The WPA’s legacy in Rhode Island

A WPA sidewalk plaque in Prospect Terrace Park. (Wikipedia)

One of my favorite places in Providence is Blackstone Boulevard, the tree-lined, two-mile stretch of road on the East Side that is a popular destination for joggers, walkers, readers and painters.

At both ends of the boulevard, there are tiny plaques in the sidewalk that credit its construction to employees of the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal jobs program that funded everything from highways to playwrights. Similar plaques are also in the nearby sidewalks of Pawtucket’s Oak Hill neighborhood.

As a lover of history, those signs had made me wonder how many places in Rhode Island were impacted by the WPA, which operated from 1935 to 1943.

Monday’s announcement that URI has uncovered six WPA murals renewed my curiosity about the agency, which has been in the news again during the Great Recession as some commentators discussed the merits of a federal jobs program to deal with today’s high unemployment.

So I did a little research – and here’s what I found. (Most of this information came from the “Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43.”)

Highways, sewers, clothing

The WPA spent $60 million on projects in Rhode Island over its eight years – about $737 million in 2009 dollars. (For comparison purposes, the big federal stimulus enacted last year is expected to send $1.1 billion into Rhode Island, half of it for Social Security and Medicare Medicaid.)

How did all that money get used? All sorts of ways. But here are a few statistics.

Transportation was a big category. WPA workers built or repaired 671 miles of highways, roads and streets and constructed or renovated 35 bridges and viaducts in Rhode Island. They also built 10,300 feet of airport runways and constructed or repaired five landing fields.

Infrastructure was another one. In Rhode Island, the WPA built or renovated 222 schools, 395 other public buildings, 34 parks (including Blackstone Boulevard, presumably), 54 playgrounds and fields, seven pools, seven power plants, and 184 miles of new sewers.

WPA employees in the state also served 818,187 school lunches; sent housekeepers on 85,558 visits; and manufactured 2.8 million garments of clothing. And 21,317 people attended WPA-produced musical performances.

In addition to the examples I mentioned earlier, the College Hill Independent put together a list of some WPA-funded public structures in Providence, including Hope High School, the Pastroe Building on Exchange Terrace and Roger Williams Park. And this site lists some other WPA murals in places such as the East Providence Post Office.

There were also the famous Federal Writers’ Project guides to the states, including 1937 editions exploring Rhode Island and Massachusetts, both available online in full for free from Google Books.

Work for the jobless

The WPA gave a lot of people work in the Ocean State during the Depression.

Over its first five years, from 1935 through the end of 1940, the WPA was employing more than 10,000 people in Rhode Island – including 17,144 people at its peak, in the summer of 1938.

That would be roughly equivalent to employing 25,000 people today, considering that Rhode Island’s population was 713,346 in 1940, compared with about 1 million now.

Have you noticed WPA signs in your neighborhood? Let me know in the comments.

3 thoughts on “The WPA’s legacy in Rhode Island

  1. That’s what is so disappointing about the Economic Recovery Act of 2009, and all the subsequent money spent to continue some of it’s mandates. The states basically took most of this money and plugged a budget hole with it. We are spending billions of dollars to “plan” future projects, and to just to keep people at home collecting unemployment.

    Why is this money being used for projects like the WPA did? Why can’t the government hire people to renovate and clean public parks and schools? How about building new facilities? How about constructing bike paths or cleaning up beaches? How about cleaning up highways or maintaining them?

    There are all sorts of projects and jobs that could have been devised to help the community at large. And “hard” projects like schools and recreational facilities can be assets for decades, as witnessed in many WPA projects still standing and in use over 70 years later.

    Instead, we pay people to sit home and look for work. Forget that! Give these people something useful to do in the meantime!

  2. Sadly a beautiful Works Projects Administration plaque in my neighborhood was stolen in the past 2 weeks. It was next to the sidewalk near the entrance to R.I.C. on Mt Pleasant Avenue. A self important puke chiseled it from it’s concrete base. It’s truly disheartening.

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