Greenbelt: A Propagandist History
An Online Exhibit by Greenbelt Museum Intern, Isobel Taylorch
Construction began on the Greenbelt project in 1936, and the first citizens moved in in the fall of 1937. In the early years of the city, government officials commissioned photographs and posters intended to promote the utopian lifestyle of Greenbelters. Although these propagandist narratives were no doubt intended for broad viewership, they also served to remind Greenbelt citizens of the strong community in which they lived. While the country braced itself for World War II, Greenbelt rallied together in solidarity by participating in such projects as victory gardens, which brought citizens together to grow food for their families, thereby saving commercially produced food for the troops. Further, the very layout of Greenbelt, from the court format to the garden-side entrances, encouraged the citizens proximity and intimacy; wives of deployed soldiers could easily communicate and make their way around the town, assisting each other through the war years. Greenbelt was originally formatted in courts with four, six or eight houses each, and the traditional entrance, thought of in Greenbelt as the service side, was considered the back door, meaning that citizens utilized the traditional back door (facing court gardens) as the official entrance. While many praised the Greenbelt experiment, others, afraid of change, mocked it by developing such hurtful nicknames as "Tugwell's folly", a reference to the town's creator. In a time of rising and increased concern over socialism, the leaders of the Farm Security (FSA) and Resettlement Administrations (RA) were very mindful of putting out materials that helped to justify their projects. Partially in response to these concerns, the government dispatched photographers to the town. All these ideas will be explored in greater depth in this online exhibit “Greenbelt: A Propagandist History.”
As Megan Searing Young, the Director of the Greenbelt Museum, mentions in the museum’s orientation film, Greenbelt was created for three reasons: to house low-income families, create jobs, and provide a model of modern town planning. In the prologue of Greenbelt: History of a New Town, Alan Virtaexplains that Rexford Tugwell, an economist placed in charge of Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration, chose the site for Greenbelt because of its proximity to the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (this was part of a necessary pretext in order for the government to acquire that particular section of land, involving the developing community’s supposed need for agricultural support). Construction began on January 13, 1936 – this was also the first time that the project was given the name Greenbelt. A little over a year and a half later, on September 30th, 1937, the first tenants moved in. The screening process for potential applicants was intense - African Americans were not accepted and moderate income, middle class white individuals were mainly encouraged to apply. As original Greenbelter Mabel Bessemmer remembers it, there were less than 100 families in November of 1937. Greenbelt was not fully developed when families moved in. Indeed, multiple community clubs and events were launched in November. The Co-op, or food store, as it was known back then, did not open until December of 1937 and, according to resident Mae Zoellner, there were no street lights for quite some time.
In 1942, the FSA erected 1,000 additional units, almost overnight, to house wartime defense workers. With the passage of time, Greenbelt’s history emerges a bit garbled, particularly as it relates to what is known as defense housing. Greenbelt’s defense housing was built to house government and military employees working on the war effort, and, despite oral traditions that the housing was temporary, government documentation indicated that the housing was intended to be permanent. Citizens living in both the original Greenbelt town and the new defense houses came together in 1952 to create Greenbelt Homes Incorporated, which bought the town from the federal government. Thus details the current history of our town.
It is important to note that planners originally had the idea to build a small community slightly offset from the main town just for African Americans, however, Prince George’s County was so deeply segregated that this idea was quickly scrapped. Officials explained away the abandonment of the project by indicating the presence of Langston Terrace Dwellings project, an African American community in Washington, D.C., which was contemporary with Greenbelt. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of what would be the federal government's broad discriminatory housing practices. For more on this riveting discussion, see Richard Rothstein's book Color of Law.
