Neighborhood Profile: Greenbelt

June 1, 2012

Greenbelt’s charm doesn’t particularly lie in its homes. Constructed of brick, concrete block or wood, most are smallish, two-story townhouses defined by simple, Art Deco-influenced lines — not the kind of houses that tend to turn heads.

What’s unique about central Greenbelt isn’t the units themselves. A longtime experiment in cooperative living, it’s an area where residents were employing concepts of “community engagement” and “pedestrian-oriented development” long before they became urban-planning buzzwords. Residents admit that the region’s emphatically hands-on style of interaction isn’t for everyone — but those who enjoy it say they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

Located in northern Prince George’s County, Greenbelt was created from scratch in 1937, the first planned community designed and built by the government, with the intent of housing lower-income workers. At the time, Greenbelt was one of three New Deal “green towns” that were modeled on the English concept of garden cities — walkable, self-sufficient enclaves surrounded by a ring of forests and fields.

Those original towns (the other two are Greendale, Wis., and Greenhills, Ohio) were all undergirded by concepts of cooperative living. While the homes were owned by the government, the community was expected to govern itself, with prospective residents screened for their willingness to participate in community organizations. Services such as a grocery store, gas station, credit union and newspaper were all cooperatively run — that is, they were owned and managed by their workers.

In 1952, the federal government divested itself of the three projects and sold all the land. In Wisconsin and Ohio, the parcels were bought by the private sector, but Greenbelters formed a housing cooperative, Greenbelt Veterans Housing Corp., and bought 1,600 of the homes.

Sixty years later, the organization, now called Greenbelt Homes Inc. (GHI), is going strong, as is the community. While the surrounding town has expanded, “old Greenbelt”— the original area, including the homes and a variety of services — feels as if it belongs to a different era. Part of that is due to the community’s classically Art Deco architecture and its muscular sculptures by Works Progress Administration artist Lenore Thomas, as well as lush lawns and tall oaks that lend a sense of tranquillity.

But part of the area’s old-fashioned personality comes from a can-do, communal vibe that persists. Like the grocery store, kindergarten and New Deal Coffee Shop, the houses are all cooperatively owned, which means residents play an active role in making decisions and determining the community’s future. GHI is governed by a nine-member board and range of committees, and regulations are listed in a giant “Green Book” and regularly revised.

Co-op living isn’t for everyone, explained Sylvia Lewis, 77, who has lived in Greenbelt since 1968. “You have to be considerate, and there are more rules. We have people with very strong personalities — and that’s what makes it so exciting.”

Not everyone participates, said Bill Jones, the board’s vice president and a retired professor of computer science and math. “You have a goodly amount of people who have kids and jobs, and they don’t get into things — but it’s a smaller percentage than you’d expect.”

In many ways, the population mix is driven by the housing stock. Built to pre war standards, the houses are relatively petite: Some are as small as 800 square feet, though most have two or three bedrooms. As a result, the area tends to draw couples with young or no children, and older empty-nesters. But home prices are comparably low, which means residents come from a variety of backgrounds. Some have PhDs and work nearby at NASA; others have never attended college. What they generally share is an interest in community building and low-frills living.

“People here do their own gardens; they don’t hire someone,” said Isabelle Gournay, a professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland who moved to Greenbelt six years ago. “If you live here, you don’t care about big cars, big houses — it’s not status-conscious.”

Residents invariably agree that living in the area has major benefits. Monthly co-op fees cover just about all repairs, which are taken care of by GHI’s maintenance staff of 40. And the area has impressive facilities, including a community center with a packed schedule of activities, a pool and tennis courts, most of which are maintained by the town of Greenbelt. “It’s a little like a resort community, but for middle-income people,” Gournay said.

And then there are the grounds themselves, which look much as they did in the community’s early years. The homes are built in “superblocks”: While the houses are accessible from nearby roads, their backyards give way to green parks and narrow paths that traverse the entire community. With underpasses tunneling under main roads, the area is utterly pedestrian-friendly.

The community’s advantages — and the sense that it is rooted in history — aren’t lost on Greenbelt’s residents. This year, they’re celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding with 12 months’ worth of events, including many that reflect on the New Deal era.

But as new residents discover Greenbelt’s charms, the community is looking toward the future as well. Angella Foster and her husband, Ben, both in their 30s, moved to the community in 2008, after she visited the area for an event. “As soon as I came for the first time, I thought, ‘I want to live there — it’s so cute!’ ” said Foster, comparing Greenbelt to the small town where she grew up in Kentucky.

A choreographer who is creating a piece about Greenbelt women as part of the 75th-anniversary celebration, Foster said the community has been remarkably supportive of her projects. “That was another reason we moved here: We realized there was a lot of support for the arts,” she explained. “We showed a piece here and one show basically sold out — all people from the community. It was satisfying.”

Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer.

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