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The Works Progress Administration in San Diego County, 1935-1943

A boondoggle or saving grace?

A WPA assistant cataloging shells, c. 1937
A WPA assistant cataloging shells, c. 1937

Opponents decried the Works Progress Administration. It employed "boondogglers" — people adept at looking like they were working — and created "leaf-raking" jobs of little or no value. Severist critics of the WPA saw the emergence of socialism in America.

Others see the WPA as the saving grace of the Depression: $4.8 billion dollars invested for work programs, the largest peacetime appropriations in U.S. history. Between 1935 and 1943, almost one-fifth of the nation's workforce was involved with WPA projects. "In the end," writes Branton, "millions of workers found jobs in private industry, their skills intact or increased and their self-respect preserved."

Between 1929 and 1933, the Gross National Product dropped 29 percent; construction was down 78 percent, investments 98 percent, and unemployment rose from 3.2 to 24.9 percent. Banks failed. The homeless stood in soup and bread lines, sold apples on the street, and gathered in makeshift camps they called "Hoovervilles."

President Herbert Hoover responded to the crisis in "the American Way." Relief was a state and local responsibility, he argued. Public works are ineffective and too "paternalistic" and might deepen the Depression.

During the 1932 election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised employment through public works. Hoover argued the promises were "frivolous" and that "no such employment can be found."

The Emergency Relief Act of 1932 lent the states $300 million for relief purposes. The WPA grew from this act in 1935. Roosevelt insisted that a public work should be "useful in that it affords permanent improvement in living conditions or that it creates future new wealth for the Nation." San Diego may have benefited most from these projects. By 1938, construction in San Diego was six times greater than in any other city. "It became difficult to procure enough men for the relief rolls ... for large projects, especially because of the expansion of defense industries and defense-related WPA projects.... The Depression was less severe and ended sooner in San Diego than in most of the nation.

The first local WPA project: On October 1, 1935, 25 workers — surveyors, engineers, brush-cutters, pick-and-shovel men — built a road to the top of Mount Palomar to provide easy access to the new observatory.

On that same date, the government okayed 80 other projects for San Diego. These included the Federal Arts Project, Federal Music Project, and Federal Writers' Project (the latter to prepare an encyclopedic guide to America).

It's hard to look around San Diego and not see evidence of the WPA: the city library, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the dredging of Mission Bay (and Lindbergh Field), restoration of Balboa Park's Exposition Buildings. Even San Diego State University benefitted.

In 1931, the college had outgrown its original location on Normal Street and Park Bouelvard. The WPA helped relocate it to the current site "at the eastern edge of the city." A typical WPA project within the SDSU relocation: Aztec Bowl. "It was ideal in that it employed many men, from 300 to 700, and required little cost in equipment," and most of the work was done with picks and shovels.

During its eight-year tenure in San Diego, the WPA repaired and improved city streets and built many "farm to market" roads, the largest being Mission Gorge Road; one of the smallest projects the trail — and the wooden bridge — on Coast Walk near the La Jolla Cove.

Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the San Diego Civic Center, one of the largest WPA works, on September 16, 1938. The most controversial project? The Del Mar Fairgrounds.

San Diego's first county fair took place in 1890. After that, it moved from town to town — from Oceanside to Escondido to Coronado to the Exposition buildings in Balboa Park. There was no county fair between 1931 and 1935.

"The fragile, temporary structures in Balboa Park were not conducive, and the city wanted to restore them, but not to house animals or handicrafts.... The mesa on which the park was located was experiencing the growth of the Navy Hospital and the zoo." The county needed a permanent fairgrounds.

State Senator Ed Fletcher voted down the first proposed site: Crown Point on Mission Bay. Fletcher recommended a 184-acre in the San Dieguito Valley of Del Mar. Fletcher and his family lived in Del Mar. "As a manager of the South Coast Land Company, he had developed Del Mar's first subdivision in 1908 and had a vested interest in the site.... Land values in Del Mar would naturally be enhanced if it were the location of the county fairgrounds."

