruin and disrepair. Dr. Brechin joked that “many are held together by rust.”
Many forget how much of our present life rests on an infrastructure built during the Depression by WPA, including sewer systems and clean drinking water systems ending years of typhoid and cholera. As World War II loomed ever closer, WPA projects became more defense related.
The WPA was officially dissolved in June of 1943 due to the low unemployment as a result of the war effort. In the end, eight million people had found work, 650,000 miles of road were laid, 124,000 bridges built, 125,000 public buildings constructed as well as 8,000 parks, 835 airport landing fields, 20,000 water mains, not to mention thousands of photographs, plays, stories and guides, and that is what we know of officially.
Sadly, many WPA works have been lost or forgotten. We can choose to remember, restore and preserve these buildings and works of art for future generations. Fortunately here in Placer County many have been; a stroll down Lincoln Way and High Street will show testament to that.
Finally and most importantly, the WPA not only contributed thousands of works, countless jobs and an infrastructure that still stands after 70 years and has become part of the national fabric but, as Nick Taylor writes in his book, American made: The Enduring legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work, “…These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectations.”