Case Statement for NCPH New Deal Working Group

See this post for background on the NCPH Working Group.

As other members of the working group have noted, academic historians and popular audiences alike tend to recognize the importance of the New Deal and much of its legacy.1 In the course of my research, however, I have come to believe that both scholars and the public underestimate the extent and scope of the New Deal’s work relief and public works projects. The PWA, for example, provided grants and loans to public institutions of higher education for housing, administrative, instructional and maintenance facilities. In total, the PWA enabled the creation of 1286 college buildings worth $747 million2 through $83 million in grants and $29 million in loans.3 At my institution, Virginia Tech (then Virginia Polytechnic Institute), the PWA helped fund the construction or expansion of 14 buildings, including what is now the administration building, the student center, and several dormitories — Virginia Tech, in terms of its physical plant, is a New Deal institution.

Owing to this underestimation, I am interested in building out such a national inventory to help reinvigorate popular appreciation of the New Deal, making it publicly accessible through the web, and enriching it with historical data and media including photographs, oral histories, film, and audio, where possible. While a number of recent controversies and the broader conservative effort to roll back the New Deal have rallied defenders to the Roosevelt administration’s relief and infrastructure efforts, my experience indicates that a broader-based effort to reconnect the public with New Deal public and art works would be more effective in building public support than targeted defense of particular projects or the Roosevelt administration.

In pursuit of this project, I would like to suggest a mixed strategy of centralized and decentralized efforts including building a central inventory through National Archives research, but enriching it through state-level efforts or crowdsourced contributions led by working group participants. I could contribute my PWA higher ed database, for example, and lead groups in photographing or researching the history of individual VA sites. While such a strategy would lead to uneven enrichment, it would provide a central spine of information to build from, and would allow for school groups, college courses, or communities of interest at the public history grassroots to make a meaningful contribution to a national effort that also expressed local or regional pride.

  1. Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism; Robert Leighninger, Long-Range Public Investment
  2. Approx. $11.4B in 2011 dollars
  3. Records of Projects, 1933-1950; List of Alotted Non-Federal Projects as of May, 1942 RG 135 NARA II

Reconstructing the New Deal

NCPH Working Group:

10. Reconstructing the New Deal: Towards a National Inventory of New Deal Art and Public Works
Eileen Eagan, University of Southern Maine;
Gray Brechin, University of California at Berkeley;
Sean Lent, Independent Scholar;

This working group centers on interdisciplinary efforts to locate, collect, and bring to light the federally sponsored art and public works of the New Deal. We also plan to relate discussion of New Deal projects to recent controversies such as that over the labor history mural in Maine. This is public history in terms of locating and interpreting public sources and also doing so in relation to public policy. It also represents cultural democracy on the edge of capitalism, and its crash. This revival and renewal of New Deal history seems especially essential in light of recent debates over the impact of New Deal policy and efforts to forget or distort the legacy of those policies. A group at the University of California at Berkeley has developed the California Living New Deal project to map New Deal projects in California. Groups elsewhere, including Maine, have engaged students in similar projects in those areas. A new project could expand these efforts into a national inventory. This working group will bring together faculty and students involved in these efforts. We invite others from around the country to join us in this discussion and planning to pursue this project. Eileen Eagan and Sean Lent will discuss and present results from the activity in Maine. Gray Brechin, from the Geography department at UC Berkeley will discuss his experiences and plans based on the California project. He will also assert the urgent need for a national inventory of New Deal public works. Discussion by the people attending the working group will follow short presentations by Brechin, Eagan and Lent. This working group will take place at the Milwaukee Public Museum, a short two block walk from the Frontier Airlines Center.

Historic Preservation and Environmentalism

Richard Moe of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the union-busting New York Times:

NEVER before has America had so many compelling reasons to preserve the homes in its older residential neighborhoods. We need to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. We want to create jobs, and revitalize the neighborhoods where millions of Americans live. All of this could be accomplished by making older homes more energy-efficient.
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Wouldn’t It Be Nice?

The Illinois Appellate Court took a strike at Chicago’s Landmarks ordinance this week, issuing a ruling from a pair of Chicago landowners (one of whom is an executive for real estate firm Draper & Kramer) that terms the ordinance “vague” and “ambiguous.” The suit is sent back down to the trial court, where the ordinance will likely be struck down, then appealed by the city up to the state supreme court.

I’d like to offer an analysis of the ruling and the ordinance, but the appeals court has not yet put the ruling online, four days after it was released. This is pretty ridiculous, as there is a great deal of interest in this case and this ruling. The ordinance is online from the City of Chicago here.

Blair Kamin runs down the basics here:

The ruling, which came down Friday, takes direct aim at the seven standards by which Chicago decides whether a building or district can be safeguarded from demolition or defacement—association with a significant historic event, evidence of important architecture and so on. A site must satisfy at least two of the seven standards to become a landmark.

