Tag: Architecture


A New Deal for California

by Gray Brechin

Recovering a history hidden in plain sight

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Hubris doesn’t begin to describe what we proposed to do: document every last physical trace of the Depression-era federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) in California. All of it—every plaque, school, fountain, tennis court, park, and ranger station built by the WPA as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal for America. What was I thinking? It helped that I didn’t really know what I was in for. The markers left by the WPA on sidewalks, public restrooms, and Berkeley’s beloved Municipal Rose Garden had long intrigued me, but I had never gone out of my way to hunt them down. And I knew nothing of agencies like the PWA, CWA, FERA, REA, or the RA, but I knew that the Three Cs, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), had built rustic structures and trails in the East Bay Regional Parks. But in 2004, the Columbia Foundation gave photographer Robert Dawson and me a grant to kick off the project, so we got to work.

I assumed that the New Deal was centralized in Washington, D.C., so surely I would find the records of its accomplishments neatly filed and accessible at the Library of Congress or the National Archives. A few trips to the nation’s capital were sufficient to convince me that I was wrong. WPA filing cards are not very informative, and they were preserved on some of the worst microfilm I’ve ever encountered. Public Works Administration (PWA) reports were also microfilmed, but they were stored in a dauntingly complex filing system and are so voluminous that no one but a young, tenured professor contemplating a life’s project could hope to come to grips with them. If the CCC records for the work done at thousands of camps existed anywhere, they would be similarly intimidating. Unfortunately, many of those records have been lost or destroyed over the decades since the effort to gear up for World War II abruptly killed the New Deal public works programs. As Harold Ickes, the head of the PWA, said in 1939 as he broke ground for Friant Dam in California: “Even those of us in Washington who are responsible for carrying out orders sometimes lack comprehension of the mighty sweep of this program.”

The range of projects built under the auspices of the New Deal defies easy description. No city, town, or rural area in the country was left untouched. Tens of thousands of roads, schools, theaters, libraries, hospitals, post offices, courthouses, airports, parks, forests, gardens, and works of art were built or improved in a single decade by those of our parents and grandparents who worked for the New Deal agencies or the companies they contracted. The result was a rich landscape of public works across the nation, often of outstanding beauty, utility, and craftsmanship. Early on, one of our sources told me, “Growing up in the 1930s, in retrospect, seemed like a renaissance period with so many useful and handsome public facilities and buildings being built …. 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.” I have heard many such testimonials since then from people who lived through the Roosevelt years.

Among the many WPA initiatives I discovered in my early research were archaeological digs and historical re-creations, and they gave me the idea for an analogous effort: to create an ever-expanding excavation to reveal a buried and lost civilization. This was not, however, a civilization engulfed by the jungles of Guatemala or the sands of Egypt. It was our own history and a monument to an era a mere seventy-five years old but almost entirely forgotten by what Gore Vidal called the “United States of Amnesia.”

The National Archives preserved many boxes of roughly organized archival photographs of New Deal public works. I scanned hundreds of images that began to reveal the magnitude of what we had undertaken by trying to document the WPA’s work in California—and photographs bear witness to only a fraction of the work that was done by the WPA and other New Deal public works agencies.

Fortunately, in his indispensable book Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal (University of South Carolina Press, 2007), Robert Leighninger, Jr. describes all of the New Deal public works agencies and explains how they changed during their brief years of existence in response to the whipsaw of political and budgetary pressures exerted on the Roosevelt administration.1 The book is as inspiring as it is informative. But even after twelve years of research, Leighninger didn’t come close to documenting every New Deal work. He revealed only the tip of an enormous iceberg.

I only intended to catalog the remnants of the WPA in California, but even that task began to seem impossible for a two-man operation. So I began to gather together a group of like-minded folks to help with the effort. We launched California’s Living New Deal Project in 2005. (The word “living” reflects that most of the public works of the 1930s remain in daily use today by countless people who take them for granted.) I soon realized that we needed a more professional operation, and that’s when I asked Dick Walker to help us with his organizing experience and sources of support at the University of California, Berkeley. We began to build a database of projects and display them on a Google map, each dot opening to reveal documentary data and, wherever possible, contemporary and archival photos.2

We also joined forces with the California History Society and, with another grant from the Columbia Foundation, hired Lisa Ericksen to work as project ringmaster. Lisa invited historians, archivists, and others from around the state to attend workshops in Berkeley and San Francisco. Those attendees constituted our first network of informants feeding information to our graduate-student research assistants, who fact-checked for accuracy and entered information into the database and map.3 Because much of the evidence for New Deal public works is not available at the National Archives but in local histories, newspapers, municipal records, and scrapbooks, knowledgeable informants are crucial to the whole project, making it a Living New Deal in a double sense. By 2010 we had gathered enough data to map our first 1,000 sites.

Tile mural and sculpture at San Francisco Aquatic Park, created by the WPA.

