You might think, “So what? Lots of cities and towns have historic districts.” The difference is that Greenbelt’s is only 75 years old—hardly mature enough to be considered historic.
But the Prince George’s County city is unique because it was one of the federal government’s first forays into housing created under the Resettlement Administration in 1935 under authority of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act.
“From the beginning it was designed as a complete city, with businesses, schools, roads and facilities for recreation and town government. Greenbelt was a planned community, noted for its interior walkways, underpasses, its system of inner courtyards and one of the first mall-type shopping centers in the United States,” reads the Greenbelt government’s website.
Because of this, Historic Greenbelt received a National Historic Landmark designation from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
A New Type of City
“The City of Greenbelt would appear to have a split personality: at its creation it was the most modern of places in terms of its architecture and planning, but at the same time it was the most traditional of places, a throwback to ideas of community in existence since America’s earliest colonial days,” Cathy D. Knepper wrote in Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal.
According to Megan Searing Young, curator/director of historical programs at the Greenbelt Museum, Greenbelt’s roots can be traced back to the late 19th century and what Ebenezer Howard termed “English Garden” communities. This became Rexford Guy Tugwell’s inspiration for the green towns of the 1930s.
Tugwell, a friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “convinced the president that a federal community would put people to work, provide housing for low- and moderate-income families, and be a model for future communities,” Young says.
So the federal government undertook a study to see what large cities would benefit the most from having a suburban community nearby. The three cities chosen were Washington, DC; Milwaukee, and Cincinnati; the resulting communities, respectively, were Greenbelt, Greendale, Wisconsin, and Greenhills, Ohio. A fourth city, never built, was planned in New Jersey.
“Greenbelt is the most fully realized of the green towns,” Young says, adding that, because of differences in locations and other variables, some things that Tugwell had planned didn’t manifest themselves in the same way in each community.
Greenbelt’s design includes, among other things: houses grouped in “superblocks”; interior walkways that allow residents to go from home to town center without crossing a major street; careful separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic; a town center encircled by the town’s major roads; and the town’s shops, school, ball fields, and community buildings grouped in a crescent.
Knepper wrote that the key building block of Greenbelt was to erect townhouses in a courtyard layout because this aided in creating a neighborhood social network. These neighborhood networks were then bound together in a community network by other design features.
Greenbelt’s buildings were designed in the Art Deco style and include curving lines, glass brick inserts in the facades of apartment buildings, and buttresses along the front wall of the elementary school.
Lewis Mumford described Greenbelt in Culture of Cities, published in 1938, as “Much more compact than the scatter-building of the nineteenth century suburb; much more open than the traditional types of city design. Show the great benefits obtainable only through comprehensive design, large-scale planning, scientific appraisal of needs, and unified land-ownership and large-scale building operations.”
Of course, Greenbelt was more than just a planned community. It was a social experiment. The original 885 homes were low-income housing, which was much needed during the Great Depression (evidenced, in part, by the fact that 5,700 people applied to buy one of the homes).
“The town was even integrated by religion,” Young says. “It was 63 percent Protestant, 30 percent Catholic, and 7 percent Jewish. However, because of the times, it wasn’t integrated racially.”
The applicants who were chosen not only had to meet income criteria, but they also had to show they were willing to participate in community organizations. When the families arrived on October 1, 1937, there were no established traditions in Greenbelt; the rituals were what they created. If they had chosen to do nothing, the community might have failed.
These original families (called “pioneers” today) formed a town government with a city manager, the first in Maryland. They also created a kindergarten program at their school, a citizens’ association, a journalism club that published Greenbelt’s newspaper, and a community band. In 1939, the town opened the first public swimming pool in the Washington area.
“Greenbelters were so busy attending meetings that the town council called a moratorium on meetings between Christmas and New Year’s in 1939 to permit residents to spend time at home with their families,” according to the town website.
Another 1,000 homes were added in 1941 to provide housing for families who were moving into the area to work in one of the defense programs starting up during World War II.
Going it Alone
The U.S. Congress decided to sell the federal green towns in 1952. Greenbelt residents formed a housing cooperative called Greenbelt Veterans Housing Corporation to purchase the houses in the town.
“Greenbelters viewed cooperation broadly, as a way to achieve the long-term continuation of their communal goals,” Knepper wrote.
“They did not see it as meaning everyone had to agree with everyone else at all times.
Greenbelters frequently differed in their specific, short-term ideas of what would suit their town, but this was accepted and even welcomed as evidence of interest. Ultimately, to Greenbelters cooperation meant a devotion to organizing and running their own town.”
Since Greenbelt’s creation, the area has seen a lot of growth. Four major highways are nearby, and large employers like the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Department of Agriculture Research Center, and the University of Maryland are located just outside the city limits.
Despite all this, the cooperative still exists and provides townhomes for low- and moderate-income families. The cooperative also still runs a food store, credit union, and café. Some of the original families remain.
“Most historians agree that of the three green towns, Greenbelt has maintained its identity better,” Young says, because of its success in maintaining a lot of green space, striving to keep the housing density low, and working with developers to create new housing that fits with the vision of Greenbelt.
Besides Historic Greenbelt, two additional communities have now been established: Greenbelt East and Greenbelt West.
“We work to include all of the communities in activities, but the highways work as a physical barrier,” Young acknowledges.
The 75th Anniversary
In 2009, as the 75th anniversary approached, Greenbelt’s city council appointed a committee to begin planning a celebration. It was tasked with creating an offering of events that would appeal to all of the town’s residents.
The committee sent out a survey to get residents’ input into what they wanted to see during the anniversary and created nine subcommittees to fulfill those wants.
Events for the anniversary kicked off at the end of April 2012 and will build toward a concluding gala this month. The first event was a symposium on April 27 and 28 that looked at Greenbelt’s legacy, the impact it has had on community planning, and how to sustain the legacy into the future.
The highlight of the anniversary celebration will be a gala dinner and dance on October 13th. Knowing Greenbelt, the sense of community during the soiree is sure to be strong.