Last November, while visiting Arizona, we took an outing to Madera Canyon, one of my favorite places in southern Arizona. We walked a couple miles from the Proctor Picnic ground up to Santa Rita Lodge and back. The trail followed a creek in a sycamore, alligator juniper and live oak filled canyon with rocks and cliffs all the colors of brown, buff and gold that make up the earth tones of the Southwest palette.
As I walked up the trail, I came across two round concrete pads about six feet in diameter. I speculated about what they were and then saw a sign explaining that this spot was the location of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp during the 1930s. According to the sign, the camp housed roughly 200 young men who worked on trail building and erosion control and during the evenings learned to read and write.
The day before, we had visited the Signal Hill picnic area in Saguaro National Park. There, the presence of the CCC was very obvious. Beautiful stone barbeque fireplaces, covered picnic tables, stairways and check dams were evidence of hard work and a level of craftsmanship rarely seen today. Still in use 70 years later, these installations appeared to be sturdy enough to be used for another 100 years. Also in Arizona, we spent the night in a charming CCC-built stone and pine cabin at Hualapai Mountain Park near Kingman. Closer to home, the old log lodge at Camp Kiwanilong near Warrenton is a CCC project that I've enjoyed both as an adult and as an 11-year-old Girl Scout camper.
Each of these projects brought together a combination of engineering acumen, beautiful aesthetics, sensitive use of native materials and skill-building for people who needed work. Doing a little Internet research, I learned that CCC enrollees worked 40 hours a week (a new concept then) and were paid $30 a month (roughly equivalent to $425 today). Members wore uniforms and lived in camps under quasi-military discipline. In fact, CCC camps were managed by military personnel. Besides learning a skill and getting paid a very small sum of money, surely they knew they were constructing things of lasting value. Think about the pride the young CCC workers must have felt as each of these projects was completed.
In our current political climate, there are often disparaging comments from the right side of the political spectrum regarding FDR's social welfare, "make work" programs, including the CCC and the Works Progress Administration. The WPA employed artists and fine craftsmen to build Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood and Camp David near Washington, D.C., but the WPA's major focus was infrastructure: bridges, airport runways, dams, sewers and highways.
The Great Depression meant that many highly skilled individuals were without work so it was a "buyers' market" when it came to employment; perhaps the real gripe from the right is not that those programs created jobs, but that those projects benefited the public as a whole, not private entities. I think this way because of an experience in the 1970s. An acquaintance who was on the fringes of old money needed help moving furniture to a family summer home in the mountains outside Evergreen, Colo. As a result, I had a brief visit to a vast private estate. The main house had 16 bedrooms, almost as many baths, and a magnificent view of Mount Evans from the gigantic living room. The house had the same quality of craftsmanship as Timberline Lodge - but was clearly intended for a very private use.
While similar mega-houses are being created today, there is no comparable level of investment in the public realm. As bridges and highways fall into disrepair, our public investments are declining except for waging war in two countries. Our current president proposed (and Congress is approving) cash to individual taxpayers as a way to stave off recession. This flat-footed and unimaginative response is probably based on the fact that 70 percent of the U.S. economy is "consumer goods." It's been humorously pointed out that this approach may merely lead to more purchases of goods sold at Wal-Mart and produced in China, inadvertently giving a larger boost to that economy than ours.
If the same amount of money was pooled and invested in infrastructure projects, we could create things of lasting value, whether new bridges, repaired highways, or restoration of historic buildings. Instead we're leaving for American posterity something that lasts all right: huge national debt and deteriorating infrastructure.
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer who notices that it's very difficult to buy anything actually made in the U.S., unless it's food in a restaurant.