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Revealing a New Deal Past

Historian Gray Brechin discusses Works Progress Administration-funded projects in California and at SDSU.
Seth Mallios, left, shares an old photograph of Hardy Tower with Gray Brechin.
Seth Mallios, left, shares an old photograph of Hardy Tower with Gray Brechin.
Gray Brechin came to SDSU to talk about a government-assistance program created in a time of high unemployment and a tough economy.

While he could have easily been talking about the recent American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he was instead here to speak about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Investing in education with the New Deal

In front of a crowd of about 60 guests, Brechin, professor of geography at University of California, Berkeley, spoke about his research on the vast public works projects in California from the New Deal era, including examples on the SDSU campus.

Brechin’s lecture, titled “Sowing vs. Eating Our Seed Corn: The Expansion of Public Education During the Last Depression Compared With Its Contraction in Our Own,” took place Nov. 12 in Hardy Tower, itself a New Deal-era project.

“Many of the New Dealers — including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — were practicing rather than professing Christians,” Brechin said. “They did not believe in punishing people for being poor, and they had the queer idea that it is far cheaper to educate people rather than to incarcerate them, so they built thousands of schools and colleges and few prisons.”

The event was sponsored by The President’s Leadership Fund and BRIDGES, a group that supports "building bridges to lifelong learning" by linking the community to the university, showcasing programs and providing scholarships. Event attendees also included members of various SDSU philanthropy groups, including Friends of the Library, Friends of Anthropology, Heritage Society and supporters of the Construction Engineering and Management program.

SDSU’s New Deal past

During a tour before the event, Laurie Cooper, director of facilities, planning design and construction; Bob Schulz, associate vice president of operations; and Seth Mallios, anthropology professor, escorted Brechin on a tour of SDSU’s WPA-funded buildings and artwork. In recent years, Mallios has worked to restore two WPA-era murals found in Hardy Tower.
Brechin and Montezuma statue
Gray Brechin examines Donal Hord’s Aztec statue in the Prospective Student Center.

Several buildings, including Hepner Hall, Hardy Tower and the Communications building, and other facilities like Aztec Bowl and the Open Air Theatre were completed or enhanced because of New Deal funding, said Cooper during the tour.

Additionally, the Aztec statue by Donal Hord that resides in the Prospective Student Center was funded by the WPA. Earlier this semester, a replica of the iconic statue was installed in the new Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center.

About Brechin

Brechin’s work is part of California’s Living New Deal Project headed by the California Historical Society, U.C. Berkeley's Institute for Research in Labor and Employment Library and the California Studies Center. The project, with seed funding from the Columbia Foundation, is an unprecedented and growing collaborative effort to identify, map, and interpret the vast public works legacy of President Roosevelt's New Deal in California. For more information, visit his website.
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