For Marilyn Maryn Spiegel, it was "real small-town America; the most beautiful example of the ideals on which this country was founded."

Jim Giese described it as "a certain spirit . . . a camaraderie that makes people come downtown to buy a paper and a coffee solely to socialize."

Betty Allen said it is proof that "children need earth for living and playing."

All were extolling the virtues of Greenbelt. They were among hundreds of former residents who returned to America's first planned community last weekend for three days of celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, often described as the "town father," and the 45th anniversary of the town's construction in 1937.

The nostalgic weekend, organized by a committee headed by Allen, the town's librarian, included an old-fashioned concert and hot dog roast by the lake and movies at the 1938 price of 10 cents.

But the focus of the festivities was a reunion of Greenbelt High School graduates from 1938, when the first seniors moved on, to 1951, when the school was converted to a junior high. Although fewer than 600 students have diplomas from those years, more than 500 attended Saturday night's reunion dance.

Greenbelt was conceived as a controversial social experiment by New Deal "brain truster" Rexford Guy Tugwell. Patterned after English garden towns, the original village of 885 houses was laid out on Prince George's County farmland along a natural horseshoe-shaped ridge. Small courts of identical cinderblock and brick houses clustered around commons where walkways led to the compact town center.

The first residents paid about $37 a month in rent -- $2.50 more if the homes were furnished. Most Greenbelt pioneers were government employes who made less than $1,500 a year, city officials said.

As a way to combine efficiency with low costs, cooperative enterprise became a way of life in Greenbelt. Today, a cooperative grocery store, newspaper, credit union, baby-sitting service and gas station are still operating.

In 1952, the residents formed a housing cooperative and bought most of the government-owned houses. The original planned community -- the old sector remains a quiet haven surrounded by suburban sprawl -- continues as a cooperative with a mayor-council-city manager government. More than 7,000 residents lease their homes from the co-op.

Its cooperative ventures and way of life sometimes made Greenbelt an object of derision in its early years. George Jones, a physicist and a 1947 graduate of Greenbelt High School, said allegations that the town was a haven for "pinkos and rabble-rousers" were unfounded. "We weren't soft on communism," he said. "There weren't enough conformists in the town to build one party cell."

Rather, he said, Greenbelt residents, then and now, practice democracy "with a vengeance. Someone once asked us what we do out in this garden paradise. The answer: have meetings."

Even today, there is a committee for everything, and minor changes in the zoning or housing ordinances fire lively debate, residents say.

Greenbelt graduates Barbara Runnion Hendrick of Denver and Mary Todd Caudell of Florida recalled town laws that slapped a $5 fine on anyone, male or female, seen wearing shorts in the town center.

"Dogs and cats and even goldfish weren't allowed, and wash had to be off the line by 4 p.m.," said Ann Lastner, who attended elementary and high schools with Caudell and now lives in Lanham.

Hendrick, whose mother still lives in Old Greenbelt, said she has lived "a lot of places" but has never found the same energy that undergirded Greenbelt in its heady New Deal-post World War II days.

"Greenbelt was a microcosm of a very active, democratic town. There was a spirit of accepting people and working through problems that was fantastic in the early years," she said.

Although Greenbelt was not racially integrated until the 1950s, Jones said, nonetheless, the town's original inhabitants reflected the religious makeup of white America of the 1930s.

About 10 percent of Greenbelt's residents are black, compared to 37.3 percent countywide.

Greenbelt is still a "strangely heterogenous community," Jones said. "It is the antithesis of little boxes suburban sprawl . There is total acceptance by the sheetworker for the PhD historian next door, or the town clerk for the gas station attendant."

He said the look-alike architecture actually makes it easier to transcend barriers of class and wealth. "Keeping up with the Joneses is just not a phenomenon in Greenbelt," he said.

Early Greenbelt residents recall, not the conformity of which they were accused, but rather the sense of independence and security they were able to give their children.

"We could leave our doors unlocked," and the children could cycle or walk to downtown, using an underpass to skirt heavily used roads, said Walsh Barcus, who moved to the community as a timekeeper and payroll officer with Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. He stayed to raise five sons in the town.

One of the first tears in the close-knit fabric of the town came in 1951, when a new high school had to be built to accommodate the town's baby boom and the old building was changed to a junior high.

The biggest changes came in the 1960s with the Capital Beltway, said Barcus, who used to help check the thousands of government workers at the project to see that they were not "loafing." The Beltway split the town and introduced the more urban problems of noise and traffic and sprawl, he said.

George Davidsen, a 1942 graduate and resident of Salinas, Calif., for the past 17 years, called Greenbelt "a very special place. Class lines were blurred. There was an incredible closeness, fostered by community activism and a lot of block parties. Greenbelt was an experience we should look at today."

Davidsen is not the only one who thinks modern city planners should resurrect the Greenbelt model. Residents who came to the old cinema house Saturday night to view a New Deal propaganda film on Greenbelt called "The City" say the message is still as powerful today.

Architect and planner Lewis Mumford, the film's narrator, said "Greenbelt is no suburb where lucky people play at being in the country," but an attempt to integrate men with the soil and to make the "public world just as warm as the private one."

It was "gross stupidity to label early Greenbelt residents 'radicals,' " Spiegel said. "We held very traditional American values: high on democracy and hard on communism," she said. Greenbelt was radical only in that it was a "unique humanistic endeavor" to improve the social welfare of everyone in the town, she said.

As other graduates danced to strains of "Those Were the Good Old Days," Spiegel said simply: "There was a sense of community. The friendships we made lasted all these years."