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At 70, 'Green Towns' Endure as New Deal Vestiges


In the "New Deal" years of the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt created a bevy of government agencies that he hoped would pull the nation out of the Great Depression.

They produced a nationwide social-security system, farm subsidies, and jobs for struggling workers, who cleared forests, built highways, wrote guidebooks to the states, photographed rural families and dust-blown towns, and created public works of art across the nation.

And Roosevelt picked Columbia University economics professor Rexford Tugwell to lead a radical new agency called the Resettlement Administration. The RA moved struggling families into new, utopian communities planned and built by the federal government; ringed by woodlands; and laced with parks, co-operative gardens, and swimming pools.

The first idyllic new town, called Greenbelt, opened 70 years ago on what had been depleted Maryland tobacco fields. Two other so-called "green towns," near Cincinnati, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wisc., were built from scratch as well.

All offered displaced Americans clean, new cinderblock townhouses and single-family cottages. This was paradise to the lucky renters, but the venture was looked upon as a socialist menace by conservative critics. By 1949, the government had sold off all the property to families and private investors.

Greenbelt is now a well-worn town of 22,000, engulfed by the sprawling Washington, D.C., metropolis. There are far newer, ecologically innovative "green towns" elsewhere. But old Greenbelt and Greenhills and Greendale have retained their Art Deco touches and tightly knit neighborly feel from their hopeful beginnings in desperate times 70 years ago.

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