A New Deal Town Fights for Its Future

Greenbelt sign, 1937

Greenbelt sign, 1937
The Greenbelt housing project was seen as a social experiment
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The first of three greenbelt towns built and owned by the federal government during the Great Depression, Greenbelt, Maryland, ten miles north of Washington, D.C. was considered “utopian” when it opened in 1937.

Greenbelt’s residents had to overcome many obstacles from the start, and today a new threat is bearing down on the New Deal town.

Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan, state legislators, and the private company Northeast MAGLEV, are hawking a public-private partnership to build a high-speed train,  between D.C and New York that could impact this historic community.

FDR and Wallace Richards, 1936

FDR and Wallace Richards, 1936
Richards, coordinator for the Greenbelt project, shows plans to President Roosevelt
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Home to 23,000 residents, Greenbelt is the legacy of Rexford Tugwell, a friend and advisor whom FDR appointed to head the short-lived Resettlement Administration (RA). Tugwell, inspired by England’s Garden City movement—a turning point in urban planning—envisioned hundreds of “greenbelt towns” around the country. Surrounded by greenbelts of forests and farms, they were meant to provide affordable homes with easy access to jobs in nearby cities.

The affordable houses, landscaping, parks, playgrounds, schools, and civic buildings were designed to nurture a sense of community. Applicants for residency were screened based on income, occupation, and a willingness to become involved in community activities. Much of the towns’ business was conducted through cooperatives, to the dismay of conservatives in Congress who nicknamed Tugwell “Rex the Red.”

Postcard, 1938

Postcard, 1938
Greenbelt, Town Center

Congress soon pared plans for the greenbelt towns and delayed funding. Lacking the heavy construction equipment they needed to break ground, WPA workers used picks and shovels.

Ultimately just three towns, Greenhills, Ohio; Greendale, Wisconsin; and Greenbelt, Maryland were completed. A fourth town, planned for New Jersey, was summarily cancelled.

House and Garden, 1938

House and Garden, 1938
Greenbelt offers apartments and single-family homes like these English-style row houses with pitched slate roofs.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Over the years, Greenbelt, Maryland has suffered fewer alterations than its sister towns, but “progress” has taken a toll. Despite residents’ opposition to the Baltimore–Washington Parkway it was built through the greenbelt in 1954. The Capital Beltway also pushed through the middle of the greenbelt in the 1960s. Thanks to the Committee to Save the Green Belt and other advocates, the city reacquired 230 acres of the original greenbelt that had been sold to developers in the 1950s and established the Greenbelt Forest Preserve to permanently protect the land. In 1997 Greenbelt was designated a National Historic Landmark. 

In 2017, plans emerged for a high-speed MAGLEV (magnetic-levitation) train. Two routes are under consideration. One is east of town and would tunnel under Eleanor Roosevelt High School and several neighborhoods. The other, on the west side of town, would mostly follow the Parkway, tunneling below the town to emerge in the Greenbelt Forest Preserve or possibly north of the town.

The proposed train would cut the 32-minute Amtrak ride from Baltimore to D.C by 17 minutes.

Greenbelt Pool, 1939

Greenbelt Pool, 1939
Parks, playgrounds and recreation facilities have been part of the community from the start.
Photo Credit: Marian Wolcott Post, Library of Congress

Opponents up and down the proposed corridor point to the project’s $10 billion price tag and the cost overruns that have plagued other high-speed rail projects, leaving taxpayers on the hook.

The federal government has provided $27.8 million for an Environmental Impact Study, scheduled for completion in January 2019.

Meanwhile, Northeast Maglev has acquired the ability to use eminent domain to build the track. 

What you can do: Take Action.

The City also posted information on how to oppose.

