GREENBELT, Maryland is one of four experimental planned communities proposed in 1933 by one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s agencies created to deal with the great depression. The purpose was to provide work relief, low-cost housing, and long term community planning.
The Resettlement Administration, headed by Rex Tugwell planned four towns. Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin were completed. Greenbrook, New Jersey was never built. A feature of all the towns was a green belt surrounding them. Unfortunately most of our green belt has gone with the encroaching development. Our present house on Rosewood Drive is in a part of the original green belt.
The site for Greenbelt was chosen near Washington, D. C. and from the beginning The Washington Post criticized the project, calling it “Tugwell’s Folly.” But the plans were reviewed and supported by both President and Mrs. Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt took a personal interest in the project throughout its development. On the street behind our house is a plaque at the “Eleanor Roosevelt Tree” in which a platform was built where she observed the building of the town.
Groundbreaking was on 12 October 1935, and it was ready for occupancy in 1937. The first project was to create a man-made lake. A twenty-three acre lake was created in a swampy area by two hundred men over a period of a year. By December it was full. President Roosevelt emptied the first dipperful of fish into the lake in November, and it is said that he returned to fish in the lake on many occasions. The lake is located across the street back of our house and I do my daily walks on the trail surrounding it.
Greenbelt’s charm is said to be not in its architecture, but in its plan. The shape is a crescent with two main streets. The plan includes neighborhood units of super blocks with interior parks and walkways with underpasses beneath streets to separate pedestrian traffic from vehicular traffic. Some houses are of brick and some of cement block and rather severe in style. They are said to look like boxes with holes punched in for windows. They are arranged in rows of two, four, six or eight. They do not face the street, but face interior courts that connect to the inner walk-way system.
Materials used were of high quality. Rex Tugwell is quoted as saying: “The highest standards of construction are essential to genuinely low cost building.” (Would that today’s builders had such a philosophy.) They were to be used mainly for low income families so construction was planned to keep operation and maintenance low. All of the water pipes, down spouts and gutters were of copper, and the roofs were slate. They are all still in use with very little maintenance required. I shall always remember the shock of a contractor who was renovating our kitchen. When he started to install tracks for an under-counter washer-dryer, he discovered twelve inches of concrete beneath the linoleum tile.
This program provided an opportunity to create a complete town – not just a housing project. It was truly a planned community. From the beginning residents have had an intense interest in community affairs that has almost become a legend. It is still a popular saying that when three or more Greenbelters get together they start electing officers and writing by-laws.
They formed a cooperative and started the first kindergarten in the country. It later became part of the public school system. The cooperative started a food store, a gas station, a drug store, a variety store, and a cooperative health care plan. Except for the health care plan and the variety store, they are all still in existence. They started a cooperative nursery school which our children attended and which is still in operation. Also still in operation is the cooperative baby sitting club in which members rotate the job of bookkeeping on a monthly basis. Members use and repay hours of baby sitting. This allowed us to have a fairly active social life without breaking the budget.
The commercial center was within easy and safe walking distance for all residents. Two large buildings on either side of a center mall were subdivided into stores, town offices, a post office and a theater. Back of the commercial center was the swimming pool, tennis courts, baseball and softball diamonds. In the center of the mall is a large statue of a mother and child sculpted by Lenore Thomas who also carved the bas relief panels on the school building depicting the preamble to the U. S. Constitution.
Included in the school building was a community hall which was used as a gymnasium for the school on week days. The school building also housed the city library which eventually joined the county library system and now has its own building. A new elementary school is being constructed and will open for the next school year. The original building will be taken over by the city for a community center.
The Farm Security Administration was in charge of running the town. They submitted a town charter to the state legislature. It was adopted and Greenbelt became the first city-council, city-manager form of government in the state. It still has this type of city government and is very responsive to the citizens.
A police department and a fire department were set up under FSA. In March 1940 the police began to issue “courtesy tickets” for traffic violations. If violators ignored these tickets they were asked to come to the town office to discuss it. If they failed to do so, they were issued a summons. But the crime rate was low. One report to city council showed fines on overdue library books exceeding those imposed by police.
A film about Greenbelt called “The City” was featured at the 1939 world’s fair. Many domestic and foreign visitors came here to study the model community and finally on its tenth anniversary, even The Washington Post praised the experiment as “a boondoggle that made good.”
Joseph Arnold, Professor of History at the University of Maryland, wrote on Greenbelt’s 50th anniversary: “Back in 1937 in the midst of heated debates over Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the town was dismissed by many as another ugly housing project – the hairbrained scheme of Rex Tugwell and a bunch of crazy architects, with houses built facing the wrong way (away from streets) streets that didn’t go anywhere (cul-de-sacs) and sidewalks that meandered off behind houses instead of alongside streets where they belonged. Likewise Tugwell’s attempts to create a strong community and cooperative spirit were perceived as a sinister plot to rob residents of their individuality.”
From the beginning the local papers were intensely interested in Greenbelt, in design of the buildings, planned community concept, and the residents. The plan was called unworkable, idealistic, and a socialistic experiment. They ridiculed the rules and regulations such as requiring hedges to be cut to a certain height, and rumors were circulated that lights were required to be out by 10:00 p.m. Visitors flocked to Greenbelt to see the model community sometimes treating inhabitants like alien creatures. Some referred to the town as a federal reservation.
Cooperatives were suspect and the press coverage made it seem that Greenbelt was a nest of communism. One resident was suspended, then fired from his government job during the McCarthy witch hunt. With the support of local religious leaders and most of his neighbors, he successfully fought the accusation. This topic is more than enough for a separate journal, but the story was told by a film in 1956 called “Three Brave Men” starring Earnest Borgnine and Ray Milland.
For fifteen years houses were rented to residents and managed by the FSA, but in 1953 the government decided to get out of the housing business. The residents, true to their nature, formed a cooperative and bought it. The houses are owned by the cooperative and a resident purchases a perpetual lease.
In 1953 we had a baby on the way and were actively looking for a house so we came to Greenbelt to look. It was the dead of winter – the green belt was invisible, no flowers or shrubs. We looked at the stark box-like buildings and Jake said, “I feel like I’m in an army camp. Let’s leave.” After a couple of years of searching for satisfactory living quarters we could afford, we returned to Greenbelt (again in winter) where down payments were very low. One only needed the amount of equity the current resident had in the house, and since no one had more than two years equity, the amount required was low. David was a brand new baby and Helen was 18 months old. Our need for a house was critical, so we bought a row house.
Then came spring! And Greenbelt was transformed by the many green trees, decorative shrubs, a profusion of flowers, and the friendly people who were our neighbors. We quickly became aware of the town’s own special charm. The marvelous planned community allowed our children a great deal of freedom. They could walk to school, the youth center, the swimming pool, parks, ball fields, and to visit friends – all without crossing a street. The community spirit is contagious here. There never seems to be an attitude of giving up. In the face of problems, Greenbelters form committees and work on solutions.
After ten years we were in need of larger living quarters, so we bought our present home – outside the cooperative, but still in Greenbelt. And just last year we bought plots in the cemetery. We really don’t want to leave Greenbelt.
Much of the historical information in this article was obtained from: GREENBELT: History of a New Town, 1937-1987, edited by Mary Lou Williamson. The Donning Company/Publishers, Norfolk, VA 1987.
Type set with Ventura Publisher using Goudy Old Style. Master printed on a LaserJet III. Offset printed by the Homewood Press. Edited and published by Leah G. Warner who printed the cover by letterpress at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, MD 20770.