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.

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.

Holliday Lake State Park – Appomattox VA

The area encompassing Holliday Lake State Park and the surrounding state forest was cleared in the 1800s for farmland. In the 1930s, the federal government, through the Resettlement Administration, began buying the farms to return the land to its former productive hardwood forest status. Construction of a dam was begun at Fish Pond Creek; however efforts were relocated to Holliday Creek where a lake could be developed. The park was established in 1939 and acquired in by the state of Virginia 1945. Holliday Lake State Park, formerly Holliday Lake Recreational Area, was renamed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation in 1972.

It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.