LaGuardia Airport was a WPA project. Think about that next time you're stuck in traffic on your way there.
(First book of 2009--aren't you excited? I am)
The New Deal is something that has been alternately lionized and reviled over the last 75 years or so, often depending on who you are. If you think government should do a lot, then you probably love FDR's policies that helped revive the nation during the Great Depression; if you think government should do as little as possible, then you probably hate FDR's policies that prolonged the Great Depression and sank the nation into an endless cycle of government spending. The truth, though, as it so often does, lies somewhere in between--some New Deal policies worked, some didn't.
The Works Progress Administration is one of those oft-disputed New Deal programs. There are people who sneer at it as government interference in private industry that did nothing but create useless make work jobs for lazy, shiftless people. The portrayal of WPA workers as ne'er do wells who spent their days getting paid for leaning on their shovels dates back to the very beginning of the program (there were endless jokes about this). Indeed, there was a great deal of resistance in some quarters to the very idea that there were people who couldn't get jobs, or were struggling; Herbert Hoover, disbelieving to the end, stated in his autobiography that the surplus shipments of apples from Washington State that were sold on credit to individidual sellers in New York were so profitable that people were quitting their regular jobs to become apple sellers. Yes, those iconic Depression-era figures of desperate men on street corners selling apples for a nickel were actually getting rich. That's how you end up a one-term president, Mr. Hoover.
In his history of the WPA, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work, Nick Taylor sets out to disprove the negative myths that have grown up around the WPA, its workers, and its projects (and by the way, it's a brand new year and we already have a surefire winner for the "longest title" category). In this detailed account, Taylor describes how the WPA was born, who ran it, and what projects it created and its effect on America and its workers. It's a good, solid, fact-filled overview that's very readable, but make no mistake about it--Taylor is absolutely 100% pro-WPA. If you're looking for a neutral history, or a warts and all expose, you'll be disappointed. If you don't care about that, and just want to know the basic story, this is a fine place to start.
Taylor sets the scene by describing the Hoover administration's inability to deal with the growing disaster of unemployment after the stock market crash. People kept insisting it wasn't that bad; big business, fearing government interference in the way of taxes, price controls, etc., promoted the idea that if left alone, the crisis would take care of itself (much greater economic minds than mine have been debating this question ever since, i.e., were they right--did government intervention make the Depression worse? I have stated before that one of the biggest mistakes of my life was not taking an economics course in college). Nevertheless, the ranks of the unemployed and desperate were growing by the day and towns, cities, and states were left to try to cope with a patchwork system of local and religious charities that were suddenly overwhelmed and underfunded. The small amount of relief provided by the government was barely enough to help one person, let alone a family, and the process of applying for relief was humiliating for many who hated making public their dire straits; some opted to struggle on their own rather than go on the relief rolls.
One of the people Franklin D. Roosevelt brought into his administration was Harry Hopkins, who had run a relief program in Roosevelt's home state of New York that was one of the few successful efforts in the nation. Hopkins, an Iowan, had the heart of a missionary combined with the tastes of a hedonist (it's a lot easier in New York than Iowa to spend your days helping find food for the starving and your nights sipping champagne at the opera). Most importantly, he was an organizational whiz who quickly put together a nationwide relief program that helped provide basic necessities for the now millions of unemployed. Hopkins had bigger plans, though--he believed that most people would rather work and be paid than not work and receive relief.
Not everyone believed this, of course--plenty of people thought that there was no difference between accepting relief and taking a relief job. Big businesses were also concerned about a relief program that might produce goods or services that would compete with private industry, or that would jack up wages (the National Industrial Recovery Act, one of the more controversial New Deal programs, had included wage minimums and restrictions on work hours, especially for children, but the program eventually fell apart over outcry about a poorly conceived attempt at price controls). Roosevelt's opposition also complained that a national relief program would be a simmering nest of corruption, with high-paying jobs doled out as political patronage.
Hopkins was well aware of the potential problems of the program and the criticism it would face. He implemented price controls for goods and projects made by the WPA so it didn't undercut those of private businesses; its wages weren't better than jobs in private industry. As for political corruption, Hopkins made it clear--much to the annoyance of many state officials--that administrative jobs weren't to be handed out as political rewards, and no worker would have to pass a political test to get a WPA job. Republicans would have just as much chance as a Democrat. He also created an investigative arm of the administration that would regularly check out WPA projects to look for corruption or problems. Certainly there were some small town petty despots who tried to use the WPA as a patronage mill, and some inept officials were appointed, but they were quickly removed. Stories about workers being told how they had to vote in order to keep their jobs were investigated and quashed. The WPA lasted from 1935 to 1943, and during that time no instances of widespread corruption were uncovered.
The system for handing out money for projects was tightly controlled, with an application process that quickly got bogged down; New York City, led by the twin mini-tornadoes of Robert Moses and Fiorello LaGuardia snatched up a first amount of the first outlay of fund by quickly overwhelming the WPA office with immensely detailed plans and blueprints. In the end, WPA projects ranged from simple refurbishments of neglected schools, animal shelters, tourist camps, to giant tasks such as building Hoover Dam and LaGuardia Airport. To a large degree, the WPA was responsible for quickly dragging the country, from forgotten backwoods to urban slums, into the 20th century. Roads were built in areas that hadn't had any. Areas without libraries were were visited by "packhorse librarians," who brought books and magazines to people who otherwise never would have had access to reading material. WPA school lunch programs provided many children with their only decent meal of the day. The Tennessee Valley Authority quickly brought electricity to poor, rural regions where private electric companies would have had no motivation to wire; without electricity, the people who lived there would have fallen even further behind. When natural disasters struck, including floods in the Ohio Valley and a freak hurricane that hit New England, the WPA provided a ready work force that helped speed up clean up and rebuilding in devastated areas. The WPA also made the first efforts at preserving or uncovering the nations history--archaeologists excavated areas and researchers tried to uncover the histories of states and towns. Crumbling records were recopied and fading folklore written down before it was lost for all time.
