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.”