There’s a place just outside Washington DC that distills the American housing experience and maybe says something more about the country as a whole. Greenbelt is a town (translated to American as ‘city’) of 24,000 located, as the name significantly implies, in the Maryland countryside to the north-east of the capital, but connected to it by the DC Metro train system and a number of big, unpleasant roads. Greenbelt was wrested from rural slumber by the housing and economic needs of the Great Depression and is one of three places (the others are in Ohio and Wisconsin) where the US government made a direct intervention to buy land and build homes and services based on public investment and ownership. Greenbelt’s inspiration was drawn directly from the UK Garden Cities model, its design on the ‘Radburn layout’, its splendid civic architecture is Art Deco and it’s instantly familiar to anyone who knows UK New Towns. As ever with such ‘place making’ exercises, Greenbelt was intended to foster a sense of community among its residents. Its progressive credentials were boosted by Eleanor Roosevelt, but dented by segregation. No black people were admitted until the 1950s. (Greenbelt and particularly the county it sits in are now very ethnically diverse.)
Greenbelt’s centrepiece is the Roosevelt Centre, a collection of sleek, flat-roofed, white buildings holding the ‘New Deal’ cafe, supermarket, credit union and cinema, all of which are run as co-operatives, as are several hundred of the surrounding homes. Nearby are two public swimming pools, a library and a community centre adorned with friezes that celebrate the founding idealism of the town and nation. The low-density housing around the Roosevelt centre, which dates from the original development, is set amongst car-free, tree-lined paths, interspersed with children’s playgrounds and immaculately maintained lawns. A bit further out are multiple sports-fields and a lake that was dug out by hand under the Works Progress Administration (WPA)
Greenbelt was attacked by McCarthyite types for being ‘socialistic’ and over the years its distinctive qualities have been diluted. The land was privatised in the 50s and today the areas around the original settlement have the familiar look of car-oriented suburban tracts and shopping malls. This sense of dislocation is exacerbated by an influx of people driven out of DC by rising housing costs. A new wave of private property speculation could be formed by the possible relocation to Greenbelt of the FBI. It would be a strange irony if an organisation set up to combat many of the principles Greenbelt embodies moved there!
I met Judith Davis, a Greenbelt resident for over 40 years and long time member of the City Council which administers a budget of $24 million. ‘J’ feels the town is still special, but is acutely aware of the difficulties in preserving an island of public-spirited municipalism in a sea of private isolationism. Some of Greenbelt’s original 1930s residents still live there and Judith feels the communal spirit is increasingly dependent on an older generation and jeopardized by growing transience in the private rented market and the absence of a decent local public transport system. I met another local resident who described the place as ‘too small and boring and it takes ages to get anywhere unless you have a car’.
Greenbelt reflects innate American utopianism and is a striking reminder of an enlightened, but fleeting period in US housing and public policy. The original hope to build hundreds of places like it didn’t survive the conservative backlash, but Greenbelt remains an example of how things can be done differently by escaping the tyranny of the market.
The Greenbelt Commuity Centre
frieze by Lenore Thomas Straus, produced under the New Deal’s WPA.