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At 75, New Deal's 'Green Towns' Endure

  • Ted Landphair

Although the new town of Greendale was on the Wisconsin prairie outside Milwaukee, there was plenty of traffic in the area. Now, a highway and huge mall abut the old planned town. (davidwilson1949, Flickr Creative Commons)
In an effort to pull the United States out of the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called “New Deal” administration created a bevy of government agencies designed to help Americans regain and maintain their economic footing.

The New Deal produced the 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.

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 government noted that dirty U.S. cities had become “a hodge-podge of towering offices, mansions, slums, warehouses, hot-dog stands and decaying residential districts.”

As John Kelly recently wrote in The Washington Post, the byproducts were “illness, not only physical scourges such as [tuberculosis] and rickets, but also the societal scourge of crime.”
Typical Greenbelt homes circa 1936. (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress)
Typical Greenbelt homes circa 1936. (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress)

New, clean, carefully planned cities were to be the antidote to urban blight.

The first idyllic new town, called Greenbelt, opened 75 years ago on what had been depleted Maryland tobacco fields. Two other so-called "green towns" - Green Hills near Cincinnati, Ohio, and Greendale near Milwaukee, Wisconsin - 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 conservative critics saw the venture as a socialist menace.

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. The idea behind it retains its appeal, and developers have built ecologically innovative "green towns" and planned communities elsewhere.

But old Greenbelt, Green Hills and Greendale have retained the art deco touches and tight-knit neighborly feel from their hopeful beginnings in desperate times 75 years ago.