While these criteria are expressed in common, easily understood language, that is not sufficient for the judges, who seem to yearn for hairsplitting, legalistic exactitude. “We believe,” they write, “that the terms ‘value,’ ‘important,’ ‘significant,’ and ‘unique’ are vague, ambiguous, and overly broad.”

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Things I’ve Been Meaning to Blog

Getting a job. Preservation issues. Learning Italian. Being back in Ann Arbor. Defending my dissertation proposal. Drinking coffee. GLMS shows. Declining interest in the blogosphere. But I’ve been busy and don’t have internet where I’m living, so this will have to do.

It’s That Time Again

Preservation Flyer, originally uploaded by urbanoasis.

Time to register for spring classes. I’m teaching a course on historic preservation again (day and time TBD) at Michigan during the May-June semester. Tell your friends.

“Historic preservation has played a significant role in the recent reurbanization of American cities. Now, amid concerns about climate change and energy shocks, preservationists are lauding the energy efficiency of rehabilitating old buildings and reinvigorating compact development patterns. This course will critically examine the history, theory, and practice of the preservation movement while students learn the tools and skills of the field through client-based term projects.”

Green Preservation

Finally. Word may be reaching the masses that preservation is environmentally sensitive.

Preservationists say green architecture isn’t just about building new energy efficient buildings that use solar panels, rooftop gardens and the latest cutting edge technology.

According to Mike Jackson of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, re-using existing buildings can save more energy than building new ones. He says that’s because we often don’t consider all the energy that went into building it in the first place, what he calls embodied energy.

JACKSON: It’s basically all the energy to extract materials, process them, transport them, get the workers to the job site and build a whole building.

Jackson says re-using historic buildings also preserves a part of our culture. He says many historic buildings are also located in high density areas, which means people don’t have to use cars to get there.

I’ve been saying this for a while. But it bears repeating. Old buildings, with the embodied energy from their construction and creation of the materials, start out way ahead of new construction in terms of energy efficiency. Preservation is the original green building strategy.

The Chicago 7

This is a preservation post cross-posted at Built Chicago.

Preservation Chicago has offered its latest list of the most endangered buildings in Chicago. This year they are:

1. Chicago Landmarks Ordinance
2. American Book Company Building
3. Devon Avenue Commercial District
4. Grant Park
5. Booker Building
6. Daily News Building and Plaza
7. Norwood Park

Most notable from my perspective is the Landmarks Ordinance. As Lynn Becker and others have exclaimed in the last year since the Farwell Building controversy, Landmarks Commission decisions may mean the ordinance has no meaning, offers no protection for the landmark buildings.

However, the ordinance is going to turn 40 this year and, with the rest of the preservation movement, it is time to develop a new philosophy of preservation, new strategies, and new legal mechanisms for promoting retention of important structures and accommodating new development

The modern preservation movement was nationalized with LBJ’s launch of the Great Society programs, resulting in the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act creating the National Register of Historic Places and followed by state-level legislation providing for protection of individual properties or districts based on historic criteria and development patterns. The legal basis for preservation protection, like zoning, has been the police power inherent in state and federal constitutions to protect the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the people (see Euclid v. Ambler).

However, a large part of the strategies and justifications of the preservation movement were devised during a period of urban decentralization and urban renewal efforts that sought to modernize and redevelop buildings, sites and neighborhoods in an entirely different (and auto-oriented) mode. This period has largely ended and the middle-class has been tending to move back into central cities for the last 10 to 20 years (depending on the metro region). Within this new development and demographic context, planners and architects have been working to reforming the prevailing zoning regime to promote density and multi-modal transportation options. It is time for the preservation movement to do the same. Instead of simply focusing on protection and fighting redevelopment, it is time to better incentivize adaptive re-use and to join with the environmental movement to develop a new impetus and set of tools for preservation. There is no political movement in the U.S. (and possibly worldwide) with a bigger upside than the green movement in its many forms, with its potential to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and combat global climate change.

Federal research from the last energy crisis indicates a third of the energy a building will use in its lifespan is embedded in the construction materials that make up the foundation, the walls, the roof, the windows and doors, etc. Even the greenest new development can’t compete with the savings of leaving an existing building standing. Let us reconsider the landmarks ordinance and the way we go about preservation in the Chicago region in general, from something negative and oppositional to something positive and proactive.

