The Living New Deal

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The Living New Deal is a research project and online public archive documenting the scope and impact of the New Deal on American lives and the national landscape.[1] The project focuses on public works programs, which put millions of unemployed to work, saved families from destitution, and renovated the infrastructure of the United States. What is more, most New Deal public works - schools, roads, dams, waterworks, hospitals and more - continued to function for decades and tens of thousands still exist today.

The centerpiece of the Living New Deal is a website that catalogs and maps the location of public works projects and artworks created from 1933 to 1943 under the aegis of federal government during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.[2] This online catalog identifies thousands of New Deal sites and pinpoints them on an interactive map. Sites can be searched by name, city, state, category, and agency. The website and its growing database show the vast imprint the New Deal had across the nation. The Living New Deal website was selected as one of the 10 best new sites on the web for 2014 by Slate Magazine,[3] and has been mentioned in the Boston Globe, Vox, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other news outlets.[4]

A constellation of economic stimulus policies and social programs enacted to lift America out of the Great Depression, the New Deal touched every state, city, town, and rural area. Yet, there is no national record of what the New Deal built,[5] only bits and pieces found in local and national archives, published sources, and on occasional plaques and markers. This represents an enormous gap in the historic record and a collective failure of memory. The Living New Deal's goal is to uncover every New Deal public works site in all fifty states and build a public archive of photographs, documents, films, and stories from this pivotal period.[6] As of mid-2017, the project had reached a total of 13,000 documented New Deal sites.

In addition to the online archive, the Living New Deal works to highlight the legacy of the New Deal by:

Plaque identifying a Works Progress Administration project

The ultimate aim of the Living New Deal is to educate the general public, civic leaders and politicians about the New Deal and to show that it provides a proven model for reviving the economy in hard times, dealing with unemployment (especially among youth), rebuilding communities all across the country, restoring faith in government and renewing a sense of national purpose. In a time when so many people and places are hurting for good jobs and economic renewal, and the infrastructure of the country is crumbling, the New Deal can serve as an example for the present day.


The Living New Deal's research arm is based at the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley and its policy arm is a California non-profit corporation. The Living New Deal is directed by Professor Emeritus Richard Walker of the University of California. Its founder and Project Scholar is Dr. Gray Brechin. The core operation is run by a team in the San Francisco Bay Area. Its national Advisory and Research Boards are made up of distinguished scholars from around the country, including New Deal historians Robert Leuchtenberg and Ira Katznelson, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and former Council of Economic Advisors Chair Christina Romer, and members of the Roosevelt family.

The Living New Deal relies on a network of Research Associates and other volunteers, including historians, teachers, students, artists, history buffs, librarians, journalists, and photographers to document New Deal sites throughout the U.S. They upload their discoveries, such as photographs, historic documents, news articles, and commentary to the Living New Deal's website. The information is verified by research assistants at Berkeley before being published. The Living New Deal is a crowdsourced project that invites anyone to volunteer and sign up as a research associate.


The Living New Deal began as an idea for a book by Dr. Gray Brechin in 2002, a few years before he became vice-president of the National New Deal Preservation Association. The concept quickly proved too ambitious for a single researcher. A group project was launched as the California Living New Deal in 2006, sponsored by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Historical Society, with support from the Columbia Foundation (no longer extant). In 2010, it moved to the Department of Geography at UC Berkeley.

In 2011, the Living New Deal project went national and dropped "California" from its name. Two years later, the project merged with New Deal Art Registry, assembled by Barbara and John Bernstein, an extensive online catalog of murals, sculptures, and mosaics by New Deal artists. Despite efforts to document them, many New Deal artworks that adorn public buildings have been decommissioned, privatized, or are threatened with demolition; many have already been lost or destroyed. The Living New Deal project has continued to grow rapidly, adding hundreds (even thousands) of New Deal sites to its map every year.

New Deal's legacy of public works[edit]

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, America was in the depths of the Great Depression. The stock market crash of 1929 led the implosion and the downturn continued for over three years as thousands of banks and businesses failed and millions of people lost their life savings, farms, and homes. At the nadir, one-quarter of the U.S. workforce was unemployed and national output had fallen by one-third.[10]

To address the economic collapse and resulting human suffering, President Roosevelt declared a "new deal for the American people." Within days of his inauguration, he had launched The New Deal, an innovative constellation of federal programs aimed at restoring financial stability, stabilizing industry and agriculture, increasing relief efforts, and employing millions of desperate workers.[11] The economy began a rapid revival from 1933 to 1942, marred by a sharp recession in 1937. National output recovered to pre-Depression levels just before the outbreak of World War II, which absorbed the last of the mass unemployment of the era.[12]

The New Deal transformed American government and reformed American society in several important respects, such as reining in Wall Street, supporting home ownership, and introducing Social Security. But the visible hallmark of the New Deal was its vast array of public works, which put millions of people back to work and put much-needed funds into the hands of impoverished families and straitened communities. These were much more than "make work" programs, as they are often portrayed; New Deal's public works dramatically overhauled the nation's infrastructure, refashioned the American landscape, and modernized cities, towns, and rural areas across the country.[13]

The most famous of the so-called "alphabet soup" of New Deal public works agencies were the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the Federal Arts Project (FAP) within the WPA. But the administration also made huge investments in older agencies, such as the Treasury Department (Post Offices and the Treasury Section of Fine Arts), the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bureau of Public Roads. Smaller but vital builder agencies were the Civil Works Administration (CWA), Rural Electrification Administration (REA), National Youth Administration (NYA), Resettlement/Farm Security Administration (RA/FSA), Soil Conservation Service (SCS), and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).[14][15] With the Living New Deal's open-source database and map, the cumulative impact of these public works can be displayed for the first time.