The invention of the printing press with moveable characters in 1455 drastically changed the way that people thought about knowledge. Dr. Stefano Villani, a history professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, explains that prior to this, in medieval times, a scholar’s responsibility was simply to preserve knowledge. The printing press, created in early modern times, had the capacity to produce materials such as books, pamphlets, flyers and brochures. Suddenly, the scholar was free to think for him (and yes, in some rare cases, her) self because they no longer needed to devote all their time to the preservation of knowledge (in other words, protecting and hand-writing books). This historical development also allowed people to spread their ideas and use newly printable literature to attempt to convince others to come around to their way of viewing a particular issue. That is not to say that this was the first time in history that one could spread one’s opinions (in fact, the pulpit was the platform on which religious leaders had and would continue to spread the Word – the teaching of the bible - and political thoughts for centuries). Simply speaking, the invention of the printing press with moveable characters allowed ideas to be disseminate amongst men (and eventually women, although that is another story entirely) at an unprecedented rate, prompting a higher degree of individual thinking. However, Dr. Villani continues, it would take another several centuries before the use of the word propaganda developed. Pope Gregory XV established the Congregation for the Evangelization of People, which, at the time was known as the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of Saints, in 1622. The Latin term propaganda, meaning to propagate, thus entered mainstream language. At the time, of course, propaganda referred to the propagation of the teaching of the bible. These days, what we now define as propaganda is linked to the revolution of the printing press and freedom of thought, as well as attempts to manipulate thought.
Grace Yasumura, (a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland), readily admits that she is not a historian, or an art historian who specializes in the history of propaganda (Yasumura is studying Treasury Section murals, which are very site specific to public, governmental buildings, such as post offices). Yasumura has invaluable information to contribute to the discussion of propaganda, and Greenbelt propagandist posters in particular. Yasumura (again, cautioning that she is not an expert in this particular field) tentatively defines propaganda (as it relates to art history) as “images that act to persuade the viewer to believe a certain thing or act in a certain way.” Further, propagandist posters are succinctly defined by Yasumura as “idealogically charged, portable messages meant to convince the viewer to see the world in a particular light and incentivize a particular action.” “Propaganda does not necessarily operate on the epistemic level of truth value” continues Yasumura, “that is to say, the image does not necessarily have to represent a particular truth.” Yasumura, agreeing with Dr. Villani, says that another fundamental component of propaganda is its ability to be easily reproduced and disseminated amongst the people, whether through medieval forms of journalism or modern, digital means. As an example, Yasumura cites Roman coins. They were easy to spread amongst the populous and, while they did depict the emperor, their portrayals were certainly romanticized. Further, the emperor would have had a say as far as what features of his face he would like to be highlighted (these features in turn spread subliminal messages meant to reinforce certain aspects of his strong leadership abilities). In this case, as in most propaganda, the end goal is “not to illustrate a particular truth, but rather to spread a political message, which does not necessarily have to be true.”
Our conversation turned to the question of why governments employ propaganda. As Yasumura explains “during the New Deal in the 1930’s, there are very heated and contested debates over who gets to be American and what it means to be an American citizen. Until 1952, you had to be white to be a naturalized citizen.” In her own work, Yasumura is fascinated by such issues as “what types of people are worthy of being put on the walls of government buildings?” and “whose stories/histories are we interested in telling?” Yasumura believes that the answers to these questions “tell us something profound about whose lives the government values, whose voices are important.” Further, Yasumura reminds readers that “governments are very aware of how they use visual imagery, or words in particular, to shape the way we think about certain things.” These are thoughts and questions that we must keep at the front of our minds as we investigate these works of early Greenbelt propaganda.
At the start of “Greenbelt: A Propagandist History”, we shall examine five propagandist posters which were created expressly to promote Greenbelt or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the leader of the New Deal movement. Finally, we will turn our attention to issues of female domesticity in early Greenbelt as portrayed through staged RA/FSA photos as well as candid photos captured by citizens. I feel that it is imperative that all viewers personally engage with each work and analyze each photograph in turn. According to a 2014 New York Times Article (https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/travel/the-art-of-slowing-down-in-a-museum.html), museum-goers often only spend fifteen to thirty seconds pondering each work of art. I invite you to spend some time looking at each photograph before reading the commentary. To this end, I have provided a document detailing the steps for such an endeavor: https://www.mfah.org/learn/practice-looking-art. Thank you, and enjoy the exhibit!
Isobel Taylorch is a senior Art History major at University of Maryland College Park. She completed an internship with the Greenbelt Museum in the spring of 2018.