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90.5 WESA's Good Question! series is an experiment where you bring us questions—and we go out to investigate and find answers.

How the Works Progress Administration helped build Pittsburgh

The Highland Park Bridge, Allegheny General Hospital, the Pennsylvania Turnpike: These are all parts of the region's infrastructure that were made possible with help from the Works Progress Administration. The WPA was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program designed to help unemployed Americans find jobs during the Great Depression. In Pittsburgh, the WPA funds that flowed into the region significantly changed the city’s landscape.

Good Question! asker Jean Clickner wondered how many local projects used WPA money, and if they’re still maintained.

“There were many projects that were supported [on the federal level] by that program, including theater, health and housing,” Clickner said. “I’d like to know about projects that happened in Pittsburgh.”

The simplest answer to Clickner’s inquiry is that many projects in Pittsburgh were completed using WPA money. Nearly three dozen buildings, highways and schools used the funding, including Bedford Dwellings in the Hill District, the original Perry High School athletic field and the Homestead Grays Bridge.

But just as interesting is the fact that the origins of the national work-based initiative has some roots in Pittsburgh, beginning at an old, historic church nestled along 17th Street between Penn and Liberty avenues in the Strip District.

Father Nick Vaskov stands in front of St. Patrick's Church.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Father Nick Vaskov stands in front of St. Patrick's Church, where Father James Cox once led thousands to march on Washington D.C. with a plan to begin a program that would give people "the dignity of work."

Father Cox and the Jubilee Army

When St. Patrick’s Church was established in 1808, it was the first Catholic presence in Pittsburgh, originally serving just a few dozen families — primarily Irish immigrants. In the 1930s as the congregation grew, a new church was built at its current location in the Strip District. Father Nick Vaskov, director of the Shrines of Pittsburgh, which oversees historic churches in the area, said the person overseeing much of the expansion was a man named Father James Renshaw Cox.

“From a young age, [Cox] desired to be a priest,” Vaskov said. “He was ordained as a priest in 1911 and first served at Epiphany Church…then served in World War I as a chaplain before coming back, serving at Mercy Hospital and then ultimately being named pastor at St. Patrick’s in 1923.”

Just a few years later, the stock market collapsed. Vaskov said Father Cox immediately went to work trying to figure out how to help the local families in need.

“[The Strip District] was considered ‘Shanty Town.’ Irish immigrants who had worked in mills and in mines, now with the collapse of the stock market, were out of a job,” Vaskov said. “So he sees it as his obligation, and rightfully so, to provide for them.”

Cox opened a soup kitchen, developed a sort of food stamp program and, according to Vaskov, “probably gave away the equivalent of millions of dollars worth of assistance during that time.”

He began charging those who could afford it to visit the replica of the Vatican’s catacombs to raise money for the members of his congregation. He networked with the more affluent members of the city to find funds for those in need.

“He obviously just had a great heart for serving people, finding them in their need and not neglecting them, but really seeking to provide for them,” Vaskov said.

As the Depression continued, Cox realized the handouts he was providing weren’t sustainable — people needed jobs, they needed the dignity of work. In 1932, he organized a march on Washington D.C.

“The day they were supposed to leave comes and there are 12,000 people along Liberty Avenue, Spring Way and Penn Avenue — three roads that run right by the church,” Vaskov said. “And so they just start walking. By the time they got to Washington, they were 25,000 strong.”

At an audience with President Herbert Hoover, Cox pitched a work-based program for the country. Hoover was fairly uninterested in the idea, but the so-called Jubilee Army went home undeterred.

When they arrived back in Pittsburgh, Father Cox decided to run for president under a newly-established political party called the “Jobless Party.”

“He was the only priest who ever ran for president in the United States as a result of what was just a very natural and heartfelt desire to see good for his people and people across the country,” Vaskov said. “He saw the office as an elevation of what he was already.”

But without the financial means and up against established politicians, he wasn’t able to secure the votes to get on the ballots. Cox ended up throwing his support behind Democratic candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who would go on to win the presidency. And while Vaskov said there’s no indication Cox ever met with FDR, the idea of a work-based recovery program was shared by both men.

“Father Cox’s ideals, in some way, influenced both the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration — a way to bring about welfare, particularly for the needy and for seniors, ways to find jobs, for infrastructure and things like that,” Vaskov said.

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Creating the WPA

The New Deal was the umbrella term for a series of public works and economic recovery programs put in place by FDR after his inauguration in 1933. In the next few years, it would also include the WPA, the Social Security Administration and other programs that provided relief to struggling Americans.

