Nicholas Gamso has taken me to task for a paean I wrote to the way the New Deal transformed New York City for the better in the midst of the Great Depression. He questions the public-spiritedness of much of what was done to New York in the 1930s under Robert Moses and Fiorello La Guardia, the lack of democratic input and racial inclusion, and the way the modernization of New York was also its undoing.
I understand Gamso’s impatience, because my essay was, frankly, a publicity piece for the “Map and Guide to New Deal Public Works in New York City” recently released by the Living New Deal Project, which I direct.1 The article was brief, laudatory, and without nuance. Nevertheless, I stand by everything positive I said about the New Deal and I take issue with several of the claims made against Roosevelt’s policies by Gamso, even though I agree with many of his axioms about power, planners, liberalism, and the like.
First of all, we cannot treat Moses and the New Deal as one and the same. I, too, have read Robert Caro and Jane Jacobs,2 and I expressly tried to keep Moses at arm’s length—which is hard, given how ubiquitous he was at the time. His stamp is all over New York. Without a doubt, he used New Deal programs for his own purposes and to enhance his own reputation—so much so that he intentionally kept Works Progress Administration (WPA) plaques off everything so that he could claim the credit. Yet, Gamso unintentionally reproduces the Moses myth when he speaks of “the 225 playgrounds built by Moses,” when, in fact, all the playgrounds, parks, bridges, and pools “built by Moses” were constructed using New Deal money and labor.3 Moses’s megalomania was well known at the time, and Gamso’s quotation from Frances Perkins nicely demonstrates the hostility between the majority of New Dealers and Moses. The same goes for Moses’s low regard for his free labor force—which is exactly the opposite of what Perkins, Harry Hopkins, and FDR thought about unemployed workers. On the contrary, the New Deal gave the green light to unionization, provided national unemployment insurance, and introduced a national minimum wage, among other aids to the working class.4
A second complaint of Gamso’s is about the rule of experts versus democratic control in the city. As he says, “The concept of the public was, on the contrary, a theoretical terrain for the exploits of planners and their experiments in social engineering.” Gamso is quite right that many New Dealers were old Progressives and that the Progressive creed of scientific management and expert planning had a decidedly undemocratic side. The New Deal definitely enhanced the power of government and with it a certain amount of top-down planning by the likes of Harold Ickes and Frederic Delano. But to equate this with Moses’s way of riding roughshod over the public is wrong.
I am willing to defend the Progressive element in the New Deal on three counts. One is that Progressivism had many facets, and people like Roosevelt, Perkins, and Hopkins (whose careers began in New York) had a genuine vision of the public good and public service that cannot be brushed off.5 The evidence for that is all around, from Social Security to the tens of thousands of schools, libraries, parks, pools, and artworks the New Deal bequeathed to the country. Such public facilities were, in fact, democratizing in the way they provided greater opportunity, better education, and more open access for the people, as New York historian Marta Gutman has argued in detail with respect to the magnificent New Deal swimming pools of New York.6
Nor can all planning be dismissed just because one dislikes the high-handed approach of Moses. This is a confabulation popularized by another great New Yorker, Jane Jacobs. But while Jacobs was right to defend the popular wisdom of neighborhoods and economic benefits of micro-interactions in the city, she forgot that cities depend equally on large-scale infrastructure that can only be built with the help of government and advanced planning. The best example is water treatment and sewage systems, without which big cities would be death traps. The New Deal enhanced urban life in the United States through thousands of water projects.7
Finally, the “rule of experts” is not always a bad thing, despite the valid criticisms brought against it by leftists influenced by the work of Michel Foucault.8 There are many good reasons to question the class basis of expertise and defend popular democracy. But blanket condemnation of experts and planning is perverse in the present Age of Ignorance, presided over by Donald Trump. Funny, but I recall a day when we leftists wanted more planning, not less.
