Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Greatest WPA project

Question: What is missing from the stimulus package? A fair answer may be a lot. But what really stands out to me, among all the Great Depression comparisons, is the total lack of attention to arts. Almost as lacking is attention to parks and architecture. On top of that a lot of the projects that got funding right away seem to be unnecessary or at least low priority--and always uninteresting. Considering the money that is being put into it, that's a little shocking.

But I'm not hear to beat up on the stimulus package. That it lacks attention to art that the WPA and New Deal included says something about our values and priorities in this society. I don't think it say much good. One could argue that the only goal of this stimulus is to get the economy back on it's feet and to put as many Americans to work as possible. And that perhaps focusing on art, architecture and parks is not the best way to do that. I don't think that kind of thinking says a lot for us. Part of how we got into this mess is because of the 'benefit of the few' mentality. By making a stimulus plan that only helps transportation and auto workers (and perhaps emergency personnel) we are just continuing down a path that brought us here. Diversify!
Another thing we seem to lack in our society is vision. Under the WPA, many projects were done that still effect us today. In my beloved, local state park, there is a beautiful stone staircase (made with craftsmanship nearly extinct today) down to the waterfall, a huge picnic shelter and several beautiful stone buildings, all done by the WPA. And there are countless such features in parks just across Minnesota, let alone across the USA. In other areas of the country, there were dams, murals and sculpture done, almost all built well enough to serve us now. The architecture of the WPA is precious, not only for its usefulness, but also for its beauty and lost sense of craftsmanship. Some of my favorite all time buildings are WPA structures.

Compare that to today. Most of the money is going into roads. Sure, the automobile rules much more now than in 1934, but roads have to be constantly maintained and improved. Who is going to notice in sixty years when one piece in a long series of improvements on a road was made during our stimulus? We always have to do that. The WPA funded things that are sometimes hard to get done, even in good times, and left behind a memorable and lasting legacy. A whole spectrum of different workers, craftsmen and artists found employment this way. The way we see things now suggests we could learn a lot looking back at the WPA and New Deal

All this has been boiling under the surface of my mind for a while, but exploded fourth when I visited Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota. It is probably one of the oddest WPA projects. Built in 1934, it coincided with rising tourism to the region due to Mount Rushmore. It amounts to a kitsch dream, a place Pee Wee Herman wouldn't dare believe to be true. It sits on a scenic hill overlooking the city. On it are five Dinosaur sculptures (another Dinosaur and Reptile were added later), built life size, in concrete and painted only green with white and red trim. They freeze in time the way people thought Dinosaurs looked in the thirties. Perhaps we don't know much better, but the cartoonish way these lummoxes are sculpted just invites people to climb on them. In short, Dinosaur Park is pure fun, and my favorite WPA project.

1 comment:

Tim Wirth said...

I viewed these as equals to Mt Rushmore when I visited as a child. They are more crude and silly than I remember- they're better than I remember! I like the green/white paint. I can only assume a crew of hard-hands come along and slop paint on them every couple years from two different buckets, one labeled "GREEN" and one labeled "WHITE". That might be the most wonderful thing about these. I'd like to do a painting that someone else would have to maintain in such a way. "Put some white here and some green here when it looks like it needs it. I don't care where you get the paint, just get some green and white."