The project also included construction of a one-mile racetrack — the only WPA project that did so. A number of men (Bing Crosby among them) formed the Del Mar Turf Club, boasting "the fastest track on the Pacific Coast."

"Criticism came mainly from the leftist San Diego Sun, whose concerns were dismissed because of the money and paychecks that flowed into the county for the track. To add to the dubious nature the project was assuming, state WPA director George B. White was quietly made director of the 22nd Agricultural Distrrict [which includes Del Mar]. WPA directors were not supposed to involve themselves in projects where conflicts of interest could arise."

Del Mar Fairgrounds was the largest single WPA project in San Diego County. "The estimated $498,192 figure was soon extended to $1,023,450, an amount that did not include the Lake Hodges Dam project.

Master's Thesis Excerpts

  1. Clyde Parker, an El Cajon Valley resident and editor [for the Federal Writers' Project] admitted there were a few communists working on the project. In his opinion, examining the political philosophies of others was a sign of the times: "a time when the dodos, dunderheads, and deadheads refused to entertain at least one bright idea regarding the salvation of the state." The communists were not the only political group.... Fascists were present in large enough numbers to support a left and right wing within their own ranks.
  2. The guide was published in 1937 as San Diego, a California City. It contained 138 pages of text, maps, and illustrations.... Pacific Beach residents were irate because mention was made of their racially segregated beach. And the Navy forbade sale of the guide on its property because it did not appreciate a reference to the honky-tonks on lower Fifth Avenue as a playground for the fleet.
  3. Several Schools in the county also received adornment during this period.... Coronado High School has one of the finest examples of relief murals.... Donal Hord served as a draftsman on the project.... The center panel depicts the mythical Amazonian Queen Calafia, after whom California is named.
  4. The largest of these projects was the huge sewer project around San Diego Bay. Because of the dramatic increase in San Diego's population, sewage lines all over the county were literally bursting at the seams. Nowhere, however, was it so evident as in San Diego Bay. The city's self-chosen names of "Heaven on Earth" and "City of Serenity" smelled of another rose.
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A WPA assistant cataloging shells, c. 1937
A WPA assistant cataloging shells, c. 1937

Opponents decried the Works Progress Administration. It employed "boondogglers" — people adept at looking like they were working — and created "leaf-raking" jobs of little or no value. Severist critics of the WPA saw the emergence of socialism in America.

Others see the WPA as the saving grace of the Depression: $4.8 billion dollars invested for work programs, the largest peacetime appropriations in U.S. history. Between 1935 and 1943, almost one-fifth of the nation's workforce was involved with WPA projects. "In the end," writes Branton, "millions of workers found jobs in private industry, their skills intact or increased and their self-respect preserved."

Between 1929 and 1933, the Gross National Product dropped 29 percent; construction was down 78 percent, investments 98 percent, and unemployment rose from 3.2 to 24.9 percent. Banks failed. The homeless stood in soup and bread lines, sold apples on the street, and gathered in makeshift camps they called "Hoovervilles."

President Herbert Hoover responded to the crisis in "the American Way." Relief was a state and local responsibility, he argued. Public works are ineffective and too "paternalistic" and might deepen the Depression.

During the 1932 election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised employment through public works. Hoover argued the promises were "frivolous" and that "no such employment can be found."

The Emergency Relief Act of 1932 lent the states $300 million for relief purposes. The WPA grew from this act in 1935. Roosevelt insisted that a public work should be "useful in that it affords permanent improvement in living conditions or that it creates future new wealth for the Nation." San Diego may have benefited most from these projects. By 1938, construction in San Diego was six times greater than in any other city. "It became difficult to procure enough men for the relief rolls ... for large projects, especially because of the expansion of defense industries and defense-related WPA projects.... The Depression was less severe and ended sooner in San Diego than in most of the nation.

The first local WPA project: On October 1, 1935, 25 workers — surveyors, engineers, brush-cutters, pick-and-shovel men — built a road to the top of Mount Palomar to provide easy access to the new observatory.

