9. THE DIRT FLIES: PRELIMINARIES

The Ickes-chaired Committee on Allotments had approved $3.5 billion worth of projects by the end of August (and Hopkins had blocked nearly 2,000 PWA projects worth $375 million for their failure to reduce relief rolls), but much of the money remained tied up in bureaucratic bottlenecks that postponed hiring and job starts. Hopkins had become frustrated with the pace of matters as early as June, when he told a caller, “I have no money down here. I have no appropriations. We can’t make any commitment about what we can do.”

Manning the chief roadblock against faster WPA spending was the U.S. comptroller general, John R. McCarl. McCarl had been the comptroller general ever since the position was created by the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, and his job as head of the government’s General Accounting Office was to approve government spending before the fact and audit it afterward. To lessen political pressures, the act gave him a fifteen-year term. McCarl was a string-tie–wearing Nebraska Republican who had been appointed by President Harding, and he was ill-disposed toward the New Deal generally and work relief specifically. He took the greatest pleasure in his nickname, the “Watchdog of the Treasury,” looking askance at Roosevelt’s spending programs. As such, he represented a final hurdle beyond the tripartite work project approval process represented by the Division of Application and Information, the Advisory Committee on Allotments, and the president. He refused to enlarge his staff of twenty-two, so project applications stacked up in his office waiting for review. Florida officials, for example, estimated that 30,000 relief recipients would have received WPA jobs in August instead of 10,000 if McCarl had processed applications more swiftly.

While McCarl kept money from flowing freely into WPA work, all state and local officials who came to Washington to lobby for their projects heard about the Hopkins-Ickes feud. When Oakland, California, city manager John F. Hassler returned to the West Coast on September 14, he announced that “strife between Harry L. Hopkins and Harold L. Ickes concerning the best plan to disburse federal funds” had delayed many projects. Hopkins, he said, “is trying to push things along. I had a long talk with him, and he said that Ickes was blaming him for the delay in getting projects started. He said he would pass everything back to Ickes and make the latter explain why projects are being held up.”

Still, despite the infighting Hassler had received WPA approval for $500,000 worth of Oakland projects, with $1.25 million more awaiting action. Many of them had been started under the California Emergency Relief Administration and suspended when money ran short. Hopkins didn’t offer hope for any grand public monuments. He had told Hassler that with 3.5 million people to put to work, he “contemplated a purely relief program with very little going to public buildings or permanent construction programs.” For the moment, those would be left to the Public Works Administration, which was putting money into the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco, an island of dredged land in the middle of the bay that was planned as the site of a future world’s fair, and a new Alameda County courthouse, for which ground was about to be broken in Oakland.

The projects approved by the WPA for Oakland were the kind that Harold Ickes had predicted, small and at first glance relatively insignificant. They included rat control, book repairs at public libraries, park and playground improvements, painting and repairs to schools and other public buildings, the construction of fire trails, concrete curbing installations, clearing mud slides and loose topsoil from city streets, underground conduits for police and fire alarms, and the like. Applications for projects like these had come from virtually every local government around the country. They had the virtue of being labor-intensive and quick to start, and they did improve the infrastructure in small ways, as well as improve people’s lives. By and large, they were not the kind of effort that would return value to the national balance sheet in the way that Roosevelt and Hopkins had imagined, but it was early days.

In New York City, Robert Moses’s cadres of engineers and architects continued beavering away in the Arsenal in Central Park, producing detailed proposals that virtually guaranteed instant approval from WPA administrators, who were eager to get the money flowing. Although the army engineers in Washington who scrutinized applications found many that had to be returned, New York’s were consistently in order. Between Moses and Mayor La Guardia, who had firehouses, police stations, and public housing in mind among the many projects to be built with WPA labor, New York accounted for more than a tenth of applications that were working their way through the system. The two men didn’t always see eye to eye, but both regarded public works as an opportunity to repair the corrupt neglect of the Tammany Hall decades, and both chased the federal dollars with a vengeance. The city had rented an apartment in Washington for La Guardia to use, and he did so frequently. He flew to the capital as often as twice a week, and he had a particularly strong relationship with Roosevelt that gave him the president’s ear almost anytime he wanted it to promote his projects. “He comes to Washington and tells me a sad story,” Roosevelt said. “The tears run down my cheeks and the tears run down his cheeks and the first thing I know, he has wangled another fifty million dollars.”

Indeed, New York’s proposals were being approved at such a rate that within six months the city would be receiving one-seventh of the WPA funds for the entire country. Its work relief apparatus was so vast that in June, Hopkins had decided to give it status as the “forty-ninth state,” with its own WPA administration. General Hugh Johnson, the fiery former head of the NRA, had reluctantly agreed to head the New York City operation during its first months. “I didn’t want to do it, but the president said I had to,” he told reporters.

