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Reviving the WPA Program

I was a Writer for the Government

by JULIA STEIN

In 1980 I got a job as a writer on an oral history unit of CETA (Comprehensive Education Training Act). The Federal government during the really bad recession in the 1970s established CETA, which was a revival of the WPA of the 1930s. Both the WPA and CETA gave jobs in a variety of fields and job training including jobs for writers, artists, and performers. In the 1930s WPA was the biggest employer in the United States.

My oral history project was called American Profiles. We were housed in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley and were part of American Dance Theater, which was a folk dance group in CETA directed by Joyce Aimee. We were supposed to interview senior citizens who had lived a long time in Los Angeles about their lives to gather information about Los Angeles history from 1900-1980. I was told that one could have the job for eighteen months, and the previous writers had done oral histories of Los Angeles seniors downtown and Culver City but not the San Fernando Valley, so we were supposed to find people to interview in the Valley.

Actually, this was a great job. At first we read histories of Los Angeles (though living in L.A. since I was a baby I didn’t know Los Angeles had a history!). I read Carey McWilliams great history about the region "Southern California: An Island in the Sun." I read Robert Gottlieb’s and Irene Wolt’s "Thinking Big," a great history of the Los Angeles Times newspaper, which had dominated Los Angeles for nearly a 100 years. My whole view of my hometown was transformed! The only available histories of the San Fernando Valley were a couple short, superficial books, but I read those too.

In one of these books I saw a photograph of the Neggens family; the caption said that the Neggens were one of the first families to farm in Northridge circa 1910. After Los Angeles city fathers brought the water into Los Angeles first through the San Fernando Valley, the owners of large parcels of Valley property broke down the property into smaller parcels and sold off family farms. In the Neggens photo was a father, mother, and bunch of little kids. I figured one of the little kids was about 6 in 1910 he would be 76 in 1980. I looked in the phone book for Northridge, found a Menton Neggens, called. Yes, he had been a child in the photo. I interviewed him about growing up in a family farm 1910-1930, and then learned about his long career in the LAPD in the Valley.

I interviewed Abe Maymudes who had been an immigrant Jewish radical organizer in Boyle Heights in the 1930s-1940s and then a chicken farmer in Canoga Park in the 1950s. I interviewed Marion and Lucille Johnson whose grandparents, father, and uncle had homesteaded in the 1880s in the Big Tujunga canyon area of northeast Valley and who had grown up on a small farm in Big Tujunga canyon. I interviewed Robert Rowley, who father owned the first store in Sunland in the northeast Valley when Sunland was dirt farmers. I was the only one in my unit interviewing children of the farm families in the Valley. I was the only one I know about who interviewed these farmers in the Valley. By the 1940s developers were buying up the farmers, building suburban tract homes, and destroying all the farm life. I interviewed the last generation who remembered these small family farms which by 1980 had completely vanished.

As we were doing our research, interviews, and editing, President Regan was elected and one of his first acts was to end the CETA program. We were told instead of eighteen months we had been promised we would only have the job for 6 months, and had a month or two to finish up our interviews. I had published parts of my Maymudes interview in the "Big Valley" magazine. We could have published more if our program wasn’t ended. Our director and editor made plans for all the oral histories to be housed in California State College Northridge archives and also in the Sunland-Tujunga library. As far as I know they are still there. We were pressed to finish editing down our interviews and our project of three writers, one editor, and a photographer produced a 249 page volume titled "Valley Portraits: The Living Past" which has ll interviews detailing history of all areas of the San Fernando Valley. Our publication was Volume III of our oral histories.

This job gave me a lasting fascination for history of Los Angeles. I kept on learning and read Los Angeles poetry and literature. I hiked through Los Angeles and learned the geology and botany of the area. When I begin teaching at Santa Monica College, I used my background in Southern Californian history to develop new English curriculum. I made out a list of 100 historical sites around Los Angeles and had my students research one site for a research paper as I was teaching the research paper. Some of my students did brilliant original research learning about buildings in their neighborhood for the first time. A couple years ago I was in the library and picked up a new history of San Fernando Valley, a much better history. Low and behold the author quoted my interview with Menton Neggens. I think it was important to interview the people we did and catch their history because they died.

The original WPA writers interviewed elderly people who had been slaves, and you can still read these interviews in the Library of Congress. Later historians took these WPA interviews and published books on African-American history. We in Los Angeles also interviewed elderly people capturing their history and helping later historians understand the history of Southern California. Without these two programs an important part of the history of the American people would have been lost. The WPA Writers/Artists Program should be revived as it made invaluable contributions to American culture.

JULIA STEIN lives in Los Angeles. She can be reached at: juliastein@sbcglobal.net