August 2022

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

The Lungs of Our Land

In 1937, in a letter to the nation’s governors, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote: “Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”
Forests played a major part in the New Deal. FDR’s “Tree Army,” the Civilian Conservation Corps, enlisted millions of young men to fight wildfires, replant forests and restore spent land. The lesser known Resettlement Administration (RA), enacted in 1935, (later renamed the Farm Securities Administration) aspired to house the thousands displaced by the Dust Bowl and made jobless by the Great Depression. The RA’s town planners envisioned affordable, well-built homes surrounded by “green belts” of fields and forests. Congress considered the plan socialist and cut off funding. Only three “greenbelt towns” were built. With the climate and housing prices wildly overheated, the New Deal vision might offer the “fresh strength” we need today.

In this Issue:

A Forest at Your Doorstep

FDR speaks at Greenbelt

FDR speaks at Greenbelt
The president visited the partially completed town on November 13, 1936. “I have reviewed the plans but the reality exceeds my expectation,” he said. Pictured L-R: Rex Tugwell, head of the Resettlement Administration; President Roosevelt; and Wallace Richards, Executive Officer, Greenbelt Project. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Joblessness and homelessness during the Great Depression led the federal government in 1935 to demonstrate how modest, well-built homes could improve the lives of ordinary Americans if these homes were located, designed and managed to promote “family and community life.” The plan was described in a 1937 pamphlet, Greenbelt Towns, published by the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration.

Forests were essential to several New Deal initiatives, including this planned-community program. Of the three greenbelt towns the federal government built, Greenbelt, Maryland, most strongly expressed the idea of a “belt of green.” The surrounding forests, parks, farms and gardens were intended to prevent encroachment from outside development and

Photo taken from the Goodyear Blimp in May, 1936, shows the forests and fields surrounding the town. While much of the town’s original green space has since been developed, and the mix of tree species has changed, eighty years on, a “belt of green,” now preserved, still defines the town. Photo annotations by O. Kelley. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

strengthen the bonds of community by encouraging residents to spend their leisure time in town with the natural world a short walk from their front doors. Greenbelt was shaped by the Garden City ideals of Ebenezer Howard and Clarence Stein. Within a Garden City, a neighborhood was defined as having homes within a half-mile walk from a central cluster of public buildings to include an elementary school or community center. Buildings and footpaths were embedded in forest and grassy common areas where residents could connect with their neighbors. Stein wrote about this aspect of Greenbelt in Toward New Towns for America, and his struggle to make these ideas stick in the sometimes chaotic and rushed atmosphere of the New Deal.

FDR motorcade touring the Greenbelt Lake dam. The forested tract in the background has been owned by the town since the federal government sold the land in 1950–1954. It was added to the Greenbelt Forest Preserve in 2007. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Foreshadowing Greenbelt’s future, FDR in his 1938 introduction to Public Papers and Addresses, described the pendulum of participatory democracy, whereby the wealthy few exercise the lion’s share of political power and then, a few decades later, popular movements would force the government to accommodate the people’s needs and desires. Broadly speaking, the pendulum swung toward participatory democracy during the Great Depression in the form of protests, labor organizing and federal legislation shaped by the demands of the grassroots.

The town’s iconic Mother and Child sculpture, by WPA artist Lenore Thomas, 1937. Footpaths wend through Greenbelt’s landscape, in keeping with Garden City planning principles of using green space to nurture a sense of community. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The original plan for the Greenbelt envisioned cooperative ownership of community assets—and idea that lives on today. Cooperatives own Greenbelt’s New Deal-era townhomes and 87 acres of protected woodland, the grocery store and the town’s weekly newspaper, founded in 1937.

For decades, Greenbelt residents have fought to preserve their town’s namesake. From 1950–1954, the federal government carried out part of the greenbelt plan that called for selling much of the land to a housing cooperative and the town government. In the 1960s, with sprawl radiating from Washington DC, Greenbelt residents elected a conservation-minded city council and began buying back land the housing cooperative had sold to developers. By 1989, the city owned a contiguous 245-acre forested tract of the original green belt and designated it the Greenbelt Forest Preserve. It protects century-old trees and a variety of habitats—vernal pools, wetlands, oak-hickory stands and a heath ecosystem similar to New Jersey’s pine barrens.

