Monday, October 1, 2012

WPA Watercolors

This is the last in my series of essays from the Art and History Museum on Front Street. The title is self explanatory but there is quite a bit of background to fill in for those who don't know about Key West's peculiar place in the period of national reconstruction during the Great Depression.

It is fashionable among the one percent and their acolytes to dismiss President Roosevelt's efforts to cope with the Great Depression by spending money on public works. Nowadays we see money spent on propping up international banks to no visible public purpose, with no legacy in mind other than power sharing and private profit.

Time has not been generous to the artwork produced during the period of the Works Progress Administration but through the faded colors you can still see the vibrant tropical town Key West was and is. Though I have to confess that as hard as I looked I saw no sign of the fabled depression era Cuban chickens roaming the streets...

In 1934 Key West went bust to the tune of five million dollars of debt. Fully eighty percent of city residents were on welfare and all island industries had abandoned the city for the mainland. Cigar making, pineapple canning, all military bases and steamship stops had abandoned Key West. The fishing industry had collapsed under the weight of lack of money and markets and city employees were not getting paid.

Julius Stone was sent to Key West by President Roosevelt to see what should be done with the little town at the end of the railroad.

There were plans to evacuate the Keys permanently but Stone who was known for walking around town in shorts, scandalous attire in public for a grown man in modest Key West, figured he could remake the town's image into an American Bermuda, a vacation destination.

While President Roosevelt was fending off a fascist putsch planned by business interests who wanted General Smedley Butler of the Marine Corps at their head, Stone was busy convincing the city he could bring them back to economic life.

General Butler remained a patriot and rejected the coup plotters while in Key West the Federal Emergency Relief Administration had two million dollars to do something. He hired people to work to clean the town up and with his dictatorial powers Stone contemplated the evacuation plan but decided "Latina and Negroes" would do no better in Tampa than Key West so he just ploughed on and rebuilt the town.

The radical Socialist plan worked and Key West was preserved, what with the road coming to town in 1938, another Government benefit which no one begrudged the city, tourism slowly picked up and the economy revived.

Artists too were part of the public sending bonanza and without government largesse these extraordinary pictures would never have been created. Above the still recognizable southernmost house and below a completely unrecognizable Simonton Beach canning operation fallen on hard times.

It's worth thinking about the legacy we see today from that period of crushing poverty and the collapse of society. The path FDR took is diametrically opposed to that chosen today. The naysayers will say it didn't work. Art and History show it did.

I don't see the bankers who today swallow billions of public funds doing anything as useful for society at large. Call me sentimental.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Jack Riepe said...

Dear Editor:

We live in a very sad world. The artist and the creative soul goe begging, while the CEO and and the banker roll in government supplied cash. Neither party has a right to be pleased with the past four years, nor the four years to come.

By the way, thank you for buying so many copies of my book. They are shipping this week. I am thrilled with the way it came out.

Fondest regards,

Conchscooter said...

I look forward to getting my copies, as do my friends.I am sure your other blogging compadres have lined up for a copy as "Conversations with a Motorcycle" is bound to become the talking point of any intelligent gathering of humans, whether they ride or not.
Click on Riepe's website Twisted Roads for more info.

Singing to Jeffrey's Tune said...


A small glimmer of hope is the cause of the average citizen picking up the slack with crowd funding. Artists, game developers, and writers have all benefited from their fans with the likes of Kickstarter.

Likewise, at a recent TEDx event (localized events), I saw a talk that was akin for government services, where the people vote their dollars to specific civil projects via crowd funding.

Our inventors have used crowd funding in our non-profit inventors group to fund their inventions.

Perhaps where our government has failed us, our citizens may re-learn intrinsic values and pick up the slack. Or perhaps I am too hopeful.


Conchscooter said...

I like that idea, Jeffrey. It restores some measure of decision making to people disempowered. I heard a similar story on NPR about it too, so it may be gaining critical mass.