If you’ve traveled the nation’s highways, flown into New York’s LaGuardia Airport, strolled San Antonio’s River Walk, or seen the Pacific Ocean from the Beach Chalet in San Francisco, you have experienced some part of the legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—one of the enduring cornerstones of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
When President Roosevelt took the oath of office in March 1933, he was facing a devastated nation. Four years into the Great Depression, a staggering 13 million American workers were jobless and many millions more of their family members were equally in need. Desperation ruled the land.
What people wanted were jobs, not handouts: the pride of earning a paycheck; and in 1935, after a variety of temporary relief measures, a permanent nationwide jobs program was created. This was the Works Progress Administration, and it would forever change the physical landscape and the social policies of the United States.
The WPA lasted for eight years, spent $11 billion, employed 8½ million men and women, and gave the country not only a renewed spirit but a fresh face. Under its colorful head, Harry Hopkins, the agency’s remarkable accomplishment was to combine the urgency of putting people back to work with its vision of physically rebuilding America. Its workers laid roads, erected dams, bridges, tunnels, and airports. They stocked rivers, made toys, sewed clothes, served millions of hot school lunches. When disasters struck, they were there by the thousands to rescue the stranded. And all across the country the WPA’s arts programs performed concerts, staged plays, painted murals, delighted children with circuses, created invaluable guidebooks. Even today, more than sixty years after the WPA ceased to exist, there is almost no area in America that does not bear some visible mark of its presence.
Politically controversial, the WPA was staffed by passionate believers and hated by conservatives; its critics called its projects make-work and wags said it stood for We Piddle Around. The contrary was true. We have only to look about us today to discover its lasting presence.
Launched in 1935, at the bottom of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) served as a linchpin of FDR s New Deal. Through the WPA, Roosevelt put millions of unemployed Americans to work on public construction projects, from dams and courthouses to parks and roads. The WPA s Federal Writers Project employed a host of artists and writers (among them Jackson Pollock, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Studs Terkel); theater and musical artists also received funding. Taylor (Ordinary Miracles: Life in a Small Church) vividly and painstakingly paints the full story of the WPA from its inception to its shutdown by Congress in 1943, at which point the war boom in manufacturing had made it unnecessary. In an eloquent and balanced appraisal, Taylor not only chronicles the WPA s numerous triumphs (including New York s LaGuardia Airport) but also its failures, most notably graft and other chicanery at the local level. Taylor details as well the dicey intramural politics in Congress over which states and districts would get the largest slice of the WPA pie. All told, Taylor s volume makes for a splendid appreciation of the WPA with which to celebrate the upcoming 75th anniversary of the New Deal s beginnings in 1933.