The Living New Deal project grew timelier as California’s economic condition deteriorated into what press and pundits routinely dubbed the Great Recession, the worst crisis since the 1930s and similarly the product of rampant corruption that sprang from deregulation. Unfortunately for present-day California, the state’s modern leadership was doing precisely the opposite of what Roosevelt’s New Deal did to kick the economy out of the doldrums. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, closed state parks and stinted on their maintenance in a futile effort to balance the state budget, despite the lessons that might have been drawn from the fact that California’s once exemplary state park system was largely the product of CCC labor in its early years. The same is true of the East Bay Regional Parks and most national park and forest campgrounds, trails, amphitheaters, and buildings. WPA workers improved every public park in San Francisco and planted thousands of street trees in other cities now in their maturity. They built San Francisco and Berkeley’s Aquatic Parks, along with recreational marinas throughout the state. Thousands of streets, sidewalks, and bridges were constructed by laborers whose wages in turn cycled into the economy, refloating it from the bottom rather than waiting for cash to trickle down from on high to those most urgently in need.

New Deal agencies similarly came to the aid of public education from kindergarten to the university level. Scarcely a town in California lacks a school built or improved by the WPA or the PWA. Many of these new schools replaced ramshackle, crowded, and inadequate structures with modern fire- and earthquake-resistant facilities that boasted science labs, libraries, cafeterias, kitchens, athletic facilities, and multiuse auditoriums that quickly became community centers. A panel of architects tasked by President Roosevelt to select the best PWA projects in the country flatly stated, “Some of the best architecturally outstanding buildings in all types may be found in California,” and singled out the state’s public schools for special praise.

The Sunshine School in San Francisco, built by the PWA.

After hearing about the Living New Deal project, a seventy-seven-year-old man wrote me to say that his Watsonville elementary school “had features we would never have enjoyed if the local taxpayers had to foot the bill.” The redwood basketball arena at Watsonville High, he said, “was the pride of all who attended” the school. He recalled the joy of hearing live classical music played by a WPA Symphony Orchestra in that auditorium, so I sent him a photograph that I’d scanned at the National Archives of school children enjoying a concert. He responded, “I’m sure I’m somewhere in that crowd.”

In less than six years, WPA labor and PWA funding built entire campuses such as the community colleges at Santa Rosa, Long Beach, San Francisco, Pasadena, Santa Barbara, Fullerton, and Los Angeles. The PWA built a state-of-the-art orthopedic school for crippled and malnourished children in San Francisco’s Mission District. Not only did the Sunshine School feature ramps and elevators now mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, it was richly embellished with elaborate Spanish tiles, stenciled ceilings, and Moorish light fixtures. Such aesthetic considerations were no accident. “Everything possible has been done to create the most cheerful possible atmosphere in order to encourage the children to forget as far as possible their disabilities,” noted the authors of a report on the best PWA projects.

Mosaic on the old university art gallery at UC Berkeley, created by the WPA.

The National Youth Administration (NYA) provided work-study jobs so that students could complete their education, as well as vocational training. CCC “boys,” who were mostly young, uneducated, and unskilled, reconstructed Mission La Purissima Concepcion in Lompoc from the ruins left by an earthquake, while WPA workers restored General Vallejo’s home in Sonoma, although they left no marker to remind the future they had done so. The New Deal agencies did not just employ unskilled workers such as those in the CCC and the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the precursor of the WPA; the New Deal also put to work thousands of teachers, educational aides, librarians, nutritionists, bookbinders, conservators, translators, and recreational supervisors—and it put them to work in newly built public libraries, museums, zoos, and park visitors’ centers.

The WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP) commissioned artists to embellish existing and new schools with murals, sculpture, and easel paintings. Some of that artwork—such as Jacques Schnier’s gigantic relief of Saint George slaying the dragon of ignorance at Berkeley High School—is accessible to the public. However, security concerns have rendered many New Deal works, such as a magnificent wood inlay panorama of Bakersfield at East Bakersfield High School, invisible. California’s public schools represent a vast and largely unknown reservoir of art created during the Great Depression. The Living New Deal relies on teachers, principals, and custodians to alert and send us photos of paintings, sculptures, and even, as at San Jose’s Hoover Middle School, stained glass windows hidden within their schools. Another federal agency—the Treasury Section of Fine Arts—was responsible for the thousands of murals and sculptures in post offices and other federal structures.

The Redlands Post Office, funded by the US Treasury.

The New Deal built few prisons but many schools, in the belief that it is far better and cheaper for the nation and communities to educate their young rather than to punish them. WPA bureaucrats were deeply concerned with juvenile delinquency at a time when job prospects for young men were even bleaker than now—and they foresaw the need for leisure activities once the economy improved—so they built public tennis courts, ball fields, golf courses, and swimming pools, most of which are still in heavy use. In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, the WPA built public stables, a model yacht clubhouse, and one of the finest fly-casting facilities in the country, thereby making available to everyone sports previously available only to the well-to-do. Near the summit of Mount Tamalpais State Park, CCC work crews moved lichen-encrusted boulders to create the open-air Mountain Theater, while in the Oakland hills WPA crews built the Woodminster amphitheater with a magnificent water cascade and fountains dedicated to California’s writers.

