Rexford Tugwell, a man with an aristocratic name and impeccable white suits, ran the Resettlement Administration under FDR’s New Deal. In 1937 Greenbelt, MD – a new town modeled on Europe’s Garden City movement, became one of the agency’s most utopian endeavors.
Aaron Marcavitch and I met at the Greenbelt Community Center, a deco-style 1930’s building that used to be the town’s elementary school. When the school became antiquated the town purchased it and runs a gamut of activities – from circus camp to artist studios, to a museum display, to senior meals – out of central edifice of this planned town.
The original area of Greenbelt included 1600 dwellings, a civic quad and a small commercial center. The apartments and townhouses don’t have front and back doors; they have garden entrances, which lead onto walks that connect places by foot; and service entrances, that allow automobile access. The town grew after World War II, and newer precincts on the east and west have more typical houses and condos. But the original Greenbelt is still unique, and will remain so due to its unusual ownership structure.
The Federal government owned Greenbelt when it was built, and placed strict restrictions on who could live there: no Blacks, no single mothers, religious quotas. In the 1940’s and 1950’s the government sold off its direct interest to GHI, Greenbelt Homes Incorporated, which owns all 1600 units. Each resident family has a share. Although there are no longer restrictions against Blacks or single mothers, other aspects of cooperative living that make it ideal for some, and less appealing to others.
Aaron is a member of the GHI Board. “The houses, are small by todays standards, a three-bedroom unit is 1100 square feet. Residents own a share. They cannot rent, except with Board permission, and cannot sell within two years.” Aaron is the third owner of his 75-year-old house. There are still many original descendent owners. Houses in Greenbelt sell for less than in surrounding communities, but that does not factor into most residents decision to live here. “This is a self-selecting community. It’s architects and planners and people who want community. People come here for the long haul. Many grew up here, moved away, and return. It’s hardest for new comers who don’t fully understand what it’s like to be part of a cooperative, to have everyone up in your business.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“People are resistant to change. The Industrial Revolution took some time before it changed our lives. The Information Age has yet to change our architecture and physical environment. It is starting to change our culture, but the physical changes are still to unfold.
“From a historic preservation perspective, tomorrow is 50 to 75 years. We will have changes in how we use energy sooner than that – we have to do that. But other changes will take time.”