A third pillar of Gamso’s critique of the New Deal is that it was a handmaiden to the purposes of corporate capital. He is undoubtedly correct to point to the power of the Rockefellers, Mellons, and developers like the Trumps and Kushners over New York. Anyone who doubts the rule of big capitalists over American cities, states, and the Feds is, indeed, naive. I am not so innocent as to think that the New Deal represented some kind of socialism free of the power of capital. This is America, after all, the summa cum laude of modern capitalism. The New Deal was obviously meant to save capitalism from itself by curing the Great Depression. It was replete with programs shaped by major corporations and it continued many policies begun during the Hoover Administration, such as price supports, home ownership, road building, and dam construction.9
Yet there is more to the New Deal than that. It was meant to save capitalism from itself in another way: to wit, to save the country from the depredations of big business, big finance, the rich and laissez faire liberalism. What is astonishing about FDR and his team is how willing they were to buck the ruling class in order to get things done that conservatives (and even many liberals) disapproved of, such as creating jobs for the desperate, adding more parks, taxing the rich, running deficits, and modernizing rural areas and the South. FDR was surrounded by a uniquely radical bunch of advisors like Louis Howe, Henry Wallace, and Mary Dewson—people who make the Clintonian Democrats of today look like Republicans. Moreover, it is clear that FDR’s aristocratic background made him singularly immune to the bullying of the big bourgeoisie, who, by and large, hated his guts. And the hard lessons of his bodily handicap combined with the persistent instruction of Eleanor Roosevelt made him surprisingly sympathetic to the plight of the working class and the disadvantaged.10
Gamso’s fourth major point of attack concerns the failures of the New Deal with regard to race. He brings up the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from Social Security, and he might just as well have raised the similar exclusions of the National Labor Relations Act. No, the New Deal did not overturn the racial order of America, any more than it revolutionized the class system. But what should one expect, given the deep history of racism in America? FDR had to bend to the power of the Dixiecrats in Congress to get his program passed, and programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and WPA were segregated in the South and elsewhere, according to local white preference. FDR’s wartime decision to put Japanese Americans into internment camps was horrific, but he was bowing to long-standing anti-Japanese sentiment in California.11
What is too little recognized, however, is the degree to which the New Dealers tried to buck the prevailing racial order. The fierce opposition of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins to racism is well known, as is the presence of Lawrence Oxley and FDR’s “black cabinet.” What is not known is that thousands of CCC and WPA camps and work teams were integrated, along with public parks and pools across the country (contrary to Gamso, New York’s swimming pools were not all segregated). Indeed, the CCC was integrated more than a decade before the Armed Forces. We at the Living New Deal have unearthed hundreds of photographs showing the racial mixing going on in New Deal work teams. The roots of the Civil Rights Movement go back to the interwar period and got a definite boost from the New Deal.12
Another major issue that Gamso raises is the fate of New York (and other cities) in the face of suburbanization, automobilization, consumerism, etc. His complaints are a litany of what late 20th-century urbanists and leftists loved to hate, myself included. I got my start as a scholar rewriting the history of suburbanization—which I called “the suburban solution” to capitalism’s contradictions—in order to understand why cities at the time had been gutted while their metropolitan areas exploded. What I came to realize is that understanding the repeated reconstruction of U.S. cities in view of the changing demands of capital accumulation requires a long-term analysis of the geography of industry, class, race, land use and accumulation. The idea that the postwar era introduced suburbanization, capital flight, and segregation is wrong; industrial decentralization, upper-class escape, and transportation expansion all go back well into the 19th century.13 They cannot simply be laid at the doorstep of the New Deal. While it facilitated mid-20th century programs of highway building, expanding home ownership, and mortgage reform that were popular across classes, this does not nullify what the New Deal did for cities like New York in terms of street improvements and bridges, parks and recreation, and stanching home foreclosures.
And let’s not forget the power of business and the wealthy to influence public policy, then and now. Urban renewal, suburbanization and the automotive city were not just dreamed up by urban planners and midcentury liberals, but promoted by carmakers, construction companies, developers and bankers in pursuit of profits.14 A telling example that speaks to both cities and racism is the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)’s guidelines for lending that instantiated redlining and racial segregation in postwar suburban development. Moreover, Gamso and many others draw the wrong lesson from this story: that government, specifically the New Deal, created segregation in U.S. cities.15 This is false.
A full history of urban segregation leads to a different conclusion. On the one hand, the process of cementing racial and class divisions into urban geography began with suburban flight in the mid-19th century, progressed with deed covenants by the fin-de-siècle, and advanced with the spread of zoning in the 1920s, among other tactics; FHA dictates merely confirmed what was already standard practice by White America. On the other hand, the notorious FHA guidelines were written by the chief intellectual of the National Association of Real Estate Boards, Homer Hoyt of Chicago. Once again, the heavy hand of business, in this case, the developers, realtors, and bankers, was instrumental in the practical outcome of mid-century liberalism’s efforts to expand homeownership and stabilize finance capital. To call this “the conspicuous ruins of the New Deal” is laughable.16
Coming down to the present transformation of New York, I agree with Gamso’s unhappiness with the contemporary liberal love affair with cities, which is mostly an ideological representation of the growing inequality between cities and countryside, and within metropolitan areas (with the raging gentrification of the central cities). 17 As the election of the demagogue Trump revealed to naive coastal elites who thought they could safely ignore “the flyover,” the deindustrialization of the interior U.S. is real and has been devastating to millions of American working people and communities (also true of hundreds of working class neighborhoods in big cities). Why that happened is a discussion for another time, along with a discussion of why rural and small town America was in free-fall at the time of the Great Depression.