Long Beach Municipal Airport terminal building, built by the WPA.

An elderly woman involved in the Federal Theater Project told me that those few years constituted “the most creative period in American history.” FDR’s critics dismissed the New Deal’s public works projects as “boondoggles.” But far from being wasteful, New Deal projects were carefully monitored and remarkably free of scandal despite intense scrutiny from political opponents. The long-term payoff from this public investment helped propel American economic growth after World War II and much of it is still working for the American people today.

In 2010, we expanded the Living New Deal to the whole country in order to inventory, map, and publicize the achievements of the New Deal in all fifty states and US territories. We knew this expansion would require a rapid scaling up of the project, including its web presence, project team, and financing. First, the website was completely overhauled by new programmer Ben Hass. Second, the project team had to grow, so we added a communications expert, Susan Ives, a fundraising consultant, Adam Kinsey, and oral historian and book review editor, Sam Redman, among others. Meanwhile, our research assistants, Shaina Potts and John Elrick, were adding to the database and map, mostly from published documents on the New Deal, ramping up to more than two thousand sites by the summer of 2012.4

A Yosemite restroom, built by the CCC.

The new fundraising team raised our income substantially, allowing us to leap to a much greater organizational capacity. We were able to hire a new project manager, Rachel Brahinsky, who lent a whole new dynamism to our team of stalwarts and who made a concerted outreach to locate researchers around the country to help us locate New Deal public-works sites.5 As her efforts bore fruit, we created a national network of regional associates in Maryland, Virginia, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi, and Southern California. By mid-2013, the project had a dozen research associates around the country, and that number grew to a total of thirty in more than half the states by 2014. Our search for research affiliates in all fifty states continues as more people discover the Living New Deal on the Web, Facebook, and Twitter, and as they contact us to volunteer.

In 2013, Barbara Bernstein agreed to merge her magnificent crowd-sourced website, The New Deal Art Registry, into the Living New Deal database. With that addition and a surge in new submissions from our associates’ network, our database leapt to five thousand sites by late 2013. It was receiving around five thousand unique visits each week—a doubling of the archive and public access over the previous year. We are well on the way to doubling both totals again in 2014.

Relief sculpture on Berkeley High School, created by the WPA.

Because these public works are rarely marked, the New Deal’s ongoing contribution to American life goes largely unseen. Millions of Americans use the New Deal’s parks, libraries, and schools every day; for the most part, they are completely unaware of where they came from and what they represent. Given the epic scale of what was achieved during the Roosevelt years, it seems inconceivable that no national register exists of what the New Deal agencies built.

We stand on the shoulders of giants who include not only Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the ingenious and compassionate men and women they gathered around themselves, but also the millions of anonymous workers who transformed a nation facing economic calamity before they turned their energies to fighting World War II. The Living New Deal is making visible their enduring legacy.

California historian and former State Librarian Kevin Starr has likened the Living New Deal to a WPA project from the 1930s in its ambition and scope. Like the WPA, the national inventory is actively involving ordinary Americans in the fascinating detective work of assembling history from scratch, rediscovering and mapping a lost landscape of our own making. As a lifelong Californian, I’m proud to say that, like so much else, it started here in the Golden State.

Far from an antiquarian exercise, the Living New Deal aims to help preserve precious art and architecture from destruction or privatization, to see that New Deal sites are properly marked, and to help communities and families across the nation rediscover their heritage. Moreover, the New Deal legacy could be a model for the present. The economic crisis that began in 2008 invited many comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s, along with calls for similar government programs to revive the economy and relieve the severe unemployment and financial suffering of millions of Americans. The latest crisis was centered in California, and the Golden State felt the effects worse than any other part of the United States: the state’s unemployment rate hovered near 10 percent, wages stagnated, deficits bankrupted local governments, home foreclosures were epidemic, and overall economic growth was anemic. Unlike the Great Depression, however, government programs shrank, infrastructure continued to decay, and the richest 1 percent gained a larger share of the state’s wealth.6

San Bernardino Mission Assistencia, restored by the WPA.

