The Writers’ Project survived the onslaught, but only under vastly altered circumstances. The entire WPA was under pressure in the spring of 1939, and when the dust had settled it was a much different organization than it had been under Harry Hopkins in the early days of the New Deal, when the need for jobs was desperate.
In 1937 and 1938, Roosevelt had tried to push through a federal reorganization plan that would give him the power to realign the government’s executive agencies into more functional groupings. This was based on a plan submitted by the President’s Committee on Administrative Management and was largely free of partisan impact. But in the wake of Roosevelt’s failed court-packing plan, Congress had been in no mood to expand presidential powers even in the administrative area. Not until the spring of 1939 did it finally pass a reorganization bill, and it was much weaker than the one the president had originally requested.
It allowed him, among other things, to create three broad departments. A Federal Security Agency grouped departments whose thrust was to promote economic security, including the Social Security Board, the United States Employment Service, the Office of Education, the Public Health Service, the National Youth Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The National Youth Administration had originally been a jobs program, albeit one whose purpose was to allow young men and women to pay for schooling. So, too, had the CCC, whose “boys” had been sent into the woods to work on conservation and other projects. Their move into the security agency demonstrated a new emphasis on the long-term goals of training and education rather than just providing jobs and fighting unemployment. Under the aegis of a Federal Loan Agency were the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Electric Home and Farm Authority, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, the Federal Housing Administration, and their associated agencies and boards, as well as the Export-Import Bank of Washington. The idea here, said Roosevelt in his message to the Congress about the new plan, was to stimulate and stabilize “the financial, commercial, and industrial enterprises of the nation.”
The third of the new entities was a Federal Works Agency. This grouped the entities that dealt with public works not routinely handled by other departments, and that administered construction grants and loans to state and local governments. It was here that the WPA was now placed, along with the agriculture department’s Bureau of Public Roads, the public buildings branch of the Treasury Department’s Procurement Division, the National Park Service branch that managed federal buildings in the District of Columbia, the United States Housing Authority, and the Public Works Administration. In fact, the new agency virtually replaced the PWA, and was placed in the charge not of Ickes, who wanted it, but of John M. Carmody, who headed the Rural Electrification Administration, charged with pushing electric service into remote and unserved areas. Under the new umbrella, the function of the WPA remained much the same. Its name, however, changed; it became the Work Projects Administration, which allowed it to keep the same initials. Roosevelt told Congress the new name was “more descriptive of its major purpose.” He also said the reorganization would save $15 million to $20 million.
Ickes’s Interior Department had lost several of its functions in addition to the PWA, putting him, as he wrote, “very low indeed in my mind.” At the WPA, however, Harrington embraced the new structure along with his new title, which had changed from administrator to commissioner. With its construction role unaltered, and the lighter work managed by the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects continuing as before, he oversaw much the same organization as Hopkins had.
Harrington’s attitude about the arts projects, however, was markedly different from Hopkins’s; he viewed them as a distraction from the WPA’s construction and service work and a red flag to conservatives in Congress. Indeed, the Woodrum committee’s assault on the Federal Theatre Project would affect the writing, art, and music components by removing them from federal sponsorship and forcing them to scramble to find sponsors at the state level. All did just that, cajoling university presses, music societies, art leagues, and the like to step in, and except for the banned Theatre Project were thus able to continue operating. At the Writers’ Project, renamed the Writers’ Program, Harrington removed his main remaining trouble spot by dismissing Alsberg in September in favor of a more efficient successor, John Dimmock Newsom, who had headed the project’s Michigan office and, in the words of Katherine Kellock, was “not given to Greenwich Village dreams of sponsoring genius.” He simply wanted to see the American Guide series through to completion, although this itself posed a major challenge: more than half the state guides were still to be published.
