Greenbelt, Maryland

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Cathy D. Knepper. Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Pp. xvii, 275. $24.99 (Hardcover): ISBN 0801864909.

Summary

Cathy D. Knepper’s study on Greenbelt, Maryland attempted to present a new angle on the oft-covered historiographical discussions on planned communities during the New Deal. While works like Joseph Arnold’s The New Deal in the Suburbs and Arnold Alanen and Joseph Eden’s Main Street Ready Made traced the construction and history of Greenbelt, Maryland, Greenhills, Ohio, and Greendale, Wisconsin, Knepper’s work focused “on the original goals and ideals of Greenbelt as articulated in 1937, looking at its unique physical design but focusing on the concept of cooperation” (xiii-xiv, 261). She shaped her analysis through her use of such primary sources as oral histories, individual papers, and the Greenbelt News Review, arguing that Greenbelter’s socio-economic cooperation with each other facilitated the town’s overall sustainability into the present day.

Knepper showed that Greenbelt developed as a policy initiative designed by Rexford Tugwell’s Resettlement Administration. According to Knepper, Tugwell believed the Resettlement Administration had an objective “to build suburban towns, providing housing for urban dwellers outside city centers, where cheap land made the project economically feasible.” Suburban development would, in the process, facilitate job creation (14). In planning the greenbelt towns, the Resettlement Administration designed a physical environment that not only employed Progressive-era practices by separating pedestrian and automotive traffic, but also instituted a community element that placed churches, schools, and shops in a centralized location. The physical design of the greenbelt communities supported a cooperative element which characterized other New Deal plans. Much like the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the greenbelt program implemented Tugwell’s dream of towns where people would work and live together (15-6, 19).

City management, as a result, selected first generation Greenbelters based on their willingness to establish socio-economic cooperatives. While city manager Roy Braden emphasized that he and his staff only served in an educational role with residents, Knepper noted that “[t]his job must have been aided by the fact that the families had been selected in light of their stated willingness to cooperate” (40). Greenbelt’s first families created the Cooperative Organizing Committee which established economic initiatives such as a theater, gas station, supermarket, and credit union. Moreover, social cooperatives like the Citizens Association planned community events such as a May Day celebration and Labor Day festivities. Greenbelt’s cooperative spirit fostered a sense of community and responsibility amongst the residents. As one resident declared, “Somehow the sense that the community is everyone’s responsibility permeated Greenbelt Elementary. No one littered our community any more than we would our own homes” (41, 49-51, 57).

The cooperative spirit that characterized Greenbelt’s beginning remained evident during a period marked by change and upheaval. As American involvement in World War II approached, Knepper noted that the federal government decided to build houses for defense workers in Greenbelt. The decision, as Knepper declared, posed the possibility for discord in a community built on cooperation, as Greenbelt would be divided into new and old neighborhoods. After the war, the divisions became magnified through the town’s sale to private interests, which pitted community veterans against community pacifists (61-3, 77, 82-4). However, World War II and the immediate post-war era offered a period of cooperative stability and expansion for Greenbelters. Business cooperatives thrived during the war, while the post-war selling of the town facilitated the creation of a housing cooperative made up of activists who protected the community’s long-term health. As Knepper declared, Greenbelt “emerged with its original goals and ideals not only intact but even spreading” (78, 118).

The persistence of Greenbelt’s cooperative environment not only could be seen in how the people handled post-war development, but also in how they viewed their town. As Knepper noted, Greenbelters supported development as long as the plans supported the community’s cooperative objectives. They, for instance, supported a central library which opened in April 1970, in part because the library would house material that covered the town’s history, community planning, and consumer cooperatives. Conversely, Greenbelters opposed developer Charles Bressler’s plan to build 350 townhomes, primarily because the Greenbelt News Review feared the “potentially dangerous entanglement of municipal interests with those of one private builder…” (124-5, 150-1, 159). The cooperative spirit which guided town views on development also shaped the way Greenbelters viewed themselves and their community, as they highlighted their neighborliness and acceptance of diversity. As Knepper concluded, Greenbelt showed the promise of foresight and planning, as cooperation facilitated a long-standing community which survived as other communities changed over time (231, 241).

Commentary

Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

At times, Knepper’s analysis did not completely portray the nuance that existed in Greenbelt or its surrounding areas during the scope of her study. She, for example, noted the lukewarm response Prince George’s County residences gave to the project. While most opposed the federal government’s sanction of transient labor, noting the county’s own unemployed, Knepper overlooked the fact that Prince George’s County, like other parts of Maryland, offered faint support to New Deal initiatives during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term (23-4). Equally problematic, Knepper overlooked how Greenbelt maintained its communal spirit as the town’s internal demographics changed over time. Greenbelt’s population today is mostly characterized by renters. Therefore, more people lack the connection and long-term investment into the community. Knepper’s analysis could have been strengthened had she examined how Greenbelt’s cooperative spirit prevailed in a population increasingly characterized by renters.

Nonetheless, the significance in Knepper’s study rests in her ability to convincingly show the strength of Greenbelt’s communal spirit through cooperation. She noted that the Greenbelt News Review showed “the importance of the community newspaper in the maintenance of Greenbelt’s original goals and ideology can hardly be overstated. The paper reminded readers of town history and traditions and provided both communication among the increasingly far-flung residents and information on significant current events” (201-2). Here, Knepper provided an attachment that connected the people to their community, much like in Local Attachments where social, political, and economic institutions connected Jamaica Plainers to their community. Unlike Jamaica Plain, where local attachments broke down by 1920, Knepper showed that Greenbelters maintained their attachment to community through cooperation even as the urban and suburban environments changed during the twentieth century. In doing so, she offered a significant counterpoint that enriched the historical understanding of a town’s inner workings and connections.

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