In one of the more obscure New Deal programs of the Great Depression, three “Greenbelt Towns” were designed by the US government. The communities were intended to fuse the best of the urban and rural, and offer affordable housing for farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl, and city dwellers who were out of work. Although the plan, spearheaded by former economics professor Rexford Tugwell for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration (RA), was to construct hundreds of these towns, only three were built: Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin.
Over seven decades after their development photographer Jason Reblando visited each of these Greenbelt Towns and captured their idyllic rows of houses, contemporary residents, and decayed Depression-era features. A selection of his images are published in the book New Deal Utopias, recently released by Kehrer Verlag. The Illinois-based Reblando regularly explores the built environment and its human history in his work, including a series on the route of the Bataan Death March, and Outside Public Housing on the public housing of Chicago. His documentary-style photographs of the 1930s communities capture their distinct layouts that considered societal and natural harmony, all inspired by England’s Garden City movement.
“Shared courtyards and intersecting walkways were designed to encourage social cohesion among the residents,” Natasha Egan, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago, writes in a book essay. “The schools, shops, and community buildings were run cooperatively. Collectively, the residents reflected a social experiment in demographic diversity, as the RA handpicked each family who lived there to bring together a cross-section of income levels and religious beliefs, as well as people the RA believed would make positive contributions to the community.”
Like most attempts at a built utopia, the Greenbelt Towns were not entirely successful. Financial struggles and conservative anxiety about their socialistic tendencies both marred the program. Today, they are no longer overseen by the government. “Always uncomfortable with this form of government land ownership, Congress began pushing in earnest for a sell-off in 1947,” sociologist and New Deal historian Robert Leighninger Jr. writes in a New Deal Utopias essay. “Various non-profit tenant and veterans groups managed to buy parts of the towns, other parts were sold at auction, public facilities were sold to local governments, and the liquidation was complete by 1954. Sadly, the natural boundary of forestland in Greenbelt would eventually be devoured by private developers and highways.”
Reblando frames many of the town features that brought nature into the daily lives of the citizens, such as an underpass in Greenbelt where pedestrians can walk through a park without interruption, and the lush lawns of Greendale, where one white house has a daffodil flourish to distinguish it from its neighbors. Yet the winding forest paths and benches by the artificial lakes are often empty, as over the decades people moved away from the communal lifestyle instilled by Tugwell. Visitors today could easily mistake a Greenbelt Town for just another American suburb.
But in the attention to open spaces for fresh air, and grand community centers and village halls, are traces of this ambitious alternative to the harsh living conditions of the Great Depression. As the United States continues to struggle with affordable housing, revisiting the idealism of the Greenbelt Towns is a chance to consider its success and failure. In 1936, Roosevelt stated upon visiting Greenbelt: “Although I have seen the blueprints of Greenbelt, the actual sight itself exceeds anything I have dreamed of. I wish everyone in the country could see it.”