A new New Deal, which many people hoped President Barack Obama might launch, could have helped enormously, but what we got was a weak imitation.7 A common mistake, even among historians and economists, is to think that the Great Depression was ended only by the buildup to World War II. We now have clear evidence that the economy revived smartly from 1933 onward, despite a setback in 1937, with growth rates of 5 to 9 percent per year. By 1942, it was already back to the level it would have attained had there been no depression. This era also saw the greatest rise in the productivity rate in American history. World War II’s main contribution to ending the Depression was to absorb the remaining unemployed labor. Prior to the crash of 1929, the United States was poised to become the world’s dominant economy. The meme so often repeated during the Great Recession that FDR’s New Deal was a well-meaning but ineffective (or worse) effort to revive the economy before the war smashed those of its competitors is simply wrong.8

The legacy of the New Deal has much to teach us about farsighted leadership and what can be achieved when our country rallies to serve the needs of ordinary people in troubled times. The New Deal not only pulled the country out of economic doldrums, it left a long-term foundation of physical and cultural infrastructure that underwrote a golden age of American prosperity after World War II. What is more, the New Deal provides an example of what positive government can achieve when it invests in public works and policies that serve the collective good. Government can, indeed, work for all the people by putting people to work and restoring meaning to their lives while building things of beauty, such as elegant buildings embellished with public art, that improve the lives of all who use them. It’s our hope that the Living New Deal will continue to remind Americans of the tangible evidence of what this country once had and did, as well as to inspire us to build the parks, bridges, schools, libraries, and artistic endeavors that researchers eighty years hence will eagerly track down.


Many thanks to Dick Walker for comments, additions, and edits, not to mention all his work building the Living New Deal project. Further thanks go to the Department of Geography, where I have enjoyed residence as Visiting Scholar, and to our collaborators at the National New Deal Preservation Association, the California Historical Society, and UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research in Labor and Employment (IRLE).

First image by Flickr user Waltarrrrr; all others by the author.

1 A valuable companion work, which I discovered later, is Jason Scott Smith’s New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933–1956 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Smith is a former Berkeley history student.

2 This was the work of the excellent programmers, Elizabeth del Rocio Camacho and Heather Lynch, at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCB.

3 Lindsey Dillon and Shaina Potts, graduate students in geography at UCB, have earned my deepest gratitude for all they have done over the years. Without their intelligence and hard work, we would have floundered long ago.

4 The project and its server also moved to the Department of Geography, where it is still housed. We have recently gained nonprofit status to operate off-campus, as well.

5 Funded by a bequest by Ann Baumann of New Mexico (daughter of New Deal artist Gustave Baumann) through the National New Deal Preservation Association. Rachel’s good work has been followed up by Alex Tarr, our current Project Manager.

6 On California’s central role in the Great Recession, see Ashok Bardhan and Richard Walker, “California Shrugged: The Fountainhead of the Great Recession,’’ Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 4:3 (2011): 303–22. Nevada and Arizona had higher rates of foreclosure and unemployment, but they have much smaller economies and their fortunes are closely tied to California.

7 Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act actually did help, along with massive injections of money by the Federal Reserve Bank, which is why the United States has done better since 2009 than Europe under German-led austerity.

8 Christina Romer, “What Ended the Great Depression?” Journal of Economic History 52: 4 (1992): 757–84. Alexander Field, A Great Leap Forward: The 1930s Depression and US Economic Growth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).


Ikea-fying Los Angeles

by Alex Schmidt
Photographs by the author

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Financing the Familiar

On a sunny day in northeast Los Angeles, you could take a slow drive around comfortably run-down streets that wend through gentle hills and see it all through the eyes of Steve Jones.

“There’s another one,” Jones says under his breath as he spots the work of a competitor. “Hilarious.”

When Jones started flipping homes (purchasing houses with the goal of selling them for a profit) three years ago, as principal of his design and development company Better Shelter, he was one of few people in the area doing this work. Today, a flipped home can be found on nearly every block in the neighborhood, thanks to at least a dozen small developers or individual flippers getting in on the game—a fact that titillates Jones.

Photograph by Alex Schmidt

The houses aren’t difficult to spot. They usually follow some variation of the following pattern: gray or greenish-gray paint, white or brick red trim, a colorful door—mint green, orange, red—and sometimes a colorful accent mailbox. Instantly recognizable horizontal wood-slat fencing is the final touch.

While the push of gentrification eastward from Hollywood is well known—Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Eagle Rock—this area has yet to “turn.” Rising property values and the disappearance of renters as higher-income residents move in—telltale social signposts of gentrification—have not fully arrived. Yet there are other, aesthetic signposts of a coming turn visible to anyone who cares to look. The business-minded are remaking this neighborhood in what many of them call an “Ikea-like” style of development. If the trend continues, it could have ramifications for the neighborhoods well into the future.

The neighborhood

The last pocket of affordable housing stock in that eastward gentrification wave, before you hit long-upscale Pasadena and abutting downtown LA, which sits to the south, includes the neighborhoods of Highland Park, Mount Washington and Glassell Park.

There are a few larger commercialized streets in the neighborhoods, with small corner markets here and there. Three years ago, Highland Park was two-thirds Latino, and many of the businesses have Latino names and sell Mexican or Central American food or products. Several of the homes are surrounded by chain link or iron fences. There are lots of dogs—nearly everywhere, you can hear them barking.

The area was one of the first to be subdivided as Los Angeles spread out beyond its downtown heart in the late 19th century. Like much of LA, there’s no single architectural style here. The homes range from stucco boxes to Craftsman bungalows to Spanish colonial revival, and others. There are a few streets with larger homes, but mainly, the houses are modestly sized, middle-class affairs. The size is perfect for picking up and turning around in a short period of time, and the location makes sense for developers looking to cash in on the gentrification push.

