Public History: The meaning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Park and the irony

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Pepsi-Cola sign in the New York City borough of Queens

***Note: Occasionally I will be making historical/political blog posts on historical monuments across NYC. This will be part of my public history series.***

Last summer I enrolled in an introductory American history course that covered the Civil War period until present. Although I am an advanced history student, I was compelled to take this course for some reasons. I needed to brush up on my knowledge of American history especially since the presidential election was closer. I was versed with American history but had been told before enrolling in college that American history, even the introductory courses goes into greater depth. I, nonetheless, was not warned about their potential leftist slant. This course was a necessary refresher especially since this presidential election inspired me to and a quick GPA boost. While taking the course, I had an assignment where I was asked to choose one of four historical monuments in New York City. The assignment asked to discuss the monument, its historical context, how public history is depicted and whether or not it fulfills its message. I chose Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Park. I had been hearing nothing but fantastic things about Roosevelt in my human rights program. He is a celebrated figure for many reasons outside of his presidency, New Deal programs and his leadership during World War II. I wrote an opinion about the monument dedicated to Roosevelt hinting at some of my political views. I have edited and strengthened this essay for this blog but before I get there, I want to talk about my experience at Four Freedoms Park.

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United Nations Headquarters from Roosevelt Island view

My classmate and I went to Four Freedoms Park and there was nothing awe or inspiring about the monument. It was the first time I had gone to Roosevelt Island and had only seen it through passing when I would ride the F train. This monument feels as though is only meant to attract a certain visitors since its location is so out of the way. Another thing to consider is that there is limited sources of public transportation to get there. It was a beautiful, hot and humid day in late June and the skies were clear. As we walked to Roosevelt’s monument, I kept looking to my left and to my right. At one point my classmate noticed the Pepsi Cola sign to his left and to his right the United Nations. He stated ‘Wow! Look at the Pepsi-Cola sign and the United Nations. These two things oppose each other’. I immediately responded ‘you have NO idea what you just said. One enables the other so try figuring that out for yourself’. Globalism! I did not want to debate or argue with my classmate because I would rather he research before I started talking to him about globalism. Little did I know that the statement he made would later inspire the thesis of that paper as shown in this blog post on Four Freedoms Park.


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Aerial view of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Park in Roosevelt Island in New York City by architect Louis I. Kahn
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FDR’s Four Freedoms depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings circa 1943

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Park is a monument dedicated to the former president of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Park, located on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, lies between the island of Manhattan and the New York City borough of Queens. Roosevelt Island, also named in dedication to him, has the FDR drive and the United Nations headquarters to the East. Roosevelt had a significant impact in its founding of the United Nations. The Four Freedoms Park is named after Roosevelt’s 8th State of the Union Address made to the United States Congress on 6 January 1941 during World War II, an international conflict that lasted from 1939 until 1945. The Four Freedoms speech addressed what Roosevelt hoped for the world, which was freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. As a monument, the Four Freedoms Park fails to represent the meaning of Roosevelt’s speech. The placement of the monument in New York City represents the trajectory of American history and the history of the struggle between ordinary working people trying to fight for their economic rights against a government that was extremely pro-business. American government, being explicitly pro-business, was put to a halt under Roosevelt’s presidency in 1933 and has gone full circle back to the economic dynamics that occurred before him. Therefore, the Four Freedoms Park fails to represent Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech.

Before Roosevelt’s presidential victory in 1933, the American government was explicitly pro-business. Specifically, in 1928 Republican nominee Herbert Hoover was elected President of the United States and too was pro-business. Unfortunately, less than eight months into Hoover’s presidency the Stock Market Crash of 1929 led to the Gross National Product dropping  from 104 billion to 59 billion leading to a global depression. Hoover used whatever methods to deal with the depression and encouraged business owners to cut off wages or lay off workers. Hoover assisted American businesses during the Great Depression by passing the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act in 1930 and by establishing the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1932. The Hawley-Smoot Act raised American tariffs on imported goods and forced Americans to only purchase domestic goods. The RFC was founded in order to provide financial support to local and state governments and to assist businesses leading to 300 million dollars given to subsidize big and small businesses. American business owners were considered robber barons, a derogatory term used to describe ruthless and unethical tactics in acquiring more wealth and buying out competitors. These robber barons thrived due to absences of government regulation in the financial markets.