In 1997, Greenbelt’s New Deal-era buildings and adjacent forests became a National Historic Landmark.

"Promote the General Welfare" by Lenore Thomas

"Promote the General Welfare" by Lenore Thomas
Public artworks throughout Greenbelt reflect social and economic themes, an interest in the common man and the pursuit of democratic ideals. The Center School exterior features bas reliefs inspired by nature and the Preamble to the US Constitution. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1937. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Inspired by their town’s founding ideals, Greenbelt’s residents continue to resist threats to their community and its greenbelt. Residents have organized to oppose a high-speed rail project that imperils the Forest Preserve and natural areas to the north, and are pushing elected officials to defeat the proposed plan. It’s the sort of citizen activism Greenbelt’s New Deal planners envisioned from the start.”

Learn more:

FDR and the Environment, Editors Henry L. Henderson and David B. Woolner (2005); Douglas Brinkley’s Rightful Heritage (2016). “Clarence Stein and the Greenbelt Towns,” Journal of the Am. Planning Assoc., (1990); and The New Deal in the Suburbs, a history of the Greenbelt town program, 1935-1954, by Tracy Augur.

Owen A. Kelley is an atmospheric scientist at George Mason University, working with NASA's precipitation-measuring satellites. A resident of Greenbelt, he studies the natural world in his spare time. This story is adapted from his 2021 photo essay, BEING: Biota Ephemera In Greenbelt. He also wrote A Hundred Wild Things: a Field Guide to Plants in the Greenbelt North Woods.

Mary McLeod Bethune Statue Installed in the Capitol

“Invest in the human soul.
Who knows, it may be a diamond in the rough.”

Statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, unveiled at the Capitol on July 13, 2013. Credit:

This famous quote by the educator and civil rights activist Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) is inscribed on the pedestal of her statue, recently installed in Statuary Hall at the US Capitol. Her statue replaces that of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith. The daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Bethune, founder of the Council of Negro Women, advised multiple US presidents. She was the only woman to serve in FDR’s “Black Cabinet,” and he appointed her to head the New Deal’s National Youth Administration (NYA). The 11-foot marble statue, by the Hispanic sculptor Nilda Comas, depicts Bethune holding a walking stick, a symbol of wise leadership. The walking stick is modeled on the one Bethune received as a gift from President Roosevelt.

Favorite New Deal Site (A New Feature)

Tell Us About Your Favorite New Deal Site

Send us a first-person story of 100 (or so) words describing the site and why you chose it. Submissions will appear in future issues of The Fireside! Be sure to include a photo (with photo credit). Send to [email protected]. Thanks!

Red Rocks Rocks On!

Red Rocks Amphitheater, Morrison, Colorado

Red Rocks Amphitheater, Morrison, Colorado
Photo by Susan Ives

Named for 300-foot slabs of bright red sandstone, Red Rocks Park has served as a venue for live music for much of Denver’s history. The first documented concert, in 1906, featured a 25-piece brass band. The first rock concert took place in 1964, featuring The Beatles! Virtually every big-name band has performed on its “acoustically perfect” stage since. The city of Denver purchased Rock Rocks—elevation 6,500 feet—in 1927. The Civilian Conservation Corps arrived in 1936 to carve out the 9,450-seat amphitheater. A bronze statue of a CCC worker stands in tribute to their achievement. Some 80 years on, Red Rocks Amphitheater remains a mecca for music lovers. It also hosts classic films under the stars. A wildly popular event, “Yoga on the Rocks,” would have been unimaginable to Red Rocks’ founders and builders whose stories are told at the Visitor Center. On the day I visited, hundreds of students in caps and gowns poured in to the historic amphitheater for their high school graduation.

— Susan Ives

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.