The once and future stimulus: What the WPA brought Oakland

March 4, 2009

With all the talk of what the economic stimulus bill might hold for Oakland in the coming months and years, I couldn’t help but be drawn to this little piece of history: a retrospective on the New Deal and its legacy for California. The Oakland Heritage Alliance (OHA) recently hosted a lecture at Chapel of the Chimes by Gray Brechin, an historical geographer at Berkeley, on the  WPA and the Oakland park system. (Incidentally, if you want to know about upcoming OHA events, they just updated their website to include, of all things, a Twitter feed to keep you up to date. Huh.)

WPA: Work Pays America!

WPA: Work Pays America!

Anyway, Dr. Brechin’s current work, California’s Living New Deal Project, actually extends far beyond the legacy for Oakland parks. He’s got a pretty cool interactive website up that allows you to map and learn more about the various New Deal projects across the state. Even more exciting (for me) is that the project is documenting personal experiences with New Deal projects during the 1930s—a veritable public history of the era (and not unlike the oral history projects that the original New Deal funded, something I really wish the current stimulus had included!)  The New Deal changed the face of the East Bay pretty dramatically, and reshaped life in Oakland as we know it. I was amazed to see some of the projects that came out of the 1930s jobs programs: FDR’s plan for American helped pay for everything from OAK to Highland Hospital to the courthouse to our parks and gardens.

Oakland Rose Garden (Morcom Amphitheater of Roses)

Oakland Rose Garden (Morcom Amphitheater of Roses)

The list includes:

Know of others? The project’s interactive map lets you add new projects or others that you’re curious about—the project team will look into them and add them to the map if they are indeed New Deal projects.

Woodminster Theater in 1941

Woodminster Theater in 1941

The best part of the project, though, is the gallery of interviews. The website only offers a taste of the stories so far, but even that’s enough to begin to get a sense of the history. For instance, one of Dr. Brechin’s subjects writes:

“I grew up in the 1930s in the Rockridge district in Oakland. Construction of the New Tunnel Road began sometime early in this period just over the hill from our house with WPA workers using wheel barrows and shovels. They worked in this fashion for a year or two until somebody decided to get serious and earth movers and tractors arrived and the project moved ahead at a much faster pace.

Lake Temescal Regional Park was developed at this time near our house with WPA labor. The reservoir edge was rip rapped and trails were built on the west hillside. There was a playing field at the upper end of the lake. I used to ride my bicycle over the trails to the field as a boy.

Growing up in the 1930s, in retrospect, seemed like a renaissance period with so many useful and handsome public facilities and buildings being built. After the war, There was less interest in funding parks and public buildings. I am sure that there was much economic distress during the period, but to me, the many civic projects brought a feeling of well being and optimism which I have not experienced since.”

— Ralph Anderson, Boulder, Colorado

Visit California’s Living New Deal Project for more interviews and an interactive map of New Deal projects in California.

More fun with the WPA:


  1. in a recent walk I notices that wpa 1933 is inscribed on the concrete culvert in sausal creek beneath the liemert bridge

  2. I was going to mention the same WPA stamps in Dimond Canyon/Sausal Creek that Mike Church noted. It looks like that project isn’t included on the Living New Deal Project list, so maybe I’ll submit it. (I think the dates on the Sausal Creek culvert are actually 1939 and 1940; the WPA wasn’t established until 1935.)

  3. I see a lot of WPA marks in and around Rockridge and have documented them for 1939, 1940 and 1941.

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