The immediate problem:
“We are facing the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime, and we’re going to have to act swiftly to resolve it.”
So said President-elect Barack Obama on Friday November 7 in his first press conference after being elected President.
This same statement and its underlying crisis apply to communities around America and their citizens as well.
Yes, times may not be as tough as they were in the 1930s, but they’re still pretty tough, and there is a tendency, in this atomized culture, for people to fend for themselves, even at the expense of their neighbors.
One hopes that our new administration in Washington can inspire us in a way that will help bring our nation, our community and its institutions back to a more enthusiastic and cooperative way of interacting.
In the meantime, however, a crisis looms.
A Crisis for places Pushed Further Off The Beaten Path
Many of the places we like to visit are to be found “off the beaten path” – that place beyond the interstate in what we like to describe as the “Hidden America”.
But recently these places, be they situated in a remote rural county, a city neighborhood or in between, have somehow found themselves pushed farther off a path not so frequently beaten these days, if at all. Many have been brought to their knees by a nasty left right combination – first sky-rocketing gasoline prices that kept people home. Cruelly, the price at the pump has gone down only because our banks, and stock market has collapsed – leaving would be travelers and explorers shaken and worried, even if they are fortunate enough to still have a job.
Seventy-five years ago, the last time our country was close to economic abyss, Franklin D. Roosevelt acted quickly as new president to restore confidence by a tone of shared cooperation, responsibility and sacrifice. He instilled a sense of community and a collective stake-hold. Moreover, he was exhaustive in proposing and pushing through concrete programs to help communities and individuals alike.
As Joe Nocera of the New York Times recently stated, FDR over and over displayed the ability to “move people to realize that they were all in this together”.
As a result we had a New Deal, between 1933 and 1936 with the goal of giving work to the unemployed, the reform of business and financial practices, and the recovery of the economy during The Great Depression.
As part of this process, Roosevelt was keenly interested in rural issues and remote areas (now described as “off the beaten path”). Major programs addressed to their needs included the Resettlement Administration (RA), the Farm Security Administration (FSA), the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and rural welfare projects sponsored by the WPA, NYA, Forest Service and CCC, including school lunches, building new schools, opening roads in remote areas, reforestation, and purchase of marginal lands to enlarge national forests.
Another cornerstone project of the New Deal era was the WPA American Guide Series of the Federal writers Project. This project put to work more than six thousand writers, archivists, researchers, creating a detailed and lasting portrait of America at the time. The most remembered aspect was the creation of state guides. Each guide ran more than 500 pages and featured original unsigned material on a state’s history, literature, art, architecture and public transportation, its flora and fauna, industry and agriculture. Many included essays on topics unique and particular to a state: the movie industry in California and dairy farming in Wisconsin; on marine lore in Michigan and tall tales in Oregon. Each guide also featured detailed descriptions of towns and cities, maps and guided tours as well as original photographs (Eudora Welty took photos for the Mississippi guide; Ben Shahn took ones for Ohio).
One author in a preface to a 2008 book describes the project as “an extraordinarily ambitious project, guided by the will to describe, by intrepid curiosity, by raw idealism and by reinvigorated sense of national pride…”
Today, we find ourselves in a similar place – both in terms of the desire for such content to travelers and arm-chair travelers and also for the need for such a practical tool help communities survive and get past these tough economic times.
We have places whose economies, always fragile, are now at a point of jeopardy. Municipal budgets are in shambles. So are local economies. People are hurting.
Many social and political commentators have suggested that the first task facing President-elect Obama, (after eight years of what some describe as “misguided economic policies”) will be to begin the recovery -- or at least forestall a further decline. Many are also advocates a commitment to “infrastructure” in a program that would increase economic activity, national income and productivity, thus generating revenue for the government.
Ou proposals are practical ways to help our citizens, our community and our economy. We have found that these days our “On The Road” narratives are more compelling than ever - for not only are they entertaining and informative, but they can provide a catalyst for journeys of discovery – journeys that can help re-invigorate our collective confidence and start to rejuvenate our economy.
In fact, these narratives can serve as a platform for a modern day equivalent of a New Deal WPA - a lifeline to communities and places off the beaten path so battered by recent events (first gas prices and then the economy) that they have been pushed farther off a path now less beaten.
In essence, it seems that our “journeys into America” can provide communities, governments and appropriate private sector partners/sponsors a unique “infrastructure” tool for relief and revitalization.