NEW YORK — Along the exhibit's walls, on several videos and in booklets, the black-and-white faces tell a gripping, largely forgotten story from America's past. Countless photographs show men and women, grimy and forlorn, after losing their jobs, their spirit and their hope.
This is the story of how the Great Depression gripped our nation in the early 1930s, and it comes back to life in Our Plain Duty, a gripping multimedia presentation at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., about two hours north of New York City overlooking the Hudson River.
Only a handful of visitors have come to the original presidential library, beside Roosevelt's lifelong home, on this chilly November afternoon. So there's plenty of time to absorb all the history and lessons from that tumultuous time, and to appreciate how Roosevelt accomplished so much with his New Deal programs after taking office in 1933 — among them the Public Works Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, Rural Electrification Administration, National Industrial Recovery Act and, of course, Social Security.
We think the United States has suffered during our latest recession, but that pales when you grasp how bad things were eight decades ago. You also come away realizing what a huge impact Roosevelt and his New Deal had, providing jobs across the land and the impetus to build so much of America's infrastructure for the decades ahead.
The experience of seeing that FDR library and its exhibition makes me wish more people could see it now, if only to better understand what can be achieved when both political sides work together. There's no way of knowing how much longer the Great Depression's effects would have lasted, if not for Roosevelt's New Deal.
The rest of this East Coast trip, however, drives home the point that we are still in fragile times now. Talk to people in New York and New Jersey, and you draw two conclusions.
One, Coloradans have no idea how little their tax burden truly is. Out east, with so many more people, and so much more need for government services and maintenance, the taxes are incredible. Imagine paying $1,000, $1,500 or more in property taxes — per month. So many essential highways, despite their bumps and potholes, require tolls that are a fact of life. (Also, imagine taking two hours to drive 30 miles, which happens every day in the near-gridlock of northeast New Jersey. Yet, there's no money, or room for that matter, to build more roads or develop new means of mass transit.)
Two, there's a different kind of economic crisis looming in the Northeast. As friends and acquaintances tell it, a typical two-income couple bringing in less than $100,000 a year might be able to stay above water for now, even own their own home. But when retirement age comes, millions won't be able to afford staying where they are.
One such couple tells us they'll have to sell their home and move west, to be closer to family and/or roots in Arkansas or Colorado. They feel lucky, because they have options. So many others don't, meaning they'll eventually have to sell their homes, downsize and rent. Also, most likely, they'll have to work indefinitely, at some level. We talked to a drug-store cashier, working part-time — after retiring from IBM. It's chilling, and probably just a preview of what will spread across the country in years to come.
As if we need one last reminder, it comes on the final drive across New Jersey, into the city and onward to LaGuardia Airport. We cross the George Washington Bridge, and the toll is $8 a car. Yes, $8. Later comes the Robert F. Kennedy/Triborough Bridge, and it's $5.50 a car. Mind-boggling.
Those problems and issues might be 1,800 miles away from Colorado, but that doesn't mean we can ignore them. Someday, another president will have to pull the nation together as FDR obviously did, coming up with new solutions for generations to come. And if this trip is any indication, we'll need those new directions sooner than we think.
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