“Mother and Child” by Lenore Thomas, 1938

“Mother and Child” by Lenore Thomas, 1938
WPA artists adorned the Commons and public buildings.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Greenbelt Elementary School, 1937

Greenbelt Elementary School, 1937
The art deco building became the community center after a new school was built in the 1990s.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress


Photographing New Deal Utopias

Daffodil House, Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009

Daffodil House
Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Among the various New Deal programs to help displaced farmers and the urban poor was the Resettlement Administration’s plan to construct new communities called Greenbelt Towns. These towns were a utopian model of modern living envisioned by RA administrator Rexford G. Tugwell who served on FDR’s “brain trust.”

I became interested in Tugwell’s egalitarian ideas for fostering community through the physical and social aspects of town planning, encompassing affordable housing, communal activities, natural landscaping, and cooperatively owned businesses. It was a new concept for Americans, but not for Tugwell, who was influenced by the work of Sir Ebenezer Howard, an urban reformer whose work transformed the landscape of British industrial communities in the early 20th Century. In order to provide relief from the overcrowded slums of London, Howard proposed creating Garden Cities–new communities that would combine the best features of both town and country, namely the social and economic advantages of living in a community with fresh air and green spaces.

Mushroom, Greenbelt, Maryland, 2009

Greenbelt, Maryland, 2009
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

I made multiple trips to photograph the three New Deal Greenbelt Towns–Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin. I had learned about the towns through my research on the Garden City, having been inspired by the design and community I found at Julia C. Lathrop Homes, a public housing complex built by the Public Works Administration in 1938. Chicago’s Lathrop Homes had been built with Garden City principles in mind. The New Deal Greenbelt Towns were sited on the suburban frontier outside metropolitan centers.

Gazebo, Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009

Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Photographing the Greenbelt Towns, I was struck by the beauty and modesty of the architecture and surrounding natural landscapes, as well as the generosity of the residents. Wandering the parks and converging paths, I reflected upon Tugwell’s bold attempt to introduce a new American way of life based on cooperation instead of unrestrained competition. I was impressed at how connected residents felt to their own town, and to their sibling model communities borne out of the Great Depression. As these towns celebrate their 80th anniversaries in 2017 and 2018, I view them as vital communities to be protected and celebrated.

Mural, Greenhills, Ohio, 2009

Greenhills, Ohio, 2009
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

I am excited to share my photographs of the towns in my new book, New Deal Utopias, as we continue to grapple with the roles of housing, nature, and government in contemporary American life. Like the Greenbelt Towns themselves, the book is the result of communal effort. I’m fortunate to have Natasha Egan, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, who provided the artistic commentary and Dr. Robert Leighninger, author of Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal, who provided historical context. I’m also indebted to the Living New Deal for providing fiscal sponsorship for the project. Because of the Living New Deal, I was able to secure a publishing grant from the Puffin Foundation as well as connect with an extensive and supportive community committed to preserving the New Deal legacy.

Greenhills Named a National Historic Landmark

New Deal Housing

New Deal Housing
A New Deal neighborhood
Photo Credit: John Vashon

Near Cincinnati, Ohio, the Village of Greenhills is one of only three New Deal “greenbelt” towns in the country. On January 11, it was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior.

Greenhills was a demonstration project of the Resettlement Administration (RA) a short-lived New Deal agency that relocated displaced and struggling urban and rural families to planned communities built by the federal government.

The concept for greenbelt towns began in the late 19th century. A “Garden-City Movement,” often dismissed as utopian, promoted self-contained, satellite communities surrounded by “belts” of farms and forests as the answer to the overcrowded cities of post-industrial England.

School children at Greenhills, OH

School Children
Greenhills, OH
Photo Credit: John Vaschon

The idea resonated with Rexford Guy Tugwell, an agricultural economist who was part of FDR’s “Brain Trust.” He persuaded the president that greenbelt towns could house thousands of people displaced during the Great Depression. Roosevelt made Tugwell the director of his Resettlement Administration (RA).

Tugwell immediately purchased some 6,000 acres in southern Ohio, including dozens of struggling dairy farms he hoped could be sustained by the soon-to-be-built greenbelt town of Greenhills.