Photograph by Alex Schmidt

Why they look the same

Developers are notoriously risk averse. A house flip is a gamble to begin with, but a new design adds on cost, plus the possibility that it just won’t sell. Going with a tried and true design is simply a more secure bet in the grand scheme. Beyond that, though, today the cards of the home ownership system are stacked against individual middle-class property owners looking to create their own design. That’s because banks (at least until very recently) won’t lend to them.

Every buyer wants a deal, and in the real estate world, the best deals are distressed properties. With a relatively small investment, a home buyer could turn a dump into the pretty nest she’s dreamed of. But banks refuse to finance sale of these properties to the average borrower. Chris Redfearn, a professor of real estate at USC, says that banks won’t do lending for construction redevelopment: “A house for 200K that [I] plan to put 70K in – I can’t get that loan and I don’t have the equity. So who’s left?”

People like Jones, who have the money. He can spend about $190,000 in cash, put in $80,000 of work, and turn it around four months later for around $400,000.

“Right now, we’re working on about 10 homes,” Jones says. “A lot of them are not financeable because they lack bathrooms or heating systems . . . so we take them and fix them up.” Those fix-ups, rather than reflecting the tastes of individual buyers, are the formulaic ones of developers.

Why people like them

Simply put, the style of these homes appeals to a pervading mindset. With their little plots of land, bucolic, fenced-in yards, fragrant citrus trees, and attractively simple staging furniture, the homes seem to represent the world before complications of contemporary life.

Dana Cuff, professor of architecture and urban planning at UCLA, believes the recent foreclosure crisis may have something to do with their appeal: “Maybe the American Dream, which we’ve seen so heartily crushed in 2008, is coming back writ large in iconic form. No one [today] really believes they’ll ever own their house, you’ll never get a loan, you won’t have the same spouse, and you’re certainly not going to get old in these houses. You need a more heavy symbolism in these houses to make them work.” The formula for their appeal, she says, “follows the pattern of nostalgic home desires—it’s sort of a pre-nuclear thing . . . The colors are pre-war—they hearken back to 1890 to 1940.”

Photograph by Alex Schmidt

Jones concurs. “A lot of what our homebuyers are craving, even if they don’t know it, is authenticity and integrity.”

Yet how authentic is a home that looks similar to so many others nearby? Pricing and construction details reveal that this is in fact a mass-produced, ready-to-wear authenticity. It can be shed easily when the whims of the buyer—or the winds of the economy—change.

A different kind of neighborhood change

The style and staging of the homes suggests that people moving into them are a different crop of homeowner than those who have lived in these neighborhoods in the past. Indeed, homeowners of today are different from homeowners of the past. That’s because the average length of stay in a home in America is no longer a generation.

Photograph by Alex Schmidt

Andy Wu, a media consultant, and his wife recently bought one of Steve Jones’ flipped homes. Wu is 38, his wife 35. They only plan to stay about 10 years, until they have a family and outgrow the house. He says they liked that everything was designed attractively and in move-in condition; if you don’t plan to stay long, it’s great to have a lifestyle ready upon arrival.

This may be a different kind of neighborhood change than has been seen in the past. It’s not just that higher-income folks are moving in, but that they are moving into homes they plan to leave. The downturn in the market, lending policies of banks, and the spirit of our age have created design-friendly Ikea-esque homes on every corner of this L.A. neighborhood, ready to be bought and not long after, sold again.

A new house or storefront here or there, slowly changing the visual landscape, is the way neighborhood change and gentrification begin. But those early signposts can stay invisible, says Jerome Krase, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who has studied gentrification. “Local residents are often oblivious to a single store or home that looks different, or a few young people who move in,” he notes.

Indeed, Highland Park homeowner Gerardo Borja lives next door to a Steve Jones flip. He has lived in his home, a nondescript off-white box with a brown roof and green artificial turf in front, for 46 years. Though the house next to his is about to change, and though the roots of his neighborhood may be shallower than the ones he’s grown in his own home, he says he hasn’t noticed many differences in the area: “We don’t really have time to look around.”

Neighborhood change is incremental until it isn’t. In a city as diffuse as Los Angeles, it can be hard to spot, unless you know the signposts to look for. How will our future neighborhoods look and, more importantly, feel? At some point, probably not too far off, we’ll find out.


Concrete in Paradise

by Rebecca Solnit
photographs by Alex Fradkin
From Boom Summer 2011, Vol. 1, No. 2

Et in Arcadia ego says the famous inscription on the tomb in Nicholas Poussin’s paintings of that title. Even in Paradise there am I. He painted this tomb twice, surrounded by a group of shepherds and a woman (possibly a goddess), as though he himself were wrestling with the meanings. The assertion is sometimes thought to be spoken by Death itself; or perhaps the speaker is the dead shepherd whose tomb is being inspected. Whether the text refers to death or to one dead friend, the tomb is two kinds of intrusion into the landscape.

