At the onset of the Great Depression Los Angeles was the land of oil and movies, industries that seemed crash-proof. In just a few years, however, the city was struggling as much as the rest of the country.
As federal "alphabet agencies" poured aid into areas hard hit by the Depression, Los Angeles saw some skilled (but unemployed) workers refusing to accept aid they viewed as charity. Charity was, as a slogan of the time put it, for "abnormal people during normal times," while these workers saw themselves as "normal people during abnormal times." These workers looked to "self-help cooperatives" to see them through, and they ignited a small movement that spread throughout the country, with workers providing labor in exchange for goods, similar to a barter system. One of the first such collectives of its kind in the nation was formed in Compton in 1932, when an unemployed worker made an arrangement with a Japanese farmer.
Overall, however, agencies like the Works Progress Administration (formed in 1935 as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal) provided much needed relief to the unemployed in Los Angeles. Whether it was building city infrastructure or beautifying the city through public artworks, WPA projects contributed much to the growth and modernization of the city.
The first project to be approved by the WPA in Los Angeles was a series of flood control measures along the Los Angeles River and its tributaries, including the Arroyo Seco. Running parallel to plans for channelization was the plan to create one of the nation's first freeways, the Arroyo Seco Parkway. As a cost-cutting measure, WPA workers set aside rock excavated by the channelization of the Arroyo Seco, recycling it into the bed and sides of the new parkway.
While many WPA projects were concerned with improving the city's physical infrastructure—roads, parks and sewers—it also created jobs for artists. They funded the creation of a series of murals at the Terminal Annex as well as the construction of the Astronomer's Monument at Griffith Observatory.
By the time the first phase of the Arroyo Seco Parkway was completed in 1940, the conflict that would become known as World War II was in full fatal bloom. When the U.S. entered the war in 1941, war-related construction and manufacturing created an economic boom that effectively put an end to the Depression that had required the creation of the WPA. In 1943, the agency was formally liquidated.
Above, Eric Avila, Associate Professor of Chicano Studies and Urban Planning at UCLA, reads from a historic housing survey on race and development; Christopher Nyerges, Native American historian and outdoor instructor, describes how communities divided with the parkway.