Who_benefitted_from_the_new_dealRoosevelt was born into privilege and had established a reputation as a politician before he was elected President of the United States. He was governor of New York City from 1929 until 1932. The United States suffered heavily from the Great Depression. Homelessness, unemployment, starvation, natural disasters spanned across the United States and Roosevelt sought to alleviate the crisis. In order to resolve these issues, Roosevelt created a series of reforms known as New Deal programs. There were various reforms passed by the New Deal programs such as the creation of the FDIC, or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, where if a bank went under, then individuals with bank accounts would be insured by the federal government up to $5,000. (Not sure if this amount insured isfrom the New Deal Program period or today) However, it is important to take into consideration that Keynesianism was very popular during the 1930s. John Maynard Keynes, an influential English economist, believed that if governments used deficit spending to put an end to recessions would then spur the economy and make the economy grow. Roosevelt envisioned a society where government was in people’s lives and made their lives better. The excess of capitalism and the government’s inability to reign in capitalism is what led to the United States being on the brink of disaster. Roosevelt was very important in this era because he envisioned a larger government that would “save capitalism from itself”. After all there is a little known fact that America was on the brink of becoming communist. Notice how in Europe the global depression ans other factors made cointries become radically left or right wing. If one is familiar with the historical developments of that time Europe was falling to fascism. A book by Mark Mazower that discusses this is titled The Dark Continent. Fascist dictators such as Adolf Hitler of Germany, Benito Mussolini of Italy, and Francisco Franco of Spain praised Roosevelt for what he was doing to alleviate the hardships associated with the depression in America.

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In this respect, the Four Freedoms Park is a noble monument with noble intentions. Though, it has become ironic to place such a monument in a city that has come to embrace the opposite of Roosevelt’s social programs and visions for American society. The idea of large government and Keynesianism itself came under heavy attack during the 1970s when new economists, labeled the Chicago Boys led by Milton Friedman from the University of Chicago, sought to reduce the role of government in the market and instead espoused the importance of having a free market. This was in some ways a return to the concepts of laissez-faire capitalism, a kind of capitalism, that Roosevelt meant to control with his reforms to government. New York City was at the center of this struggle between these competing economic ideologies. History and the present has demonstrated that the free market ideology would win in New York City. The 1970s in NYC was defined by a financial crisis that would forever shape the city. Abram Beame, mayor of NYC and Hugh Carey, governor of New York visited then President Gerald Ford in Washington, D.C. in May of 1975. Beame and Carey asked President Ford for federal assistance to NYC’s economic crisis. Ford refused to provide financial assistance to NYC and it made the cover of the NY Daily News with the headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead”. The economic crisis in New York City led to a series of changes that would last forever. The City University of New York, or CUNY is one of the largest public university systems in the United States and ceased to provide students with tuition-free education by 1976 due to federal government pressure. Before learning about the NYC fiscal crisis, CUNY charging its students tuition was racially motivated. This is false because although minorities were applying to CUNY, the fiscal crisis in the city occured coincidentally. New York was once a manufacturing city with its working class living in the city proper (Manhattan). This city would be transformed into one with Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate or FIRE as its main industries and Manhattan, like many parts of the city would get rid of its working classes, instead making the city into a playground of the rich. This has great implications for the people living in this city. The Four Freedoms speech mentions freedom from want. It is interesting that this monument would then be placed in an island that has dedicated much of its recent construction to luxury housing amidst a crisis of affordable housing and homelessness in the city. It is no secret that many of these luxury housing developments in the city remain empty, because they are used as investments and tax shelters for wealthy foreign millionaires and billionaires. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg once boasted that he wished all of the world’s billionaires would buy property in New York City.

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CUNY students in 1976 protesting having to pay tuition due to NYC fiscal crisis

The reality is that the Four Freedoms speech by Roosevelt is incompatible to the society Americans live in now. President Roosevelt managed to create a robust government to help people instead of capital. Roosevelt’s reforms however are under attack still; as we can see in the debates that took place for American presidential nominees about privatizing social security. It is a hollow feeling seeing the Four Freedoms Park knowing that the government has essentially turned its back on Roosevelt’s envisioned society for one that is closer in ideology to the time of robber barons. It is evident with the increasing rate of homelessness and the city’s prioritization of building luxury residences.

New York Homeless

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Articles for those interested in learning more about the NYC fiscal crisis:

https://www.thenation.com/article/legacy-1970s-fiscal-crisis/

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-night-new-york-saved-itself-from-bankruptcy

https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/22/when-new-york-branded-its-way-out-of-crisis/?_r=0

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