Growing is also dying, even in Arcadia, even in springtime, when the new grass pushes through the old, when the trees and flowers feed on the soil made out of life and digested deaths, where mortality itself, of lambs and shepherds alike, gives life the poignancy that heaven lacks. Poussin’s Arcadia is a little rough and rustic—not tender shoots but lean trees, and in the distance, sharp crags. And in the middle of it all, the architectural intrusion of the big, heavy, rectilinear stone monument in the landscape—a trace of industry, of a labor far harder than herding, of something permanent in a landscape of change.

We have our own tombs throughout the coastal Bay Area, each of which could readily be inscribed et in Arcadia ego. In the paradises I have hiked so often—among the deer carcasses, squashed salamanders, the pellets of coyote and fox spoor in which the fur of mice and rabbits is compressed—there are seventy or so bunker complexes whose blunt concrete forms are an apt modern echo of that shepherd’s tomb. These bunkers commemorate the violent death of war, in thought if not in deed.

There they are, along the beaches, roads, and the trails of the superlatively beautiful Marin Headlands, to be stumbled upon by hikers and day trippers who will stop for a moment to think more somber thoughts, pause like Poussin’s shepherds to contemplate monuments and death. Outdated even as they were being built, the bunkers are monuments to a particular imagination of danger and fear. In a way, they are honorable monuments to the idea that wars involve direct confrontation, and that the US could face the same threats it has imposed on other nations. Soldiers sat in the bunkers waiting for ships to appear on the horizon, waiting to receive orders to fire on those ships and to be fired upon. No ships arrived, however, and the nature of modern warfare rendered the bunkers obsolete.

Ammunition Casement #1 Battery East: Fort Winfield Scott, 2005 © Alex Fradkin

“We are here because wars are now fought in outer space,” said Jennifer Dowley, Director of the Headlands Center for the Arts in the 1980s, when the center was still a fresh arrival in what was a fairly new national park, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Not far away, the Star Wars missile defense system was being actively pursued at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The park is unusual because it’s a large amount of open space, almost 75,000 acres, in one of the major metropolitan areas in the country. It’s also unusual because its focus is neither historical nor natural, but an uneasy melding of the two. The history is rarely examined, though its evidence is everywhere in the chunks of concrete embedded throughout the landscape of the park. These are the dozens of bunkers and related structures, crumbling souvenirs of the wars that never were or that were waged elsewhere. And yet, war is here in California in a thousand ways. Even in the Headlands there is war.

Dowley spoke in Building 944, a spacious military barracks built in 1907, when the Headlands was an adjunct of the Pacific headquarters of the US Army across the Golden Gate at San Francisco’s Presidio and Fort Mason. From those headquarters US military action from the Indian Wars to the Korean and Vietnam wars was directed; during the Second World War alone, more than a million soldiers were said to have embarked from Fort Mason for the Pacific theater of war. The barracks, with the other handsome buildings arrayed in a horseshoe that fits into the hillside, were used for training soldiers who’d be deployed across the Pacific. The Bay Area has always been militarized, always involved with wars, though most of the actual wars were fought elsewhere.

If you walk down Building 944’s worn, handsome, wooden staircase, out the big doors, and head west past the old bowling alley and chapel, the eucalyptuses and the Monterey cypresses, you come to a Nike missile launch site tucked into a depression that the road curves around. It was designed to fire nuclear-tipped weapons at incoming missiles launched from overseas. In the 1950s the threat was thought to be Russia, but by the late 1960s the nuclear war fantasies that generated the preventative architecture and weapons included China. By then, the idea that a missile could take out a missile was itself something of a fantasy. There was no particular reason to situate missile depots directly on the coast. The Marin County Planning Department put together a staff report (probably written by my father) in 1969 that questioned “whether the probable risk of accident isn’t greater than the probable risk from the kind of attack these missiles are supposed to defend against.” Fortunately, neither accident nor attack ever came before the warheads were taken away. What remains are busily unaesthetic structures surrounded by cyclone fencing.

Untitled #4: Battery Townsley, Fort Cronkhite, 2005 © Alex Fradkin

So ignore the Nike facility and keep walking. You can choose the narrow, uneven trail that takes you through tall green banks of willows, coyote bush, brambles, and poison oak, on past the lagoon that pelicans, ducks, seagulls and other birds frequent, to the sand of Rodeo Beach, the cove beyond the lagoon and between two high shoulders of coastline. If you go left, or south, you’ll come to the bunkers. If you go north, you’ll pass the many buildings of Fort Cronkhite and arrive at the old road that leads to more bunkers. They are embedded in the landscape like shrapnel or buckshot in a body, the ruins of old fears and old versions of war, the architecture of a violence that was first of all a violence against the earth, with concrete poured dozens of feet deep into slopes that were also home to rare species and prone to erosion when disrupted.

