Senate's stimulus bill is nothing like Roosevelt's New Deal

Sacramento BeeFebruary 3, 2009 

The last time the government came riding to the economy's rescue in a massive way, it paid for much more than building roads, sidewalks and bridges, although it certainly did plenty of that.

In the 1930s, an alphabet soup of federal agencies funded an array of programs to boost the economic well-being and psyche of the beleaguered U.S. population.

The $900 billion economic stimulus package being debated in Congress, aside from being similarly huge, bears little resemblance to that New Deal spending spree. Today, lawmakers talk about infrastructure and tax credits. Back in the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took a more grass-roots approach, putting people directly to work.

The New Deal left a lasting impression on American cities. In Sacramento, for example, it built Tower Bridge, the gardens and cobbled curbs of Land Park, sewers in the Hagginwood neighborhood, the auditorium at Sacramento City College, and two giant water towers — one behind city college and one behind the Safeway on Alhambra Boulevard.

UC Berkeley visiting scholar Gray Brechin, who is compiling a comprehensive list of New Deal projects in California, says that in today's debate, it is important to look back at what Roosevelt accomplished.

"I'm just blown away by all that they did during 10 years of horrible economic depression," Brechin said.

Roosevelt created a civilian army of 8.5 million workers, paying them through such agencies as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Teachers worked to improve adult literacy. New clinics treated children afflicted with polio. Crews paid by the government built water towers, public pools, migrant labor camps, nature trails, performing arts centers, hospitals and schools.

The government also funneled money down to localities for infrastructure projects through the Public Works Administration &mddash; an approach more similar to the one being pursued today.

C.K. McClatchy High School, Esparto High School, Grant High School and numerous elementary schools were the product of this federal spending boom.

The public mood was also the subject of concern. WPA artists painted murals, many of them showing ordinary Americans in realistic settings. Composers and writers also worked for the government.

San Francisco painter and sculptor Ralph Stackpole was among the artists who created on the federal dime. He spent the summer of 1937 painting a mural on plaster in the lobby of the auditorium at Sacramento Junior College on Freeport Boulevard, since renamed Sacramento City College.

Stackpole's mural depicts people engaged in various forms of work, such as designing an airplane and farming.

Another Bay Area artist, Helen K. Forbes, was hired to paint a mural of Noah and his ark at the Mother's House of the San Francisco Zoo.

In preparation, Forbes did a series of sketches and watercolors showing friendly-looking tigers, bears and other animals. These drawings were recently donated to the Crocker Art Museum.

Thumbing through the sketches, the Crocker's chief curator, Scott Shields, said they represent a streamlined, realist style of art and architecture so closely associated with the New Deal that it has been referred to as "WPA style."

"It was a simple, reductive style," Shields said. "There wasn't much work done for the WPA that was abstract. They wanted work that reflected people and the United States."

Daisy Mah, who tends the flower beds in Land Park's WPA Rock Garden, said the granite blocks used by the crews that built the garden have held up well.

"They used sturdy materials that will be here long after we're gone, and the designs they used were pleasing. It will be pleasing forever, really," Mah said.

All of this spending wasn't without controversy. Then, as now, critics said the government had no business using taxpayer money to further social aims. The word "boondoggle," which originally referred to leather handicrafts produced by Boy Scouts, gained currency in the WPA era.

Published reports say men in Washington, D.C. were paid to scare off pigeons. In Brooklyn, men and women decorated fire hydrants. Conservative wags opined that the WPA really stood for We Poke Along.

The New Deal agencies were dismantled in the 1940s, during the buildup to World War II.

In the ensuing years, the positive legacy of the New Deal was largely obscured, Brechin, of UC Berkeley, said. Only the WPA left any markers, and sporadically at that.

"It's all around us, but it's invisible," he said.

His California Living New Deal Project, a collaboration between UC Berkeley and the California Historical Society, seeks to catalog the contributions of all those men and women more than 70 years ago.

"I always liken this to discovering a lost civilization that we forgot about," Brechin said. "It just happens to be ours."

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