February 2023

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal


The New Deal Turns 90

“Promote the General Welfare"

“Promote the General Welfare"
Bas relief by Lenore Thomas Straus, Greenbelt, Maryland. Photo by Susan Ives

The nation was spiraling into the worst economic crisis in its history when presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt pledged “a new deal for the American people.” Upon taking office in 1933, FDR launched an all-out mobilization to beat back the Great Depression. “Neither before nor since have Americans so rallied around an essentially peaceable form of patriotism,” writes historian Eric Rauchway. “The New Deal matters because we all live in it…it gives structure to our lives in ways we do not ordinarily bother to count or catalog.” In 2023, the 90th birthday of the New Deal, the Living New Deal is counting, cataloging—and celebrating—the New Deal’s vast legacy.


In this Issue:

A Greenbelt Town Fights for Press Freedom

Shopping at Greenbelt Cooperative Grocery Store

Shopping at Greenbelt Cooperative Grocery Store
Cooperatives remain central to life in Greenbelt today. Photo by Russell Lee, 1938. Courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

In 1937, Theodora and John Murray were among 850 families selected to reside in an experimental city built and owned by the federal government.

About a half-hour’s drive from Washington, DC., Greenbelt, Maryland is one of three planned residential communities conceived and developed by the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration (RA), which relocated displaced and low-income families during the Great Depression. These Greenbelt towns, described as “utopian” by both adherents and detractors alike, offered affordable rents in suburban villages meant to deliver families from blighted urban housing. 

“They wanted to try an experiment that provided something healthy, with lots of green grass and trees,” says Greenbelt journalist Mary Lou Williamson, a 60-year city resident of the town. “There was plenty of fresh air and children could spend time outside in a safe community.” 

Mary Lou Williamson, a 60-year resident of the town, reported on the public hearings that led real estate developer Charles Bresler to sue the Greenbelt News Review for criminal libel. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo by Susan Ives, 2022.

Prospective tenants were screened not only on the basis of income, but on their prospective suitability for starting a cooperative community. “They wanted people who would take care of things,” Williamson explains.

The Murrays and other Greenbelt townsfolk decided to start with a town newspaper. Churned out on a mimeograph machine, The Cooperator,” became a vital part of promulgating “the Greenbelt philosophy.”  Besides guiding new residents through a maze of organizational meetings, its editors and reporters encouraged readers to view themselves as “pioneers” of a new way of life, and promoted the city as a “model for future Greenbelts.”  

Organized as a cooperative, the newspaper ushered in a proliferation of other co-ops. A credit union, grocery store, nursery school and babysitting co-op remain active today. The New Deal Café, a hive of activism, is cooperatively managed by town residents.

Mrs. Hoover reading the Greenbelt Cooperator in her living room.

Mrs. Hoover reading the Greenbelt Cooperator in her living room.
The paper, published by the Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Association, Inc., was established in 1937 shortly after the federal government’s construction of Greenbelt. It has been published weekly without interruption ever since and is delivered free to most Greenbelt residents. Photo by Marjory Collins, 1942. Courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Critics of FDR’s Administration denounced the so-called “green towns” as a socialist boondoggle. But it wasn’t until after WWII that Greenbelt and its newspaper met with an existential threat, when Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy proposed selling the three green towns to private interests. Greenbelt tenants narrowly voted to purchase the homes collectively and established a cooperative, Greenbelt Homes, Inc., in 1954.

McCarthy’s scrutiny had bred fear and distrust. Not long after Greenbelt was targeted during televised hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, The Cooperator changed its name to the Greenbelt News Review.

In 1965, real estate developer Charles Bresler and the city became embroiled in a zoning dispute.

At a heated city council meeting, a Greenbelt resident accused Bresler of trying to “blackmail” the city into a decision Bresler sought. News Review reporter Mary Lou Williamson, who would later become the paper’s editor, reported on the controversy and criticisms leveled at Bresler. He sued the News Review for criminal libel in what became a precedent-setting lawsuit.

