Labor Day 2010

6 Sep

Just up the street from my house, you can see a square of sidewalk concrete stamped without fanfare:

Constructed by the W.P.A. 

I got up close to take the picture.  The print is small.  There is no American flag emblazoned next to it, no garish eagle flapping powerful wings, no mention of President Roosevelt, no Madison Avenue motto.

It is a modest but concrete (sorry!) example of what government can do.

I see no sign of the lifetime that has passed since the concrete was poured.  

It is without blemish, still. 

I count off 36 additional perfect squares of the same vintage before I come to one with a single crack down the middle.

This is quality workmanship, and (here my politically-biased fantasies kick in) I imagine that the men who poured these slabs were glad to have a job and took the work seriously.

These reminders are all over our town of 14,000. 

When my children were little, we walked along this path, and I held forth about the chapter of American history that lay beneath our feet.  It is just history to them.  Hell, it’s history to me.

The (newer) concrete in front of my house has not fared as well.

We should have replaced it years ago. 

Up the road, in Winnebago and Boone County, unemployment exceeded 15 percent this summer.

30 Responses to “Labor Day 2010”

  1. Paul Costopoulos September 6, 2010 at 8:07 pm #

    Times were different, people took the time to do the job right, productivity was an unknown concept and these were done by not for profit organisation. Huge difference.

    • jenny September 7, 2010 at 6:18 am #

      Paul, you may have noticed that I have some nostalgia…

  2. Margo September 6, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    I’ll be around to do your sidewalk next Monday, lady.

    • jenny September 7, 2010 at 6:18 am #

      Come early. It’s a corner lot.

  3. solidgoldcreativity September 6, 2010 at 8:43 pm #

    How great you could honour this plain and modest workmanship. Thanks.

    • jenny September 7, 2010 at 6:20 am #

      SGC: Because of some genetic flaw, most of my family couldn’t pour a decent square of concrete to save our lives. I AM impressed by it.

  4. Andreas Kluth September 6, 2010 at 8:59 pm #

    Did you perchance read Paul Krugman’s column today (or yesterday)? He would agree with you.

    • jenny September 7, 2010 at 6:30 am #

      I hadn’t, but I have now. Thanks.

  5. Kent Wrenn September 6, 2010 at 9:04 pm #

    A simple and timely reminder of a grateful nation. Fortunately, your children will know what WPA means, making it possible for us to continue learning from our history.

    • jenny September 7, 2010 at 6:32 am #

      Hey, Kent! Thanks for stopping by. We do what we can for our children, right?

  6. Inden September 6, 2010 at 9:37 pm #

    Productivity was hardly an “unknown concept” in the 1930’s. See “The Principles of Scientific Management” published in 1911. Though I think I have gathered from listening to people talk about the WPA that everybody was pretty much okay with lots of shovel leaning, it being understood that the main thing was people having something to do. Have attitudes shifted on average since then about government make-work projects? That whole thought however follows an implicit assumption that the concrete blocks are still there because people took more time and care when they laid them down. It ain’t necessarily so – could just be better materials. I’m not an architect or a builder or even a concrete “fanboy”.

    The unemployment rate in 1932 was close to 25%, labor unions were still seen as underdogs (the strikes establishing the UAW happened during the Depression), Communism was not yet discredited – though it was an effective insult here to be tarred as Red. Perhaps the plutocrats in those days had more of the fear of G-d or maybe Revolution so they didn’t block the make-work programs quite so determinedly as today. I am assured by my Dad that there was a lot of anti-Roosevelt sentiment out there but he seems to think the conservatives were not as unified in their bloody-mindedness then as now. He also pointed out that things were bad under Republicans prior to FDR taking charge which left the impression that they didn’t know what to do. He says there is a perception now that Obama isn’t trying hard enough whereas in those days people felt FDR was at least trying everything that could be done. Makes me sometimes ponder why we got the somewhat more progressive president following the super regressive one just in time for a major recession period. Those bastards know when to get out of the way and make the other guys take the fall. Is it really a giant good cop bad cop circus act contrived to keep us distracted from what’s really going down capitalistically speaking? One could argue.

    Please note that Red China is doing comparatively well despite the global economic downturn AND being still to a big degree a centrally planned economy. I did read somewhere that they applied their stimulus packages in 2009 somehow in a more effective fashion. Of course if Americans could live on what the average Chinese worker earns there would probably be a lot less unemployment here as well.

    • jenny September 7, 2010 at 6:40 am #

      Thanks for commenting! You and I agree about a lot.

      I do, though, want to point out that I do not really believe that the concrete work is better because the WPA was a good thing (though I think it was) or because the guys who got the WPA jobs were happily employed (though, y’know, probably they were).

      I point out the quality of the work as a way of showing my impressionistic view of the issue. In my imagination, the quality of the work is a kind of metaphor for the quality of the idea.

      I know, I know, it’s not Paul Krugman worthy, but this is just a girlie country blog, you know. 🙂

  7. Thomas Stazyk September 6, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

    Nice one–this post looks short but it contains huge food for thought: insights into the lives of the people who did the work, observations about workmanship, teaching children about the past (so that maybe we stop repeating it), our indifference to the efforts of others, the loss of pride in workmanship, the effects of capitalism. I could go on. Very nicely done.