And of course, it did not require congressional action to kill individual programs in the arts. That could be done locally. The Art Project’s teaching component in New York included a program for mental patients at Bellevue Hospital. Late in 1939, New York administrator Somervell decided to include it in his weekly inspection tour of WPA activities. He collected Audrey McMahon and they proceeded to the hospital, where they looked in on several classes in progress and then moved on to meet some of the adult patients who were among the students. The treatment wards were under lock and key, and McMahon later described staff members unlocking the doors to admit them and locking them inside, unlocking them to let them out again, and repeating the process as they went from one ward to another. At a male ward, the staff coordinator repeated the introductions of McMahon “and the administrator, Colonel Somervell.” At the mention of rank one of the patients jumped to his feet, snapped to attention, and saluted. “The trouble,” recalled McMahon, “was that he was minus the trousers of his hospital pajamas and his jacket was flapping wide.” McMahon could barely keep from laughing, but Somervell was not amused. He turned abruptly and as they left the hospital said, “Mrs. McMahon, that project is closed.”
But while the arts received an outsized share of criticism and attention, the WPA’s primary purpose continued to be its vast variety of building jobs. In terms of national iconography, none was more important than a twenty-month, $250,000 refurbishment of the Statue of Liberty. For years rainwater had been pouring off the statue’s copper sheeting and invading the pedestal on which it stood. Starting in 1937, WPA crews had installed flashing to reroute the water, repaired the masonry, strengthened and painted the steel frame, reinforced the spikes jutting from the statue’s crown, put new glass into the torch (which was then lit from the inside), installed a new staircase, added an acre to the Bedloe’s Island grounds, and performed extensive landscaping before the statue reopened to visitors in December 1938. In January 1939, San Francisco had christened its $1.5 million, WPA-built Aquatic Park near Fisherman’s Wharf on the shore of San Francisco Bay. A center for boating, swimming, and other water sports, the park featured grandstands overlooking the city’s only downtown beach, a modernist building housing restaurants and walls of murals that was likened to “a great white ocean liner,” and views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. The park employed 782 workers and artists for two years, of whom the San Francisco News wrote, “WPA critics will have to eat all their jokes about ‘shovel leaners’ when they come to Aquatic Park.” Down in San Antonio, Texas, former congressman Maury Maverick had turned the tables on the machine that beat him in the 1938 Democratic primary and was now the mayor of San Antonio. True to his New Deal credentials, he had launched a plan of city-wide improvements that encompassed the city’s parks, playgrounds, and swimming pools, and even the Mexican and black slums and the red-light district, using WPA labor. The plan’s centerpiece was the heart of the city itself, a twenty-one-block stretch of the San Antonio River that meandered through the business district. For much of San Antonio’s long history the river had been a flood-prone, litter-strewn nuisance, but plans to beautify it with riverside walkways, landscaping, stairways, and pedestrian bridges had been gathering force after a devastating flood in 1921. Maverick had secured WPA funding for the beautification project while he was still in Congress, and construction of the $400,000 project had gotten under way early in 1939. Architect Robert Hugman, who had drawn the plans, had named it the San Antonio River Walk and columnist Ernie Pyle wrote that it was going to make the Texas city into “a kind of Venice.”
But the largest of the WPA’s current construction jobs was a twenty-four-hour-a-day whirlwind of work that was transforming a swath of shoreline of the Borough of Queens in New York City into the nation’s most modern commercial aviation complex.
North Beach, as the site was called, jutted into the East River between Bowery Bay and Flushing Bay. Beginning in the 1880s, the Gala Amusement Park there had attracted visitors from Manhattan and Long Island. Later North Beach was home to a sportsmen’s air park, Glenn Curtiss Airport, where, during the late 1920s, wealthy private pilots had arced over the East River in biplanes and speed racers. The depression grounded them, but aviation dreams floated in the head of Fiorello La Guardia, then a congressman, and once Roosevelt was in the White House and he had been elected mayor, those dreams started to take flight. He objected to the fact that buying an air ticket from another city to New York got a passenger only as far as Newark, New Jersey. That was where New York–bound flights landed, and to the Little Flower it was a breach of contract. On a flight from Chicago in 1934, he insisted on his rights and refused to disembark until the plane carried him from Newark to an actual New York destination, Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. With the New Deal and his own extraordinary success at luring federal public works dollars to New York—the PWA had built the Triborough Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, and several other major projects, to say nothing of Robert Moses’s WPA-funded parks and swimming pools—La Guardia realized that a major airport was within his reach. Once the WPA approved the project, the mayor kicked it off himself in one of his exuberant forays into the spotlight. On September 9, 1937, as reporters and photographers looked on, he took the controls of a steam shovel and dug a bucketful of earth from a bluff that overlooked the East River and Rikers Island, which itself now sported a new complex of men’s penitentiary buildings.