These welts of concrete have shifted, cracked, crumbled, and in some cases slid down eroded hillsides into the surf, but the majority of them are still in place. If you imagine them as an assault on the earth, then the earth has fought back, with foliage that has half-hidden and choked some of them, with the forces of water and temperature that drove cracks in the massive structures, with erosion that has dislodged and tilted some at crazy angles. But they have a harsh beauty of their own, in the simple geometry of the domes and semicircular walls and cylindrical pits of the gun emplacements, in the steps that take you up to the roofs of some of the structures, and particularly in the long tunnels that frame views of land, sea and sky.

Base End Station, Construction #243, North Elevation: Fort Funston 2006 © Alex Fradkin

They have the shapes of art-school exercises in drawing cubes, spheres, cones, and cylinders with shading, and they are the color of old pencil sketches. Poussin, with his passion for simple monumental form, would have loved them, though he would have inscribed them all et in Arcadia ego lest the hasty hiker miss the point. And they have the seduction of all ruins, the seduction of the past, of lost history, of irrecoverable time, of the sense that something happened here and then ceased. (In Poussin’s landscape it’s the tomb, not the trees, that invites contemplation.) It’s only when you imagine the dreary discomfort of soldiers stationed in them, the actual big guns that pointed toward the bay, and what a war might have looked like on these shores, whether like the bombardment of Fort Sumner at the beginning of the Civil War or the Normandy Invasion toward the end of the Second World War, that the romance diminishes. Or does it?

Gun Encasement No. 2 Battery Construction 129: Fort Barry, 2008 © Alex Fradkin

As Jennifer Dowley put it, wars are now fought in outer space. A nation under attack is usually attacked inside its national borders. Troops may surge across a border, as they did at the outset of both of the Bush wars on Iraq—across their border, not ours—but both those were accompanied by the kind of aerial bombardment that ignores national boundaries to go far inside the country. And aerial bombardment is often directed at civilians. Thus war, from Mussolini’s bombing of North Africa and the fascist bombing of Guernica, became profoundly asymmetrical. The old idea of a confrontation between two sides is blown away; in its place is an attacker whose blows can be parried but who cannot be attacked directly.

Missiles and more monstrous new inventions, like pilotless drones, are even directed from afar, often from within the attacking nation. Afghanistan cannot fire missiles back at the headquarters of the drone operators near Las Vegas, Nevada, though in the all-out nuclear wars imagined during the Cold War, both the US and the USSR would send nuclear bombs to strategic targets, military and civilian, within the other nation’s boundaries while trying to intercept incoming missiles. The heroic idea of combat, of bodily skill and equal engagement, of Achilles or Roland, or even Wellington and Grant facing risk with physical courage, has some relevance to the ground troops in some places, but nothing to do with the death rained from the skies by men whose daily lives more resemble those of video gamers. The Headlands bunkers are, among other things, an old daydream of an enemy you would face, one who could only hurt you by confronting you, by showing up.

Gun Encasement #1 Battery Townsley: Fort Cronkhite, 2009 © Alex Fradkin

Gun Emplacement #2 Battery Dynamite: Fort Winfield Scott, 2005 © Alex Fradkin

The bunkers were built to defend us from wars that never quite arrived on these shores. Central California has been attacked by foreigners a few times, starting with invading Spanish and Mexican attacks on the native peoples, which consisted largely of skirmishes and one-sided brutalities (the big campaigns against Native Californians were elsewhere and later, run by Yankees in events such as the Modoc War and the Bloody Island Massacre). The indigenous peoples responded with attacks on the Missions, raids on ranchos, and other acts of self-defense and survival, including an incursion on Mission San Rafael. Events resembling European war with all its pageantry and weaponry came later, when the Spanish-speaking nominal citizens of Mexico had become part of the population to be invaded and displaced.

Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones’s fleet arrived in Monterey—then the capital of the Mexican province—on October 19, 1842. He demanded surrender and got it without firing a shot. Perhaps the fearsome arsenal of the five ships with a total of 116 big guns convinced the small population that resistance would be unpleasant. The next day, 150 Marines marched up the hill to the fort while the bands played “Yankee Doodle.” The invasion was premature and based on rumors of British competition for the northernmost portion of Mexico. A couple of days later, Jones withdrew his proclamation and acknowledged Mexican sovereignty before the soldiers dispatched from Los Angeles could make much progress up the coast.

Base End Station GB-1, West Elevation: Battery Townsley, Fort Cronkhite, 2004 © Alex Fradkin

Less than four years later, the Bear Flag Revolt began inland with the attack on Sonoma and the raising of a primitive version of what would become the California state flag. A few weeks into skirmishes by invading Yankees against resident Mexicans, Army Captain John C. Frémont—one of the few government men involved in the revolt—took twelve men with him on an American ship, the Moscow, that sailed south in the bay to the Presidio of San Francisco. The fort had been abandoned and there was no conflict, though there were some squabbles when they marched onward to the hamlet of Yerba Buena and took a few captives. There were larger battles further south as the revolt merged with the war on Mexico, but the Bay Area remained unscathed by major conflict. The newly American region was prepared for defense against coastal attack in the 1850s and 1860s, but the Civil War led to no violence—beyond duels such as the Broderick-Terry duel of 1859—in the locale. The fortifications then and a century later were built for conflicts that never arrived. They are the architecture of grim anticipation, of imagination of things to come.

