The old white oak tree died seven years ago, but the people of Greenbelt never chopped it down. The symbolism is too strong. Its 25-foot tall trunk, entwined by ivy now, stands on Crescent Road, not far from the Greenbelt Baptist Church. Eleanor Roosevelt stood under that tree on Dec. 9, 1937, when she came to see the New Deal dream town that was America's first planned community.
She would return many times over the years, and she became something of a patron saint among the first families of Greenbelt. She stayed in their hearts, long after the New Deal had ended, long after her death. A year before it died, the Woman's Club of Greenbelt dedicated the white oak on Crescent Road in Eleanor's honor.A plaque with gold lettering was commissioned: "Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Tree -- First Lady of the Land, First Lady of the World, Wife of Our 32nd President . . . . From this point she surveyed the site and spurred the work of building Greenbelt, the first garden community in the land, planned for the uplift and unfolding of the human spirit . . . ."
They still love Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt, though much has changed since the days of her visits to a town that began as a great social experiment: Conceived by Brain Truster Rexford Guy Tugwell and modeled on England's garden towns, it provided low-income housing owned by the federal government to young men and women with a keen interest in settling a progressive community.
Greenbelt, nestled in the midst of Prince George's County farmland, was 14 miles and an hour's drive, or more, down U.S. 1 to Washington, a New Deal Washington with a Democratic President and Congress determined to cure the world's social ills. The Greenbelt of today is a 20-minute drive down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to the nation's capital. It is a Washington, with Ronald Reagan in the White House and a Republican majority in the Senate, that seems a long, long way from the era and the men and women who created Greenbelt.
Greenbelt librarian Betty Allen, who loves the town just as much as anyone, says, "It's kind of an anachronism, and it's too bad."
The old-timers cling to the past in Greenbelt, anxious to preserve the sense of community that once made moving here a statement to the rest of the world of how one wanted to live. Living in one of the town's simple wood frame, brick or block row houses is no longer a political act, of course, and as new generations of families arrive, many with little sense of the town's origins, there is a sense that the qualities that made Greenbelt so special must not be allowed to perish.
Though no longer owned by the federal government, Greenbelt is still a Roosevelt town in many ways. There is the Eleanor Roosevelt Sr. High School and the Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt Democratic Club. There are the tulip trees that were planted in deference to Franklin, who is said to have thought the tulip a beautiful tree. The old-timers bring out their scrapbooks, and there always is at least one newspaper clipping or photograph of a trip Eleanor made to Greenbelt.
"It's a haven from Reagan Washington," says Bruce Bowman, 67, who moved to Greenbelt in 1944 and raised three children there, in a three bedroom frame row house he rented for $35-a-month. He and his wife live in the same house today. "It's still a liberal island. Eleanor Roosevelt would still be the idol here."
Roosevelt, were she alive, might be startled by the changes in Greenbelt, once a 217-acre town with 885 look alike row houses and garden apartments set along a horseshoe-shaped ridge. Most of the original homes still stand, and Greenbelt still is a lovely place, with tall trees and parks and a man-made lake. But its five square miles are increasingly surrounded by development, and the city is split in half by the Beltway. Greenbelt has a shopping mall with seven movie theaters, and a shopping mall with a 60,044-square foot Safeway that sells TV sets and stereos. It has an apartment complex with 3,000 units, and a town house development with 650 units. A Hilton hotel and an underground Metro station are in Greenbelths future.
Once, a couple of thousand people lived in Greenbelt. Today 17,332 people live there, and a lot of them picked Greenbelt, not for its past, but for its comparatively inexpensive housing and its accessibility to the Beltway. Many of the newcomers know nothing of the Greenbelt that was the talk of America, visited by planners and sociologists and journalists from all over the world. There were books and magazines articles and movies about Greenbelt. There was the inevitable photo essay in Life magazine.
"We looked upon ourselves as pioneers. Other places referred to us as those settlers out there on government property -- somethng strange," says Joseph Comproni, 67, a retired Civil Aeronautics Board clerk who moved to Greenbelt in 1938 and still lives there today. "It was a fantastic time.Everything was new ground."
They were heady, high-spirited years, back in the 1930s and 1940s. The cooperative philosophy was strong, and a new cooperative -- a grocery store, a pharmacy, a gas station, a credit union, health association -- seemed always to be starting. The local newspaper, a 16-page mimeographed weekly, was named, appropriately, the Greenbelt Cooperator.
An outsider, noting the relative isolation of the town, wondered what the residents did in their spare time. "We organize," came the reply. Everything was enthusiastically debated, from whether dogs and cats should be allowed in Greenbelt to whether the U.S. should enter WWII ("They were literally getting into fistfights on that one. The chairman ended the meeting by saying, 'We'll now call this brawl to an end,'" Bruce Bowman recalls). There were endless meetings to attend.
The Cooperator's name has since been changed to the News Review, but the free weekly still comes out each Thursday, produced by a group of volunteers under the direction of Elaine Skolnik, 56, past president of the Greenbelt Sitters Club. Skolnik's background is occupational thearpy. She began her journalism career 26 years ago, somewhat accidentally, as a News Review gossip columnist. "The gossip columnist lived in our court, and one day she said, 'Gee, I could use a little help.' The next week she was out, and I was in," Skolnik said.
The News Review, which reports all city council and cooperative news as well as births and deaths and marriages and who made the dean's list at college last semester, is part of Greenbelt's small-town feeling, a feeling that also comes from the Greenbelt design: The original homes still stand, as planned, along their grassy, tree shaded courts, each court a small neighborhood connected by walkways, all paths leading to the town center.
"You can open your door and rattle an ice cube and immediately have a party," said Mavis Fletcher."