The bluff was an unusual feature of the North Beach shoreline. Most of the shoreline was low and marshy, thus requiring the addition of tons of refuse used as fill. A great deal of this fill was barged from Rikers, which itself had been expanded with the addition of dirt from New York City subway excavations before the first jail there opened in 1932. Once the 432-acre tract had solid footing, the actual work on the airport began.
The plans envisioned a combined sea and land facility. The great Pan American Clippers and the transatlantic seaplanes of European airlines, including Air France, Royal Dutch, Deutsche Lufthansa, and Britain’s Imperial Airways, would set down in Flushing Bay and disembark their passengers at a bayside platform. The seaplane complex would include two hangars, together accommodating twelve to fourteen planes, connected by a tunnel to a marine air terminal. Waiting rooms and baggage facilities would be housed in an administration building that also housed offices for customs, immigration, health, and flight control and navigation.
The land-based companion airport was to be even more expansive. Here on the acres of landfill would be built four runways ranging in length from 3,532 to 4,688 feet, an administration and terminal building, and six hangars to service the planes of four domestic airlines—American, Eastern, Transcontinental & Western, and United—that would use the new airport as their eastern terminus, appropriating that distinction from Newark. A prime feature was an observation deck that would let sightseers watch the planes take off and land.
Costs rose way beyond the original $22 million estimate. Detractors began to mock the frenzied work on the isolated spit of land as “Fiorello’s Folly.” But the mayor was undaunted. He appeared at the site so often, usually with visitors in tow, that workmen took to handing him their tools. One of the men on the job was Clifford Ferguson. Ferguson, a union carpenter, never turned over any of his precious tools, not even to New York’s mayor. He’d had them stolen once, managed to recover them, and after that rarely let them out of his sight. But he would always remember the mayor’s visits, his enthusiasm for the job, and the way his energy seemed to give the shift a second wind even when they had been at work for several hours. “He kind of picked you up,” Ferguson said.
The airport was Ferguson’s first job for the WPA. Earlier in the depression, he had done whatever work he could to make a dollar. He had been around buildings doing odd jobs since he was ten years old, working for his contractor father, and sometimes—he recalled this most vividly of all—working in theaters: never on the sets but offstage, repairing seats and floors. When the stock market crashed in 1929, he was driving a taxicab; and he kept that up off and on for a year. He worked as a night watchman at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Astoria, Queens. He mixed concrete for his brother-in-law, who had worked on the subway lines that were being extended into Brooklyn, until he dislocated a shoulder while heaving a 100-pound bag of concrete onto the back of a truck and was unable to work for almost a year. It seemed to him that job interruptions were the norm, whether they were the result of an injury or the lack of a job in the first place. “Nobody ever had work straight through,” he said.
Like everyone he knew, Ferguson was familiar with the extent of WPA work going on around him. You couldn’t miss the signs, and even if you did you couldn’t miss the armies of shovel-toting, wheelbarrow-pushing men, some wearing felt hats and overcoats, who swarmed over the new roads now pushing through the eastern boroughs of the city. Ferguson had seen, and scorned, his fair share of shovel leaning. But he was married, with three sons, and when news of the airport project began circulating through the halls of his union local in 1938, he applied, was certified for relief, and took the job without a second thought.
