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.
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.
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.
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.