La Guardia was not the only urban wangler. Dallas, Texas, was laying big plans for an exposition to celebrate the state’s centennial in 1936. The city wanted visitors to roll in on smooth new roads, and its engineers were readying a $4 million road improvement proposal to submit for WPA approval. One facet of the plan was to create a new western gateway to the city by bringing together three existing streets under a railroad bridge surrounded by a park. Plans for the “triple underpass” called for a commanding concrete structure in the art deco style, under which the streets would merge like the waist of an hourglass. Then they would diverge again on either side of the underpass as they rose through grassy knolls and parklands. Standing nearby overlooking the planned construction was the Texas School Book Depository. The site was designated Dealey Plaza Park after Dallas Morning News publisher George Dealey, but Dallasites came to call it simply Dealey Plaza.

Farther west in El Paso, planners were drawing up a proposal that would improve more than 1,000 county roads, with accompanying bridges, culverts, and sidewalks. Among many other projects, the Texas Highway Department had in the works a proposal to use WPA labor to finally pave the remaining gravel sections of the main highway between El Paso and San Antonio. And Texas, as well as every other farm state, had its road department working on plans for farm-to-market roads that would end the seasonal mudbath farmers frequently encountered as they tried to move their stock and produce into the hands of buyers. Not only farmers, but truckers, salesmen, and ordinary travelers confronted long, tortuous, and sometimes dangerous routes that were descendants of native paths and wagon trails. In every section of the country there was road work to be done.

Roads were standard WPA application fare, having been encouraged under its CWA and FERA predecessors. Not so projects aimed at the well-to-do that could sometimes seem odd when viewed against the backdrop of the depression. Skiers around Portland, Oregon, had long wished for a shelter on nearby Mount Hood where they could warm themselves overnight. The mayor of Fort Myers, Florida, Dave Shapard, looked at the dredges digging the cross-Florida waterway from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River and realized his city needed a marina for yachts stopping there overnight. Smack in the middle of Kansas, outside of Hutchinson, golfers William and June Carey decided they wanted to build a golf course in the prairie dunes two miles beyond the last paved road. Idaho Falls, Idaho, across the Wyoming state line from Yellowstone National Park, wanted to attract tourists who could afford to arrive by plane or take sightseeing flights by improving its gravel landing strip.

Scholars, too, could hardly contain their delight with the WPA. Archaeologists of the Smithsonian Institution who had used FERA funds to dig at Marksville, Louisiana, two years earlier saw an opportunity to begin a vastly expanded program of digs at native American sites. Major William S. Webb at the University of Kentucky—a physicist by training who headed the university’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology and had become one of the moving forces of American archaeology—was mapping out ambitious plans to dig at nearly every known Indian site in Kentucky’s Ohio River Valley.

Indeed, the “usefulness” that Roosevelt had pegged as a key to work-project approval meant many things to many people. Black children in the Beaver Dam section of Bleckley County, Georgia, might have understood usefulness in terms of paint on the walls of their tumbledown school, resting the building on columns of bricks rather than stacked fieldstones, a coal stove that actually provided heat, and glass windows to keep it in and the bugs out instead of the warped shutters of raw board that were there now. The citizens of New Straitsville, Ohio, would have thought useful meant putting out the fire that had been burning in the coal shafts under their homes for more than fifty years. City manager Hassler, in Oakland, saw a definition of usefulness not just in rat control but in a long list of other projects as well, including new sewer lines to serve his constantly expanding city and keep waste from dumping into San Francisco Bay. Where sewer systems did not yet exist around the country, new privies met the definition. Airline passengers bound for New York City and Washington, D.C., would have found modern airports useful. New York’s only commercial airport was not even in New York, but across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey, a festering wound to civic pride, while the nation’s capital was served by a consolidation of two small fields split by a major road, so when a plane approached or was ready to take off, flagmen had to scramble out and wave down traffic. Teachers in remote rural schools needed more books in their classrooms, and librarians thought it would be useful for someone to repair the books they had. Civic boosters in San Antonio, Texas, thought sprucing up the banks of the San Antonio River where it meandered through their city would be a worthwhile job. In Columbus, Ohio, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, planners at the two great state universities saw that additional stadium seating could also incorporate dormitory space. Zoo directors thought a new concept in zookeeping, monkey islands, would make their monkeys happier and bring in new patrons to watch them romp in cage-free habitats. Social workers in Milwaukee and many other cities dreamed of brightening the lives of poor children by refurbishing discarded toys. Therapists at hospitals believed murals on the walls would help patients to recover. Conservationists within the government believed it would be useful to convert exhausted and eroded land into parks for family recreation and environmental education. And the National Park Service, concerned about the deterioration of America’s most revered monument, the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, thought it would be useful to repair it.

The list went on. There were at least as many kinds of work as Roosevelt had enumerated in his address of the past spring. The earlier work programs, as extensive as they were, had only begun to explore the possibilities, and those first steps had whetted appetites. Now, with a full year’s funding rather than only a few months of money committed to creating jobs, and with the focus wholly on those jobs rather than relief, states and cities dared to dream of new and more elaborate projects. A great explosion of construction, new (and sometimes previously unheard-of) services, and art creation was primed and ready to occur. The country, as the president had put it, was about to “see the dirt fly.”

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