The brickwork on the administration building had been completed by the time he started work. Ferguson joined a crew of men building the “stairway to the stars,” the ascent to the observation deck. Here the city was gambling on the public’s fascination with the new aviation age. A visitor who placed a dime in the coin slot of a turnstile would gain admittance to a half-mile promenade that gave a sweeping view of the majestic four-engine flying boats alighting in the bay and the thundering silver Lockheed 10s and the larger Douglas DC-3s swooping in over the East River and touching down on runways that began literally at the water’s edge. As the complex came together, its components were best expressed as quantities of cement (1,000 truckloads), asphalt (3 million gallons), underground piping (25 miles), cable (200 miles), and steel (20,000 tons). So frantic was the pace of the construction that it sometimes outstripped the preparation of blueprints, with the result that the hangars did not always jibe with the plans they were based on.
Costs continued to rise, fueling renewed criticism of the airport as a massive boondoggle; it would eventually cost $40 million, of which the WPA’s share was some $27 million. But it soon proved to be a powerful business magnet: American Airlines moved its administrative offices from Chicago to North Beach in 1939. And when the public embraced the airport with the same enthusiasm, La Guardia’s victory was complete. Officials predicted that 150,000 people would attend the formal dedication on October 15, 1939. Instead a crowd of 325,000 showed up, and more would have attended if all the parking lots had been completed. As it was, lines of cars were backed up for blocks into the streets of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Two days after the dedication, proving still further that La Guardia’s vision of the future of air travel was widely shared, 5,000 young women swarmed the new airport offices of American Airlines to apply for twenty available jobs for flight attendants, or air hostesses as they were known then, and within three weeks the airline had opened a hostess training school.
A TWA flight from Chicago was the first to touch down at the new field, just after midnight on December 2. Despite the hour, the twenty passengers aboard were surprised to find themselves greeted by the mayor himself, who shook their hands, welcomed them to New York, and accepted kisses from the stewardesses. Bad weather held up the rest of the day’s flights, but at the end of its first full day of commercial traffic on December 3, the airport was the busiest in the United States. Less than a year later, it was the busiest in the world, the New York City Council had joined the Board of Estimate in naming it La Guardia Field after its champion, and Newark Airport, scorned by the mayor as a New York terminus, was closed to commercial traffic.
La Guardia had described his pet project to Roosevelt as “the airport of the New World.” Another New World vision was attracting even more visitors just a mile or so away. Flushing Meadow Park was a former dump converted by Robert Moses into a graded and landscaped 1,200-acre site that was home to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Here, too, WPA workers toiled, not only on the site and construction of fair infrastructure but also on the WPA’s own building.
The fair opened on April 30, 1939, following by ten weeks a rival global fair across the country: the Golden Gate International Exposition, built on a man-made island in San Francisco Bay. This, too, featured contributions by the WPA, notably a mural, seventy-four feet long and twenty-two feet high, painted by WPA artists under the direction of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. In New York, fairgoers who could pull themselves away from the clean white spike of the Trylon and its companion orb, the Perisphere, the iconic structures at the center of the fair, or the chairs that took them on a fifteen-minute ride across the United States as envisioned by General Motors in its “Futurama” exhibit, could be reminded of the works program. The WPA building sported fluted art-deco–style columns under a tall modernist facade. The familiar old name “Works Progress Administration” marched across the concave brickwork, and above it loomed a huge Philip Guston mural depicting in heroic style the overalled, smocked, and booted workers for whom the WPA had been a godsend: a mason, a sewing room worker, a surveyor, a concrete driller. They leaned intently to their jobs against a backdrop of white clouds, and where flesh showed it was taut and muscled. Guston had called it “Work—The American Way,” and it evoked the scenes that Art Project muralists had painted in schools and other public buildings all across the country. A second Guston mural appeared inside, featuring more workers and a mother—or perhaps a WPA home health aide—holding a child.
Inside, the building’s exhibits showed off the WPA’s work in art and writing, landscaping and conservation, recreation and construction, sewing rooms, and disaster relief, including the 350,000 workers who in various ways were fighting the renewed drought that was then scorching parts of the Midwest. A display made the point that the WPA’s building and infrastructure work “helps Anytown USA keep abreast of modern American standards.” In case a visitor failed to connect that modernization to his own hometown, another room contained a state-by-state compilation of major WPA projects. One showboard, seeming slightly defensive, told the viewer that “out of every 20 American workers only 1 is on WPA.”
