Gray Brechin is a historian whose appearance and giddy erudition suggest he might be Truman Capote's long-lost twin. When I visited him at his UC Berkeley office recently, he excitedly showed me sepia-toned photographs of a lost civilization.
The grandeur of this bygone society's public monuments was unrivaled. There was a glorious open-air theater, bathhouses designed as citadels, and a majestic "Temple of Honor" dedicated to past and future writers. Even mere secondary schools were built to rival Byzantine temples. A school for crippled and malnourished children was covered in Spanish tiles, its stenciled ceilings hung with chandeliers, and filled with the era's finest in handcrafted furniture.
"They said at the time that it was deliberate, because they wanted them to take their minds off their afflictions," says Brechin, describing the Mission District's Sunshine School for disabled children, which was built in 1936. The Byzantine-esque school is George Washington High School in the Richmond — "an Art Deco Acropolis," he says. The writers' temple is the now-well-worn Woodminster Amphitheater in the hills east of Oakland.
This lost society Brechin describes reflects the intensely public-spirited America that existed in the years during and following the New Deal, when workers built thousands of exquisite monuments to public life, and Americans responded by rebuilding the country during and after the Great Depression.
Brechin and a team of researchers have spent years creating their Living New Deal Project, seeking out and chronicling the often-forgotten works of the Works Progress Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Writers Project, and the other "alphabet agencies" that transformed America's landscape during a decade that straddled the 1930s and '40s.
I thought about Brechin's work while watching Barack Obama's inaugural appeal for Americans to dedicate ourselves to helping each other in ways that are tolerant, selfless, and courageous. We're all used to presidential entreaties: Bill Clinton's inaugural address described a "mystery of American renewal" based on national self-sacrifice. And we won't forget George H.W. Bush's "thousand points of light."
On its own, Obama's invocation to public service will likewise ring hollow if it isn't followed by visible proof that an inspired nation heeded his words. That's because the history of the New Deal assembled by Brechin and his fellow researchers reminded me that moral appeals aren't nearly as effective at inspiring public-spiritedness as inanimate, manmade objects are. Public schools, parks, bathhouses, exhibition halls, theaters, and other such amenities compel us to recognize each other's humanity and imagine a common purpose.
Given that San Francisco was one of the greatest beneficiaries of New Deal largesse, perhaps it's no accident that the city was subsequently the center of historic public-minded movements such as dockside labor militancy in the 1950s, the antiwar movement in the 1960s, and gay liberation in the 1970s. Such great New Deal works as George Fuller's Rincon Annex Post Office decorated with Anton Refregier's murals; the Versailles-like Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, and the luxurious de Young Museum brought together people from all walks of life in magnificent public settings. These public monuments acted as equalizers that helped inspire San Franciscans to seek social justice. (See a map of these New Deal projects online at livingnewdeal.berkeley.edu.)
Now, as the country enters a new political era, San Franciscans might want to look up some of the dozens of San Francisco New Deal artifacts and sites and visit some of them to plot how we'll use our newfound national political standing with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally able to work alongside a Democratic administration.
As we anticipate President Obama's proposed massive infrastructure spending, it's worth urging the Bay Area's congressional delegation to direct some of that money to local projects with New Deal-like potential to enhance public life. The stalled Transbay Terminal, and sclerotic plans to rebuild the worst of the city's decayed public housing projects, are shovel-ready proposals that could go a long way toward uniting our still racially fractured city. As the state government struggles with near-bankruptcy, there could be no better time to revisit Proposition 13, the 1978 antitax measure that represented California's abandonment of New Deal values.
"It was just such a relief to hear Obama the other day say these things that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their projects said all the time to you," Brechin said. "They still do. We just don't notice them anymore."
In his preface to the 2007 rerelease of his book, Imperial San Francisco, Brechin described how turn-of-the-century robber barons wrecked Western towns and their ecology, which provoked an environmental crisis familiar to denizens of this new century. His book received acclaim when it was first published in 1999, but Brechin found it depressing to give talks around the country lamenting environmental ruin.
And the 9/11 attacks soured Brechin on life as a professional Cassandra. "Seeking a way out of my own paralysis, I began to investigate the accomplishments of the New Deal," he wrote in the new preface.
Brechin described his literary crisis in greater detail last week. "I was involved in environmental activism," he said. "That just ground me down. My talks were real bummers. It's been so wonderful to deal with a lost civilization that hopefully we're excavating; that was so positive. It was so ingenious and compassionate. It's wonderful to see young people turn on to it when I show them what was once possible."