The town — in Prince George’s County between the Beltway and BW Parkway — celebrates a big birthday this year.
The first families moved in 75 years ago. Greenbelt was a project of the federal government’s Resettlement Administration, part of FDR’s New Deal that sought to address issues of crowded cities and ramshackle rural dwellings.
As a 1936 Resettlement Administration publication touting the idea put it, the aimless planning of the typical American city had created “an ugly hodge-podge of towering offices, mansions, slums, warehouses, hot-dog stands and decaying residential districts. The byproducts are congestion, tangled traffic, damaged property values and wasted land.”
Such blight caused illness, not only physical scourges such as TB and rickets, but also the societal scourge of crime. Greenbelt — and sister cities in Ohio and Wisconsin — were meant to be free from this. Their very design incorporated advances that would, it was hoped, create healthy bodies and healthy minds.
Greenbelt was built atop worn-out tobacco fields. Seen from above, the layout looks something like a nautilus shell. Gone is the tight city grid. In its place are sweeping, curving roads. But the roads weren’t the important part. In fact, the houses turned their backs on roads, instead facing pedestrian paths. Underpasses brought sidewalks below streets. There was a pool, playgrounds, a movie theater, a cooperative super market . . .
“It was largely designed with children in mind, with a belt of green space for recreation and farming and to be a buffer from development,” said Megan Searing Young, director of the Greenbelt Museum.
The farming bit didn’t work out — Greenbelt was never self-sufficient — but the city was deemed a success, even if critics thought it was a misguided liberal attempt at utopianism.
“There probably was some social engineering going on,” Megan said. “They wanted people willing to really self-govern.”
But there were some people they didn’t want. Though African Americans were among the workers who built Greenbelt, blacks were not allowed to apply for housing. There were religious quotas, too. The planners wanted a citizenry that was 63 percent Protestant, 30 percent Catholic and 7 percent Jewish, mirroring the population at the time.
About 5,000 people applied for the 888 spots available when the town opened. Today, as new housing has been added and the town’s borders have grown, the population is 22,000.
Greenbelt is fortunate to have one of the original 1937 art deco-style houses for its museum. Visitors watch an introductory movie in a tiny, six-seat theater/gift shop that’s shoehorned into the house’s garage. The house itself has a scant 836 square feet, but if you’d come from a cramped tenement, those 836 square feet must have seemed like paradise.
The house is furnished as it would have been in the 1940s. There is even specially designed furniture intended to fit the space.
I think that even today, Greenbelt appeals to a certain kind of person. Walking with Megan through the oldest part recently, past a community center adorned with heroic sculptures by Lenore Thomas, I was struck by the small-town feel. Greenbelt may not have been the success its planners hoped (or the disaster its critics feared), but what’s wrong with grand gestures intended to fix big problems?
The museum is open from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays; admission is $2. For information, call 301-507-1936 or go to greenbeltmuseum.org.
Megan also co-authored, with Jill Parsons St. John, one of those Images of America books about Greenbelt. It’s filled with historic photos of the planned community. You can get a copy at the museum or from www.arcadiapublishing.com.
Send a Kid to Camp
We’re barely a week into this year’s Send a Kid to Camp campaign, our effort to help at-risk kids attend summer camp. Have you made your tax-deductible donation yet? Simply go to washingtonpost.com/camp. Click where it says “Give Now,” and designate “Send a Kid to Camp” in the gift information. Or mail a check payable to “Send a Kid to Camp” to Send a Kid to Camp, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.
To read previous columns by John Kelly go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.