It’s dinnertime at the New Deal Cafe, a homely (as in full of mismatched, threadbare sofas and chairs, and a floor that could use a good scrubbing) coffeehouse in the center of Greenbelt, Maryland, 12 miles from Washington, D.C. People are chatting amiably or playing chess or reading the newspaper, while a folksinger from New York is doing a sound check. “I hear this place is a co-op,” she says, testing the microphone level. “How many of you are members?” The audience looks up and starts to pay attention. More than a few raise their hands. “That’s so cool,” the singer says. “Do you know how cool that is?”
By all accounts, they do. “We like to say that in Greenbelt we have democracy with a vengeance,” says Mary Lou Williamson, the editor of the Greenbelt News Review, the local weekly newspaper. Like the café, the News Review is a cooperative venture. Staffed by volunteers and run by a board comprised of Greenbelt residents, it is distributed free to every household in this city of 21,000 and has been since 1937, when a handful of people in town, feeling the need to communicate with one another, called a meeting and got it started.
“That’s how people in Greenbelt approach everything,” says historian Cathy Knepper, who devoted more than a decade to studying the city for her recently published book, Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal. “When they see a problem or want to start something new, they call a meeting and they organize. The remarkable thing is that they’ve kept it up for more than 60 years.” In addition to the newspaper and the café, the supermarket is a co-op, as are the nursery school, the bank, an Internet service provider, and Greenbelt Homes Inc., which owns 1,600 homes in the town center.
Those homes form the core of what’s now called Old Greenbelt, a community created out of whole cloth by the federal government during the Depression. The year was 1935. Millions of people were homeless or on the brink; even more were out of work. FDR created the Resettlement Administration to deal with the housing shortage, appointing Rexford Tugwell director. Greenbelt was Tugwell’s idea: a town for people of modest means, where the built environment — the houses and playgrounds and stores and roads — would promote neighborliness and civic engagement.
Tugwell, a passionate believer in the cooperative movement, envisioned Greenbelt, and the other two “green” towns he designed in Ohio and Wisconsin, as a way to try out progressive notions of social engineering while creating housing and jobs. Of the three, Greenbelt was his showcase. Built on worn-out tobacco fields owned by the government, the town was ringed by parks and had a central shopping and office district that was accessible by pedestrian walkways. Its row houses were clustered around shared courtyards that were also joined by walking paths. Cars existed on the periphery, and they still do. It is possible to go everywhere in Old Greenbelt — on foot.
“I walk to work,” says Katie Scott-Childress, the curator of historical programs at the Greenbelt Museum, “and to the [municipal] pool and to the [community] ceramics studio and the movie theater and the library. I know all my neighbors, because I literally cross paths with them every day.”
While Greenbelt was not America’s first planned cooperative community — its predecessors included Oneida, New Harmony, and Ephrata — it was the only one where the federal government was visionary and banker, contractor and leasing agent. It is also the only one to have survived into the 21st century more or less intact. This is true not only of its distinctive art deco architecture, but of its participatory ethos as well.
From its inception, Greenbelt was meant to be a community of doers. Anyone wishing to move to the town in the early years had to be vetted by government interviewers, who not only looked at income (it had to be between $800 and $2,200 depending on family size, the equivalent of roughly $10,000 to $28,000 today), but also assessed the applicants’ understanding of cooperative principles. “They screened you to the ninth inch,” says Annie Halley, whose family was among the first to move into Greenbelt when it opened in 1937. “They wanted to know our whole history and if we were willing to participate in the community.”
That first generation of Greenbelters is now affectionately referred to as “the pioneers,” a name that begins to get at the fact that they didn’t just move to a new place; they created it too. The civic infrastructure they built — the committees and co-ops and charitable groups, the arts associations and political clubs — was not only real and tangible, but mental and emotional as well. “The pioneers socialized us,” says Mary Sies, a University of Maryland professor and Greenbelt resident who is active in the local museum and the New Deal Cafe and runs a Web site devoted to the town’s history.