Cooperator reporter Sally Meredith

Sally Meredith, reporter for the Greenbelt Cooperator 
Photo by Marjory Collins, 1942. Courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

In 1970 the Supreme Court unanimously decided in the News Review’s favor, holding that reporting the news is protected by the First Amendment, and that the paper was not libelous for accurately reporting such “rhetorical hyperbole” at a lively public meeting,” but rather “was performing its wholly legitimate function as a community newspaper when it published full reports of these public debates in its news columns.”  

Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing v Bresler (1970), “is a very important case,” says Washington D.C. attorney Lee Levine, who has argued libel cases before the Supreme Court. “Both for what it decided…and for the influence it’s had on the law since.”

Volunteer staff at The Cooperator

Volunteer staff at The Cooperator
The weekly paper was renamed the Greenbelt News Review in 1954. In 1970, The News Review successfully defended the freedom of the press before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Photographer unknown.

The precedent established by Greenbelt’s hometown paper continues to guarantee freedom of the press. In a 1990 case, Milkovich v The Lorraine Journal, the Court reiterated its finding in the Greenbelt case of “rhetorical hyperbole” as protected speech under the First Amendment and expanded press protection against frivolous, but costly, lawsuits. 

Watch: PBS segment about Greenbelt in “Ten Towns That Changed America” 
(5 minutes)

Watch: “Defending Utopia, The Greenbelt News Review at 80,” a film by Susan Gervasi
Film: https://vimeo.com/285905039. (48 minutes)
Trailer: https://vimeo.com/257268409

Susan Gervasi is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in the Washington, D.C. area. Her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Washington City Paper, the New York Daily News and numerous other publications. Her films include Defending Utopia: the Greenbelt News Review at 80; Psychedelic Mysticism: The Good Friday Experiment & Beyond; On the Trail of Jack Thorp; and Mary Surratt: Mystery Woman of the Lincoln Assassination.

New Dealish: FDR’s Birthday Ball

FDR Birthday Ball Window Placard Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1936.

FDR Birthday Ball Window Placard Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1936

As president, FDR used his birthday, January 30, to advance his most important cause—raising awareness and money to eliminate polio, a disease FDR knew first hand. The first Birthday Ball was held in 1934; 4,376 communities joined together in 600 separate celebrations to raise more one million dollars for the Warm Springs Foundation, a charity FDR founded. The Birthday Ball became an annual event, but the revenue was not enough to support the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which FDR created in 1938 to help victims of polio all across the country, not just in Warm Springs. Radio personality and philanthropist Eddie Cantor urged Americans to send their loose change to President Roosevelt in “a march of dimes to reach all the way to the White House.” “Nearly everyone can send in a dime, or several dimes,” Cantor stressed in his January, 1938 fundraising appeal. By the end of that month, the White House had received a total of 2,680,000 dimes, or $268,000. The money raised by the Birthday Balls and March of Dimes went directly to the research that enabled Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin to develop polio vaccines in the 1950s that, by the 1960s, eradicated the disease throughout most of the world.

Favorite New Deal Site: Westmoreland Park

Tell Us About Your Favorite New Deal Site

Westmoreland Park, Portland, Oregon

Launching toy boats at Westmoreland Park
Courtesy, City of Portland Archives.

Westmoreland Park is four blocks from my home in Portland, Oregon. I enjoy it often and recently discovered it was created from swampy farmland by hundreds of WPA laborers between 1936 and 1939. A distinctive feature of the park is a collection of magnificent Sequoia gigantea trees that surround a vast fly-casting pond constructed by the WPA. The WPA also built a clubhouse for fly-casters, baseball fields, basketball courts, a model yacht lagoon and rustic pedestrian bridges hewn from local trees. Salmon migrate through the park since the city’s recent restoration of Crystal Springs Creek. There’s a new children’s nature playground. A “friends” group keeps this well-used park in good shape. The visionary investment of WPA funds by Portland leaders created meaningful work during the Great Depression and gave the city this beautiful neighborhood haven enjoyed by people of all ages today.

—By Kurt Feichtmeir
Kurt Feichtmeir is Development Director of the Living New Deal.
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!
Kurt Feichtmeir is the Development Director for the Living New Deal.