Roosevelt's New Deal vs. Stimulus Package | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Roosevelt's New Deal vs. Stimulus Package

Many grand elements of our shared landscape are legacies of the New Deal, the economic stimulus program of the Great Depression. Take Outer Lake Shore Drive, for example, the State Street subway or the lodge at downstate Starved Rock State Park. As the economy weakens, the current federal recovery program is drawing comparisons to the New Deal.

Chicago Matters: Beyond Burnham

Ambi: We're overlooking the Outer Drive Bridge….

Margaret Rung looks down on the cars whizzing by on Outer Lake Shore Drive and the Art Deco bridge that spans the Chicago River. They're among the beautifully designed and highly functional New Deal projects still in use today.

RUNG: They created that S-curve down there that we know today, that we all love, as we drive down Lake Shore Drive, which frankly, is probably the most beautiful road in America.

Rung's a history professor, who heads the Center for New Deal Studies at Roosevelt University.

The Public Works Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration – all New Deal programs – put people to work building dams, bridges, roads and parks. Here in the region, we can look to post offices, schools and the State Street subway. The WPA alone employed about 8.5 million people.

RUNG: What's important to recognize as well is what you can't see, which is that 5,300 miles of sewer was laid under these programs.

President Roosevelt expected the New Deal to rebuild and modernize America. Michael Sherry, a history professor at Northwestern University, says FDR had the political backing to take bold action because the Depression was underway.

SHERRY: So maybe in a way the biggest difference between 1933 and 2009 is that Roosevelt came into office after 3 ½ years of learning and stumbling and rising anger and frustration.

But big things didn't happen right away. Perhaps the best known of the New Deal agencies, the WPA, didn't even start until 1935.

SHERRY: We shouldn't think of these New Deal programs as all involving quicky, shovel-ready projects. These were projects that in many cases were very carefully designed, planned, built over a substantial period of time, made to last, and indeed, many of them are still functioning.

Like the beautiful murals that still decorate our post offices and schools or the massive lodge of stone and log at Starved Rock state park.

The current stimulus plan doesn't call to mind such glowing images. Instead, think immediate and repaving…potholes…bridge repairs…slow zones on the Blue Line.

Illinois is getting $9 billion, and a lot of that is essentially paying bills that are past due.

Jack Lavin is the state's chief operating officer, and the guy in charge of Illinois' share of the stimulus. He says a third of the money will help the state catch up on late Medicaid payments to doctors and hospitals. Two billion will jump-start maintenance of roads, trains and buses.

LAVIN: We haven't had a capital bill in 10 years. We haven't been taking care of our infrastructure, not just our roads and bridges, but also mass transit, water and sewer infrastructure.

BLANKENHORN: These aren't the kinds of sexy things that people dream about in what is a stimulus. But they're the backbone of the infrastructure, and that really creates the backbone of the economy.

Randy Blankenhorn heads the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. He thinks the state has to deal with its maintenance backlog.

He and Jack Lavin hope having to use the stimulus money on basics makes the case for a long-term capital plan in Illinois.

Still Blankenhorn wonders why the federal government didn't roll the package out more slowly, in a few phases. Yes, the point is to get people to work quickly. But under strict federal rules, some transit and transportation projects have to be under contract in 120 to 180 days. That doesn't leave time for dreaming big dreams.

BLANKENHORN: I think there are a lot of people out there thinking about this in a bigger way. The problem is the rules are hamstringing what we can do. This use-it-or-lose-it quickly really doesn't give time to be very visionary in how you're dealing with the transportation dollars. You're really meeting immediate needs.

Like in the south suburb of Riverdale, where village officials are hoping to move a pile of dirt.

Ambi: Car doors slam

Mayor Zenovia Evans and her director of community and economic development, Janice Morrissy, take me on a tour. The dirt pile in question is at least 15 feet tall.

KALSNES: And it literally fills three acres. And it's so overgrown, that I feel like we're on a dune. (Laughter)

The village wants to build mixed-income housing on this land. Officials say that would help bring back a neighborhood that's got gangs, and absentee landlords. But first, the dirt mountain has to go. Moving it would cost $600,000, and the developer who dumped it there is bankrupt.

It's just part of Mayor Evans' $64 million stimulus wish list. She wants to improve sewers and roads, repair public buildings and water tanks, and demolish a crumbling grainery.

EVANS: Blue collar jobs, they're gone.

Evans says the stimulus gives villages like hers a chance for recovery.

EVANS: If you get the road there, then you can get the business to come. If you got the people there trained, they can take the jobs the businesses will bring.


EVANS: Well, the communities will continue to decline, because you can't not do the infrastructure improvements and have people living there. The homes are going to go in disrepair, and they'll end up with more vacant houses and more brownfields.

Evans wants the money. But she's frustrated by the limited ways she can get it.

She's part of a large group of mayors in the south suburbs that's trying to set priorities for the region and plan together. So if one town fixes its railroad station, for instance, the village across the street could take down abandoned buildings.

But the money isn't coming directly to small towns like hers. It's filtering down through the federal, state and county governments and complex funding formulas. Evans says that system prevents Riverdale and its neighbors from jointly going after projects that could get them more bang for their buck.

BARRETT: The WPA style projects to me offers a lesson that just because we have to spend these dollars quickly, doesn't mean we have to do it stupidly.

MarySue Barrett runs the Metropolitan Planning Council. In her view, the government won't stabilize communities by helping one town, and not its neighbor across the street.

Barrett says there's still time to step back and think. Even if you're solving an immediate need by paving streets, she says, why not envision bike lanes and walkways too?

BARRETT: If we have a chance to stabilize the housing, resurface the street, improve the transit station, bring retail and shopping amenities around the transit station, maybe a daycare operation, now that's a real community, and that's something that would be there for decades, many decades, beyond.

Barrett says we'd better like what we end up with. Creating jobs is important. But we don't want to end up with nothing to show for “recovery” but a bunch of temporary jobs.

To track Illinois stimulus dollars, check out the state's stimulus site.
To track the federal stimulus program, check out the government's site.

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