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

 

New Deal Utopias, by Jason Reblando

New Deal Utopias CoverOver three years Jason Reblando, a Chicago artist and photographer, trained his camera on three Greenbelt towns — Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin— constructed during the Depression to house poor Americans, many of them displaced from the Dust Bowl.

Rexford Tugwell, a Columbia economics professor tapped to head FDR’s Resettlement Administration (RA), modeled the Greenbelt program on the Garden City movement of early 20th Century England, integrating housing with nature. Tugwell’s dream was to create not only housing for those in need, but also a flourishing community. “My plans are fashioned and practical,” he said. “I shall roll up my sleeves—make America over!”

Jason Reblando, Photographer

Jason Reblando
Author and photographer Jason Reblando

The towns incorporated features designed to encourage neighborly interaction—shared courtyards and lawns, parks and playgrounds, intersecting pathways, public artworks, a swimming pool. Town residents managed schools, shops, and community buildings as cooperatives.

Not surprisingly, conservatives in Congress derided the Greenbelt experiment as both extravagant and “socialist,” and sought to end it.

To win support for the Greenbelt projects, Tugwell called on his former graduate student, Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the RA (soon to become the Farm Securities Administration). Stryker famously deployed FSA photographers to document the human desperation that the New Deal agencies were working to address. Photographs by the likes of Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans captured some of the best-known images of the victims of the Great Depression. Lesser known were the RA’s photographs of the Greenbelt towns that conveyed an America on the road to recovery. Nonetheless, under pressure from Congress and wealthy farmers deprived of their tenant work force, the RA was discontinued in 1936.

Gazebo, Greendale, WI

Gazebo
Greendale, WI
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Seventy-five years later, author and photographer Jason Reblando has re-captured the founding vision of the Greenbelt towns in his large-format book, New Deal Utopias. His color photographs of the tidy homes and well-tended grounds surrounded by farms and forests recall a kind of everyday orderliness—both ordinary and reassuring. Portraits of the towns’ 21st Century inhabitants depict a sense of small-town pride.

Despite what Reblando’s photos convey, not all is utopian in these New Deal “utopias.” Residents of Ohio’s Greenhills near Cincinnati have struggled for years to defend their historic district from redevelopment. They won National Historic Landmark status for their town, but that doesn’t ensure its preservation. In a recent letter to the citizens of Greenhills, the National Park Service acknowledged the town’s historic significance and the need to preserve it: “Bear in mind that the shared heritage and stewardship of the village should extend throughout the community, and decisions made today will impact current and future generations,” it cautioned.

Published under the fiscal sponsorship of the Living New Deal, New Deal Utopias serves as a reminder that this shared heritage comprises far more than buildings alone.

Pool, Greenbelt, MD

Pool
Greenbelt, MD
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Lake, Greenhills, OH

Lake
Greenhills, OH
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Daffodil House, Greendale, WI

Daffodil House
Greendale, WI
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

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

Mushroom
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

Gazebo
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

Mural
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.