Seventy-five years ago Congress was finishing up a landmark piece of legislation, a far-reaching jobs program proposed by President Franklin Roosevelt to combat the enormous unemployment caused by the Great Depression. Notable Federal programs including the Works Progress Administration (WPA) date from that time. Although Berkeley was largely still a Republican town then—locals had twice voted for Herbert Hoover for President—that didn’t prove an obstacle to benefitting from Roosevelt’s New Deal. Local facilities from the North Berkeley Public Library to the Berkeley Rose Garden to street improvements and street tree plantings throughout the city were funded by the New Deal, and often built by workers paid directly through New Deal programs like the WPA.
This Sunday, April 11, 2010 the Berkeley Historical Society opens a new exhibit on the local history of the WPA. A free program, with refreshments, runs from 3-5 in the afternoon.
The exhibit is curated by Harvey Smith of “California’s Living New Deal Project”, which endeavors to trace and document the legacy of the New Deal. Smith has assembled text and photographs—both present day, and period—showcasing the tangible effect of the WPA and other New Deal programs in Berkeley.
The New Deal made its way into many aspects of American life, but was most tangibly expressed through the buildings, parks, and other public facilities it funded across the country. From sewer systems to soaring sculptures, many New Deal-funded facilities remain in operation today.
“The underlying theme is Berkeley as an example of what was done throughout the U.S.”, Smith says. “Berkeley may have a little more or a little less than other cities, but it is also typical of the infrastructure and programs done during the New Deal.”
“I hope to illustrate the effectiveness of reaching Main Street with progressive and comprehensive public policy,” he adds. He includes in the exhibit period photographs by Rondal Partridge and Dorothea Lange—both of them notable locals—as well as illustrations and blueprints of art and structures built in Berkeley by the New Deal.
“All of these sites are very much alive for me”, Smith says. “Being a long-time resident of Berkeley and having raised two sons here, I have memories and experiences attached to each site. We all use them but rarely do we group them together than think of them as a whole.”
The exhibit opening takes place at the Berkeley History Center in the Veterans Memorial Building, 1931 Center Street, Berkeley. The building is two blocks west of the Downtown Berkeley BART station, and opposite Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center Park.
“Depression era” refreshments will be served, Smith will give a short talk introducing the exhibit, and the Berkeley Historical Society will also hold a brief Annual Meeting on Sunday.
The free exhibit can also be viewed on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 1-4 pm. It’s convenient to the Saturday Berkeley Farmer’s Market on Center Street, and events in the park. Call BHS at 848-0181 to confirm the Center will be open on the afternoon you plan to visit. The exhibit continues through September 18.
For more information on the California Living New Deal Project, see their website at livingnewdeal.berkeley.edu It includes not only period photographs but a great interactive map showing the multitude of New Deal projects in the Bay Area and throughout the state.