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Digital database documents vital infrastructure created by the New Deal


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: It is a hidden history right in front of our eyes, the buildings, artworks and so much more created all over the country during the New Deal of the 1930s and '40s.

To bring that hidden history to light, there was an online archive documenting those sites across the country.

Jeffrey Brown has more of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Gray Brechin, Founder, The Living New Deal: This was one of the great bridges of his time. It still is.

Jeffrey Brown: The Bay Bridge, an eight-mile-long connector between San Francisco and Oakland, first completed in 1936 and now carrying an average of some 3.5 million vehicles a month.

To Gray Brechin, a historical geographer, it's also a symbol of a big idea.

Gray Brechin: Well, what this bridge represents to me is actually what could be done 80 years ago during the depths of the Great Depression to get out of it.

Jeffrey Brown: Big projects like Treasure Island built into the San Francisco Bay, La Guardia Airport, the Hoover Dam, parts of Yellowstone National Park, and smaller ones, libraries, courthouses, even sidewalks and gutters, all around the country, hundreds of thousands of works dating from the height of the Great Depression from the many federal programs such as the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, and Public Works Administration, or PWA, that were part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

In 2005, Brechin created what he called The Living New Deal, an online archive documenting projects throughout the country.

Gray Brechin: What were trying to do geographers is to teach people a kind of landscape literacy. We're trying to reveal an invisible landscape that's all around us and absolutely indispensable that was created by my parents' generation, but we don't see it.

Jeffrey Brown: One better-known meal deal New Deal legacy? Artworks, including thousands of murals, like those at Rincon Annex Post Office in downtown San Francisco, started in 1941 by the Russian-born painter Anton Refregier, 27 panels in all, one artist's version of the history of California, from the Spanish Conquest through World War II.

They have faced various threats over the years, including real estate development in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Rincon Annex was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and has been preserved ever since.

Gray Brechin: I'm interested in the ethics behind it.

Jeffrey Brown: What do you mean by the ethics?

Gray Brechin: Well, the ethics were collective. They were about creating a real civilization, a society in which everybody played a role. You know, that's what democracy is all about.

Jeffrey Brown: The Living New Deal, run by a small staff and volunteers, has created a digital database documenting more than 17,000 sites to date, including more than 100 in each state.

Richard Walker, Director, The Living New Deal: There's no record official record of what the New Deal agencies did. And so we're the first ones doing that.

Jeffrey Brown: Richard Walker, also a geographer, was Gray Brechin's professor at U.C. Berkeley and is now director of The Living New Deal.

So, you can drive around and sort of see signs of the New Deal everywhere?

Richard Walker: That's right. So many of the buildings were built for the long term, really well-built. And there's almost always a high school, a city hall, some structure that's recognizably from that era.

Jeffrey Brown: One local example, Berkeley High School, with its relief sculptures and community theater that date to the 1940s.

Richard Walker: California, because there had been a Long Beach earthquake in 1933, the PWA put a huge emphasis on rebuilding California schools or expanding them, making them earthquake-safe and so on.

They hired local architects. So, it was very much an interaction between the federal government and local government, state governments.

Jeffrey Brown: Always emphasized, work for those in need. The seven-acre Montclair Park in Oakland was and is a place for people to bring their children and be outdoors. But it also served another purpose.

Richard Walker: The idea of the New Deal was always to put people to work, that they thought that gave them dignity, self-worth, and it did. People wanted that who were unemployed.

And here is such a great example, because you have this beautiful stonework, which was done probably by unemployed Italian American stonemasons who were still around at that time.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a vision of the role of government seemingly out of step with divided American politics today.

Last year's $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act did finally pass, but after months of infighting. And given the much larger size of the economy now, it's expected to have a much smaller overall impact than the programs of the 1930s.

In that sense, The Living New Deal involves advocacy, as well as education, and Richard Walker hopes that, if more people understood the history of their communities, another era of public works investment could come.

Richard Walker: Our job in The Living New Deal is to educate Americans what the New Deal did, not just as a historical nicety, but because it's relevant today.

We can only educate and do a little bit of proselytizing about, look what's possible. Look at this hidden civilization, this lost civilization that's right under your nose and think, what can we do now? What would I like to see my town do?

Jeffrey Brown: A lost civilization that The Living New Deal aims to uncover.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in California's Bay Area.

Judy Woodruff: And, sometimes, that is what it takes. Just look up and look around.

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