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Civil Works for Cynical Times

September 16, 2009
by Bob Schildgen
map of California showing New Deal projects

A geographer brings new life to the New Deal

It’s hard enough to imagine 3 billion trees, let alone plant them, but that’s how many were put in the ground by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Established in 1933, the CCC became one of the most popular of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, which included the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Public Works Administration (PWA). With the unemployment rate nearing 25 percent at that stage of the Great Depression, the “alphabet soup” agencies stepped in to rapidly create millions of jobs.

From today’s standpoint, your view of the New Deal likely depends on your politics; liberals tend to celebrate the New Deal for having established a “social safety net,” while conservatives decry it for having inaugurated a “welfare state.” To Gray Brechin ’71, M.A. ’76, Ph.D. ’98, architectural historian, author, and visiting scholar at Berkeley’s geography department, neither view adequately captures the story of the New Deal, which he regards as the most successful public works project in history.

“A huge amount of infrastructure was created during the New Deal,” Brechin says. “Municipal water and sewage systems, airports, parks, and schools. We take all this for granted today, and often don’t have the slightest idea who built it.” The projects included construction or repair of 650,000 miles of roads, 75,000 bridges, and 800 airports, as well as two-thirds of the new sewage-disposal plants. “A third of Southern California would not be permanently habitable,” Brechin notes, “if it weren’t for drainage and flood-control systems built by the WPA and PWA. They essentially built the public school system in Southern California—literally built hundreds of schools still in use.”

The economic ramifications of all that construction have never been fully recognized or studied, contends Brechin. “It has never been properly acknowledged as a source of post-war prosperity. No one has put a quantitative value on it.” One major reason for this lack of historical attention, he surmises, is that the agencies disbanded because of World War II. In the wake of the war, there was neither the impetus for reassessment, nor agency personnel to conduct such analyses.

Fast-forward to the present. In an effort to stimulate research and recover the history of the people and institutions that participated in California New Deal projects, Brechin has helped establish the Living New Deal Project in conjunction with the California Historical Society and Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Library and the California Studies Center. The project’s online database ( not only allows researchers, students, and curious citizens to tap into the history of Golden State projects, it also lets them participate in writing that history. Visitors can post their own discoveries and recollections on the site, and the information will be verified by grad students at the California Studies Center.

To bring the project to fruition, Brechin has been working “like an archaeologist” to unearth New Deal projects across California, including on the Berkeley campus. He notes that “a lot of work in the Bancroft Library preserving and translating documents was done by these people. CCC worked in Strawberry Canyon, and every park in San Francisco involved New Deal programs.”

Ultimately, Brechin hopes the project will serve as a kind of civics lesson and an antidote to the cynicism he believes permeates today’s politics. “We’ve got to get back to the idea that government is us, and doesn’t have to be corrupt or confiscatory. We should be getting our investment back. But if you make government the enemy, you lose democracy.”

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