The place to meet in Greenbelt MD is The New Deal Cafe, which serves very good Middle-Eastern food. I met Megan Young, Director of the Greenbelt Museum, Sheila Maffay-Tuthill, the museum’s Education Coordinator as well as long-time Greenbelt resident, and Michael Hartman, a more recent resident, retired from nearby NASA Goddard Space Center.
Greenbelt was conceived in 1935 as part of the FDR’s New Deal; the most ambitious of more than 100 new community projects of the Resettlement Agency, headed by FDR Brain trustee Rexford Tugwell. The three rationales for the resettlement program were:
- Provide recovery work
- Create new housing outside major cities with housing shortages
- Utilize modern town planning concepts
Greenbelt is based on Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement in Britain and Clarence Stein’s Sunnyside in New York; narrow row houses set amidst green space with separation of pedestrians and vehicles.
Although Greenbelt was conceived as a demonstration project, it was built amidst protest: why was the federal government building housing, and why was it so nice? The town was aimed at low to moderate-income people. The units were small, from 500 to 1100 square feet, but the site plan was generous and the inclusion of a planned commercial center and community buildings had socialist overtones.
Greenbelt was immediately popular; it was very difficult to get one of the rental units when the town opened in 1937. There were strict criteria; almost all dual-parent families, where the father had a job. Although the original town had no churches, residents were distributed 63% Protestant, 30% Catholic, and 7% Jewish. The most disturbing criterion, which haunts Greenbelt to this day: no African Americans were allowed. Langston Gardens in DC was built around the same time for Blacks, though it is hardly as nice as Greenbelt. In 1937, Utopia was still segregated.
The project employed many workers, both Black and White. Some construction was done by hand rather than machine to increase the amount of manual labor. By the middle of World War II the community was built out at 1600 units. But after the war people wondered, ‘What to do with an entire town owned by the federal government?’ The resolution was GHI, Greenbelt Housing Initiative, a cooperative ownership model that exists to this day and is the primary reason Greenbelt remains different from its neighboring communities (see Aaron Marcavitch Profile for more on this).
The cooperative culture spills into every other aspect of life. Greenbelt is a place where people are involved and volunteerism flourishes. The New Deal Cafe is a cooperative, as is the vintage movie theater. There are groups that provide services of aging-in-place, transportation, whatever neighbors may need.
“Greenbelt has a legacy of segregation that still lingers.” A few years ago NAACP threatened the city with a lawsuit; no African-American had ever served on City Council and their role in the community was minimal. This was disturbing, yet true, to a place with certified liberal leanings. The City Council expanded from five to seven members, to facilitate electing a Black councilman.
In 1987, upon the 50th anniversary of Greenbelt, the city designated one of the original houses as the Greenbelt Museum, a 857 square foot townhouse with two bedrooms specifically built for a family with one child. Sheila toured me through the small but well-designed space that contains features like a deep porcelain sink, streamlined furniture, and a central radio. The place looks old, yet familiar, filled with objects similar to those of my childhood.
What I like most about Greenbelt, and what preservationists abhor, is that it’s still an evolving, mostly middle class community. Some utopian cities, like Forest Hills NY, became so successful they turned into affluent enclaves. Others, Like Columbia MD were so driven by commercial motives they’re indistinguishable from other suburbs. Greenbelt is clearly different and clearly available to folks bent on cooperative living. The quality of life here is probably nice, spacious and green outside albeit tight indoors. Yet its no surprise Greenbelt has sired no offspring. The town offers a vision of how we might live in a community where real estate enables healthy habitation. But in the United States, our houses are not just roofs over our heads; our neighborhoods are not just our community. They are economic assets we maximize. Cooperative values don’t calculate into that equation.
How will we live tomorrow?
“The best and the brightest developed this place. It is not dense enough, even according to New Urbanists, to be replicated. But the quality of life here, the oral histories are rich in value. Greenbelt was a social experiment. It represents how we can work toward a sharing economy.” – Megan