In 1934, during the Great Depression, a group of Berkeley’s unemployed left a poignant message to the future in a local park.
Last Friday, Feb. 6, a group of locals gathered briefly during the lunch hour to honor that gift and contemplate what it means for past, present, and future, especially in our era that now echoes the mid-1930s with national recession, widening economic woe, and an energetic new president.
The message took the form of two small blocks of black stone, carved with “CWA” and “1934” and inset in a low wall adjoining the Codornices Park tennis courts, just north of the Berkeley Rose Garden.
Those who hand built the tennis courts during the winter of 1933-34 commissioned the simple memorial. Federal Civil Works Administration (CWA) workers pooled their “meagre income,” said the Berkeley Daily Gazette, to pay an unemployed stone carver to sandblast the inscription.
“CWA workers will be remembered for many years through the medium of a cornerstone laid today,” the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported Feb. 6, 1934, 75 years to the day before last week’s gathering.
Berkeley Mayor Edward Ament attended the 1934 dedication along with Berkeley Park and Recreation commissioners and Alameda County CWA officials and “school children who will use the tennis courts.”
The foreman of the work crew, Harry Askham, “stated that the men working under him wanted to leave some memento to the City and the Federal Government for the efforts that had been made to secure work for them.”
“This cornerstone we believed would become a part of the project itself, and at the same time would remain forever a symbol of the CWA,” Askham said.
The CWA is a largely forgotten New Deal program being researched by, among others, UC Berkeley scholar Gray Brechin as part of California’s Living New Deal Project. The project is endeavoring “for the first time to fully map the physical remains of the New Deal in a single state,” says Brechin. (He will speak in Oakland today, Thursday, about the New Deal, see box).
Brechin spoke at the Codornices gathering last week. In winter, 1933-34, he said, the purpose of Franklin Roosevelt’s CWA “was to get people immediately to work so they wouldn’t starve and freeze the way they had the previous winter under a different president.”
President Roosevelt put social worker Harry Hopkins—“an absolutely amazing guy” Brechin added—in charge of the nationwide project, which employed millions within weeks of its establishment in fall, 1933, and eventually gave temporary work to 4,260,000 Americans.
“80 percent of the budget was for salaries and wages. Only 20 percent was for material,” said retired sociologist Harry Brill who attended the event and wrote about the CWA in the Jan. 15 Daily Planet. “The program was to create jobs.”
CWA workers were paid the prevailing wage in their communities and there was no means testing when hiring; the workers were considered government employees, not charity labor. “There was, not surprisingly, tremendous business pressure to get rid of the CWA,” Brill explained.
The program had an abbreviated existence of just a few months, and was eliminated at the end of March 1934. By 1935 the much longer lived, and better remembered, Works Progress Administration (WPA) had been established. It was the WPA that would build Berkeley’s Rose Garden, adjacent to the tennis courts, a few years later.
Through its short life, however, CWA “legions of laborers built or repaired more than 800 airports, 3,700 athletic fields and 255,000 miles of roads,” Brechin wrote in 2005.
“Demonstrating a commitment to public education characteristic of subsequent New Deal programs, the CWA built or modernized 4,000 school buildings, hired 50,000 teachers for rural schools, and controversially employed about 3,000 artists and writers who, Hopkins insisted, “had to eat, too.”
Brechin observed that one of the side effects of the CWA and other New Deal programs was to bring facilities for many types of recreation, like tennis, within reach of the general public. “Things which were only for the elite now became for the masses.”
Friday’s simple commemorative gathering numbered about 15, informally recruited by word of mouth from Brechin (and this author). Attendees included journalists, architects Helene and John Vilett—she designed the current entrance, overlook to the Rose Garden—local creeks activist Carole Schemmerling, Civic Arts commissioner David Snippen, and several of Brechin’s research and academic colleagues. Community activist and City Council aide Linda Perry came on behalf of City Councilmember Susan Wengraf, whose district includes Codornices Park.
“This is the only plaque I’ve run into on the Civil Works projects,” Brechin says. The program typically didn’t mark its accomplishments, although they included such high profile results as the expansive murals inside San Francisco’s Coit Tower and the stone amphitheatre in Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park.
A light misting of rain on Friday meant the usual complement of tennis regulars was absent from the courts, leaving room for the gathering. The two inscribed stones are set into the wall at the north end of the central court.