And then there was Federal One, the section of the WPA that covered the arts. Hopkins had the rare belief that a people should do the jobs they knew how to do or were meant to do; artists shouldn't be put to work as bricklayers when there were plenty of bricklayers--artists should be making art. So the walls of old and new buildings were covered in murals painted by members of the Federal Artists project; the Federal Music project put on concerts and gave music lessons; the Writers' Project created the now fabled state guides; and the Federal Theater Project put on plays in places that had traditionally had little theater, as well as in New York, where some productions were so successful that ticket sales--even at prices of twenty-five and fifty cents--rather than WPA money was able to finance the shows' runs.
Of course art sponsored by money that has to be given out by the government almost always ends in trouble, and despite Hopkins' good intentions, Federal One quickly became one of the easiest targets for critics of the WPA. There was the basic complaint that the government shouldn't be putting money into the arts, but the headline grabbing claim was that the artists' projects were hotbeds of communists (every one knew that artists, after all, were irredeemable radicals. And drunks. Well, no argument on the latter) that were producing subversive messages--paid for by taxpayers--as part of a plan to turn the US into another Soviet Union (as always, good to know everyone in America was on their toes about communists while fascists were steadily destroying Europe). People pointed out figures in murals that supposedly looked like Stalin; the state guides contained communist doctrine; and of course the plays were Soviet propaganda. The Federal Theater Project got the worst of it, probably because, unlike the others, it didn't produce anything tangible--no decorations on buildings, no lessons for children, no useful (albeit communist-tinged) guidebooks. And the plays did often have a pro-worker tilt, but pro-worker is a far cry from pro-Stalinist (not like any of them knew what Stalin was really up to anyway), and the plays were, after all, being produced for an audience of workers, people who couldn't usually afford the theater. There certainly were radicals and commmunists and socialists involved in the arts programs, but they were hardly an organized militant force aimed at a government takeover. There's no better proof of this than the New York Writers' branch, which nearly disintegrated under the weight of infighting between Stalinists and Trotskyites.
Nevertheless, the arts program became subject to investigation by the Dies Committee, part of the fledgling House Un-American Activities Committee. The Federal Theater Project was closed down in 1939 and the other branches barely survived. The WPA was winding down anyway, with workers being moved into defense preparation for the upcoming war. It officially ended in 1943, but its mark can be found in monuments, buildings, and programs all over the United States; one nice feature of Taylor's book is an appendix with a state by state list of surviving WPA projects (though it's admittedly only a partial list).
American-Made is very much an overview, but it still includes quite a bit of detail. One thing to keep in mind is that it is the story of the WPA, not of WPA workers or individual projects, so while it does have the occasional chapter devoted to one worker's story or a chapter just about putting on one of the Theater Project's productions, a lot more time is spent on things like government wrangling over funds and Hopkins' work guiding the program. That's not to say it's all numbers or budget hearings--it's very readable, but if you're looking to find out what it was like to work on a WPA project or how a neighborhood changed from a WPA project, look elsewhere. Taylor's writing is easy to read, though sometimes it felt a little melodramatic; at other times, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was reading a social studies book. I can't pinpoint why, but it just had that kind of feel about it. Maybe I've just written too many social studies projects and now everything is beginning to look alike. But that aside, it's still worth a read--unless, as noted at the beginning of this (if you can remember back that far), you're looking for a totally neutral good and bad account of the WPA, or a purely bad version, because there's no doubt that Taylor is a fan of the WPA.
And I suppose I am, too, though as always--to a fault--I try to remain neutral, and suspect there is bad to balance with the good. But overall I believe in the good. I've always been interested in the 1930s, which started with my love of that decade's movies. And of course Federal One has long been on my list of fascinating topics--the concept of someone actually saying, "So, you're a writer? Then let's find you a writing job" or "If you're an actor, then we'll put you to work acting," instead of the usual response of , "You're a musician? Yeah, there's a housekeeping job open in that building" or "Dancer, huh? Do you have waitressing experience?" For many of the artists in the WPA, this was probably the only time in their lives that they got a steady paycheck for actually doing what they wanted to do. But as the WPA proved, it seems like it's always going to end badly for artists when that paycheck comes from the government. Their interests are too different from those in the arts.
My grandmother used to tell me things about the Depression when I was very young. She told me that it was important to be careful about leaving pies on the window sill to cool, because the hobos could snatch them. I remember listening very intently and filing away this lesson, which somehow seemed very important (I know, pies are always very important) but of course has turned out to not be useful at all; a hobo would have to be Spider-Man to reach my window sill. But nonetheless, it's a glimpse into a very different world, one in which people, pre-air-conditioning, had their windows open, most people baked their own pies, and hobos roamed the land.
My parents were too young to remember the Depression--their glory days would come during the, as they perceived it, nonstop fun of World War II. But my father later worked with men who had been involved in WPA projects, and he knew from them how right Hopkins had been--people would have done anything for a job in the 1930s, and any kind of job, anything, was preferable to being on relief. Having a job meant something to a person, and while relief could provide for the basic necessities of food and shelter, WPA jobs provided another basic necessity--the sense of dignity, worth, and purpose that comes with having a job and being able to pay your own way. Relief could give money, but the WPA could give independence.
(Click through for more examples of WPA artwork)