WPA workers broke ground for the new town in 1935. Over the next two years some 5,000 men and women transformed more than a square mile of what had been cornfields into a village for 676 low-income families.

The WPA relied on mules instead of machines in order to maximize the number of workers and hours spent to develop the town. It directed them to add extra layers of plaster and paint to the buildings to keep people employed.

WPA workers building Greenhills

WPA workers
Building Greenhills
Photo Credit: John Vaschon

Greenhills’ planners provided what were seen as extravagances for low-income housing. Curved streets and cul de sacs separated homes from busy thoroughfares; walkways, pocket parks, and playgrounds were incorporated into pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods; a co-op shopping district (the first strip mall in Ohio), community center with a K-12 school, town library, and public swimming pool were constructed.

A variety of multi-family housing—duplexes, townhouses, and apartments—employed Colonial, Modern, and International-style architecture. Homes were built facing backward to provide views of  common areas and open spaces rather than the street. Utilities were installed underground.

To the consternation of some in Congress, the cost of the project came in at $11.5 million.

Tugwell had envisioned 20 greenbelt towns but managed to build only three—Greenhills, Ohio; Greendale, Wisconsin; and Greenbelt, Maryland– before the Supreme Court ruled the RA unconstitutional. The RA was dissolved in 1937. The Farm Securities Administration (FSA) assumed some of its functions.

Apartment Houses at Greenhills, 1939

Apartment Houses
Greenhills, 1939
Photo Credit: John Vaschon

Greenhills is a living example of a time when government fully dedicated itself to improving the lives of working-class Americans. Yet, Greenhills has struggled to preserve its New Deal legacy.

Parts of Greenhills are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and preservation groups have long called for a plan to protect historic properties. Over residents’ objections, the Village Council voted to raze many WPA-era buildings. Fifty-two of the original townhouses and apartments have been demolished, replaced with new, stand-alone single-family houses. In 2011, Greenhill was listed among Ohio’s Most Endangered Historic Sites.

Greenhills’ newly awarded status as a National Historic Landmark, administered by the National Park Service, may help. Property owners will now be eligible for federal grants to rehabilitate Greenhills remaining New Deal-era structures.

“Greendale: A Planned Community in the Great Depression”

From Living New Deal intern Erin TerBeek comes this nice piece on Greendale, one of the New Deal resettlement towns. Erin wrote the article for the Express Milwaukee where she writes regularly:

“Combining city and nature—affordable homes, ample parks and gardens, schools and commercial centers within walking distance—was the idea for Greendale, Wis. A community planned by the government during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Greendale was one of three ‘Garden Cities.’

During President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, the federal government allocated billions of dollars to government agencies through a program called the New Deal. With the idea of pushing America out of what was a crippling economic depression, The New Deal created projects to put Americans back to work while improving infrastructure.

In 1936, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the ‘Greenbelt Towns’ project with New Deal funds. Three towns were chosen to create communities with affordable housing near schools and areas of commerce, yet also filled with the beauty of nature through numerous parks and gardens. Located outside of large cities, these towns were intended to combine the best parts of living in a city and living in the country. Greendale, Wis., Greenhills, Ohio, and Greenbelt, Md., became the three chosen communities.

Built on approximately 3,400 acres of old farmland, the planned community of Greendale saw its first tenants on April 30, 1938. The town consisted of 366 homes—with large tracts of green space and in a variety of forms: single family, multi-family and row houses—creating 572 living spaces. Greendale also included a village hall, businesses, a theater, a tavern, a volunteer fire station, schools, a newspaper and a community market.

In 1949, the Public Housing Administration gave residents the chance to purchase the homes.  Many in the community did buy their homes, and in 1952, almost all transfer of ownership to the community was complete.

Greendale, Wis., is now on the state and federal register of historic places, since many of the original homes still exist. Michelle Obama recently marked Greendale as a ‘Preserve America Community,’ part of a federal program that encourages and supports efforts to preserve our cultural and historical heritage, which should keep Greendale on the map for many years to come. ”  [From the Express]