BERKELEY, Calif. (KAMR/KCIT) — The New Deal touched nearly every aspect of American life in the 20th century. This includes public works that span across the nation, including right here on the High Plains.
It can be difficult to document the thousands of sites and projects the New Deal helped build, but one non-profit corporation affiliated with the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley is trying their hardest to do so.
The Living New Deal started as a book project on the WPA in California but soon outgrew the original intent as the vast extent of New Deal public works projects became clear.
“We were focused on California at that time and for the first few years and it was only around 2010 that we decided to go national because we realized how big this thing really was. It really started with Dr. Gray Brechin there were so many of these New Deal projects all around us in the Bay Area, in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Franciso, and then as so as we started looking around and documenting the things, we realized that they are everywhere,” said Executive Director of the Living New Deal Project Richard Walker.
Walker said the project serves three purposes.
“The Living New Deal is a project to document what the New Deal did, particularly public works which were never adequately documented at the time, then to educate Americans about the legacy of the New Deal, much of which is still there all around them and then to educate policymakers and important people about the usefulness of new deal models of policy, like the CCC, WPA and so on for today.”
Walker said the Living New Deal also helps connect people all across the nation to the past.
“The importance is if you put it under people’s noses and say ‘look, it’s right there, you have been using that park down the street, taking your kid there for years. That was the New Deal, the New Deal worked on that, maybe the new deal created it.’ so it gives you a new appreciation, its a way of connecting people to the past in a direct way and then connecting them to the idea that public investment, government public investment is good for everyone, it benefits ordinary Americans,” said Walker.
Walker added some of The Living New Deal projects could be about preservation.
“There is a lot of New Deal art that is neglected, New Deal area buildings that the locals, municipalities that said ‘well, we don’t really use that or we would have to put some money into restoring it, so we are not going to bother’ and so there are a lot of places where beautiful New Deal art, beautiful architecture is neglected that is going to ruin or even sold off, privatized and taken away from the public. So part of it is, yeah people should understand, that there is this massive legacy that’s theirs and it belongs to everybody, and it’s public, and it should be preserved, and then at the same time as I was saying it could inspire them to say, ‘well for one thing, we need more investment, why don’t we have that new school if the New Deal could build so many schools in the Great Depression, why don’t we have our new school, why isn’t their money for this?’,” said Walker.
Walker said there is a way to look out for New Deal projects.
“When we are talking about public buildings, schools, and so on, and even bridges, a lot of them have what people call or what’s known as “Art Deco” touches. It’s the early form of modern architecture,” said Walker.
The Living New Deal has documented 18,282 New Deal sites and Walker said it’s like a giant scavenger hunt.
“So we have an online map, that’s how we started, was mapping these projects. We have a wonderful interactive online map of the whole country you can zoom in, very close. It’s got little icons, its color-coded, and ways of searching for whatever you want. You can search for CCC camps or bridges, or the artist of your choice from the New Deal Art Project and it will pop up everything that was done around the country,” said Walker.
Walker added there are over 3,000 counties in the United States and the New Deal built projects in every single one of them, as well as in the territories of the United States.
Walker said they have volunteers all over the country that help with the project, but he said this is a public project.
“It isn’t just our team or our official volunteers, we have people, random people who will go to our website and fill out the form and send us a photograph, do a little bit of research on their own send us some materials and we put it up. We verify we try to verify everything that everybody sends us. I have an RA that does this…It’s a totally public project, public crowdsourcing, participation, improvement, feedback, and the idea is to get the American people out there to learn history, but to do it in a way that’s really enjoyable,” said Walker.
Walker added they are also always looking for New Deal stories, such as a grandfather who was in the CCC or a grandmother who taught for the WPA in the local school. He said it’s a nice way to memorialize what a family did in your local community.
He added the Living New Deal has done a pretty thorough job in New York City and Washington D.C., along with the greater Los Angeles area, but he added that New Deal projects are everywhere.