In less than ten years, the New Deal public works programs built and expanded a modern infrastructure that Americans still depend on, but that few are aware of. Every day people use roads, schools, auditoriums, parks, sewers, tunnels, sidewalks, forests, trails, and more without realizing these are the result of an all-out-effort by the Federal government, in alliance with state and local governments, to put people to work during hard times. Some historians have argued that these public works were the foundation for the health and prosperity of the nation for generations afterward.[16]

Because of the swiftness by which the New Deal sprang into action and the huge scale and scope of its efforts, a great many of its accomplishments went unrecorded. Although the New Deal public works agencies built tens of thousands of public buildings—post offices, airports, hospitals, museums, colleges, universities, and government buildings—most of what was created remains unmarked. Moreover, in the post-war years, a concerted effort by the New Deal's critics to erase its memory destroyed many identifying markers on New Deal-era buildings and removed public artwork commissioned by the FAP and Treasury Department.[17]


  1. ^ "California's Living New Deal project". The Guardian. 10 March 2010. Retrieved 21 April 2014.
  2. ^ The Living New Deal does not currently document the tens of thousands of public service projects sponsored by the WPA (and other New Deal programs), such as sewing rooms, archaeological digs and work on library catalogs, because of their uncertain locations and/or absence of surviving results.
  3. ^ Slate Magazine Top Websites of 2014, Dec. 30, 2014
  4. ^ Renee Loth, "When Public Buildings were revered," Boston Globe, Nov. 28, 2014, retrieved May 25, 2017; Matthew Yglesias, "See every New Deal project in America, in one map," Vox, October 28, 2014, retrieved May 25, 2017; John King, "Chasing Bay Area artifacts of the New Deal", SFGate, September 1, 2008, retrieved May 25, 2017.
  5. ^ LeCompte, Celeste. "Works in Progress". The Magazine. Aperiodical. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
  6. ^ Sward, Susan (April 27, 2014). "New Deal: An example for today?". The Sacramento Bee. Retrieved April 29, 2014.
  7. ^ Hansen, Megan (December 16, 2013). "Mill Valley man, grandson of Franklin Delano Roosevelt talks about New Deal". Marin Independent Journal. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  8. ^ Bouchard, Kelley (March 11, 2010). "Touched by New Deal". Portland Press Herald. Archived from the original on April 23, 2014. Retrieved April 23, 2014. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  9. ^ POGASH, Carol (February 20, 2012). "Berkeley's Artwork Loss Is a Museum's Gain". The New York Times. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  10. ^ Chandler, Lester. 1970, America's Greatest Depression, 1929–1941. New York: Harper and Row; Kindleberger, Charles. 1973. A World in Depression. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  11. ^ Leuchtenberg, William. 1963. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–40, New York: Harper Torchbooks; Conkin, Paul. 1975. The New Deal, New York: Crowell; Rose, Nancy. 1994. Put to Work: Relief Programs in the Great Depression, New York: Cornerstone Books.
  12. ^ Romer, Christina. 1992. "What Ended the Great Depression?" Journal of Economic History. 52, no. 4: 757–84; Field, Alexander. 2011. A Great Leap Forward: The 1930s Depression and US Economic Growth, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  13. ^ Patterson, James. 1969, The New Deal and the States: Federalism in Transition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Amenta, Edwin. 2000, Bold Relief: Institutional Politics and the Origins of Modern American Social Policy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Cohen, Lizabeth, 2003,A Consumers' Republic: The Politics Of Mass Consumption In Postwar America, New York Alfred A. Knopf.
  14. ^ There are histories of almost every agency, e.g.: Lilienthal, David. 1953. TVA: Democracy on the March, New York: Harper; Salmond, John. 1967. The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933–1942: A New Deal Case Study, Durham, NC: Duke University Press; Schwartz, Bonnie Fox. 1984. The Civil Works Administration, 1933–1934: The Business of Emergency Employment in the New Deal, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Radford, Gail. 1996. Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  15. ^ Summary histories of all New Deal agencies, along with a timeline, can be found on the Living New Deal website
  16. ^ Leighninger, Robert. 2007. Long Run Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal, Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press; Smith, Jason Scott. 2006. New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933–1956, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  17. ^ Phillips-Fine, Kim. 2009. Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan, New York: W.W. Norton; Fraser, Steven and Gerstle, Gary (eds), 1989. The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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