MUP Thesis, Part 4

Thompson Block Cluster 1980

After the major changes in the student housing market in Ann Arbor surrounding the war, the gradual but consistent expansion of enrollment at the University of Michigan (see Appendix C) and changing tastes in the housing preferences of university students led to another shift in the provision of student housing. While this change represented a move back to housing created and provided by the private market, it is not accurate to call it merely a reversal of the mid-century housing trends that resulted from federal subsidy. This is because first, the private units that housed students were decreasingly in structures that also housed owner-occupants; landlords only rarely lived on-site. Second, neighborhood groups and homeowners no longer clamored to accept students into their neighborhoods and homes. In fact, the late 1960s and 1970s saw an inversion of the prewar demand to local politicians and regents that students live off-campus, within the community. Neighborhood groups from the late 1960s on organized to oppose off-campus student housing and the changes it would bring to neighborhoods in central Ann Arbor.

This shift in attitude includes both local and national factors in its cause. The proximate cause of individuals’ and neighborhoods’ opposition to neighborhood transition was an alteration of the local culture of property. For example, the tradition (and the traditional narrative) of German families living and working as a community on the city’s west side was no longer sustainable. Federal immigration policy reduced the flow of European immigrants into the United States, making such ethnic enclaves impossible to maintain. In addition, the expanding conception of whiteness to include descendants of central and eastern European immigrants (within Ann Arbor proper as well as the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti metropolitan racial framework) diminished the importance of such Euro-American ethnic communities. Within this context, maintaining the neighborhood norms, the emerging middle-class community character, and the traditional architectural forms that represented and reinforced that community was the paramount goal of grassroots political activism. However, the resulting rejection of new development, low-income housing, and differing tenure choices did not come solely as a result of working out local identities. Such neighborhood opposition—to these effects of metropolitan expansion and to more assertive government strategies to provide the poor with basic necessities such as shelter—was a national phenomenon.

In the postwar period, residents of Ann Arbor’s city suburbs like the Old West Side and Burns Park were economically motivated to political action as homeowners seeking to protect the most significant investment of their lives. No longer were west side residents’ identities those of German immigrants and laborers. Rather than supporting metropolitan strategies of liberal reforms, homeowners sought to protect the neighborhoods they had invested in and the communities they were devoted to. In addition, grassroots neighborhood groups promoted the priority of home-ownership in single-family residential communities. Itself a product of federal subsidies and a long tradition of favorable federal housing policy, broad homeownership was a chief community value in residential neighborhoods outside Ann Arbor’s downtown. Neighborhood organizations emphasized this homeowner identity and pushed city politicians to protect their middle class values, as well.

This grassroots work to promote and protect property-owning rights was almost in direct conflict with another political movement fermenting within Ann Arbor, this one working toward a vision of tenants’ rights. Ann Arbor was one of the birthplaces of the New Left movement, including one of the first and most powerful chapters of Students for a Democratic Society. Local New Left activist groups, such as Voice, the local SDS chapter, the Ann Arbor Tenants’ Union, and later the Ann Arbor chapter of the Human Rights Party organized, campaigned, and even legislated to address issues of housing inequality and landlords’ exploitation of renters. This battle between representatives of two of the postwar era’s most significant political developments would have national implications. Its outcome subtly illustrated the importance of federal policy in local government and the utility of mastering and wielding the bureaucratic mechanisms of municipal governance.

Though the period of local reform promoted by emergent student leaders and the New Left was short-lived, the enduring crisis in housing and the combination of university and federal housing policy and alterations in state and federal law yielded significant economic and political victories in housing for students in Ann Arbor. Students worked in the postwar period to end the university policy of acting in loco parentis; to gain greater rights of participation in university governance of housing; to redress power inequalities in the local rental housing market; and to enact a program for political change at the municipal level. In addition, the decline of in loco parentis university control at the hands of student activism reduced sexual segregation and university control over women’s housing. University dormitories became co-educational and private housing in the community was markedly less segregated by sex. (See map at conclusion of chapter 4).

However, the continued expansion of the University of Michigan intensified political and economic problems surrounding student housing. Supply and demand inequalities in central Ann Arbor frequently led to redevelopment and put pressure on owners in single-family neighborhoods to convert or sell their homes for conversion to multi-unit developments and renovations. Grassroots neighborhood groups responded by forming neighborhood political associations to look after their political interests in city hall. In addition, an emerging group of preservationists within the city leveraged new state and federal preservation programs and legislation to protect their neighborhoods from redevelopment and to maintain their conservative community ideals. City politicians responded to the new power dynamic and worked to exploit fear of neighborhood decline, promoting the values of neighborhood associations, rather than students’ and tenants’ issues.

Despite these new political strategies and constituencies within Ann Arbor, neither significantly altered the underlying structure of the central housing market, nor did they remedy the enduring problems of the city’s housing market, including short supply and a dramatic power imbalance between tenants and owners. However, during the later 1970s, slowing university growth, decentralization of the city’s population, stagflation in the latter half of the decade, and restructuring of the state’s economy provided some correction in real rents in central Ann Arbor.