On that same date, the government okayed 80 other projects for San Diego. These included the Federal Arts Project, Federal Music Project, and Federal Writers' Project (the latter to prepare an encyclopedic guide to America).

It's hard to look around San Diego and not see evidence of the WPA: the city library, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the dredging of Mission Bay (and Lindbergh Field), restoration of Balboa Park's Exposition Buildings. Even San Diego State University benefitted.

In 1931, the college had outgrown its original location on Normal Street and Park Bouelvard. The WPA helped relocate it to the current site "at the eastern edge of the city." A typical WPA project within the SDSU relocation: Aztec Bowl. "It was ideal in that it employed many men, from 300 to 700, and required little cost in equipment," and most of the work was done with picks and shovels.

During its eight-year tenure in San Diego, the WPA repaired and improved city streets and built many "farm to market" roads, the largest being Mission Gorge Road; one of the smallest projects the trail — and the wooden bridge — on Coast Walk near the La Jolla Cove.

Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the San Diego Civic Center, one of the largest WPA works, on September 16, 1938. The most controversial project? The Del Mar Fairgrounds.

San Diego's first county fair took place in 1890. After that, it moved from town to town — from Oceanside to Escondido to Coronado to the Exposition buildings in Balboa Park. There was no county fair between 1931 and 1935.

"The fragile, temporary structures in Balboa Park were not conducive, and the city wanted to restore them, but not to house animals or handicrafts.... The mesa on which the park was located was experiencing the growth of the Navy Hospital and the zoo." The county needed a permanent fairgrounds.

State Senator Ed Fletcher voted down the first proposed site: Crown Point on Mission Bay. Fletcher recommended a 184-acre in the San Dieguito Valley of Del Mar. Fletcher and his family lived in Del Mar. "As a manager of the South Coast Land Company, he had developed Del Mar's first subdivision in 1908 and had a vested interest in the site.... Land values in Del Mar would naturally be enhanced if it were the location of the county fairgrounds."

The project also included construction of a one-mile racetrack — the only WPA project that did so. A number of men (Bing Crosby among them) formed the Del Mar Turf Club, boasting "the fastest track on the Pacific Coast."

"Criticism came mainly from the leftist San Diego Sun, whose concerns were dismissed because of the money and paychecks that flowed into the county for the track. To add to the dubious nature the project was assuming, state WPA director George B. White was quietly made director of the 22nd Agricultural Distrrict [which includes Del Mar]. WPA directors were not supposed to involve themselves in projects where conflicts of interest could arise."

Del Mar Fairgrounds was the largest single WPA project in San Diego County. "The estimated $498,192 figure was soon extended to $1,023,450, an amount that did not include the Lake Hodges Dam project.

Master's Thesis Excerpts

  1. Clyde Parker, an El Cajon Valley resident and editor [for the Federal Writers' Project] admitted there were a few communists working on the project. In his opinion, examining the political philosophies of others was a sign of the times: "a time when the dodos, dunderheads, and deadheads refused to entertain at least one bright idea regarding the salvation of the state." The communists were not the only political group.... Fascists were present in large enough numbers to support a left and right wing within their own ranks.
  2. The guide was published in 1937 as San Diego, a California City. It contained 138 pages of text, maps, and illustrations.... Pacific Beach residents were irate because mention was made of their racially segregated beach. And the Navy forbade sale of the guide on its property because it did not appreciate a reference to the honky-tonks on lower Fifth Avenue as a playground for the fleet.
  3. Several Schools in the county also received adornment during this period.... Coronado High School has one of the finest examples of relief murals.... Donal Hord served as a draftsman on the project.... The center panel depicts the mythical Amazonian Queen Calafia, after whom California is named.
  4. The largest of these projects was the huge sewer project around San Diego Bay. Because of the dramatic increase in San Diego's population, sewage lines all over the county were literally bursting at the seams. Nowhere, however, was it so evident as in San Diego Bay. The city's self-chosen names of "Heaven on Earth" and "City of Serenity" smelled of another rose.
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