“There is some indication in the research we’ve done that once you are involved in a co-op you continue to be involved in community life,” says Leta Mach, director of education for the National Cooperative Business Association in Washington. Mach herself is a case in point. When she moved to Greenbelt in 1974, she enrolled her children in the cooperative nursery school, which led her to take a position on the school’s board, and then to become active in state and national co-op preschool organizations. She joined the staff of the News Review, worked as the public relations director for the Greenbelt Labor Day Festival — Labor Day is big in Greenbelt — served as PTA president and secretary of the food co-op, and chaired a townwide committee on education. “The majority of people here get involved in something,” she says.
Not that they have much of a choice. Residents of Old Greenbelt’s historic row houses don’t actually own their homes; they own a share of Greenbelt Homes Inc. and the right to dwell in their house. The co-op itself is governed by a residents board and a dozen committees that address everything from building maintenance and preservation (paid for by a sizable monthly co-op fee) to arts events and youth programs.
“What appealed to us,” recalls Wendy Turnbull, who with her husband, Alan, moved to Greenbelt 12 years ago, “was that here was this huge housing co-op and the members had governed themselves for decades, with vociferous debates about policies and programs. We were attracted by the underlying democratic nature of the co-op.” Today, Alan is in his third term on the City Council, while Wendy has served on a string of committees and boards and was a co-founder of the New Deal Cafe.
“It was the fall of ’94,” she recalls. “A group of Greenbelters started talking about how we needed a community living room for people to hang out and talk and read the paper and drink coffee. So we put it before the whole community, asking what they’d like. We had an open house and 150 people filled out questionnaires. After that, there was a general meeting and a board was elected, and I joined that board, too.
“Two, three, four nights a week, one or the other of us is at a meeting.”
When the pioneers moved to Greenbelt, a house could be rented for $31 a month. The cost of the co-op’s homes has increased considerably since then, but they are still cheap by suburban Washington standards, ranging from $30,000 to $100,000, rarely more. Old Greenbelt remains, as it was from the start, a bastion of the middle middle class, a place with one of the biggest American Legion posts in the country. (An all-white community when it was created, Greenbelt has since become more demographically balanced, with 41 percent of the population African American.)
“Greenbelt has always thought of itself as a community of people who don’t have a lot of money,” says Williamson, the newspaper editor. “And while there aren’t any really wealthy people here, there are tremendous differences in educational background. It’s not unusual to have blue-collar workers living next door to people with doctorates. We have a lot of University of Maryland maintenance workers and a lot of professors. It’s a great mixture. Most towns are not like that.”
In one way, Greenbelt has become more like other places: As the federal government divested itself of the town in the 1950s, large tracts of land were sold to developers. Apartment complexes went up, as did new homes and strip malls. New Greenbelt now surrounds Old Greenbelt the way the parklands once did. At the same time, Old Greenbelt’s spirit has extended beyond the old town’s boundaries, encircling the entire city with its demands, its shared assumptions, its pride.
“Many of the newer areas of town replicate Old Greenbelt,” says the historian Cathy Knepper. “They have community centers and neighborhood associations and other forms of self-government. The townwide committees and organizations make every effort to involve people from all parts of town, and they’re pretty successful. The influence of the town spreads, whether people realize it or not.”
A couple of years ago, when Harvard’s Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, his argument — that a culture of suburbanism in which people do not know or associate with their neighbors was undermining American democracy — was greeted by a chorus of ahas and yeses. What Rexford Tugwell’s experiment in Greenbelt shows is that it didn’t have to be this way. Not the cars, not the gates, not the isolation, not the anomie.
“I see these ads for Kentlands in Maryland and Celebration — that planned community that Disney built in Florida — and I realize that Greenbelt is a model for them,” says Wendy Turnbull. “They’re all about how everyone knows each other, and they’re safe for kids, and the barber lives above the barbershop. Except those places are only for people with money.
“How a town is designed is really important,” she notes. “But you know why we have a real sense of community here? Because people roll up their sleeves and go to the frigging meetings.”