Located just 12 miles from the nation’s capitol, Greenbelt Maryland is a planned community born out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. After nearly 75 years the city still maintains its small town atmosphere, beautiful parks, playgrounds, cooperative spirit and some of the most unique and affordable housing in the Washington Metropolitan area. Greenbelt has a rich history which continues to shape the community to this day.
The first Greenbelters moved into their new modern homes to find themselves in a country club-like setting. Pedestrian walkways wound through the interior of superblocks. Three underpasses provided walkways under the main roads. All of the businesses were located in a mall in the center of town within easy walking distance. A combined elementary school and community center and the recreation facilities were all centrally located. Greenbelt was truly a utopian dream come true. It provided an ideal environment for families; a healthful and beautiful community with playgrounds, public art, a swimming pool and walkways safe from traffic.
In the early years Greenbelt was isolated, as neither the Baltimore Washington Parkway nor the Beltway existed. This helped reinforce community cohesiveness. Residents spent their recreation time with their neighbors, shopping at the grocery store, attending meetings, going to movies and having one another over for parties. The first residents formed over 30 organizations during the first year. There were churches, citizen associations, a credit union, a journalism club, six women’s clubs, athletic clubs, youth clubs, and a cooperative organizing committee.
As part of Tugwell’s vision, all of the businesses in Greenbelt were run cooperatively. The money for this venture was initially offered by Edward Filene, a Boston businessman interested in supporting cooperate businesses. Residents purchased shares in Greenbelt Consumer Services, which operated a grocery store, gas station, variety store, movie theater, beauty salon, barber shop and valet. If the businesses made a profit funds would either be reinvested in the businesses themselves, or distributed evenly among the share holders.
Creating Greenbelt During the New Deal
Created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration, Greenbelt was a part of a “green belt” town program. Greenbelt was one of three. The other two are Greenhills, outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Greendale, outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The three towns were constructed to provide work relief for the unemployed, provide affordable housing for low income workers, and as models for future town planning in America.
Rexford Guy Tugwell, a former economics professor at Columbia University developed the green belt town program for the Resettlement Administration. Tugwell wanted to establish cooperative communities where the built environment would reinforce community spirit and cooperation among its residents. The green belt towns combined the best aspects of a rural life: lakes, woods, and open spaces with the best aspects of an urban life: recreational facilities, theaters and shops.
Construction for Greenbelt started in the fall of 1935. Workers arrived at the site before the town plans were completed so the workers started by clearing land for a lake. The homes built for Greenbelt included apartment buildings, row houses, and a few free-standing prefabricated homes. By 1937, 885 units were nearing completion. Although, the work force that built Greenbelt was comprised of both white and African American workers, only white families would be able to apply for residency. Prince George's County was deeply segregated in the late-1930s and although there had been early plans to include a portion of the project's land to be occupied by African American families, those plans were jettisoned early on as they were considered too controversial to pursue. The Resettlement Administration received over 5,000 applications from families interested in moving into Greenbelt. Applicants had to be married couples, earn between $800 and $2200 per year, and the husband had to be employed to be considered for residency in the new community. The town was segregated based on race, but it was integrated religiously. 63% were protestant, 30% Roman Catholic and 7% Jewish.
Rexford Guy Tugwell
Library of Congress
Moving Into Greenbelt
African American workers in front of Center School (now the Community Center). Greenbelt Museum Collection
During and After World War II
During World War II, Washington, D.C., was faced with another housing shortage. Workers moved to the area to help with the war effort, but could not find sufficient accommodations for their families. The federal government once again turned to Greenbelt as a place to relieve the housing shortage. 1,000 additional row houses were built for defense workers in 1941, doubling the size of the town.
The government continued to operate Greenbelt as a low income rental community until 1952 when it was sold. Except for some of the apartments and part of the green belt of land around the town, all of the original homes and the houses built in 1941 were purchased by a cooperative formed by the residents. Today the co-op is called Greenbelt Homes, Inc. It owns and manages 1600 homes, common areas and woodlands.
Both the original buildings and traditions that created a strong sense of community in Greenbelt still exist today. The annual Labor Day Festival, public concerts, art exhibits, recreation classes, and cooperative businesses continue to uphold the ideals set forth by Greenbelt’s planners and its original residents. Visitors today can walk on the inner walkways, enjoy the man-made lake and use the many playgrounds throughout the city. The shopping center, now called Roosevelt Center, features the original movie theater (which is still in operation), a cooperative grocery store, several restaurants, and a day spa. Greenbelt is a wonderful place to visit and is a unique part of Maryland history.