Finding the War on Poverty on the Landscape

This morning I woke up and checked the faucet: No running water. The polar vortex of 2014 had reached its icy fingers into park housing and froze one of the pipes. Fortunately, park maintenance came at 7:30 am and fixed it. For what it is worth, this is what I imagine the polar vortex looks like.

In between longing thoughts of hot showers and coffee I realized that fifty years ago today President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty before Congress and the American people. The Economic Opportunity Act created programs that have become embedded in our social and economic fabric, including Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, food stamps, college work study programs, and more. All of these programs are viciously debated today and the legacy of LBJ’s War on Poverty seems very much in the air. NPR is running a series  this year to explore the very question of if the War on Poverty failed.

Forty-nine years ago this month, a group of young men arrived at Catoctin Mountain Park to the nation’s very first Job Corps Center. American politicians and bureaucrats believed that these boys were at risk for falling into the “Cycle of Poverty.” This was the boys’ “last chance” to do something with their lives, so program administrators told the press and the kids’ parents.

Catoctin was selected as a Job Corps Center site by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in October 1964 and it was open by January 1965. When enrollees arrived, the place was a muddy, cold mess. The NPS and the OEO selected the site because it still retained the infrastructure of the Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was in operation between 1939 and 1941. The OEO and NPS literally built the new Job Corps Center on the foundations of the old CCC camp, which mirrors their intentions to model the Job Corps after the successful CCC. However, the resemblance was only superficial. The CCC was created to put people to work, while the Job Corps was supposed to end poverty. Administrators were ill-equipped to reach this goal and faced tremendous political pressures. The Catoctin Center was closed in 1969 along with other conservation centers. However, President Nixon retained some urban centers and the Job Corps program continues today in a much different form than in 1965.

The Administrative Building was one of the first constructed at Catoctin for the Job Corps. The NPS converted it into seasonal housing for employees long after the center closed. This is where I stay when I do research, and this is the building whose pipes froze last night. Staying here, I am regularly reminded that the War on Poverty left a tangible impact to the landscape in a similar fashion to the New Deal. Like New Deal resources, they have been overlooked for many years because they became part of the ordinary American landscape. In recent years, scholars, preservationists, and citizens have taken on a campaign to identify, document, map, and preserve New Deal resources. With the fiftieth anniversary on the War on Poverty, I think the preservation community should start thinking about doing the same for the Great Society for several reasons. The most important is to the chart the evolution of New Deal liberalism throughout the twentieth century. This is especially vital as we continue to debate the legacy of these programs and how we address social welfare issues in America today.

I will leave you with a few questions to think about and feel free to leave your thoughts. What other structures or landscapes embody LBJ’s War on Poverty and the liberal ideals of the Great Society? Are they worth preserving? How do we go about evaluating their integrity?

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