Morning Forum highlights legacy of California New Deal projects

Gray Brechin spoke to Morning Forum about the legacy of the New Deal in California.

Historian and geographer Gray Brechin, founder of the California Living New Deal Project, examined the legacy of the New Deal in California during “Rediscovering the Lost Landscape of the New Deal in California,” an April 21 Morning Forum presentation.

The New Deal project identifies, maps, photographs and interprets the physical legacy of the “alphabet soup” of government agencies created to put people to work on public projects during the Great Depression. Brechin compared the 1930s to the today’s economy.

“The lessons of the New Deal are more timely every day,” he said.

He showed a vintage black and white Dorothea Lange photograph of slumping unemployed workers titled “Despair,” then a similar current photo, noting, “Today, the scene is the same, but in color.”

Brechin, a Los Altos native, earned a doctorate in geography from UC Berkeley, where he serves as visiting scholar.

What began as a study of the projects most Californians accept without thought about their origin – buildings, schools, roads, airports, murals, paintings, trails, parks, golf courses, tennis courts, dams, power stations and water systems – became a larger study of the effects of the Depression and the “social gospel” embraced by the Roosevelt administration. The “social gospel” promulgated the belief that as Christians, citizens had an obligation to help those less fortunate and, in the process, build a civilization worthy of the name.

“The New Deal projects improved the lives of millions of people,” Brechin said. “No other country has been modernized in such a short period of time.”

According to Brechin, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed 3 million 18- to 25-year-old men in thousands of camps, reclaiming soils and building state, national and regional parks. They were paid $30 per month and required to send $25 home to their families.

Workers were free to leave the program at any time, but few did. Flood Park in Menlo Park, the amphitheater on Mount Tamalpais and Temescal and Tilden parks in Berkeley are among the many local CCC projects.

Brechin said that California had the best state parks in the country, but the system is now in decline because money is not being spent on maintenance and upkeep.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) put 8.5 million people to work, “doing everything,” Brechin said. The hired workers built roads, bridges, schools, libraries, city halls, fire stations, post offices, armories and hospitals and employed artists and writers.

WPA completed the Bay Bridge, the Hetch Hetchy water system and the Caldecott Tunnel. Palo Alto’s power station and water system were WPA projects, as was San Francisco City College.

WPA murals can be seen at Rincon Center, Coit Tower, the Bath House at Aquatic Park and the San Francisco Zoo.

Brechin said he disagrees with present-day critics who argue that World War II, not the New Deal, lifted the country out of the Depression.

“The economy was growing, except for the recession of 1937-1938,” he said. “Roosevelt thought that the country was recovered, and stopped the programs, which triggered that recession.”

He noted that while the New Deal did increase the national debt, it was nothing like the increase in debt caused by the war.

Although there are a plethora of New Deal projects in California, Brechin said finding them is like an “archaeological dig” because the compilation of records and reports was interrupted by the war. The Living New Deal Project is the first comprehensive cataloguing ever attempted.

He asked that the public submit information about sites and projects in their areas, personal memories of the era and any pertinent photographs to

Morning Forum is a members-only lecture series held at Los Altos United Methodist Church. For more information, visit

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