Rediscovering the Lost Landscape of the New Deal in California
Gray Brechin grew up in Los Altos where his family attended the United Methodist Church (his mother still does.) From 1965-67 he studied architecture at the University of Washington, but transferred to UC Berkeley in his junior year largely because he fell in love with the architecture, siting, and people of that town. He has not left since.
He received B.A.’s in Geography and History, and M.A. in Art History, and a Ph.D. in Geography from Cal. In the 1980s he worked as a TV producer and columnist in San Francisco where he helped to break the story of the poisoned Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley. He was also the first director of the Mono Lake Committee.
A 1985 sojourn in Venice led him to think systematically about urban parasitism throughout history. That led to his Ph.D. dissertation, published as Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (UC Press, 1999) that became a best seller and is now considered a classic in urban studies. He also collaborated with photographer Robert Dawson on Farewell, Promised Land: Waking from the California Dream (UC Press, 1999) about California’s deteriorating environment.
He is the founder and Project Scholar for the California Living New Deal Project which seeks for the first time to inventory, map, and interpret the total physical legacy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in one state. He has lectured nationally about the Project and is a frequent guest on radio and television programs. He is currently a visiting scholar at the U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography.
Dr. Brechin has written about his belated encounter with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt:
I came late to a meeting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but when I did so, I found among the many qualities I admired in our 32nd president that of his affinity for land. Eleanor Roosevelt claimed that from her husband she had learned to observe from train windows: “He would watch the crops, notice how people dressed, how many cars there were and in what condition, and even look at the wash on the clothes lines.” Yet he was no passive observer, she said: “When the CCC was set up, he knew, though he never made a note, exactly where work of various kinds was needed,” thus (with the WPA, PWA, and CWA as well as CCC) setting millions of destitute men, women, and youth to productive work redeeming past mistakes to the land as well as those of an economic nature for which they were not to blame. “Franklin saw geography clearly,” concluded Eleanor. A geographer such as myself can appreciate such vision as I strive with others to see the geography that FDR and my countrymen made and from which we all today benefit.