FDR's New Deal shaped the Bay Area

January 30, 2009 9:46:49 PM PST
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the nation out of the Great Depression in large part by creating millions of jobs through the New Deal.

That labor changed the face of the Bay Area, with landmark projects like the Bay Bridge, the Caldecott Tunnel and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

"What's really extraordinary about it is that there's so much of it and it's so well built," University of California geographer Gray Brechin said.

FDR memorabilia covers the walls of Brechin's office. Four years ago, the UC Berkeley geographer set out to map and catalog all the New Deal projects in California, but he found there were too many to do alone.

Now Brechin is getting help from all across the state, and turning it into a database and map called the "California Living New Deal Project;" living because Californians are still using and enjoying New Deal projects today.

We take all this stuff for granted," Brechin said. "We shouldn't because it was a gift from the New Deal to us."

The Alameda County courthouse, San Francisco's Aquatic Park, Strybing Arboretum; virtually every Bay Area playground and park has its roots in the New Deal.

New Deal dollars helped build the now iconic Treasure Island building, in its many incarnations. The first was as the San Francisco airport terminal. When the war broke out, the Navy did a land swap with the city and the airport was moved to the Peninsula, where, the New Deal helped build the new airport.

"The idea that we want to do the kinds of things they did in the New Deal just isn't there right now," Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesperson Randy Rentschler said.

President Barack Obama's stimulus package will probably mean between $800 million and $900million for Bay Area transportation projects, according to Rentschler, but the end result will not be anything like what the Bay Area got out of the 1930s and 40s. Instead, it will probably be a lot of maintenance-type work and possibly saving current projects threatened by the state budget stalemate.

That is frustrating to Rentchler, who longs for the days of the New Deal.

"You know those projects weren't shovel-ready when the stock market crashed in 1929, nor were they done in 90 days; they were done over a period of many years," Rentschler said.

California's Living New Deal Project