Jane and I are at a presentation by UC Berkeley geographer Gray Brechen about the incredible legacy of the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration on the public life of the United States — and the incredible legacy it left us, of so much of the fabric of our lives that we take for granted, and that has been looted and dismantled — “murdered,” in Brechen’s words — by the “shrink [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” crowd.
It strikes me that there may be some Roosevelt in Obama. FDR didn’t have the New Deal in his platform, apparently, but experimented his way into in — convening the widest possible diversity of smart folks and encouraging them to try, fail, learn and try again — knowing that “the noblest motive is the public good”. Without, of course, a monstrous military budget draining the life out of most everything else.

It’s all around you, but you don’t see it. You use it every day, but you don’t know it. It may have saved your own family seventy-five years ago when your grandparents joined with millions of others to build it.
It’s California’s public landscape of the New Deal — schools, hospitals, parks, roads, sewers, airports, amphitheaters, bridges, golf courses, aqueducts, power stations, city halls, art works, and more —constructed by a half dozen federal agencies. They were created by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to lift the country out of the Depression. We have been enjoying and prospering from this legacy ever since.
California’s Living New Deal Project is a collaborative venture documenting and interpreting the impact of New Deal programs on the State. We invite you to join the California Historical Society, the California Studies Center, and U.C. Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Library in identifying and discussing these indispensable public buildings and sites. Through this rediscovery, we will explore the history of the New Deal and consider timeless questions of civics in a living democracy. Learn more.

It has long seemed to me that the recently fashionable attacks on “government” are attacks on the commons, the common wealth and the common will — and on the very notion of people joining together to meet their own needs. But it is our cooperation to create the worlds we aspire to that makes human society — and perhaps that makes us human.
PS: Brechen is building an inspiring photo archive of WPA projects — “the public landscape of the New Deal.” There are bound to be projects right where you live, maybe right where you are right now. Snap some pictures — with people in them, please — and send them to him (or, even better, post them to flickr, tagged WPA.)


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