Nevertheless, one of the greatest things about the New Deal is that it was so even-handed geographically. It is not true, as Gamso claims, that New York hogged all the WPA money. Quite the contrary, WPA, CCC, PWA and all the rest of the alphabet agencies operated in every state and county, leaving their mark on virtually every small town with a city hall, high school, library, or park (the proof of that can be found in the Living New Deal’s national map of New Deal public works).18 That’s the kind of thing we need again. We can extract a positive, if neither socialist nor utopian, model from the New Deal that offers a tangible alternative to the kind of infrastructure program offered by the Trump Administration, which is shaping up to be chiefly about neoliberal privatization of public goods like airports and creating more profit-gouging opportunities for The Donald’s developer buddies.
A final lesson to be extracted from the New Deal is how much the capitalist class and the Right hated it then and hate it now (though they wrongly call it “socialism”). The point of neoliberalism over the last fifty years has not been some principled return to the market and competition, but the systematic dismantling of the New Deal and everything it stood for in terms of honesty in government, commitment to the public good, and caring for the mass of the people. The “conspicuous ruins of the New Deal” that Gamso refers to are less a testament to its failure than to its success, which ultimately unleashed the wrath of the capitalists and their conservative allies. Those ruins are what fifty years of neoliberalism hath wrought. So, the New Deal may not have been socialism, racial liberation, or an ideal democracy, but it sure looks a hell of a lot better than the demi-fascism, revanchism, and unbridled capitalism now at large in the Age of Trump.
2.Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House/Vintage; Caro, Robert. 1974. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, New York: Knopf. On La Guardia, see Williams, Mason. 2013. City of Ambition: FDR, LaGuardia and the Making of Modern New York, New York: Norton.
3.See Frank da Cruz’s research into this at http://kermitproject.org/newdeal/parksprojects.html#commentary
4.Levine, Rhonda. 1988. Class Struggle and the New Deal: Industrial Labor, Industrial Capital, and the State, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas
5.Hopkins, Harry. 1936. Spending to Save: The Complete Story of Relief, New York: W.W. Norton; Downey, Kirstin. 2009. The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, New York: Nan Talese.
6.Gutman, Marta. 2008. “Race, place and play: Robert Moses and the WPA swimming pools in New York.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 67(4): 532–61.
7.Schoenberger, Erica & Richard Walker. 2016. “Beyond exchange and agglomeration: resource flows and city environments as wellsprings of urban growth.” Journal of Economic Geography
8.Mitchell, Timothy. 2002. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
9.Cohen, Lizabeth. 2003. A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics Of Mass Consumption In Postwar America. New York Alfred A. Knopf; Domhoff, William and Michael J. Webber. 2011. Class and Power In The New Deal : Corporate Moderates, Southern Democrats, And The Liberal-Labor Coalition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. For a counter-argument, see Levine 2008.
10.Leuchtenburg, William. 1963. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–40. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
11.Katznelson, Ira. 2013. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. New York: Liveright/Norton; McWilliams, Carey. 1944. Prejudice: Japanese-Americans, A Symbol of Racial Intolerance. Boston: Little, Brown.
12.Cole, Olen, Jr. 1999. The African-American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Gainesville: University Press of Florida; https://livingnewdeal.org/working-together-gallery; Sugrue, Thomas. 2008. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. New York: Random House; Sklaroff, Lauren Rebecca. 2014. Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
13.Walker, Richard. 1978. “The transformation of urban structure in the 19th century United States and the beginnings of suburbanization.” In: Kevin Cox, Ed. Urbanization and Conflict in Market Societies, Chicago: Maaroufa. 165–213; Lewis, Robert, Ed. 2004. Manufacturing Suburbs: Building, Work and Home on the Metropolitan Fringe, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
14.Weiss, Marc. 1985. “The origins and legacy of urban renewal.” In: J. Paul Mitchell, Ed. Federal Housing Policy and Programs: Past and Present. New Brunswick: Rutgers Center for Urban Policy Research. 253–276; Schoenberger, Erica. 2015. Nature, Choice and Social Power. New York: Routledge
15.e.g., Rothstein, Richard. 2017. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Norton/Liveright. Another version of the story of FHA can be found in Freund, David. 2007. Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
16.Gotham, Kevin. 2000. “Urban space, restrictive covenants and the origins of racial residential segregation in a US city, 1900–50.” International Journal of Urban & Regional Research. 24/3: 616–33. Hornstein, Jeffrey. 2005. A Nation of Realtors: A Cultural History of the Twentieth-Century American Middle Class, Durham: Duke University Press.
17.Frank, Thomas. 2016. Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt.
18.Taylor, Nick. 2009. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work. New York: Bantam.
RICHARD WALKER is Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught from 1975 to 2012 and served as Chair of Geography, Global Metropolitan Studies, and California Studies. He has written on a diverse range of topics in economic, urban, and environmental geography and is co-author of The Capitalist Imperative (1989) and The New Social Economy (1992). He has written extensively on California, including The Conquest of Bread (2004), The Country in the City (2007), and The Atlas of California (2013).His awards include Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships, a Distinguished Scholarship Award from the Association of American Geographers, the Carey McWilliams Award from the California Studies Association, and the Hal Rothman prize from the Western History Association.