The 2018 midterm election is a few weeks away. Investing in America’s infrastructure is a major emerging issue. As it was right before another midterm nearly a century ago, when much of what needs rebuilding today was first put in place.
History does sometimes repeat
In this case, some historical structures are still standing to help inform the future.
Eighty-four years ago building America was a hot topic. Franklin Roosevelt was the new president, and his “New Deal” was poised to get going with a campaign of public works, many of which are well known today. Like Derby Downs in Akron and the Carter Road Lift Bridge in Cleveland.
The New Deal’s “WPA”—the Works Progress Administration—tackled infrastructure projects big and small, from Cleveland’s Memorial Shore Way to street-by-street fix-ups like in front of the Youngstown home where Donna DiBlasio lives. "We have WPA sidewalks. Of course, the post offices and the murals inside the post offices are very well known," said DiBlasio, a history professor at Youngstown State University.
Arts & Humanities
But, along with the bricks and mortar construction, the WPA also commissioned works of art, funded literary and theatrical projects and supported cultural development.
Holly Witchey is an art historian and conservator. She is the Director of Outreach and Education for the Intermuseum Conservation Association in Cleveland. That’s the oldest art conservation center in the country. She says the WPA had a whole division for the arts. “The thing about the Arts Division was that it was murals but it was prints and it was the concrete animals for the children to climb on, and ceramics for the children’s rooms. There were even, I think, dolls commissioned.”
Natural resources and property rights
Worn out farmland was reclaimed by reforestation by the New Deal agencies. Streams were dammed for flood control and to create water supplies. But some projects involved forced seizure of private property.
Brian Ebie is a Mogadore businessman and amateur historian of the area. As he walks along the shore of Mogadore Lake he recounts how his family lost their generations-old berry farm to that particular WPA project. Ebie says once the WPA and the City of Akron—which teamed up to build the reservoir--decided on the Portage County site where the lake now sits they were aggressive in acquiring it. Ebie says they just told the residents that their land was being condemned. “And they would offer pennies on the acre. They would take great swaths of land, and if the farmers held out too long they would take them to court.”
Lessons to learn
Accusations of heavy-handedness led to political pushback. Some New Deal legislation was even ruled unconstitutional. Historian Donna Diblasio says that’s a lesson for planners of any national rebuilding effort today. She says, so too is the way the WPA adjusted. “The New Deal changed what we expect from the government. That there are certain things the government should be doing. But if something didn’t work, the planners reaction back in the day was 'Let’s try something else' They were always willing to try new things.”
Economic and social circumstances have changed since the period of the WPA. But political parallels remain. Ideas for heavily investing in national infrastructure were in play for the mid-term election right before the WPA was formed. That was 1934. And, like in 2018, the balloting was the first midterm election test of a new administration that was a dramatic departure from what had come before.