By Theodore Fischer, Sidewalk
Md., is a totally planned community, built from scratch in 1936 as
a low-income-family project of FDR's administration. One of three American
"green towns" conceived by Roosevelt brain trust adviser Rexford
Guy Tugwell, Greenbelt epitomizes the kind of big idea the New Deal was
known for: a complete city in every detail – houses, businesses,
schools, government offices, roads, a lake, recreation facilities and much
more – that was part of a great social experiment to create "a
beautiful place for good living."
Located just outside the Beltway between Kenilworth Avenue and the
Baltimore-Washington International Parkway, Greenbelt originally consisted
of 885 rental units – five detached houses, 306 apartments (left) and
306 "group houses" (town houses) – clustered off the street on
parklike "superblocks" nearly twice the size of normal city
blocks. A system of interior sidewalks and pedestrian underpasses
connected residences to a central commercial-recreational complex and
Greenbelt's 28 playgrounds, 10 tennis courts, two physical-fitness trails
and a par-3 golf course.
During the Depression, Greenbelt's compact new homes were viewed as highly
desirable: More than 5,700 families applied for the original 885 units.
But those who argue that "Big Government" projects necessarily
involve red tape, hyperregulation and unwarranted intrusion into citizens'
private lives might want to use the Greenbelt experiment as exhibit No.1.
Housing was allotted only to low-income families made up of go-to-work
dads and stay-at-home moms who demonstrated good character (no police
record) and an avid commitment to cooperative living. (A staff of
"family-selection specialists" screened applicants and
determined who made the cut.) Although chosen families reflected the
existing composition of the overall Washington-Baltimore area in terms of
blue-collar and white-collar workers, and of Protestants, Catholics and
Jews, African Americans were excluded from the equation. Regulations
prescribed when growing families had to move into larger quarters, which
days women (yes, women) could launder their clothes and what they could
wear while doing so.
The Feds ran the show until 1952, when Congress sold Greenbelt (except for
Greenbelt National Park) to a housing cooperative now known as Greenbelt
Homes Inc. Tenants who managed the down payment of 10 percent of
the value of their homes became co-op owners. Today, GHI operates as a
member-owned cooperative that technically owns all 1,600 Old Greenbelt
homes and sells members the right to perpetual use of their particular
properties. It is funded by a monthly charge that covers GHI operating
costs, property taxes, insurance, upkeep and maintenance.
You can learn all about Greenbelt past and present in the Tugwell Room of
the modern Greenbelt Branch Library. Or visit the Greenbelt
Museum (pictured at top), an original group house acquired by
the city of Greenbelt and filled with period appliances and furniture
donated by residents or purchased at thrift shops. On docent-led tours
each Sunday afternoon or by appointment, visitors inspect Depression-era
artifacts such as a three-burner stove, clothing mangle (for ironing),
Bakelite utensils and now-valuable Fiestaware.
The two-story house/museum is the smallest of Greenbelt's
two-bedroom-style group houses (it originally rented for $31 a month),
with tiny rooms and narrow passages that have more in common with ships'
cabins than with the sprawling town homes of today. One main preoccupation
of the museum is closets, an exotic innovation of the Depression era.
Labels name each closet and explain what it was used for.
Stick around to watch Greenbelt: The Ideal Community, a video on
town history, in the visitors center that now occupies a converted garage.
The visitors center also sells books, videos, Depression-era toys and, for
$3, the weighty Greenbelt Manual of community rules and standards.
Don't leave the museum without picking up a Greenbelt Trail Guide,
a free pamphlet that outlines the history of the town and charts a walking
tour to 14 points of interest. The guide leads you past "original
homes" – no longer uniformly white – fronting interior courts and
separated by privet hedges. Then it meanders around the "defense
homes" built for workers during World War II. Walk past some
playgrounds, cross under the pedestrian underpass and then head for the
art-deco heart of Old Greenbelt.
Directions: From the Beltway, exit at Kenilworth Avenue
(Exit 23) north. Go one-fourth of a mile, turn right on Crescent Road and
follow to the center of Greenbelt and the Greenbelt Museum.
See also: Old Greenbelt's cooperative spirit