“To the dignity of the workers who gave us these tennis courts, the Rose Garden, and so much else,” Brechin said in a toast, as the participants raised their glasses of sparking cider.
In the winter of 1933-34, counties—then the government resource of last resort—were running out of money, private charities were exhausted, and even in places like Berkeley which had a more stable economic base with institutions like the University, there was widespread distress and unemployment.
Into that situation came New Deal programs like the CWA, which was very active in Berkeley, despite the fact that it had voted for Hoover in 1932 and many locals still maintained private enterprise was the only way to end the Depression.
More than 10,000 CWA workers were busy in Alameda County communities by early 1934. In December 1933, the Berkeley City Council approved a CWA plan to have 1,800 working in the City, using some $300,000 in funding from the Federal Government.
City proposals for projects included “grading streets, constructing storm sewers, painting City Hall, and repairing park equipment and buildings,” according to the Gazette in December 1933.
Berkeley’s City Engineer would later report in January 1935, “25 CWA projects were supervised by (the) Bureau of Streets, using 27,000 man days of CWA labor, with no extra increase in regular personnel. CWA projects including grading 25 blocks of unimproved streets, widening 6 blocks of improved streets, constructing 775 feet of storm sewers, and repairs to 45,830 square feet of cement sidewalk.”
Some old damaged sidewalk probably ended up at the Codornices Park tennis courts where, Brechin pointed out, the walls are a matrix of stone and salvaged materials.
The local CWA workers, most drawn directly from the ranks of Berkeley unemployed also planted thousands of street trees and set to work on the construction of the East Shore Highway, a four lane road that would bypass Berkeley on the west.
By early January 1934, CWA crews were reported planting up to 300 new street trees a day in Berkeley, with a goal of getting 8,000 in the ground.
The same month artists from the CWA were working at two locations—1836 Euclid Ave. and 2229 College Ave.—on projects that ranged from preparing educational materials for the National Parks to building a scale topographical model of the East Bay that later ended up on display in Berkeley City Hall. CWA white-collar workers also worked in City administrative offices.
When the Berkeley Unified School District had to abruptly close numerous school buildings that winter, due to earthquake hazards, CWA crews stepped to help repair or replace the structures.
The CWA’s California administrator reported the March 29, 1934, Gazette said, “the American people can know today that when their Government is committed to a given purpose in their interest, it will carry through.”
At Friday’s gathering, Brechin read a quote from Harry Hopkins.
“Long after the workers of the CWA are dead and gone and these hard times are forgotten, their effort will be remembered by permanent useful works in every county of every state. People will ride over bridges they made, travel on their highways, attend schools they built, navigate waterways they improved, do their public business in courthouses and state capitols which workers from CWA rescued from disrepair.”
“Unfortunately we’ve forgotten these people—the veterans of a peacetime army people don’t know ever existed,” said Brechin.
He added that whenever there’s an article published about the contributions of the Roosevelt era, letters to the editor and reader comments repeat the same “ignorant hate” of the New Deal. “The same tired old trope that the New Deal didn’t get us out of the Depression. That’s completely wrong.”
The day after the gathering, for instance, a letter writer in the February 7, 2009 Oakland Tribune said the WPA “did nothing to provide a lasting stimulus for the economy.”
Brechin makes the case that not only did the economy improve through sustained New Deal investments—call them a 1930s “stimulus package”—but for the past three quarters of a century Americans have been benefitting from that legacy, that includes everything from schools, to scenic roads and buildings in national parks, to municipal sewer systems, bridges, and tunnels.
He wrote a few years ago, “The evidence of intelligent design is everywhere; it bears the name of Roosevelt, and it points to the future we could have if we but remembered we once had it.”
As the short gathering last Friday broke up and participants headed back to work or home, the wet tennis courts were uncharacteristically vacant. In dry weather they’re busy with regulars, many of whom have been playing there for decades. There is even been a book (Everybody’s Backyard, Philip M. Evans, 1998) about the social culture of the Codornices tennis courts.
Linda Perry, who had come with a basket of glasses for the cider and good wishes from Councilmember Wengraf, looked out over the rain-misted scene.
“What a gem for all of Berkeley,” she said. “What a gift for the whole city those brave, fine, people gave us.”