Visions of the Development of Salem

By Kevin Zorn

An oil on canvas mural is displayed in the post office in Salem, West Virginia. It was painted by an artist named Berni Glasgow and its production was funded
through the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. It is titled “Visions of the Development of Salem” and depicts a group of people
receiving mail, in the background is a village and cattle.

 

Berni Glasgow was one of more than 800 artists commissioned to paint 1371 murals, the majority of which are featured in post offices.
Often mistaken as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, these Treasury funded murals were created with the intent of fostering i
nspiration in the American people who were still feeling the devastating economic and social effects of the Great Depression.

 

It is a testament to the shift in the ideological landscape today that I cannot believe the US Government, in tandem with local governments,
was capable of doing what the WPA accomplished. Yet, here are just some of the facts: from 1935 to 1943 8.5 million unemployed men and
women were hired by the government to build over 10,000 bridges, 620,000 miles of streets and roads, 40,000 new and 85,000 renovated
buildings including thousands of schools, gymnasiums, auditoriums, playgrounds, parks, libraries, college dormitories, tennis courts, and skating rinks.

 

The WPA employed artists, writers, historians, and musicians whose work directly affected the lives of millions of Americans during some of the
country’s most painful years. Musicians hired under the Federal Music Project taught free lessons to 132,000 children and adults every week.
Those hired in the Federal Writers’ Project, in addition to their popular state tourism guidebooks, recorded over 2,300 slave narratives -
an invaluable collection for scholars and historians. Under the Federal Theatre Project 1,000 plays were performed across the country every month.
Incalculable is the number of children and adults inspired by this work.

 

Through the colossal endeavors of the WPA in both its pre-war effort and its public projects America achieved full employment by 1942,
the same year “Visions” was painted in Salem.

 

It is clear that the America many of us grew up in, the structures that supported our lives, the parks we enjoyed, the schools we attended,
the infrastructure we relied upon for travel, even the art classes that inspired the next generation of creators was largely built under the
auspices of the WPA and the New Deal.

 

This is a salient reminder that capital “H” History is not simply a collection of memorized facts and figures, dates and obscure names.
No, History is alive in the communities in which we live. It not only teaches us, it haunts us as well. It haunts us with what was
possible before and what is possible tomorrow.

 

Perhaps that is the greatest battle waged in the spectacle of media and politics today - the question of what is possible.
Our expectations are managed lower and lower. We learn that the climate crisis is inevitable, that homelesness is natural,
that workers are essential until they ask for a living wage. All to say that change is impossible. Visions of better futures recede from view.

But history haunts us with an alternative. By the time Berni Glasgow painted the mural in the Salem post office, the American
government had provided millions of meaningful jobs improving, with concrete and paintbrushes, nearly every community across the nation.

 

Nick Taylor, the author of “American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA”, writes this: 

 

“These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation.
They were golden threads woven in the national fabric. In this, they shamed the political philosophy
that discounted their value and rewarded the one that placed its faith in them,
thus fulfilling the founding vision of a government by and for its people. All its people.” 

 

This weeks front page:

 

 

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Japan, 1954 - Born from the radiation of a nuclear blast, a strange creature emerged from the water off the coast of a rural prefecture in Japan. The people who witnessed the aquatic emergence of the beast could only describe it as a cross between a whale and a gorilla. While they did not know its origin or motive one thing was clear, the gargantuan reptile was not friendly. It terrorized cities by felling skyscrapers and destroyed squadrons of fighters with its atomic breath. There was no stopping the dark monster, Godzilla.

 

With the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh in the minds of the Japanese people a special film emerged in movie theaters throughout the country. It was a tale of an unknown beast who unexpectedly appears from the ocean with one goal - to destroy all of Japan. The monster was originally conceived as a representation of the destruction caused by the use of nuclear weapons. The beast could not be destroyed by any conventional methods of warfare, the audience merely watched as the beast tore through Tokyo time after time leaving behind a trail of mayhem. It has starred in more than twenty-eight films and is due to appear on Friday in America alongside Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. 2014 marks sixty years of Godzilla.

 

As time wore on Godzilla’s popularity skewed toward a younger demographic and new monsters were added. Godzilla fought against the three headed dragon King Ghidorah, the hook-armed Gigan, the metallic doppelganger Mechagodzilla including several others. While his focus shifted from primarily destroying humanity to battling other strange beasts, the Japanese people portrayed in the movies were never truly safe. In one famous scene from Godzilla vs King Ghidorah a tall white building is battered and eventually destroyed by the two fighting monsters. In the initial viewing of this scene the audience cheered when the building fell because it was the main center for tax collection in Japan.

 

While the introduction of enemies for Godzilla to battle might appeal to a younger demographic, the monster’s representation remains true to the 1954 original. It is a symbol of destruction. When asked whether Godzilla was good or bad, producer Shogo Tomiyama compared it to a God of Destruction, “He totally destroys everything and then there is a rebirth. Something new and fresh can begin.”

 

Today the threat of nuclear war has dwindled. We do not live with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the backs of our minds. Yet Godzilla’s popularity continues to command strong audiences. Can the aquatic monster still be considered a representation of the horrors of nuclear war? I’m sure something less ominous pulls us toward the theater in order to watch two hours of buildings being toppled. Perhaps it’s the chance that Godzilla might visit 12th St Pennsylvania Ave, home of the IRS.