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“American-Made”: A WPA History for Our Time
(“Yes We Can” Do It Again)

“All work undertaken should be useful—not just for a day, or a year, but useful in the sense that it affords permanent improvement in living conditions or that it creates future new wealth for the Nation.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, second state of the union address (1935)

“You can start out from Baton Rouge in any direction and pass through town after town which has water facilities or sewer facilities or roads or streets or sidewalks or better public buildings, which it would had not have had but for the Works Progress Administration.”

—WPA administrator Harry L. Hopkins, dedication of addition to Tiger Stadium, LSU, Nov. 28, 1936 (in Taylor, American-Made [1])

LNW_American-Made.2Levees Not War has been recommending a Civilian Conservation Corps [2] for Louisiana coastal restoration for some time now, and here is more encouragement in that direction.

From his first days in office, Franklin Roosevelt worked to establish relief programs to ease the pain of 25% unemployment nationwide, with some 15 million men, or 60 million Americans, having no income whatsoever. But it was not until his third year in office that Roosevelt launched the Works Progress Administration [3], the famous jobs and public works program that is one of the hallmarks of the New Deal. Other public assistance and jobs programs had come before—FDR’s beloved CCC was created in his first month—but the WPA took relief to a whole new level: practical, rewarding, enduring.

Yesterday we went to the 92nd Street Y–Tribeca to hear Nick Taylor speak about his book American-Made [4]: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work (2008). Mr. Taylor began research for the book in 2001, and its publication could hardly be more timely: lucky for the book’s sales and for American readers. American-Made is an engaging account of the Roosevelt administration’s Works Progress Administration (1935–1943), the nationwide jobs and public works program that put 8.5 million Americans back to work (enrollment peaked at about 3.3 million in 1938) in building roads and bridges, tunnels and airports, producing plays and painting murals, serving millions of hot lunches, sewing clothes and repairing toys, and many more useful and entertaining works.

Louisiana benefited from the WPA statewide, from Chalmette to Monroe, Opelousas to Vidalia—but especially in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Employing tens of thousands of Louisianans on jobs recommended by local officials, the WPA completed the seawall along Lake Pontchartrain and developed Pontchartrain Park and the Crescent City Golf Course at City Park; and at LSU, WPA workers built the Ag Center, a physics and math building (see photo below), and a U-shaped addition to the north end of Tiger Stadium that combined seats above and dorms below. Across the state WPA projects repaired or constructed 221 school buildings, 5 college dorms, 10 stadiums, 8 auditoriums; ran a free lunch program and an adult education program (385 teachers and over 15,000 students in 1937); and a bookbinding program paid workers to mend worn books, saving the state textbook purchasing costs. The WPA’s Federal Writers Project [5] also collected life histories in an oral history project and wrote the popular WPA Guide to New Orleans. [6]

LNW_Nicholson.jpg

LSU Physics and Math building (now Nicholson Hall), under WPA construction, 1937.

Beyond American-Made’s full coverage of the WPA, this big book is also an overview of the Great Depression, easily readable with its short chapters and well populated with lively anecdotes and engaging characters, particularly the driven, impatient WPA director Harry Hopkins (“Hell,” he snapped at critics of relief work for white-collar workers, “they have to eat like everybody else”). Taylor tells about the Negro Theatre’s Harlem production of a “voodoo Macbeth” set in Haiti, directed by Orson Welles and featuring an authentic witch doctor. Macbeth was a popular success; the one critic who panned the production, however, was dead of pneumonia within a week of his review.

In its review, The New Yorker said, “The WPA . . . returned to the nation what FDR called ‘the joy and moral stimulation of work.’ Taylor’s book is both a paean to American resourcefulness and a staunch defense of the New Deal.” Now in paperback, American-Made is a handbook and model for today’s activists, city planners, and policymakers. Nick Taylor has already put one in the hands of his former boss, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia (yes, the John Lewis), who we’re hoping might loan it to his friend the president.

We hope American-Made will be read closely by Team Obama—and receptive members of the Jindal administration. Perhaps Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu and his sister, Senator Mary Landrieu, would be more receptive. Taylor’s book instills pride in our nation’s past and hope for America’s present and future. We hope our readers will buy a copy today. Better yet, buy two, and give one to the elected official of your choice. (Put our policymakers to work—reading this book!) In our time we need jobs—there is so much work to be done and so much talent available—and we need what FDR called “bold, persistent experimentation . . . above all, try something.”

American-Made WPA Timeline [7]

WPA Photograph Collection [8]
Louisiana Division | New Orleans Public Library

New Orleans levee construction by WPA [9]

New Orleans Lakefront development, 1930s [10]

New Orleans bookbinding project [11]

Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, WPA Photoessay [12]

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