    PS–Krugman is worth checking out.

    • jenny September 7, 2010 at 6:42 am #

      Tom, your response really, really pleases me. This is exactly what I had hoped to do. Thank you for reading, and thoughtfully coming along with me in my thoughts, and commenting. I’m just amazed.

  8. Phil September 7, 2010 at 1:26 am #

    Your blogging piece, and Krugman’s, have so much common sense and humanity that they make me uneasy.

    • jenny September 7, 2010 at 6:51 am #

      Phil, I don’t want to make you uneasy.

      Here’s the funny part (and I am not being cute here): Your comment is so generous and simply expressed that it makes me uneasy.

  9. Cheri September 7, 2010 at 9:48 am #

    This piece and its tone evoke nostalgia–the modest square of work, President Roosevelt, your children. And then, you break up the mood with the concrete in front of your house which itself needs to be replaced. And the current unemployment rate.

    • jenny September 8, 2010 at 5:34 am #


      Create something, destroy something…what else is there?

  10. david osman September 7, 2010 at 10:36 am #

    my history was also connected to public projects, to joyful workers reaching 5 year plan in 4 years. men proud of their work and women equally proud of their men. my history was filled with leaders promising social justice and bringing t…he rich and greedy to their knees for the sake of working masses. A world of caution a reminder of straight and narrow from public projects to the execution of the public.
    of couse it could never happened here. could it

    • jenny September 8, 2010 at 5:41 am #


      You present the Russian spectre that lurks around all of my thoughts. In this case, I turned away from it because it didn’t fit, for a bunch of reasons.

      It is always there, though, on top of the bookcase, naked, looking down at me. 🙂


  11. rosaria September 7, 2010 at 12:40 pm #

    A beautiful reminder that public works and public services are good for the country, during recession, or anytime. We are so screwed up, thinking that the only people who do good are businesses.
    They do good for their pocketbooks, their shareholders, their ego.

    I’m saying, if we live together, and rely on each other for health and safety and education, let’s maintain our infrastructure, let’s maintain our schools, lets oversee our health providers and other safety providers. Not doing something for the public good is as bad as not caring for the fellow man.

    • jenny September 8, 2010 at 5:51 am #

      Hi Rosaria,

      I like the extrapolation from caring for our fellow man to caring for the public good.

      I’ll cover my head as I say this, but part of the public good might include a year of national service (working in parks, schools) for our young people. All of them.

      I have never understood why, for so many people, big government is more suspect than big business. I can work up a healthy paranoia about one just as easily as the other.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  12. Mr. Crotchety September 7, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    I’m not sure how I feel about concrete. (curing concrete generates carbon and heat). As soon as you put every one to work pouring concrete, someone else is going to complain about climate change. But, then, if we could pave everything , folks might stop mowing their lawns. Or, or, or we could build a concrete border fence (except the only concrete company big enough is probably Cemex (Mexican). Dangit). Me, I’m still waiting for that green job that saves the planet and the economy. I’ve got my green jumpsuit starched and pressed – ready for action.

    The Labor Day sales event at Macy’s was created to cure nostalgia. You shoulda been there.

    • jenny September 8, 2010 at 6:23 am #

      Well, now, Mr. Crotchety, I have a lovely glass case for that jumpsuit in the orangery.

      There it shall remain, a reminder of our foolish, youthful dreams of a life of action. From time to time, we may steal a nervous glance at it, but it’s nothing a few valerian drops can’t resolve.

      We shall live out our days in a congenial company; dropping names, quoting the great books and composing naughty limericks. None but rich and handsome men; none but young and demure ladies.

      I, personally, will keep out all evil car salesmen.

  13. Richard September 7, 2010 at 4:30 pm #

    Is this piece meant simply as nostalgia for former times and the quality of workmanship, Jenny, with a reflection on past struggles, or do you intend a political undertone, with a bias in favour of state control rather than market forces?

    • Andreas Kluth September 7, 2010 at 10:19 pm #

      As a good writer, she preferred not to make that clear, Richard, leaving it strategically ambiguous. As a good reader, you realize that it’s up to you to do this thinking…

      • Richard September 7, 2010 at 10:41 pm #

        Well said, Andreas.

      • jenny September 8, 2010 at 6:29 am #


  14. Jim M. September 9, 2010 at 9:59 pm #

    I gather the WPA produced these utterly fascinating glimpses of the WPA during the depression era.

    I don’t think there’s a single hard hat or pair of goggles worn by any of the construction workers in “Work Pays America (Part I)”. It was a different era.

    • jenny September 10, 2010 at 6:48 am #

      Great. A couple of observations:

      It certainly is eery to see the year 1937 (BIG year for the Stalinist purges) on these videos, against the backdrop of busy, smiling workers.

      On a lighter note, at 7:42 on the first video, there is a lovely transition from brass to string accompaniment as the focus shifts from manly labor to sewing, weaving, cooking ladies. Love that!

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