The cooperative philosophy remains strong in Greenbelt. Some 7,300 residents live in cooperative housing -- which includes the original units -- called Greenbelt Homes Inc. and governed by an elected nine-member board of directors. In true Greenbelt tradition, GHI holds heated, standing room-only meetings, with members arguing over everything from maintenance fees to what kind of vinyl siding should be used for home improvements."Everything is controversial in Greenbelt," says GHI board member Wayne Williams.
The coop homes are currently undergoing a $20 million rehabilitation program, with help from a $6.4 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, primarily to make them more fuel efficient by changing from oil to electric heat. Other coops still thriving in Greenbelt are the cooperative grocery, cooperative credit union, cooperative savings and loan, cooperative babysitting service, cooperative gas station, and cooperative weekly newspaper, all of which date back to the beginning of Greenbelt. When 25 members of the Greenbelt Peace Committee gathered recently at the town library to screen an anti-administration move on the war in El Salvador, a tradition was only being reaffirmed. Committees, long meetings and a certain combativeness are all part of Greenbelt's legacy.
Ben Rosenzweig, 73, came to town in 1938, and its is with great pride that he remembers: "We were called Communists. We were the butt of snotty articles in the Washington Daily News. People felt we were a ragtag and bobtail group with no roots, alwayus fighting about something. If you didn't go to two or three meetings a week, you were a slacker. We had meetings that lasted until 1 and 2 a.m. We yelled and screamed and carried on. This was a democracy, and chaos was rampant."
Rosenweig, a tailor's son born on New York's Lower East Side, was a $1,440-a-year clerk at the Veterans Administration when he moved from Takoma Park to Greenbelt. "I was pretty ignorant of it. I just heard it was more attractive than Takoma Park. There was no hierarchy, no Nob Hill, no rich people looking down on the peasants. It was egalitarian. Nobody was a bigger shot than anybody else."
It all appealed to Al Herling, 67, one-time managing editor of a union newspaper called the Bakery and Confectionary News. "I remembered the attacks on this community as being some sort of deep, left-wing plot. These attacks came from sources that thought anything of a constructive social nature was a deep, left-wing plot."
The bronx-born Herling moved to Greenbelt 27 years ago. "I thought it was great. No sooner were we in then there was a woman knocking on our door with a bag of groceries from the Coop."
Al Herling's great crusade bagan in 1966, when he stood up at a city council meeting and accused a local developer of blackmailing the city. The News Review reported the accusation, and the developer promptly sued the newspaper for libel. Herling joined forces with Charlie Schwan, who is a Greenbelt city councilman, a retired consultant on governmental affairs and unofficial city grammarian. "We formed the Greenbelt Freedom of the Press Committee in the car on the way home from work," Schwan said. "It had to be done."
"We had meetings on the mall on the freedom of the press," Herling said. "I spoke and Charlie spoke -- who esle are you going to get to speak?" The Freedom of the Press Committee raised over $30,000 during the fours that it took to vindicate the News Review. A Prince George's Couinty jury ruled against the News Review and awarded the developer a $17,000 judgment. The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed the jugement. But in 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and vacated the jugement.
In 44 years, the News Review has never missed an issue. Bruce Bowman was reading it last Friday on the plane to Miami. The lady seated beside him noticed and started talking. "She tole me she used to live in Greenbelt but now lives in Columbia. She said it's the closest thing to what Greenbelt was," he said.
Planned communities like Coluimbia, Md., and Reston, Va., have their roots in Greenbelt, a place that a lot of people find impossible to leave. Greenbelt Mayor Weidenfeld tried. He had a house built in Bowie nine years ago. "It was a California contemporary. It has a two-car garage, four bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths and a conversation pit. It had brand new carpeting, brand new appliances. It was just like the regular old American dream. But I couldn't leave Greenbelt."
The old-timers stay, and so do many of their children. Joseph Comproni stayed -- he's treasurer and manager of the Greenbelt Credit Union; Ben Rosenzweig is president -- and so did his youngest son, Joey. City Attorney Emmett Nanna grew up in Greenbelt. Edward Castaldi, 75, moved to Greenbelt in 1939 and commuted to his job as a printer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. "It was beautiful. It was a model community," he said. "We were all young, married people. We didn't have a death for years. I raised all my children here -- four of them."
One of his sons, Richard, is, at age 36, a one-time Greenbelt Swim Team freestyle star and a Greenbelt city councilman of eight years. In 1968 Castaldi made a major lifestyle choice: He sold his 1967 maroon Corvette so he could buy a GHI house. "I never left Greenbelt," he said. c"I've been to Hawaii, California, Texas; I've seen a lot of places. Greenbelt has pretty much everything. It even has a cemetery. I have four plots there."
The Compronis and the Herlings and the Rosenzweigs and the Castaldis vow to keep the old Greenbelt sprit alive. Those who left still feel wistful for the town that was born as New Deal dream. Greenbelt librarian Betty Allen, who shocked some people in 1963 by organizing, for a meeting of the Greenbelt PTA, a panel discussion on integration in the schools, moved away four years ago, to a bigger house in Beltsville, two miles away.
She and her husband Gordon, also a librarian, had come to Greenbelt in 1960, and among their reasons was a philosphy that seems a part of another time. Betty Allen says: "I liked the fact that the houses looked alike. You didn't have to keep up with anyone. There was a limit to how much you could do with those houses. We had never had much money, and we didn't expect to have much money.
"If I had it to do over, I don't think there's any place I would rather have been . . . I get kind of lonesome for it on occasion. It's one of the few places that went for McGovern. Being at the polls in Greenbelt plan is a good plan. What you're dealing with is a change in the times . . . People just seem resigned."