Public Works Can Be Pretty Cool

by Will on October 1, 2010

Many of the sidewalks that I walk on, when I go for walks in the neighborhood where I live in north Oakland, bear a stamp indicating that the WPA built them.

This means that these sidewalks were put in by the federal government, under New Deal make-work programs. On these sidewalks, my girlfriend and I walk to a nearby shop to buy vegetables, we walk to the coffee place to buy grounds, and we walk to the movie rental place. All of these businesses are still benefiting from the sidewalks the WPA put in.

Where I used to live, in Albany, there is a brunch place that operates out of a log cabin on San Pablo Avenue. It’s called Sam’s Log Cabin. That log cabin was also built by the WPA. Sure, in the absence of public spending, someone would have done something with that land. But would they have been crazy enough to build a log cabin? I doubt it. As it is, people see that log cabin and are curious about what it is, and seem to stop there in droves for brunch. Sam’s Log Cabin is a successful business as a result of that, although of course their excellent cooking and friendly service are also vital.

In the library of Merritt College, yesterday afternoon, I avoided studying by picking up a large volume on the history of Oakland, compiled by the WPA and released in 1939 — that is to say, researched and written by unemployed historians, economists, and social scientists — that is absolutely fascinating. This volume carefully lays out the history of Oakland, year by year, in all realms: policy, municipal companies, business, education, and so on. It’s a great resource. As far as I can tell, the private market fails to provide anything like this quality of historical accounting.

Another public works program that the New Deal financed was that the Library of Congress sent interviewers forth, throughout the country. They interviewed people who had been slaves, people who had served in the Civil War, people who had gone west and homesteaded parcels of land. These interviews are of great interest to historians and other scholars who want to study these subjects. The Library of Congress also made tapes of blues and country singers doing their thing. This is where many of our early recordings of delta blues performers come from. The experience of being recorded for the first time also inspired at least some performers — like Muddy Waters — to move north and seek a wider audience. Muddy Waters’s music inspired early rock acts like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who contributed immensely to human happiness.

So public works are not some waste of money. Well designed public works programs can benefit us in all sorts of ways. And they also employ unemployed people, and help to support demand and consumption when those things are weak. The Obama administration and the present congress have mostly been content to just extent unemployment benefits and use recovery money to pay private contractors to do projects. I wish they had come to Oakland and walked on our WPA-made sidewalks, and thought over the implications just a bit.

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