Monday, March 16, 2009

Building Louisiana: The Legacy of the Public Works Administration. Book review

Building Louisiana: The Legacy of the Public Works AdministrationRobert Leighninger provides an invaluable contribution to the study of public culture with his resurrection of the Spring 2009 77 forgotten legacy of the New Deal - the long-term capital outlays that created community structures of enduring importance.

In just six years, the Roosevelt administration transformed the face of the American landscape with its investment in infrastructure development.

These public works are largely taken for granted, and their provenance remains lamentably unknown. Leighninger’s studies provide a much-needed corrective to the widespread notion that public investments are of no importance and that government can play no role in improving people’s lives. Leighninger demonstrates the value of public works by an extensive use of descriptive analysis and visual images. It should be noted that the photographs were largely taken by the author.

Public infrastructure development is categorized as either physical or cultural.

In Building Louisiana, the author asserts that physical infrastructure constitutes the basic underpinnings of modern industrial society; the roads, bridges, canals, airports, sewer systems, waterworks, dams, and electrical power plants that we use to produce goods and services to move them and ourselves across the landscape, and to keep us safe and healthy at work and at home. (xviii) These issues are dealt with in Long-Range Public Investment, which discusses the activities of the various “alphabet soup agencies” involved in these construction projects: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

To cite the work of one agency in one locale, the PWA in New York City built the Triborough Bridge, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, the Henry Hudson Drive, major parts of the Eight Avenue subway, and three Staten Island ferries among its 107 projects (Long-Range Public Investment 86). Among other iconic public works projects of the New Deal are Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, the San Francisco Cow Palace, Hoover Dam, the Mississippi River bridges at New Orleans and Vidalia, Washington’s National Airport, and San Antonio’s River Walk (originating as a flood control project, but elaborated with a network of walkways, shops, and restaurants).

The River Walk brings us to the component of New Deal public investment that would be of the greatest interest to the readership of JAMLS: the cultural infrastructure. This “consists of the facilities that allow us to educate our children and ourselves, conduct government, administer justice, and otherwise transmit our culture through museums and other venues for art performances and displays” (Building Louisiana xviii).

In a personal prelude, Leighninger notes the number of New Deal projects on the campus of Louisiana State University (LSU), where he taught for many years before moving to Arizona State. These include the university lakes (WPA), a sizable copper-domed coliseum (WPA), the faculty club (PWA), the geology building (PWA), the student health center (WPA), and the baseball and football stadiums (WPA). Full disclosure requires this reviewer to acknowledge that he is also a professor at LSU and knows the author (although more from cultural colloquia than from campus). Since this work is exclusively researched, beautifully photographed, and well written, there is no personal interest involved. At the same time, this reviewer is familiar with many of the works discussed here; consequently, his appreciation for what he learned was particularly heartfelt.

Given the vast array of projects nationwide - both spectacular and quotidian - Leighninger argues that “we need to see everything by one agency in at least one state before we can begin to reckon the importance of all New The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society Deal public works programs to America” (Building Louisiana xxiii). If I have a quibble with this methodology, it is the exclusive emphasis on the PWA.

Although the WPA was conceived as an emergency relief program for the employment of the needy and the PWA’s mission was in constructing major capital improvements, these distinctions were not always that clear-cut. To cite two already mentioned examples, the WPA built both the River Walk in San Antonio and LSU’s 6,000-person-capacity Parker Coliseum. These were identical to PWA projects in scope, impact, and cultural significance. As Leighninger observes, “What people remember about public works in the New Deal, if they remember anything at all, is the WPA” (Long-Range Public Investment 55). He might have done better to have dealt with both as the joint legacy of the New Deal.

Courthouses might be considered the PWA’s private presence. Eleven parish (county) courthouses were built in just three years - a record not surpassed before or since. Following PWA policies, they were built to last. “All are still standing, and all are the focus of parish judicial life. . . . Camerson Parish courthouse has survived two hurricanes while the buildings around it were flattened” (Building Louisiana 109). The courthouse architecture marked a distinct departure from the usual adaption of a historical motif. If not exactly modern, the dominant design was a variant of the art deco style adapted to conform to the expectations of a public building. Sometimes termed “PWA moderne,” the stylistic compromise has been variously labeled: “stripped-down classicism, starved classicism, American modern, and Greco-deco,” which “allowed a retention, though simplified, of the basic elements of the classical facade: base, column, and entablature. It permitted some ornament: simple bas-relief sculpture panels and similar low carving of capitals and cornices” (Building Louisiana 111). Overall, the courthouses pictured (as well as the school buildings) exude a feeling of architectural distinction and dignity.

Both of the books discussed herein provide a welcome reflection on the positive contributions that government can make in improving the nation’s well-being through investment in infrastructure development.

The importance of dams, roads, rural electrification, and, as Louisiana citizens are all too well aware, flood-control systems cannot be underestimated. As Leighninger eloquently argues, the cultural infrastructure built by the New Deal testifies to the value of public investment for community development: “The structures they built were contributions to a future where citizens are safer, healthier, better educated, and better administered” (Building Louisiana 182). The physical durability and aesthetic sensitivity that characterized these building projects bears witness to the nobility and seriousness of purpose that characterizes the public sector at its best.

Both of these books are of immense importance to understanding the politics of public purposiveness. Long-Range Public Investment disproves the facile dismissal of public works as “pork barrel,” or unnecessary undertakings best left to private initiative. Building Louisiana beautifully visualizes the contributions of aesthetics to the public sector. It should also animate similar studies to be undertaken in all the other states and many communities.

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