LeBaron: The New Deal’s lasting legacy in Sonoma County
If we are sitting around the campfire, metaphorically speaking, telling stories of days gone by, a tale of homelessness, poverty and politics would seem to be timely.
Something about the New Deal, perhaps?
People still argue about the legacy of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “alphabet soup” of government agencies created to ease the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s. But no one questions that it changed our nation.
And, in very tangible ways, Sonoma County.
(Note to those who are new to reading history: When a name from the past comes with capital letters, you know it was something big, something that changed lives. This applies to both the Great Depression and the New Deal.)
“People think the Great Depression happened in black and white,” Gray Brechin told us in a talk last month at the Sonoma County Library, adding that he often feels like his project is uncovering a lost civilization. From UC Berkeley, Brechin is the head of a project, going on 13 years old, which compiles information and pinpoints on a map all the sites in the Bay Area that are the direct result of work done collectively as New Deal projects.
In the 1930s, he said, when the country teetered on the brink of revolution and/or civil war, these “make-work” programs were designed to provide some small wage to those whose jobs had been lost to the Depression.
In a bold move to halt the wave of poverty and homelessness that was sweeping the country, Roosevelt took $133 billion from a relief fund approved in the last years of the Hoover administration to launch a plan which owed much to Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor, the country’s first woman cabinet member and, as Brechin pointed out, “the cabinet’s intellectual.”
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the New Deal saved lives, kept families intact and altered the country’s infrastructure, building thousands of miles of roads, creating water and sewer systems.
There are few regions in the United States that were not affected by these programs.
It won’t surprise to learn that my focus is on Sonoma County. And, for my source, besides Brechin’s Living New Deal map, I rely on a 1976 master’s thesis written by Santa Rosa teacher Pauline Goddard.
Goddard, who died not quite a year ago at 89, taught at Comstock Middle School for many years. She was a member of the League of Women Voters, considered herself a political activist and took on a study of “The Impact of the Works Projects Administration in Sonoma County” with enthusiasm and skill.
Her thesis tells how this county was changed and how many of its residents were rescued 80 years ago by, believe it or not, politics.
We don’t have to look far to see how the New Deal affected our communities. Some reminders are highly visible. The former Sonoma County Hospital on Chanate Road, which morphed into Community Hospital and then to Sutter and now awaits a decision about its future.
It was a WPA project. So was Oak Knoll, which was the TB sanitarium. So were some of the earliest Santa Rosa Junior College buildings: Burbank Auditorium and Analy Hall and Bussman Hall and the Bailey Field bleachers; original buildings at Cloverdale, Sonoma Valley and Analy high schools; the big amphitheater at Armstrong Grove and the little one in the Sonoma Plaza; repair of the Sonoma Mission, restoration of General Vallejo’s home for the State Parks system.
WPA workers built fire stations in Cloverdale and Sebastopol and Boyes Springs, city halls in Sebastopol and Cloverdale and the Sebastopol Post Office.
The work done by WPA labor from 1935 to ’38 seems, by today’s “bid, budget and delay” standards, unbelievable.
Under the supervision of contractors and skilled laborers who treated the jobs “as if money were from their own pockets,” according to a social studies survey of the time, WPA workers completed a staggering amount of improvement to the county’s infrastructure.
They created school playgrounds and athletic fields; made repairs, renovated and painted existing state, county and city structures. They resurfaced 112 miles of county roads, installed 448 culverts, built 29 wooden bridges, three masonry bridges and one steel bridge. They installed 35,000 linear feet of curbs and gutters and 26,000 feet of sidewalks.
If you know where to look in Santa Rosa or Healdsburg you can see still the WPA initials etched in the concrete.
Santa Rosa benefited from the stonework done by masonry contractors with WPA labor. That artistry is evident in the stone bridge on Doyle Park Drive, leading into the park. It was created from used basalt paving blocks taken up when the streets were paved and reinforced with steel from the old streetcar rails.