Saturday, July 26, 2014

Gray Brechin and The Rincon Annex Murals

The historical geographer Gray Brechin (above) wrote the powerful history book, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin. It was published in 1999 by UC Berkeley Press which demonstrated some courage because the book ends with a damning, detailed chapter about the university's own history of intellectually rationalizing and fostering war through most of the early 20th century. The book is eye-opening in many ways, starting with its illustrations of a few of the outrageously racist, warmongering public statues that are dotted throughout San Francisco.

In a foreword written for a 2006 reprinting, Brechin wrote that "I was gratified by the popular response to Imperial San Francisco, but stymied as well by the horrific worldwide events that followed its publication and seemed to bear out my thesis. Seeking a way out of my own paralysis, I began to investigate the accomplishments of the New Deal...[In his 1944 State of the Union Speech] Franklin Delano Roosevelt pondered the forces that had turned so many cities to ashen wastelands. Could the productive capacity of modern technology be used to abort the ancient cycle?...Future security required a new course — positive actions never before tried on anything like the scale he proposed — for “an equally basic essential to peace is a decent standard of living for all individual men and women and children in all Nations. Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want.”

As he started his New Deal studies, Brechin was surprised that there was no existant database or set of records detailing the physical accomplishments of Roosevelt's New Deal get-the-country-to-work programs which dramatically shaped and improved the public infrastructure of the United States. So, with an improvised group of historians and preservationists who are fascinated by the period, they started an online resource called The Living New Deal (click here) to map the buildings and artwork across the country. FDR was a lifelong stamp collector, so many of the New Deal projects involved grandly built post offices throughout the country, many of them adorned with murals created by the finest artists of the time.

A couple of weeks ago, Brechin led a tour of the Rincon Annex lobby in downtown San Francisco, which is completely wrapped by a remarkable, politically controversial set of 27 murals by Anton Refregier called The History of San Francisco. (Author Jack London is depicted in a panel devoted to the pioneer era arts scene.)

The first panels depict San Francisco's original inhabitants, which Brechin noted were unusually respectful in their depiction of Native Americans.

The arrival of European civilization is represented by Sir Francis Drake above, ready to conquer the world.

"Note the blood at the tip of his sword," Brechin pointed out. "There are subtle messages woven throughout all of the panels which Refregier knew he couldn't make explicit."

"Refgregier, in all of these panels, puts the workers in the foreground, and the bosses, in this case the Franciscan missionaries, are usually in the background."

"Does anybody know what the red star in California's flag stands for?" Brechin asked the Labor Fest tour group, and we were all stumped. It turns out that the red star the bear is looking at stands for Texas, with the implication that California should emulate that state in its violent annexation of territory from Mexico.

Chinese railway builders figure prominently in one panel, one of many outrages to conservative political sensibilities when the entire work was finished in 1948, eight years after it was begun. Republican Congressman Richard Nixon and Senator Hubert Scudder were two of the anti-Communist demagogues of the time who wanted the work destroyed because it "defamed pioneers and reflected negatively on California's past."

There have been other threats to the murals' existence, including real estate developers wanting to tear down the entire building for office skyscrapers in the 1970s. Thanks in part to Brechin's work with the Heritage Foundation at the time, the lobby and its murals were saved and put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. It now serves as one entryway to the Rincon Center office/apartment complex that takes up an entire downtown block.

In a series of lectures and op-ed pieces, Brechin has been raising the alarm about other New Deal post offices from Berkeley to the Bronx which are being sold off at bargain prices that stink of insider deals by CBRE. In a December 2013 article for the San Francisco Chronicle, Brechin cited:
"In an e-book, "Going Postal," by independent investigative journalist Peter Byrne, it was found that the real estate giant CBRE, which the Postal Service has exclusively contracted to manage its leased and owned properties, has often sold them at below-market rates to buyers with direct ties to CBRE itself. Private-equity investor Richard C. Blum, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairs CBRE and has a large stake in the company. Byrne found, in at least one instance, Feinstein personally intervened in a sale that could have benefited her husband's firm."

Brechin concluded,
"The fire sale of postal properties is a textbook case of a favored few squeezing profits from a manufactured crisis. In an April 10 letter to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe claimed that e-mail's inroads into first-class mail delivery have forced him to radically downsize his workforce and sell the public's property. He neglected to add that the "reform" - read privatization - of the Postal Service has long been a stated goal of conservative think tanks. That reform could be accomplished by bankrupting the Postal Service.

Nearly all of the huge annual deficits recently racked up by the Postal Service are the result of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, passed by a voice vote of Congress at the end of 2006. The act forces the Postal Service to prepay retiree health care for 75 years into the future within just 10 years. It also hamstrings the Postal Service from providing services that would effectively compete with the private sector.

A June audit of the Postal Service by its inspector general found "poor oversight" of its contract with CBRE. The inspector general is now conducting a further investigation into the questionable disposal of historic post offices. Those properties, as well as a service guaranteed by the Constitution, belong to all Americans. They should not be corralled for the few."
On the tour, Brechin made the interesting observation that most of the WPA projects were well audited and that neoliberal corruption involving large public works projects were not the norm as they are today. "Look at the difference between the construction of the original Bay Bridge and what happened with the recent rebuild of the eastern span." Though Senator Feinstein and her greedy husband have not wreaked anything like the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake depicted above, their influence over the decades has also been essentially destructive for the general public in San Francisco and beyond.


john_burke100 said...

Years ago there was a restaurant in New York called The Cookery, decorated with murals by Refregier. The owner was a Lefty who hired African-Americans to work both in the kitchen and the front of the house, and jazz artists (including as I recall the amazing pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams) performed there on weekends. it was at the Northeast corner of 8th St. and University Place, I think--don't know what's on that corner now.

nancy namaste said...

Great piece about the WPA part of the story and the disgraceful attempt to sell off Post Office property. A friend of mine is a shop steward for the Post Office. Normally mild mannered, he goes into a rant when discussing the con game played on us by the right wing