During the Second World War, there were grounds to fear Japanese attack; in the wake of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, seven enemy submarines patrolled the Pacific Coast. But Japan decided against a mainland attack for fear of reprisals. A false alert the following May caused the USS Colorado and the USS Maryland to sail out from the Golden Gate to defend the bay from attacks that never came. Late in the war, a Japanese fire balloon—a kind of incendiary device that floated across the Pacific—was shot down by a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane near Santa Rosa with no major damage reported. (Others landed in various places in the American West, and a few inflicted actual damage and a total of six deaths—a pregnant woman with her five children, out on a picnic: et in Arcadia ego). War was in the skies, and coastal fortifications were anachronistic.

The P-38 Lightning fighter was made by Lockheed when it was based in Burbank on the fringes of Los Angeles, back when Los Angeles was producing the airplanes to fight the war and the Bay Area was turning out a warship a day in its furiously productive shipyards. If we think of war as combat and casualties, then it has, with small exceptions such as the Ohlone and Miwok resistance to the Missions and the land grabs, been fought elsewhere. But if we think of it as a mindset, an economy, a way of life— a lot of things that add up to a system—then two things become as evident as a thirty-foot-thick chunk of concrete embedded amid the sticky monkeyflower and fragrant coast sage of the Headlands.

Base End Station B2S2 Battery Construction No. 129, South Elevation: Devils Slide, Milagra Ridge Military Reservation, 2006 © Alex Fradkin

One is that the Bay Area is entrenched in and crucial to this system, with the University of California, Berkeley running the nation’s nuclear weapons programs since their inception, with defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin (makers, once upon a time, of the Nike missile) clustered in Silicon Valley, and with the ring of old bases around the bay—Mare Island, Hunter’s Point, Alameda, Treasure Island, Hamilton, and the Presidio.

The other is that this system is mad. Its madness was perhaps most perfectly manifested in the soldiers or National Guardsmen in camouflage who patrolled the Golden Gate Bridge at one phase of the GWOT, the Global War on Terror, a war that in its very name declared hostility not to a group or a nation but to an emotion, while seeking—with heavily armed men in civilian spaces such as Pennsylvania Station or the Golden Gate Bridge—to induce that very emotion in the public. That their desert camouflage only made them stand out, and that the threats to the bridge were sketchy and remote, while the men with semi-automatic weapons were evident and unnerving, articulates something about war as a state of being. The enemy may be remote, invisible, or even conceptual, but we, as a society devoted to war, see ourselves in a thousand mirrors, of which the bunkers are one.

The bunkers were both prophylactics against physical damage by an alien military and part of the damage that is the mindset of war—the mindset that induces fear and suspicion, that countenances sacrifices, destructions, and the willingness to engage in acts of violence, that damages a society before the enemy ever touches it. The military left radioactive waste behind at Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyards; rusting, leaking warships in the Mothball Fleet near Benicia; PCBs at 100,000 times the acceptable level, along with dioxins and other chemicals, on Treasure Island; and more. The Headlands and much of the rest of the GGNRA got off lightly, larded only with cement and rust, not with chemicals and radiation.

SF-88 Radar Installation for Nike Missile Site, East Elevation: Wolf Ridge, Fort Cronkhite, 2010 © Alex Fradkin

What all these areas have in common is their status as monuments to public expenditure by those in charge of protecting us. There is, for example, the Sea Shadow, a stealth ship built at extraordinary expense in the 1980s and then abandoned without ever being used or being useful. The upkeep of the Mothball Fleet, the prototype, is a corollary to the lack of money for libraries and schools in towns like Richmond, whose African-American population mostly arrived during the Second World War for shipyard jobs and stayed even when the economy withered. It remains a depressed area, despite the growth of the Chevron refineries there that have been refining Iraqi crude since early in the current war. Chevron, whose board member Condoleezza Rice became our Secretary of State and led us into that war, Condoleezza who is back at Stanford, Stanford that helped generate Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley which has done so much to develop the new technologies of war. War is everywhere for those who have eyes to see, but in some places it’s hard to miss.

Base End Station B4S4, Interior West Elevation: Fort Cronkhite, 2005 © Alex Fradkin

It is good that the bunkers are in the beautiful open space of the coast, and good that one of the region’s native sons, Alex Fradkin, has photographed them so eloquently. They should be there. We should pause amid the myriad pleasures that this Mediterranean climate and protected landscape afford to contemplate the presence of death and our own implication in the business. Until something profound changes in the United States, war will never be far away, and even on the most paradisiacal meander we do well to stop to remember this.