The fair’s overall theme was “The World of Tomorrow,” and its crystal ball forecast a progressive future. “Democracity,” another catchword of the fair, implied that the world was evolving toward an inclusive cosmopolitan democracy.
That admirable vision, however, had already fallen into peril, for the dogs of war were on the prowl. Within half a year of the fair’s April opening much of the world was at arms, with democracy among the victims. Japan’s Imperial Army had surged across large swaths of China in the undeclared war that had raged since 1937. The Japanese had taken Kwangsi province in the south all the way to the border with French Indochina—later Vietnam—and was confronting the Soviet Red Army in Manchuria near the Korean and Siberian borders.
In Europe, Hitler’s lust for conquest had proven time and again to be insatiable despite English and French efforts to placate him short of war. Having annexed Austria and blustered and threatened his way to a takeover of the Czechoslovakian border region known as the Sudetenland, he had dropped all pretense of legitimacy and invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939. In the third week of August, to guard his eastern flank, he signed a mutual non-aggression pact with Soviet Russia. Then on September 1 came the move that brought events full circle. German troops and tanks struck across the border of Poland, the invasion drawing declarations of war from its English and French allies and plunging the European continent back into the nightmare from which it had awakened twenty short years earlier when the world war ended. World War II began.
And with the formally declared war in Europe came debate in the United States. It was not a new one; it was an intensification of the one that had been going on ever since President Woodrow Wilson took the country into the world war in 1917 to make the world “safe for democracy.” Afterward, he supported the creation of the League of Nations as a body of world governments whose purpose was to mediate disputes and ideally to bring an end to wars. But these events had stirred a deep strain of American isolationism. Many of its citizens wanted no part of world affairs. The unsettling passions of people who spoke strange languages, worshiped strange gods, and followed strange customs, who massaged their grievances and enshrined the hatreds they had nursed for centuries—these were not for the forward-looking, business-oriented citizens of the United States. Isolationist sentiment said it was better that the country defend its borders and let the rest of the world take care of itself. This sentiment had kept the country out of the League of Nations, and contributed to the defeat of the Democrats in 1920 by a Republican ticket headed by the unimpressive Warren G. Harding, whose slogan was “a return to normalcy.” Now, with America’s allies again at war in Europe and democracy under renewed attack by fascist powers, the United States was again torn between isolationism and involvement.
The argument would go on for many months. In the meantime, how the WPA would be affected was unclear. If the isolationists had their way, enforcing a strict neutrality, the agency could expect to continue largely as it was, its construction program perhaps shifting to defense work in border and coastal areas, at least until the fitful economy finally started breathing on its own again. Given the performance of the last seven years of New Deal depression fighting, when and even if that might happen was far from certain. It had not been that long ago that Harry Hopkins was talking about a permanent WPA. But if America was able to unleash its industrial strength on behalf of its allies, turning out a range of goods from arms to food supplies, then the unemployed might finally be able to return to private jobs.
Deputy commissioner Howard Hunter, speaking at a news conference in Harrington’s absence on August 31, as the German tanks were massing at the Polish border, said it would be “pure guesswork” to predict the effect of a European war on relief employment. How the WPA would reintegrate its workers into a resurgent private economy also remained to be seen. Hunter did speculate that the WPA would of necessity become more flexible, moving workers into jobs where they were needed. “We have a very good index of the people on the WPA as to their training and qualifications, and if any group of industries or any particular industry were in need of either skilled or unskilled workers, I think we could get our people off the rolls into those jobs,” he said.
The labor pool to which Hunter referred was several million strong, people who either were currently working for the WPA or had done so in the past. They were a huge resource with a wide variety of skills. They had needed the work provided by the government in order to survive. Now it was possible to think, with war raging in both hemispheres, that they might be called upon to return the favor if dreams of peaceful isolation crumbled and the United States was plunged into a fight for the survival of democracy and, indeed, its very life.