You could drive on a street today over a bridge through a park and visit a post office before going to a university school building – all of which would have been built by the federal government in the 1930’s just to give some one a job. The Franklin Roosevelt Administration created a number of alphabet organizations aimed at stimulating the economy, but most are lumped together today as the WPA, or Works Progress Administration.
The Depression hit heavy industry the hardest and that meant it hit Northeast Ohio, not unlike the Great Recession of 2008 – whose effects still linger. But Kent State University history professor Kenneth Bindas says the situation in 1931 was much more dire than today.
BINDAS: “The unemployment rate in a place like Youngstown or Toledo or Cleveland is upwards of 60 percent. In Toledo in 1933 its 80 percent of the population. In Cleveland it’s upwards to 50 percent.”
CCC: Making its mark East and West
One of the first government responses to the Depression was creating the Civilian Conservation Corps. It resembled bootcamps of young men who are remembered for building national parks out West. But Case Western Reserve University history professor John Grabowski says they did plenty of work here too.
Grabowski: “Our image of the CC are the great national parks, but we have to realize we had the Emerald Necklace right here in greater Cleveland. And one of the prime areas of CCC activity was Brecksville Reservation. And a small museum near Brecksville Reservation has some incredible photographs and images of CC workers there. So because we had a park system , because it was forested, the CCC was employed here.”
The WPA greatly expanded employment efforts in order to get money directly to workers -- not companies -- to both boost the economy and give people hope. And that meant providing jobs for all walks of life. For example, Kent State's Bindas says, building a new post office in Warren began with hiring an architect.
Bindas: “This was a WPA draft person who would then do the draft work for it using the drawings of the WPA architect. You had sewing projects, canning projects, mattress-making projects. You name the commodity and the WPA produced it.”
Preserving the arts
That included art. [music of Sokoloff and the Cleveland Orchestra] The first conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Nikolai Sokoloff, came of out retirement to head the Federal Music Project.
Bindas: “The Federal Music Project I think had an incredible impact on the national culture and national identity. It exposed American classical music and American composers to 158 million or more people. And these were ordinary people who weren’t the ones who normally went to the symphony hall.”
Urycki: “Did that make the difference between some of these orchestras folding and not folding?”
Bindas: “Yes. Cleveland Orchestra, Toledo, Akron, Youngstown – these orchestras would be the Federal Music Project, and without federal support they would have gone under. Cincinnati and Columbus as well. All, the orchestras in Ohio to a large degree were supported during the 1930’s by the Federal Music Project. And that gave them a leg up to survive the hard times and the loss of patronage. So when WWII ended and veterans came back, these orchestras had in place the community support to survive.”
Artists and even writers were put to work, much to the relief of Professor Grabowski.
GRABOWSKI: “You can see these great WPA murals. One of the best to my mind is in the post office building at 101st street in downtown Cleveland.”
The WPA also fostered the preservation and writing of history. In Cleveland, the writers project was searching out and cataloguing archival sources. The first list of government archives in Northeast Ohio (is) by historians and others who needed to go to work. And the same project then goes to foreign-language newspapers, and they prepare a series of translated abstracts.
Urycki: “You as a historian must love that.”
Grabowski: “Oh, I absolutely love it. My field is immigration history, and I have a raft of languages under me, so if I want to know what’s happening in say the Slovenian community in the 1930’s, I can look to the translation of their papers.
“And when I first began studying the Polish community of Cleveland, I found out that the WPA had prepared a manuscript of the Poles of Cleveland. It never saw publication. We found it in the archives of the Ohio Historical Society. And … there is a spectacular Guide to Cleveland that’s never been published. We have a copy of it here at the Western Reserve Historical Society. “So here’s the federal government producing art, writing history, preserving history. It’s all across the board.”
Socialism or a path for moderation?
Grabowski and Bindas acknowledge the programs had their opponents.
Bindas: “There was tremendous opposition to this because many people, a very vocal and powerful minority, saw this as Roosevelt’s form of socialism.”
Grabowski: “The experiment was so radical at that time because it wasn’t the federal government’s business to employ people nor was it to build public housing. “That’s the period where -- at least in Cleveland -- public housing begins to be at least legitimized and some WPA monies are used to build the housing.
Urycki: “Are some of that housing projects built then still around?”
Grabowski: “Yes. I believe Lakeview Terrace may have been a WPA project on the near west side. I think Outhwaite Homes began in that period, and Outhwaite Homes was the site that really changed the lives of two African-American brothers – Carl and Lo uis Stokes. As they recalled, it was the first decent housing they were ever able to live in.”
Big business hated the projects, but Bindas and Grabowski both believe President Roosevelt may have protected capitalism from the far more extremist forces on the right and the left.
Grabowski: “In 1919, on May Day, there were a series of riots in the city when socialists/communists protested a march and it broke up into a bloody fracas. That evened out, but when the Depression started, (there were) … voices who were saying we need to look toward the Soviet Union, or some voices who were saying after 1932-35, look at the fascist governments, they put people back to work so maybe that is a model. So there were alternatives floating around here.”
Urycki : “Today, it’s conservative conventional wisdom that none of this did any help for the economy in the Great Depression. Did it help?”
Bindas: “Oh gosh, yes. The infrastructure that is collapsing all around us – bridges, for example, throughout the United States -- many of them were built in the 1930’s and 1940’s as a result of the WPA. Highways were laid out; most of the airports were laid out by the WPA. (Cleveland) Hopkins airport was one of the first WPA projects to build airports. This was when the airline industry was still in its infancy. It was very much like that Field of Dreams analogy: ‘If you build it they will come.’”
Grabowski: “Many of the parkways in the Emerald Necklace have some CCC or WPA in them. Some of the older playgrounds in Cleveland if they’ve survived. Part of the Shoreway is WPA. The Cultural gardens are WPA.”
In the end, it took the biggest government-spending project of them all to get out of the Great Depression: buying planes and tanks and ships for World War Two. But Bindas says there’s a difference between the relatively short-term military spending and the long-term effects of the WPA.
Bindas : “These were projects that continue to give back. We still use Virgina Kendall Reserve; we still use Sand Run. We still use the airports that were laid out, the roads and bridges that were laid out by the WPA. With defense spending you don’t quite get that -- more bang for your buck.”
Urycki: “Because in five years, all those airplanes are sitting out in a graveyard in the desert somewhere?”
Bindas: “That’s right. In the desert somewhere, waiting for post-apocalyptic us to go out and live in them or something.”
Professor Kenneth Bindas compares building the country’s infrastructure in the 1930’s to the government building the Internet in the 1980’s. saying the great financial payoffs came a few years later.