“The WPA’s real goal was to make sure that at least one person, one wage earner in every family had some kind of job where they could contribute back to, in effect, the welfare of the family,” said Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at the Heinz History Center.

The WPA employed the jobless and put them to work primarily creating new highways, updating sewage systems or building new structures. In the Pittsburgh region, the WPA helped in the construction of the Cathedral of Learning, the Highland Park Bridge, the zoo’s main building, and the Washington Trade School.

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The Cathedral of Learning was able to be completed using funds from the WPA.

In Frick Park, an outdoor nature study amphitheater was built, along with the stone entrances. In Highland Park, new stone steps were built in multiple locations. And in Riverview Park, new picnic shelters were constructed, drainage repairs were made and the welcome center was built. And that’s just a handful of the dozens of projects.

The city also has a number of murals in its courthouses and post offices that were funded by the WPA; several can be seen in the Allegheny County Courthouse, while others are found in places like the Squirrel Hill Post Office.

The Federal Writers’ Project

The WPA also included programs in the arts, theater and storytelling. One such program was the Federal Writers’ Project, which included a compilation called “The Western Pennsylvania History of the Negro in Pittsburgh.” University of Pittsburgh professor Laurence Glasco said the aim of the manuscript was to document life in American cities and explain what it was like to be Black in Pittsburgh in the early 20th century.

“The Federal Writers’ Project was a way of putting academics, writers, artists, poets, people like that, [to work],” said Glasco. “And that was the simple idea of it.”

In the Pittsburgh region, the main writer was named J. Ernest Wright, the primary contributor to the Western Pennsylvania History of the Negro in Pittsburgh. After years in various archives around the state, Glasco resurrected the writings, compiled them in chronological order and republished them with citations and context.

During his research, he discovered writings about the early experience of Black people living in Pittsburgh, especially in the Hill District.

“[People are] talking about the Hill as a beautiful place with orchards and things,” Glasco said. “It’s so much nicer than the dust and dirt and congestion of Downtown Pittsburgh, but it’s right next to it. They all have good views and, by golly, in no time at all, the white elite business class is moving into the Hill. And so that’s something that wasn’t known and not talked about.”

A mural called "Justice," one of several by Vincent Nesbert inside the Allegheny County Courthouse as part of the federal Works Progress Administration.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A mural called "Justice," one of several by Vincent Nesbert inside the Allegheny County Courthouse as part of the federal Works Progress Administration.

The early accounts also recall the rise of the Republican Party — the anti-slavery Republican Party of President Abraham Lincoln — and a national convention that took place here in Pittsburgh in 1856.

The original manuscript also describes the culture of Black Pittsburghers at the time, including its musical organizations.

“There’s an excellent chapter on Black music, and it brings out the fact that Black Pittsburgh was not just a jazz city before it was a jazz city,” Glasco said. “Blacks were interested in classical music here, and they had something like six concert orchestras performing in the Hill District in the early 1900s.”

Outside of Pittsburgh writers, many FWP works included first-hand accounts from former slaves, which hadn’t been done before.

“It’s an excellent source of oral history that people can use forever,” Glasco said. “It’s not the just writer’s opinion. It’s listening. It’s having the voices of the people themselves.”

WPA pushback

While many point to the WPA as a critical program for our national infrastructure improvement, when it was first introduced, the WPA and its sister programs received significant criticism.

“You forget how controversial those programs were,” Przybylek said. “There were strikes of workers, there were strikes of other groups who didn’t want WPA workers coming in and engaging in those kinds of operations.”

Some claimed the program was socialist — an especially harsh criticism at the time — while others didn’t see the need for the specific infrastructure improvements the initiative sought out.

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The former Washington Trade School in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville was constructed with the help of the WPA.

Despite the criticism, the improvements themselves, including those at local parks, ended up becoming staples of early-to-mid 20th century Pittsburgh families: North and South Parks became sites for Sunday outings or celebratory picnics; the improvement of highway systems made it easier to visit loved ones; and the construction of schools and recreation buildings provided a reprieve for those who had, for several decades, only known Pittsburgh to be a dirty and smoky city.

“It did increase the livability of the place,” Przybylek said. “The original goal was simply to get wage earners employed again. But I think maybe that’s one of the reasons why we remember pieces of it so fondly now, and we forget the controversial side of it because it did exactly that. And it was that postwar generation that kind of helped that process along.”

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.